A P(l)easant Life

1) Early Days - Organic Roots

When I was six, my parents, my brother and I moved into our 'new' house in Bristol and I well remember the hours that my parents spent on removing the ancient rose pergola and planting a new hedge and their meticulous efforts to eradicate clover from the lawn in the front garden! I was interested enough to want my own little patch in part of the back garden, but after an initial burst of enthusiasm and hardy annuals, my growing fascination with insects overtook any interest I might have had in trees, flowers or vegetables. In practice, I spent more time lifting up the flat stepping stones in my bit of garden (and elsewhere, when no-one else was looking) to see what wonderful creatures were to be found there. The only plant which I can remember putting in (apart from those first hardy annuals) was a small clump of bamboos which a friend of mine let me have. I was excited to think of this exotic plant growing in my garden. My parents were less excited when the clump not only grew but started to spread. Maybe this was why my friend's parents had allowed him to give the bamboos to me?

Val's Dad used to keep chickens, and I suspect that her background in gardening may have been more positive than mine. It certainly semed that way when we moved into our first (rented) house on the eastern edge of London when Adam was a week old. I was definitely not interested but Val made valiant efforts to brighten up the tiny patch of clay which was called a back garden. The front was all one communal spread of grass - to call it a lawn would be to exaggerate.

A couple of years later, we bought our own rather grotty flat. We could only just afford to buy it, so the money to start renovations soon ran very low. What else could we do? It had a garden, more of a festival of weeds infested with horseradish, in which the only worthwhile specimens were a yucca plant (with sharp spines at just the wrong height for a two year old), an apple tree and a pear tree, both of which had been dragged earthwards by an incredible tangle of bindweed.

The garden was at the front of the flats and it was obvious that we had moved in, so we had to do something. The old air raid shelter had a spade in it, so I set to work to try to dig over the 'grass' to clear the weeds. As we now know, one of the best ways to propagate horseradish is to accidentally cut the roots up!

Anyway, we established our first lawn and started wondering what to do with the 'flower beds'. As we were only about fifty yards away from the local library, we started looking in the 'Gardening' section and found some books by W.E.Shewell-Cooper, an early advocate of what he called 'compost gardening'. We later discovered books by Lawrence D. Hills and began to be aware of what was beginning to be called 'Organic Gardening'.

By the time the flower and vegetable beds were ready to grow anything, it was late Spring in 1976, the year of the Big Drought, and we certainly couldn't use a garden hosepipe. Instead, every time the two boys had a bath, we siphoned out the bath water from our first floor flat, with the hosepipe coming out of the bathroom, through the living room, out of the window and down to a very simple sprinkler which we moved around as needed. We had a few comments from passing neighbours who thought we were breaking the hosepipe ban, but we told them what we were doing and invited them to come indoors and check. None of them did!

At some stage in this process, I used some old doors from the flat to knock together a two-bay compost bin and placed it just outside our front door. We did get some comments from our friends but the heap didn't seem to smell and no-one complained. When we moved to a 3-bedroomed semi after two years in the flat, a friend helped me move this ramshackle bin to our new garden and we had some funny looks as we tried to push it along balanced on a bicycle - something he did not let me forget for several years!

Our tiny vegetable plot produced some edible results, the late start compensated by months of very hot weather and lots of bath water - maybe the soap helped to reduce the pests, we never really thought about it - and I was hooked.

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor December 1999 (Published in Lapford Lookout, January 2000)

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2) Earthworks and Tomatoes

Although there was plenty of DIY needed in the 3-bedroomed semi which we moved to in 1977, the garden was a growing priority. I really wanted to be able to grow reasonable quantities of vegetables and Val was looking forward to a few more flowers, maybe even a rockery.

But this garden had problems. We were still in the same area on the edge of London and the soil was probably more clayey and certainly wetter. Perhaps that was why the previous owners had developed such a love affair with concrete! Having 'discovered' the wonders of home-made garden compost, we were sure that it would sort out the clay and we had ideas about how to tackle the soggy soil.

We would have a soakaway for the water, build a rockery and get rid of the excess concrete. I smashed up the concrete and dug a big hole for the soakaway. The larger bits of broken concrete became a sort of L-shaped wall as the backbone of the rockery and the smaller pieces went in the soakaway. The waterlogged clay from the soakaway hole went on the L-shaped wall to form the 'rockery' (more of a sloping raised bed, really), which had compost added on the top to give the plants something better than London clay to grow in!

It didn't look bad. Unless you looked closely, you couldn't see that the rockery was made of concrete. The plants seemed to grow on it all right. Unfortunately, the soakaway didn't soak away, it just soaked. I had not realised quite how waterproof thick clay can be, nor how thick it was. I had only dug the hole about 4 or 5 feet deep, nowhere near deep enough to reach anything except just more clay, with no hope of the water going anywhere else. I had just made a big clay tank and filled it with rubble! Still, the situation was no worse than we had inherited and there was no obvious solution, so I left it as it was and turned my attention to more exotic pursuits.

My new vegetable plot was bigger and the growing was going fairly well, but my results with tomatoes had been mixed. When they ripened, they were delicious. They were a lovely old-fashioned thin-skinned variety called Harbinger, recommended by Lawrence Hills. We have grown it ever since. Unfortunately, they didn't always ripen. Time to consider a greenhouse!

