Looking Back at the Garden

A wet November echoes our first November five years ago. It's surprising how time flies and sure enough this week sees our five year anniversary at Pig Row. It has taken us all that time to scrimp and save to do the house but we did hit the ground running in the garden. We knew from the start that growing our own would save us money but it is easy to forget how much a garden changes in half a decade. 

How our garden saved us money.

It's important that as gardeners, growers and allotment keepers we keep visual records of our plots; it doesn't matter if this is a camera phone, a sketch on a piece of paper or an old fashioned film camera. Records mean that we can see what worked and what didn't, more importantly it shows how our gardens and plots grow and how we change as gardeners. We learn from the camera what grew and stored well, it is a visual memory that leads to an olfactory/taste memory. Remember those courgettes from 2011? Oh god did they make the best god damn fritters we have ever eaten. Those beefsteak tomatoes, they made us grin and those asparagus peas...let's forget about them, why anyone would recommend them is beyond us. Our visual journey started back in the summer of 2010 (see the photo above) our garden had just been cleared, fences where missing and we only used just under a quarter of it. We felt it was best to start small, and the first bed we dug can now be found just behind the glasshouse. We started small because frankly anyone who cultivates an entire garden in one swoop will collapse under their own fears, and the weeds will beat them, then beat them again. We find it's best to see what a garden or plot does in that first year, we learnt that on the allotment. We cultivated half, basked in our own glory and then the marestail showed up. It romped across the plot in under a week. There are some weeds that will break the best gardener. I know organic farmers who cry at the sight of docks and then burn ton after ton of them in a skip. They sometimes dance around the skip in what can only be seen as a blood orgy against all weeds.

Annuals can be used to bring a garden into use.

That first year we also grew cut flowers beside the vegetables. Don't underestimate annuals, they cover the ground, bring in pollinators and more importantly allow you to weed and then cover that space before more weeds show up. We had a love affair with cosmos in that first year and embraced our love of peas and beans which we grew in abundance at Drovers. They'd done well there, surely they would do well at Pig Row?

Growing vertically will pay dividends.

No, climbing beans have always struggled on our soil. They simply sulk unlike Little D who from the start was at home in the garden.

Introduce kids early to growing and give them some space to grow.

The first year in the garden saw one big purchase, a small utility shed which we paid around £149 for. You get what you pay for and now we know we should have recycled and built our own. The wartime garden has taught us not to just go for an off the peg item but to see what can be done with the skills you have or can learn.

You don't always have to buy a shed.

In 2011 we bought a glasshouse and painted that shed. We also started to blog after writing some articles for The Cottage Gardener. We never suspected that so many people would be interested in what do but three years later and we have many friends and a thriving Facebook community. The support and friendship we have found through our garden is a life affirming thing.

Large glasshouses/greenhouses are the factories of a garden.

Under glass growing meant that we could grow tomatoes for the first time. We tried to grow them at Drovers but outside tomatoes are fickle, and they where at Pig Row, here though they suffered with blight. On the allotment we had fallen in love with heritage varieties, tasty toms that linger on the tongue, there is nothing like the smell of tomato vines in a greenhouse on a warm day. Having a glasshouse but a factory into our garden, now we could raise our own plants and extend the season.

The glory of tomatoes. Everyone should grow them.

Little D kept growing and learnt how to sulk when he couldn't go in the garden.

Kids can sulk.

Then through necessity we started to reuse materials in the garden and our Pig Row ethos started to form: nothing would come off this hill unless it could be reused. We didn't know at this time that we where starting to echo the wartime/dig for victory ethos of make do and mend. To us it was second nature and it started with the most innocent thing, a stack of bricks. We used bricks from the old kitchen for temporary cottage paths in the garden; so we could get a donated wheelbarrow around the ground easier. These paths have lasted four years and this year have been pulled up to be reset as wider paths through the lower garden. The old garden from 2010 is now being drawn out as a new growing area and in spring enough manure to make Biff Tannen think twice about messing with Marty McFly (yes, that is an 80s reference).

