Our interview with Smallest Smallholding

Earlier this month we spoke to Lucy over at Smallest Smallholding to find out more about working with a smallholding, environmentally friendly gardening, and the no-dig gardening approach. Find out more about what Lucy gets up to below!

Smallest Smallholding interview

1. You’ve been working with your smallholding properly for 10 years now, what would you say are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?

My little backyard ‘smallholding’ has gone from a fair sized garden to a fairly productive piece of land in those 10 years. It’s nowhere even remotely near to ‘proper’ smallholding status (though that’s the dream!) but I am constantly trying to juggle what is feasible, and the ideas and dreams in my head for turning my little patch of land into a sustainable, wholly productive and wildlife-friendly space. So firstly, my biggest challenge has been me, and my expectations. I have to balance work and my Smallest Smallholding, and sometimes finding the time and the energy to keep it rolling is really hard. But I’ve learned that patience really is a virtue, and that I don’t need to achieve any kind of perfection or picture-perfect growing spaces. It’s also about managing what you have and finding ways to be efficient. One solution has been the no-dig approach that I’ve gradually adopted over the last couple of years – that’s really helped me to keep on top of maintenance jobs like weeding with relatively little effort. It’s been an absolute revelation.

Secondly, my biggest challenge that is still ongoing is learning about composting and how to make my own rich compost. Over the last few years, our poor sandy soil has struggled and we’ve brought in a lot of organic compost (with an associated cost). But really I should be making most of it on my own.  I still have a heck of a lot to learn about soil nutrition and health, and how that will help me to grow bigger, better yields of fruit and veg. And I also need to learn more about composting quickly as I know we have enough organic matter to do it, I just haven’t given myself the time to learn how to convert that matter into lovely loamy compost within a few weeks! Once I achieve that, I’ll be much more self-sufficient and I’m sure my growing will improve ten-fold.

 2. Do you have any advice you could give someone who is thinking of taking on a smallholding, or who recently has and isn’t sure where to start?

As I said, my experiences only relate to my backyard smallholding (homestead) so a larger smallholding operation, I’d say just read as much as you can, as I’m no expert! But if you’re looking to do what I’ve done and turn over whatever sized land you have to fruit, veg and flowers (don’t forget the pollinators and wildlife!) then my advice is to start small and go from there. You might have big ambitions but I’ve learned to take on smaller projects one by one, get it right, and then expand my horizons. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed but once you’ve nailed how to grow one particular crop or tend to one particular bit of veg garden, then you learn what works and how long things actually take. It’s about knowing what you’re capable of, and then taking the next step. That way, you don’t feel like you’re failing or not coping. And there’s always something to look forward to.

3. You’re a big fan of environmentally friendly gardening, how easy is to garden organically, or in an environmentally friendly way?

For me, it’s really easy because I’m not precious about green lawns and perfection in my growing spaces. I love the idea of one day having a complete permaculture set up which is so far from the manicured gardens, veg patches or allotments I think we can be a bit brainwashed to aspire to. But to me, the most exciting thing is seeing a garden that’s truly alive with pollinators, birds, insects and so on. I think there’s a tendency for people to want to control their spaces and quite often this includes a lot of killing – herbicides, pesticides, slug killers etc – and that’s so far from what I feel is a positive approach to working with nature. It feels like a lot of people can be at war with nature in a bid for perfection . Organic growing is about allowances and alternatives, and it’s really easy. For instance, I just accept that I might lose a few plants to slugs or caterpillars, and plant accordingly or take preventative measures like covering crops or companion planting. But I think because I’ve achieved a good balance of nature in my garden, I get help in keeping the veg and fruit munchers at bay – nature really can take care of itself. The hedgehogs and birds keep the snail and slug population to acceptable levels (and slugs and snails are great composters, so still welcome!) and things tend to balance out, so actually my intervention is really quite minimal.

In terms of planting and maintenance, no-dig really has helped me with my environmentally-friendly approach. There’s no need for any kind of weed killer as weeding is easy, even with the persistent perennials like bind weed, and I even keep aside wilder sections of nettles, dead nettles, and self-seeded wildflowers as they’re great little wildlife corridors, and beautiful in their own way. I really don’t feel like I’m fighting my garden and it makes me sad to see people relying on chemicals and pest control interventions to retain absolute control over their growing spaces. One of the things that makes me really happy is finding a plant that the bees or butterflies love and seeing them enjoy them. I’d hate to have a sterile growing space void of any kind of character. An environmentally-friendly garden brings an extra element of life, I think.

 4. You have chosen to use the no-dig approach on your smallholding. What are the benefits of this approach, and how did you start using it?