More DIY needed, for two reasons. The first was the cost of ready-made greenhouses. The second was that no-one made lean-to greenhouses the right size to fit on the back of the garage, just about the only place where we could fit it, which conveniently faced roughly south.

There was a company in Bristol which sold the various aluminium pieces to make a greenhouse to your own measurements, so I spent several evenings with their catalogue and doodled on pieces of paper, trying to work out exactly what was needed. Eventually I ordered the parts and started construction, ending up with a bigger greenhouse than we could have afforded otherwise. Now the challenge was to learn about growing things 'under glass'!

Not for the last time, I started to look at ways of getting water to a greenhouse without involving mains water or pumps, eventually managing to rig up a gravity feed from a rainwater butt to the home-made shelf in the greenhouse. Experiments in 'ring culture' began, with bottomless pots (actually large size ex-margarine tubs) of potting compost sitting on the automatically watered sand and gravel on the shelf. The theory was that the plants got their water from the roots in the sand and their nourishment from the roots in the upper tub, and it seemed to work. The tomatoes, peppers and aubergines were well worth the effort, though I have to confess that they were not organic at this stage. None of the books I could find offered any hope of applying organic principles in greenhouse gardening, so I fed the top tubs with one of the well-known chemical fertilisers. We now know that we could have done it all organically - no doubt the results would have been even better!

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor January 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, February 2000)

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3) Livestock in Suburbia!

Somewhere along the line, in between reading, gardening, DIY (and going to work!) I had become interested in beekeeping. All the books seemed to reassure me that it was perfectly possible to keep bees in a suburban back garden, so I started by joining the local beekeepers' association, and found that there were classes just starting, one for novice beekeepers and one for hive-building. I joined both and was soon very immersed in the subject, ending up with exciting new information, a fresh-made hive, but NO BEES! I put my name on the list for a swarm when one came available, and waited.

Before long, I had my first swarm and beekeeping commenced. It was not long before one hive had increased to two and more time was being spent on bees than on gardening or DIY. The vegetable plot and the greenhouse continued, but the bees were my first move towards realising a dream which we had talked about some years earlier - we would really love to have a house in the country with several acres to grow things, and maybe some livestock. Bees were one bit of 'livestock' which I could try without moving house!

A few years passed and we felt the need to move to a different part of the same general area, still in the outer suburbs East of London. This house had a smaller garden and no greenhouse, but there was still some room for bees. Besides, we intended to be living overseas for some years, so we thought this house was going to be more of a 'base' than a long-term family home. A kind friend with a semi-rural house and enormous orchard offered me the opportunity to have some of my beehives there, so our neighbours were not tormented too much as the number of hives went on growing. Wouldn't it be lovely, we thought, to have a place like that, with so much space to grow things, keep bees, maybe some other livestock . . ?

Within a couple of years of our moving house, it became very clear that we were NOT going to be living abroad after all. After another year, we realised that there was nothing really to keep us there except my employment, and there was no reason why I couldn't try to find a job somewhere else. Maybe this was the time to look at that old dream - could we find a part of the country where we could afford to buy a place with a few acres? We started looking at Daltons Weekly and tried to work out where prices were reasonable enough for our very modest budget. This was the mid 1980s, and house prices in the London suburbs had risen enough to make it look just about possible.

Soon it came down to choices between Scotland, Lincolnshire, Wales and the West Country. With family and friends in the South of the UK, Scotland seemed too far away. Curiously enough, friends of ours nearby also got the urge to move, and went North, not just to Scotland but the Orkneys - they are still there and happy, it seems. One visit to Lincolnshire convinced us that would not enjoy living there. Perhaps the fact that it was a cold and windy day influenced us, plus the fact that there did not seem to be any shelter in a fairly flat landscape. That left us with Wales and the West Country.

For the next eighteen months or so, family holidays and Bank Holiday weekends consisted of going to places where we thought we might be able to find somewhere to buy. When we stayed in Wales, we spent several days looking at farms in lovely locations. Some of them were quite run down, some very remote, sometimes with much more land than we would know what to do with in our wildest dreams. We were not sure about the effect on our children of living in such remote places, especially as many of them were in the centre of strongly Welsh-speaking areas. The West Country beckoned!

By this time, I had also started to look for another job and sent off my CV to anyone who might consider employing me in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. I even went for one interview in Dorset, though nothing came of that, nor of one with a firm of Estate Agents in Devon who asked me if I was Terry Waite, because of my Christian convictions (and maybe the beard as well!)

Nothing seemed to be happening. We had seen plenty of good places, tried to go for a few of them without success, and all the time the prices of 'places with land' were starting to catch up with prices in the suburbs. Was the 'window of opportunity' closing?

Eventually, one Friday morning in November 1986, some agent's details dropped through our front door. There was this little precast concrete bungalow just outside a village called Lapford, in Mid Devon. We had to get the map out! It had nearly four acres and looked like a good possibility. We would have to forgo our dream of a lovely old place with thatched roof and inglenooks - those had moved out of our price range anyway! Hurried phone calls, and I arranged to drive down (alone) on the next day and look at it on the Sunday. Could this be the start of a new way of life . . ?

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor February 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, March 2000)

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4) Moles, Mortgages and Moving

It looked quite a small bungalow from the outside, but seemed to have a surprising amount of space inside. A triangular back garden and a gate from the front garden into a field that became wider and wider as I walked down the hill. We had always imagined that we would buy something older, probably with outbuildings, but this seemed like good value for money in a good location.