How simple paths can be utilitarian but wonderful.

That first small bed behind the glasshouse trickled down the hill and another bed came into use. It became like a patchwork effect, small blocks building one next to another...

Small beds can be created in a patchwork across the garden.

...then another...

Gardens change over time.

Our lupins, which we grew as nitrogen fixers, became the talk of the hillside. In 2012, we turned to spuds to clear and clean the land. The act of harvesting clears the land and the foliage keeps down the weeds. We had rose willow herb and sheep's sorrel at Pig Row in abundance and those first few years saw us struggling to keep on top of them. We now have couch grass, you can win the battle but never the war with weeds.

Use spuds to clear your ground and get a crop.

Potato foliage keeps down weeds.

Those bricks from the kitchen kept on giving and new beds for soft fruit came about beside new paths.

Soft fruit beds can be temporary.

Our orchard at the top the garden planted winter 2011/12 blossomed for the first time.

Growing apples takes patience.

The chives we brought with us from Drovers have been split and split over five years, creating a wonderful low hedge that is bustling with bees and butterflies every summer.

Herbs do wonders for the garden

Little D grew some more and took time to start spreading seed, shame it was weed seed.

Kids love spreading seed.

The allotment garden exploded down the hillside and then we started to consider how we where growing in an age of adversity, money was scant, unemployment was rising and we had a government talking about austerity. We turned to history to see when gardeners had to produce high yields from small spaces, and we found Dig for Victory. The Wartime Garden was born but we had some changes, no chemicals and eventually, no digging.

Vegetables are beautiful too.

Over the winter of 2012/2013 we started to read more and more about Dig for Victory practices in the domestic garden and decided that this could help us. We purchased a polytunnel to increase our undercover growing and in summer 2013 the garden looked like this...

Increasing growing space in large gardens.

The beds where now closer and closer to the house, the growing space larger and the crops packed in. Now every crop had to pay its way, the chives kept the strawberries clean and brought in pollinators but was also useful for preserves and vinegar. We abandoned any flower that was useless to pollinators or predators.

Flowers should be beautiful and useful to people and bugs.

For the first time ever we struck lucky on Pig Row with a dwarf bean called Tendergreen. We pickled this in droves. This was a Wartime Garden find, a heritage variety that could be shelled or eaten whole.

There is bean for everyone.

Beds where no longer haphazard and followed a Wartime plan.

Wartime/Dig for Victory garden planning.

Cabbages came to Pig Row...

Cabbages became a staple food at Pig Row.

Crops jostled side by side.

Wartime garden precision.

And paid us back in a major way. We'd had tomato crops before but not crops like this...

Gluts of tomatoes can be processed.

The Dig for Victory introduced us to preserving food for winter. We where now growing for summer and winter. Potatoes exploded everywhere clearing the soil and allowing us plant follow on crops. Turnips, greens, parsnips all came to our hillside.

Get a crop plan.

And we grew our first marrows, Table Dainty recommended by the wartime gardener, Eleanour Sinclair Rohde.

Marrows don't have to be large.

Little D took a major interest in strawberries on the plant and in the kitchen, when they got there.

Kids love soft fruit.

Then in 2014 that shed from 2010 started to look tired and needs an overhaul but this time it will done the make do and mend way.

Renovating a cheap shed.

Little D discovered the joy of watering...

Children love to water plants. Put them to work!

We have potatoes in new planters growing faster and better.

Spuds don't have to be grown in open ground.

Those bricks got a firmer, wider setting.

Make do and mend.

The polytunnel was sold on as we found we loved glass more.

Polytunnel or greenhouse?

We got our first major crop of blackberries and we started to layer them, to get new plants and to barter with them or sell them.

Growing blackberries.

And in 2014 we had apples. A small crop of around 30 apples but there is nothing like your own apple.

This is what apple growing is about.

In the end though, beyond the need to grow, beyond the Dig for Victory, it's all about family and five years of happiness.

Little D and his Dad.

Little D and his Mummy