From 600acres to 600sqft

Quite a lot of popular media output follows people who move from town to their dream home in the country, but what about when it happens the other way around?

In 2018, I called time on my marriage. I lost my spouse, home and business in one and knew it would mean finding solutions for hundreds of animals and losing the 600acres I had come to know intimately and love. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to work closely with animals and I had achieved that; I was living my dream. And I saw it all evaporate in the blink of an eye.

Goodbye to this, my dream

Fast forward three years of pain and the task that seemed impossible, to rebuild with a daughter in tow and nothing to my name but an old banger, feels like it is well underway. This is largely thanks to the people that nursed me through, and I’m really grateful to them. I have washed up, unlikely as it seems, in a semi detached house on a busy main road in Leeds.

This is because I have a new partner who is extremely supportive but also lives the kind of ‘normal’ life I’m largely unfamiliar with and has no plans to abandon it any time soon! It took me months to get used to central heating and efficient insulation after years in unheated houses and caravans, and I treated the dishwasher with suspicion for a loooong time. I’m not good with technology and have spent years handwashing all my clothes, let alone dishes!

However! I like to think that I am nothing if not adaptable. I prided myself on being able to adapt a farming system to any landscape, so why shouldn’t that apply to my life too? Instead of crying over my changed circumstances any more, I decided to embrace them. Any fool can live ‘the good life’ on 600 acres of countryside, but what can you do with the 600sqft I have of a suburban garden? Land ownership is out of the realms of possibility for more and more of us, myself included for the forseeable, what can you achieve in that situation?

Our food systems have relied on individual ownership and ultimate control of a patch of land since enclosure, and we as a society hold on to much nostalgia about this ‘English Dream’ as the success of Our Yorkshire Farm and James Rebanks’ books I believe show, but land prices and food prices have long since parted company (ably demonstrated in Clarkson’s Farm!), making this model impossible in Britain these days. Finding a workaround provides a genuine challenge, and I do love a challenge. I am a fan of the work of Anna Tsing, particularly her ‘Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species’, and this is the perfect opportunity to live that idea.

One of the things that weirded me out here at first was the lack of birds. My farm was dedicated to bird conservation, so the lack was really noticeable and I have made it my mission to breed more like a good farmer 😉 The small garden here has been converted (largely – my partner still likes to protect his lillies from the lily beetles!) to organic practices. I have introduced honeysuckle, jasmine and various trees in containers to the existing cotoneaster plant to provide insects and cover for the birds in conjunction with the birdtable.

It seems to have worked – at first there seemed to be no birds, but when I started putting out food a robin, a charm of goldfinches, a couple of tits, a dunnock and a handful of blackbirds duking it out over territory did come out of the woodwork. Particular highlights have been the fleeting visits of a greenfinch (one of my favourites) and a little flock of long tailed tits, both of which are on my hitlist for increases.

I am most disappointed by the almost complete lack of house sparrows. At the farm, they grew to know the routine and the hedges would come alive with their chattering as they waited for you to step back from the bird feeders, when they would swoop in and raid it all in seconds in a feathery tornado, like something from a cartoon. Here, there was no chattering and over winter, on just one occasion, I saw a pair keeping a low profile from all the cats and the sparrowhawk, and crossed my fingers for them.

I have been rewarded by the male turning up alone this summer, plucking caterpillars from my gooseberry bushes, which were somewhat decimated but I wanted the sparrows to have the feed (the bush has just about made it through and I think will be OK when more mature so no need to panic). Then, sure, enough, three confident fledglings have turned up with their parents to form a noisy little flock. They have been joined by a growing flock of starlings, an increasingly problematic amount of woodpigeons I’m not allowed to eat and the offspring of the robin.

Of course, I have tried to grow veg. My partner is more about BBQ parties than vegetables, but we combined the two interests by building 4ft high raised beds around a seating/BBQ area, which we filled with old branches in a kind of homage to ‘hugelkultur’. The height of the bed saves my back when weeding, raises the veg out of the way of dogs etc. and when you look out of the kitchen window at all the established plants at eye level, it’s really pleasing!

The raised beds surrounding a seating area, showing the move from annuals like carrots and onion at the back, to perennials like yarrow and other herbs in the foreground, and a tulip tree providing interest, shade and cover for birds which successfully encourages them to come and pick at pests! (That’s Verstappen, my fake tortoise in the bottom left!)

I’m fairly pleased with my crops this year as I’ve always had famously black fingers despite my dad having been a talented landscape gardener, knowing the latin names of everything, and my mum holding horticulture teaching qualifications and being a dedicated kitchen gardener! It’s quite impressive how much you can grow on windowsills, in containers and minimal bed space – I have managed to produce handfuls of gooseberries, strawberries and peas, the world’s tiniest garlics and my onions and carrots seem to be doing OK. However, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that if I was a 16th century peasant, my kitchen gardening would very much let me down in starvation terms…

My Shetland black potatoes; very pretty but if I was relying on my growing skills in the olden days I don’t think I would have lasted long 😦

I have fared much better with perennials – my roses always do well, I am pretty much supplying all my own herbs and I really enjoy looking after trees as you can really ‘get to know’ them. A lot balk from trees in containers but my damson, cherry, cornubia and tulip trees are all OK so far! Therefore, I am switching the beds over to the production of perennial veg and enjoying researching what is available and agroforestry in general, something I did not have time for in the struggle for survival on a family farm. I think perennial production will suit the birds and insects and I am more successful ‘foraging’ than gardening. (The Wild Harvest online foraging course is highly recommended!) I have discovered that a surprising amount of our ornamental plants are edible, and for this reason have fuschia berry gin on the go but I must say I hope it tastes better than it looks; for all the beauty of the flowers and berries, that attractive colouring does not come out in the gin!

Fuschia Berries – Have yet to taste the gin, but they tasted like kiwi fruit raw

One thing I am keen to do is stop my garden being so linear. At the moment, plants, feed and compost go in, and a handful of human food and garden bin waste is the output. I’m looking to close that circle with the addition of a currently-under-construction wormery. You need very little wormery space to process the garden/food waste of a household, and of course their product will erase my need to buy as many inputs.

Other micro livestock mooted include quail, rabbits and fish, however I am keen to embrace life as a full time anthrozoologist (I now work for a vet company and the farm department is an anthrozoologist’s dream, a veritable thicket of human and animal interests!) and this will involve travel, so for now, a joint chicken ownership venture with my mum keeps my 23yr old strain of chickens going and me in eggs!

My container-grown damson tree did provide enough for a pot of one of my favourite treats – spiced damson cheese, very christmassy!

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