How about the ground? Grade 3, according to the Agricultural Land Classification Map, but that covered almost everything between excellent and virtually unusable! I didn't have the courage to pretend that I knew much about it, so I just walked down the field with the farmer and listened to what he was saying. Fresh molehills gave me the answer I needed! I picked up some soil from them and tried sqeezing it into a ball, then rolling it into a 'sausage', which broke when I tried bending it. Thanks to the moles, I had found out that the soil was a clay loam, substantially better than some of the sticky wet stuff we had found in other places.

We certainly would not find anything better than this, I thought, as I told the farmer that I was very interested. Could I please bring my wife and family down in a fortnight, so that they could see it before we made a final decision?

I could, they did, and we agreed to go ahead. I still had no job in the West Country and we had not yet sold our own place but we put in a mortgage application and started the solicitors going. Suddenly the dream had firmed up into a very real project but it could all fail very easily without a job or a buyer. We prayed!

We had a buyer and lost them. Still no job. The mortgage application moved forward. We found another buyer. Hardly even any job adverts! The Building Society surveyor inspected, and then came the letter. Please could I inform the Halifax what source of income I would have when we moved to Devon?

I had applied a few weeks earlier for a job in Taunton and had been invited to attend for an interview in a few days. I did not dare to be too optimistic about this one but I certainly could not give the Building Society any sensible answer at the moment. We would know soon enough. We went on praying.

As we hurried away from the interview to get to the station in the thickening fall of snow, I thought I had done reasonably well. There would probably be a phone call tomorrow.

It was that day in mid-January 1987 when all the West Country and most of England seemed to grind to a halt in near blizzard conditions. As I travelled back to Romford, hoping for the best outcome from the interview, it became clear that this train would be the very last one to make it out of the West Country that day. We were not even scheduled to go through Bristol, but we waited there for ages to pick up all the local connections and then trundled slowly eastwards. Val, of course, had no clue what was going on and there was no way I could contact her. I eventually phoned her from Paddington station.

The phone call came next day. They offered me the job and wanted me to start on the 1st of March. Our sale was still OK, but would it go through in time? We began to look at ways of living in two places at once and then some friends in Wellington offered to let me stay there during the week for a while if the job started before the sale went through.

We exchanged contracts not long after I started in Taunton, so our friends only had an extra member of their family for about a month. We had to arrange removals and start to pack up our home in the remaining time, while Val had to look after our three youngsters on her own during the week, and I had a 430 mile round trip every weekend as well as driving around Somerset all week.

We were given permission to put some things in the garage at the bungalow, and to leave the beehives outside, so one weekend I closed up all the hives and set off from Romford on the Sunday afternoon with a very full trailer holding all the hives and several other bits and pieces. Good job it was a fairly cool March and the bees were not very active - it could have been even more 'interesting'!

The trailer was full to the brim again when we finally moved and, as the removals men had to stagger their journey, we all drove down to Lapford and 'camped' in the living room, ready to greet the lorry the next morning. Jet the dog had stayed in so many different places on our various house-hunting 'holidays' in the last two years that he probably thought this was just another one.

We were here, all the details had finally worked out, but now the real challenge faced us - how would we cope with living in the 'middle of nowhere'?

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor March 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, April 2000)

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5) Townies in the Country

Suddenly we had what felt like a vast amount of land. Just the bungalow with its front and back gardens occupied about acre, much more than we had ever had before - and now we had nearly four acres of our very own! Scary but exciting!

I had a few days off work around the time we moved, and exploring the field in early April was great fun. We discovered things we hadn't seen before. I think I had been told about the old sheep dip by the hedge. (Someone told me some years later that it was one of the first in the Lapford area, and that farmers used to bring their sheep here from all around.) Just up the field from that, we found a rather overgrown patch with railway sleepers in amongst the weeds. We soon discovered that the sleepers were rather old and rotten and that they covered over a deep 'catch-pit' full of water. We removed the sleepers before any of us trusted them with our weight!

The old oak tree was just crying out for a swing and a climbing rope. We had a swing already, one of those metal-framed ones in everyone's back garden, and the frame was beginning to show its age. With some extra lengths of chain and fixings for the branch, the seat was soon suspended from its new support. I found a length really chunky ex-navy nylon rope advertised, so that was soon knotted and hung from the same branch. The children soon started to disappear 'down the field' to the swing, the rope, climbing the tree or just generally exploring.

It was summer, it was warm and wet, so the grass in the field grew! We didn't have any livestock (except the bees) but I still wanted to try my hand at making silage. Our farmer neighbour cut some of the grass and I tried to get it into silage bags - by hand of course, and in the pouring rain for much of the time! If everybody laughed, I didn't notice, but that was the last time I tried silage-making. For several years afterwards, I would come across these shrunken silage bags full of well-rotted grass, looking more and more like home-made peat.

There were other ways to deal with the grass. Our friendly neighbour arranged for some sheep to graze it down for a few weeks. Some others just came over the hedge from the next field! Then there was hay-making! Phil's friendliness extended to madness as he let me loose on one of his tractors and taught me how to cut hay with it and then turn it to dry it. Not entirely crazy, as it has meant that I have been able to help him with the occasional tractor-based task in the years since. One of our friends from 'up country' always seemed to come for holidays in the hay-making season for our first few years, so he joined in from time to time as well.