As I’ve mentioned previously, it makes weeding and maintenance a minimal task. I’ve suffered from back issues since I was 14 years old, and digging over the soil was one job that I found really difficult. And now I see that it’s mostly completely unnecessary! So no-dig has solved that particular issue, and has so many more benefits. It helps to improve soil structure and proper aeration, helps to build healthy populations of beneficial soil organisms and bacteria, and emulates nature in providing the best possible growing conditions. Think of a rainforest, one of the richest and most abundant environments on the planet, where organic matter continually falls onto the forest floor and is occasionally disturbed on a surface level by foraging animals. That’s essentially what we’re doing with no-dig, creating this stable environment for growing, and only disturbing the living soil on the surface by weeding or sowing. You don’t have to continually feed the soil (though I do occasionally as we have some seriously sandy soil in parts), as the act of mulching throughout the year does this job.

It’s also pretty easy to create new no-dig beds – you just have to suppress weeds for a few weeks with newspaper or cardboard (or in the case of perennial weeds, a few months) and build on top with rich organic matter. Again, the key is understanding what makes a good growing medium and getting your soil right. If that’s all in order, then growing should be pretty simple.

5. After growing your own food for some time now, what advice do you have for people who are looking to start growing their own food?

Start with foods that you enjoy, and find crops that aren’t too fussy, so you don’t immediately have a tricky job on your hands! Potatoes are a great first crop, as are carrots, lettuces, radishes and some cane fruits like raspberries. Start with a small selection, learn how much time you really have to attend to them, and then go from there. If you have more time ­– great, then keep expanding your growing repertoire.

You’ll learn as you go, so get a good book like Carol Klein’s Grow Your Own Veg to support you. I’m now at the stage where I’m thinking about what I can buy in bulk that’s organic and cheap, vs what foods I’ll really enjoy because I benefit from picking them fresh, and they’re in season. For instance, although I’m growing broccoli this year it takes up quite a bit of room, and I can buy locally grown easily so next year I might try something else. But on the other hand, I’m having a go at growing my own chilli peppers (the food miles are ridiculous on some peppers), grow lettuce leaves at home (so much crunchier and better fresh), as well as my own onions and garlic (about a million times more tasty than shop-bought, homegrown are simply the best).

6. You mention on your site that you are now mostly vegan. Do you create your own recipes with the food grown on your smallholding, or do you have a favourite cookbook you turn to for vegan meals?

I’m lucky in that my mum is a bit of a whizz in the kitchen, so I learned a lot from her and that’s been a good base for my cooking. I should really experiment more than I do, but I love a good curry so I’ve done a bit of cooking from Vegan Richa’s cookbook. We also have quite a funny book called Thug Kitchen with some great recipes (I adore burritos), but as it’s an American book some of the ingredients can be a little hard to source. Mostly, if I want to try to do something new or have an idea, I just look it up. That’s the beauty of the internet! My mum has been experimenting more and more with vegan baking and has been using some of my homegrown produce like courgettes and raspberries in her creations. Baking is always a good way to use surplus crops!

7.You’re also a big fan of wildlife, and do what you can to make sure your garden is wildlife-friendly. How do you go about this?

Almost every new plant that I put in or seed that I sow in the flower borders has been chosen because it’s great for pollinators – that’s part of what makes a flower beautiful, in my opinion. This year I’ve got lots of cosmos to put in, got in extra flowering herbs and have my eye on an open rose that gives easy access to bees and butterflies. We also keep some areas quite untidy or untended. At the moment I’ve got plans for a wildlife pond but the area I want to put it in is basically a huge nettle patch, which is great for wildlife like spiders, mice, hedgehogs, and ladybirds, who like to lay their eggs on the nettle leaves. Once the pond goes in, we’ll still keep an area aside for nettles.

We feed the birds to encourage them in and provide supplemental food when times are tough and have mixed hedging for them to shelter in too – they love the ivy and pyracantha in particular, as they not only provide a place for them to shelter or nest but also produce berries for food. We’ve got a woodpile for insects, strips of long grass in the un-mown lawn and we leave some wildflowers that some people might consider to be weeds as the pollinators seem to really love them – dead nettles, red campion, cow parsley, thistles, and dandelions all make an appearance. And because we don’t battle the insect population, there’s also food the hedgehogs, birds and small furries… we have several hedgehogs passing through each night and I’m pretty sure a couple of them have living quarters somewhere close by!

Lastly, we make sure that there are small gaps under the fencing for hedgehogs to pass through. Once of the biggest barriers for hedgehogs is not being able to access gardens because of solid fencing. A few gaps of about 3 inches or so will help them to explore further afield and find food – they can travel over a mile in one night before returning to their nests so that access is absolutely vital, yet it seems quite rare these days.

8. In one of your recent blog posts you mention, interplanting. How does this differ from companion planting?

Interplanting is simply planting faster-growing crops between slower growing crops, to make the most of the available planting space. For example, this year I’ve grown fast-growing beetroot between my slower-growing calabrese and parsnip plants.

Companion planting is more about finding plants that complement each other and help to increase yields – these might be something like marigolds, which have a scent that deters certain insects that like to eat tomatoes etc, or a ‘sacrificial’ plant like nasturtiums, which are said to attract aphids, so lure them away from succulent crops that they might otherwise go for. So it’s essentially a natural way to help manage your crops – highly recommended!