Meanwhile, pigs and our first rotavator, both for the same purpose - turning over the ground! We were going to grow vegetables and we had read that pigs were good for clearing ground (and manuring it!) and rotavators for breaking it up. We bought two Berkshire weaners and some electric fencing kit. The father of a colleague at work was selling his old Howard 300 rotavator - was I interested?

The pigs worked over part of the bottom of the field, and Phil kindly ploughed part of it. I can't remember whether those two pieces overlapped, but the rotavator was soon at work trying to get the soil ready for seed sowing. The seeds went in, seedlings came up, then seemed to come to nothing. The same for first attempts at Jerusalem Artichokes. The vegetable area at the bottom of the field soon reverted to grazing. It was not until eleven years later, when I started putting in rabbit fencing, that I realised why nothing much had survived in that first plot!

We decided to concentrate our gardening efforts on the front and back gardens. Val wanted a lawn at the front and I still wanted to grow vegetables. The lawn idea meant breaking up concrete paths and shifting barrow-loads of soil to make a more level area. We planted the little eucalyptus tree which we had grown from seed and hoped that it would survive living in the rough weather at 500 feet above sea level.

The back garden soil was wonderful compared to most of the sticky clay we had known in Romford, so the vegetables did well most of the time. The weeds did even better, especially one year when the 'fat-hen' seemed to take over. It did get rather wet, though, in spite of all the attempts to 'open out' the soil with garden compost and even sand. It would take a few years to start to crack that problem!

The field, meanwhile, had gone back to just being pasture land. Perhaps we would abandon our ideas of larger-scale vegetable growing? Besides, we had been talking about dairy animals for ages. Would we opt for cows (a Dexter or two, perhaps) or goats. . ?

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor April 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, May 2000)

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6) Accidental Goatherds!

"Would you like to look after two of my goats while I am away for a while?" Well, we had the land, there was an old shed next to the garage which could probably be pressed into service, and we still had not made up our minds between cows or goats. Here was a way to see how we got on with goats without too much risk. We said yes.

We moved the old shed into the field, bought some more electric fencing wire and posts and were eventually ready to welcome Mary and 'the other goat' at the end of December 1987. Mary was a funny-looking creature, with what a friend later described as 'aeroplane ears', which neither stuck up like a normal Saanen goat's ears, nor drooped like real Anglo-Nubian's. She had the Anglo-Nubian 'Roman nose' and her milk was very nice and creamy. (We had been given a 'crash course' in milking goats!) She was also a real 'character', crafty but not aggressive, friendly but independent.

'Poppy' seemed like a good name for the other one, who was little more than a kid but more or less pure-bred Saanen. No milk from her, of course, but she made a good companion for Mary, though shy with us to start with. Val and I began a routine of morning and evening milkings. We developed new sets of aching muscles and stronger hands!

Mary's milk supply seemed to decrease in the New Year. We had expected her yield to increase slightly as the days became a little longer and the grass started to grow a bit. She seemed healthy enough, certainly not skinny. It soon became obvious that we were about to acquire some extra goats - Mary was in kid and getting bigger every day. In the middle of March she presented us with two kids, one male and one female, soon to be named as Billy and Holly.

By this time, we had realised that Poppy was also pregnant and her first kid, Misty, was born in early April. So our 'goats on loan' had multiplied from two to five! After the initial slow supply of milk for the kids, it became obvious that Mary and Poppy had more than enough milk to feed their kids, so we re-started the milking regime. Wow! We cancelled our order from the milk lady immediately! There was more milk than we knew what to do with. Mary's was low on volume but high on creaminess, Poppy's the opposite.

Every now and then over the last few months, Linda had called to see us and always asked how her goats were getting on. She still had to stay away but we reassured her that we didn't mind looking after the goats for a bit longer. In fact we were becoming more and more attached to them and were not really looking forward to having to part with them. It was quite a welcome surprise, then, when Linda's question at the next visit was, "How are your goats, then?"

"Excuse us, whose goats?" "Yours, if you would like to keep them." And so it was that we started keeping goats - unintentionally! Over the last twelve years the numbers have fluctuated madly, up as high as 17 in 1998 and down to one at the time of writing.

We have supplied small quantities of milk to friends, workmates and acquaintances. Val learned how to make various kinds of cheeses, including a delicious soft one, often laced with herbs. We flirted with the idea of mohair production and even bought a spinning wheel for the purpose, and of course there has always been a good supply of goat manure for the garden!

The unexpected discoveries included the fact that our goats loved eating banana skins and potato peelings which had been 'crisped' in the bottom of the oven, that they really didn't smell much at all (except the mature billies - phew!) and that, to a goat, a hedge looks more like breakfast than a barrier!

There have been the bad times as well. The sense of bereavement and failure when Mary died, and others since then. The frustration when precocious kids ignored the electric fence and demolished cherished apple trees or the precious eucalyptus grown from seed (although both survived). The sheer physical exhaustion of trying to catch one particular goat who treats it all as a game. And the real killer - coming back at midnight from chatting all evening with friends, knowing that there were several goats with very full udders and empty hayracks who really desperately needed a visit before I could get to bed!

The goat chapter started to close in 1998, as we directed our thoughts towards market gardening. People had often told us that 'goats and gardens don't mix', though we had not had too many problems over the years. We felt that trying to keep goats while starting up the serious growing would be a bit unrealistic, and that it would perhaps be better to phase them out. We advertised them free to good homes and all but two went in a few weeks. The last ones were old Olive (an Angora cross and the only goat we ever actually bought) and Popeye, a young wether whom we kept as company for her. Olive died suddenly and apparently peacefully earlier this year, so now we have started trying to find a new home for Popeye . . .

. . . Anyone want to 'borrow' a goat?

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor May 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, June 2000)

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7) Comfrey and Black Plastic

All through the years of keeping goats, we still wanted to increase the vegetable growing area and kept trying to really get it better organised. The back garden soil was much better than London clay but it tended to be wet, rather heavy and stony in places. The land in the field was lighter and better drained. The larger plot which Phil had ploughed up for us at the bottom of the field had come and gone but we wanted to try clearing some more for vegetables.

Clearing the ground was easy to talk about, but there were serious weeds here, nettles, docks and very persistent grass. We had been gardening more or less organically for years and did not want to use chemical weedkillers if we could help it. Digging out all these perennial weeds over a large plot was not really a workable option, especially with full-time employment to hold down. It was about this time that we began to discover the blessings of black plastic. A new friend often had large offcuts of really heavy duty black plastic sheeting and these looked like a good way to kill the weeds, once they were weighed down with lumps of concrete, branches, old sleepers or whatever we could find! So two smaller pieces of land were cleared, further up the field and nearer the bungalow. One was earmarked for Russian Comfrey and the other for potatoes.

One part at the top of the field was almost a 'quaking bog', especially in really wet weather. Apart from the fact that the ditch was silted up, we found that the septic tank outlet just seemed to stop in the wettest bit. Extending the outfall pipe a little further down the field, over the slight brow of the hill, seemed the obvious solution. While we were at it, why not plant some Russian Comfrey just by the end of the new pipe? It was supposed to appreciate raw nitrogenous fertiliser!

We had grown a little comfrey in Romford and knew that it made excellent 'instant compost' as well as rotting down to make the most effective (if evil-smelling!) liquid feed for tomato plants. Besides, it was supposed to be good nourishing feed for livestock of all sorts. At this point, we had not only started into goats but also had second and third batches of pigs. We extended the pipe, bought the comfrey roots and planted them. They survived and flourished and the goats and pigs definitely approved! So did the tomato plants - and we appreciated the tomatoes.

For some reason we wanted to try growing more potatoes. Perhaps we were getting fed up with the difference between supermarket ones and home-grown. Anyway, in went the largest amount of seed potatoes we had ever planted, nourished by wilted comfrey, compost and goat manure. Bumper crops! Though we had still not realised that we had a serious rabbit problem, potatoes can not have been their favourites, so we got away with it with very little loss.

Meanwhile, we battled on with the back garden. Well-established weeds (not helped by our failure to stop them seeding!) together with ground that was often waterlogged sometimes made the task seem hopeless. One flower bed in particular was terrible. It ran alongside the lane with a thick concrete path the other side of it. How could we stop it being so wet and muddy?

The answer came in the shape of a pickaxe and our friend Neil from London. He and his family were down on holiday again, camping in our field, and we talked about our thoughts of breaking up the path. He must have had some spare energy, as the path soon started to disappear and we had some more lumps of concrete to weigh down black plastic sheets!

After Neil had finished the major demolition, the smaller bits of ash and stone were ideal to put above plastic drainage pipe as we started filling in the remains of the old field ditch on the other side of the garden. The soggy flower bed now began to look like a little bank, so we built a little dry stone wall to hold it up and try to stop it falling down to the new lower path level. With a little compost to improve the soil, it gradually started to turn into a well-drained 'raised bed' and Val has gone on finding an increasing variety of plants to put in it.

We had first tried the 'dry stone wall' idea in the front garden, to hold up the edge of the new, flatter lawn area. Then we had made a new flower bed under the front bedroom windows, just placing soil on top of the concrete driveway and building a stone wall round the edge. Incredibly, a vast range of plants grow in about a foot depth of soil, including rose bushes, astilbe, alstroemeria, astrantia and a Kiwi fruit vine! Admittedly, they do need watering in dry weather.

Perhaps we did not realise that we had begun to discover a way to make the back garden vegetable plot more productive. What we needed now was a plan of action.

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor June 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, July 2000)

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8) Changing Gear

Just as our first steps in gardening had been helped all those years ago with some very useful reading, so it was that we moved into our next phase with assistance from another book that I spotted on the shelves of Barnstaple Library. 'The New Organic Grower' was a title certain to grab my interest as I scanned the gardening section.

Here, at last, was a writer who seemed to think that it was possible to do what we had always wanted to do - grow vegetables intensively on a small field scale. Eliot Coleman had apparently been doing it for years and had a simple, practical approach. Perhaps I had been looking at the wrong books and magazines but, until then, everything I had read seemed to be about growing vegetables on just a 'hobby gardening' level and assuming that if you had anything more than acre, you would want to have livestock and not much else. Although the bees had become less viable since the arrival of the Varroa parasite, we were still enjoying the goats. But growing vegetables and fruit organically had always been my main interest. Now I began to get some solid advice, backed with the conviction that it was possible after all!

One of his simple rules was to get organised! For years I had tried to follow good gardening practice and 'rotate' crops around in different plots each year. My main problem was the complicated geometry needed to try to divide a strangely shaped, not quite triangular back garden into four roughly equal plots. It never seemed to work out quite as well as I intended! The simple idea of 4 ft. beds separated by 1 ft. paths was such a straightforward way of dividing the growing space. Now I could just measure the length of the beds and divide up much more equally.

At the same time, the lesson of our new raised bed had begun to sink in. Perhaps, if I lowered the paths and used the soil I dug out to raise the beds, they would not get so awfully soggy in our regular Devon downpours?

Soon the back garden began to be carved up into fairly neat strips. We dug the 1 ft. paths between the beds and made a 2 ft. wide path around the outside of the vegetable plot, allowing us to get to the hedge bank more easily and turn it into an attractive part of the garden. The lowered paths were covered with shredded bark and prunings. We had already discovered the benefit of this sort of mulch to reduce the weed growth under our blackcurrant bushes. Noel saw me at work one day and admired the 'bean trenches'. Obviously his bean planting system is much more thorough than mine!

The first season of the newly organised garden proved that the idea was a winner. When it rained (and it certainly did!), instead of the whole vegetable plot getting really waterlogged, the new sunken paths just turned into canals to hold the water until it soaked in. Because the soil was quite 'clayey', it would take a long time without rain for the ground to dry out, but we could get back out to work in the garden very quickly (paddling when necessary!) because only the paths were getting muddy.

As we were learning these useful lessons, news on the job front seemed less cheery. Val lost her part-time job in a local school and Devon County was due to reorganise in 1997 (later postponed to 1998), which made my future employment (and salary!) less secure. However, I had found out that anyone aged 50 or more who was made redundant would be automatically offered early retirement. 1997 was the year I would turn 50 - it might be an opportunity after all!

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor July 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, August 2000)

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9) Serious Peasantry!

There was a mixture of excitement and uncertainty as events began to unfold towards the end of 1997. It would have been easier to know definitely one way or the other - would I be given early retirement or not? But the wheels of local government did not turn quite so simply. I had to go on applying for jobs in the County Council, whether I wanted them or not, but we certainly had mixed feelings. On the one hand, would the pension be enough to live on? It was much less than we had been used to, and we hadn't been 'rolling in it' before! On the other hand, was there ever going to be a better opportunity to start working on the land as we had wanted to do for years?

Eventually the end of March 1998 came and I had not secured another job in the new County Council structure, and so was given early retirement at the tender age of 51. I did have a sort of half-promise of some consultancy work which might materialise after a few weeks, but nothing very definite. Should I start looking for other jobs? Should I sign on as unemployed? We decided to take the plunge and concentrate on working the land. If the consultancy offer didn't work out, perhaps I would go and look for some other work.

On a fairly accurate scale plan, I had already worked out that we could fit as many as eight plots into our field. Each of these plots would be about 100 feet square, making each one just under acre. These would be subdivided into 20 strips, each 100 feet long and 4 feet wide, with 1 foot paths between them. This was a modified version of Eliot Coleman's system which I had read about and tried out in the back garden.

I bought a 100ft tape measure and some blue polypropylene rope, which I knotted into a triangle with two 100 ft sides with a right angle between them - fairly simple geometry - good old Pythagoras! Then Val and I spent a silly hour or so down in the field, making sure that the plans on paper really could work out on the ground. As the goats were still there then, we had fun with ropes going under electric fencing wires and round the plastic posts, but we got there in the end! Yes, the plots would fit in, leaving enough space round the edges for fruit trees or other permanent cropping areas and a rabbit fence a few feet inside the hedge.

Then on to thinking about equipment. The little old rotavator was certainly not man enough for this scale of work, and there were other items which we would need to buy in order to get going seriously. This would mean starting to dip into the redundancy lump sum. We hesitated for a little while but soon narrowed the choice of cultivators down to two firms, one in Sussex and the other near Swindon. We went looking, and settled for the Swindon firm. They had a good diesel version, an ex-demonstration earlier model, giving us a nearly new machine with all the features we needed at a price we could afford.

Some of the topmost plot had already been under black plastic for months, so we moved the plastic to kill some more weeds and started rotavating the area that had been covered. We were under way, at last actually starting to work the land on the scale we had always wanted!

Meanwhile, the suggested consultancy work had begun to turn up, so there was a little more money coming in from a few days' work every month. My priorities had already firmed up, though. The consultancy work was welcome and interesting, but I knew what I really wanted to do, and it wasn't 'driving a desk', nor even driving round Devon on business!

Sometime about then, we were both working in the back garden, which is very open to Blackberry Lane, when Andy and Jane came down the lane for a walk. "Hello peasants!" said Andy, and they stopped and chatted for a while. According to my dictionary, a peasant is "a person who lives in the country and works on the land, especially as a smallholder or a labourer; specifically a member of an agricultural class dependent on subsistence farming." Sounds like us! At last we were beginning to live on the land and at least planning to be partly dependent on the fruits of our small-scale 'farming'.

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor July 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, September 2000)

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10) Detailed Preparations

As we went on through 1998, I began to get used to 'retirement'. Although the pension was fairly small, there was also no job making constant demands on my time. A few hours' consultancy work each month helped to stretch the pension while we tackled some basic tasks. Looking back on that time, it seems quite leisurely, but we certainly seemed to fill the days.

We needed two large tanks: one bulk tank for agricultural diesel for the rotavator and another one as a water reservoir to supply our existing greenhouse, which I planned to convert for intensive plant raising. For both of these, I needed to do some basic concrete-mixing and block-laying. Sooner or later, I wanted to buy a second-hand concrete mixer to mix up bulk potting soil, so now seemed like a good time so that it could earn its keep mixing concrete and mortar first! We bought a mixer and two tanks and I set to work laying foundations. The support for the greenhouse supply tank meant substantial excavations at the top of the garden and gave me the opportunity to tidy up the compost heap corner and build two nice large compost bins in blockwork.

Then the greenhouse needed to be fitted up with an automatic watering system. I had spent a little while working out a simple system of racks with water in 'gutters' alongside. Two standard sizes of wooden trays would rest on the racks, each with its own piece of capillary matting dipping into the gutter. Not only did the racks need to be built, but I needed to make all the wooden trays and their mats. The trays were mostly made from scrap timber - I suppose that goes some way towards justifying my squirrel-like hoarding of anything remotely useful!

As we intended to raise all our own plants from seed, we had to plan what would grow where and when, how many plants would be needed and so what quantities of seed needed to be bought. I started sending for 'growers lists' and planned a much bigger than usual seed order, together with loads of seed potatoes. We were getting more committed to the project with every day that passed.

Autumn led on to winter and it was soon time to get the concrete mixer doing the job we really intended - making up the soil mixes for seed sowing and potting on. Time also to look at alternatives to using peat in those mixes. We had heard of a firm which sold coir fibre in bulk, so I sent off for details and then ordered some. Initial experiments seemed promising and we soon switched totally to coir for seed and potting mixes. I began mixing and filled dustbins, bags and teachests.

Without much warning, my comfortable few hours of consultancy work each month had suddenly become virtually full-time! A colleague was off sick, so could I fill the gap please? Preparations for the coming spring had to be fitted into spare moments, with precious daylight at a minimum. There was one big task which I knew I had to tackle - rabbit fencing!

Rabbit fencing needs burying and I had hoped that I would be able to use the plough attachment on the new rotavator to dig the trench. No way! The turf was too tough, the ground too stony and the plough couldn't reach deep enough, anyway. Back to good old manual labour with mattock and spade, sometimes even a pickaxe! It took time to cut the turf, dig the trench, ram in the stakes and fix the netting. Filling in the trench afterwards seemed easy by comparison!

As Spring 1999 approached, I could see that the whole market gardening project was threatened by my nearly full-time employment and so asked to return to the previous arrangements, a few hours each month. This kept going for a few months until they found someone else to do both aspects of the job, so my consultancy was not needed - I was free again!

So it was that April 1999 found us sowing seeds, planting seedlings and onion sets in the first plot which was not yet fully protected by rabbit fence. We hoped the rabbits would not bother to find their way up to them from the large opening in the fence, further down the field. They did, nibbling the tops of the onions and carrots, so we hastily erected a 'temporary' length of fence to block off the gap, enclosing the first quarter acre plot.

We were under way. There were crops growing which would be far more than we could hope to use ourselves. When they were ready, would we be able to sell them?

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor September 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, October 2000)

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11) Vegetables for Sale!

As the spring of 1999 moved into the early summer, Val asked me, "When are we going to sell something?" She had voiced the thought that had more than crossed our minds many times. It is one thing to grow lots of vegetables but quite another to be able to find a market for them. Would we need to find outlets in the surrounding villages? Would it be a good idea to try to supply local pubs? Just how big would this flood of lovely vegetables be? Should we start looking at markets?

My answer to Val's question was, "When we have something to sell." The second half of June came and some of the Lettuces in the back garden were shaping up nicely, but nothing else was ready. I found three pieces of yellow hardboard, attached some wires and wrote "Lettuces 20p" on each of them and then put two at the end of the lane and one on our driveway gate, so that prospective customers would be able to see that we weren't far off the road. Nothing happened.

The Perpetual Spinach and Swiss Chard came ready for picking and we picked some for ourselves and added them to the list on the boards. Still nothing. How were we going to make any progress? We thought about advertising, but there still wasn't a great variety of vegetables to advertise!

It was nearly the end of June when our postman bought a lettuce. That's all, just one lettuce, but it seemed to change things for us. More customers came and had Lettuces, Spinach and Chard and other vegetables as they came available. We placed adverts in the Post Office and Village Shop and gave customers compliments slips and cards with our name and phone number. Some folk started to come regularly and tell their friends. One couple even put up an advert in their front garden!

Our front porch was the natural place to bring the vegetables in from the field and soon some changes were needed. An old door supported by bricks became a shelf for boxes of vegetables, with the Potatoes kept dark underneath. We used our kitchen scales to weigh out the veg and a calculator to work out the prices. Shopping trips to the supermarket became opportunities to check up on prices. Soon people wanted to know when we were open for business. To start with, it had been all right to open and close as we felt like it, but now we needed to commit ourselves to being here at set times. Suddenly the relaxed time of early retirement became busier than going to work!

August and September became months of almost continuous picking. By early August, we were overflowing with green, yellow and purple French Beans. Why did we seem to be able to grow such vast quantities but most people wanted Runners instead? Sadly some had to go on the compost heap, along with lettuces that had run to seed. Sugar Snap ('Mangetout') Peas were an instant favourite, though we didn't have quite so many of those.

This was getting serious! We needed to plan for a continuing and growing business. First of all, the kitchen scales needed to be replaced by proper 'legal' ones if we didn't want to break the law. We began to look at the possibility of putting up a large polytunnel, for two reasons: to extend our growing season into the winter and to produce Tomatoes and Peppers in the summer. A well-timed conversation with Hugh, and then our application for Planning Permission went in.

Meanwhile, another plot of land had been under black plastic, with a view to doubling our cropping area for the next year. The rotavator was busy again! So was the fork, as the Potatoes were still in the ground, long after their leaves had died down. We were selling New Potatoes right into the colder months, as I never got 'ahead of myself' enough to have more dug than we would sell in the next few days. Carrots had already established themselves as one of our customers' favourite crops and the ones that we had expected to keep in the ground right through the winter were soon dug and sold as well as the summer ones.

The end of a busy first summer's trading and the prospect of a busy winter of preparations. Was it all worth while? As we looked at the figures, we certainly hadn't made a fortune, but we had done better than we had dared to hope for.

to be continued . . .

Dave Taylor September 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, November 2000)

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12) Paddling under Plastic!

Our Planning Application for a 50ft. x 21ft. polytunnel went in at the end of September 1999 and we knew that we would probably have to wait until November for a decision. Meanwhile, the rest of the harvest needed attention. As well as the Potatoes, there were rows of Parsnips in the ground and the various types of Winter Squash to be brought in. Although it had been a good year for growing them, we were caught out by an early frosty night and some of them were damaged. In fact, some were so well-hidden in their own leaves that we didn't see them until the leaves had been cut back by the frost. Val discovered various recipes for Winter Squash, so that we could eat up the damaged ones before they went bad. Certainly much tastier than pumpkin!

We had some Beetroot stored in peat and some of the Oriental Vegetables were still producing quite well, so there was some selection for the hardier of our customers who still kept coming. Kale and Brussels Sprouts, together with a few skinny Leeks, were available in limited quantities, but perhaps the customers were more affected by the weather than the vegetables were? It certainly seemed like it, as more people would turn up on the drier, sunnier days than on the 'wet and horrible' ones.

Talking about wet and horrible, we had decided to site the polytunnel on the wettest part of the top of the field, on the principle that it would soon dry out with the extra heat and protection from the elements. When the permission finally came through and Hugh was able to organise the workload, along came Paul and started digging some holes for the foundation tubes. They filled up with water and had to be baled out before we could pour in the concrete, but soon they were all done. Then the fun really started as the curved sections of tube were delivered and Paul started on his three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle! Remarkably quickly, the framework was complete, ready for the plastic to go on as soon as there was a fairly warm and windless day. Joking, of course; this was early December 1999! It certainly was not warm and the breeze was fairly brisk.

Meanwhile, there was plenty to do. This was not just the wettest part of the field, it was also completely infested with creeping buttercup. Weedkiller spray was not an option, so I started cutting 'turf' from the polytunnel area and stacking it upside down to rot down. Because there needed to be space around the framework to fit the plastic, I stacked the turf 'inside' to start with, and one day the whole stack fell over - I had built it too high and narrow.

The plastic went on in weather conditions which were only just acceptable. I couldn't be there, but Paul and Stan did a valiant job together. My contribution to this part of the effort had been to dig some of the trench to bury the edges. Now it really looked like a polytunnel and, once the doors were on, the picture was complete - but I still had to finish moving the turf!

Even when the turf was all dug and piled in a long low stack alongside the polytunnel, there was plenty more digging to be done! I had already dug a new ditch along one side of the field and deepened the existing one on the other side, trying to reduce the water table. Now I started to dig four more trenches along the length of the polytunnel, to give us five raised beds with sunken paths between, just as we had done a few years before in the back garden. The idea was, of course, to try to dry out the mudbath inside the tunnel! When the paths stayed wet with water coming up out of the ground, I dug a trench around the outside as well. But at least the raised beds started to dry out a little!

Time to put in all those plants which had been waiting in the little greenhouse! More Chinese Cabbage, Japanese Greens, Pak Choi and Corn Salad. They started to grow quite well in spite of it being December. As the weather gradually got warmer, they grew too well, and started to bolt! Never mind! We tried some of these tender shoots as a winter salad and liked them. Some of our more discerning customers agreed, and a popular line in Mixed Salad was started. It was never quite the same from one batch to the next!

As Carrots had been such a success and had sold out months before, we decided to try some under plastic - brilliant! Garlic and French Beans also went in for early crops, and the sunken paths began to be slightly less of a mudbath. Tomato plants which I had started in February were soon ready to go in, along with Peppers and Chillies.

As I write this in November, those tomato plants still have a few fruit left on them, after producing an excellent crop right through the summer. The Beans have been replaced by more Oriental Greens and we are trying to have Lettuce through the winter months, as well as other salads like Rocket and Corn Salad. We are definitely still paddling in the paths, but at least we haven't needed to water the raised beds very much. The verdict so far - definitely a success!

. . . to be continued? Maybe sometime, but that's all for now!

Dave Taylor November 2000 (Published in Lapford Lookout, December 2000)

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