The Smallest Smallholding is a project that I embarked on with my partner Rich, together with our flock of 4 rescued ex-battery hens and resident cats. The ‘Smallholding’ is a patch of land adjacent to the original garden, sited on an old unusable building site (lack of access meant that there could be no more building) that was bought up over 10 years ago by my parents. Like our garden, it too had the remnants of an old orchard, so it was turfed over and left as a large garden extension, fruit trees intact.
When my parents moved out Rich and I took on the house and land. Overwhelmed at first, we didn’t really tackle it over the first 4 or so years as we should have done. It became quite overgrown and was in a bit of a state, as the poor soil under the turf was the perfect breeding ground for weeds. We battled a bit, but in 2006 things started to change.
I discovered that although I had previously dabbled in gardening, my love for wildlife, cooking, and all things environmentally friendly finally all came together in the form of vegetable growing and wildlife planting. It suddenly all made sense – I could really do something with all the land we had. Perhaps it wasn’t a huge amount by true smallholding or farm standards – in fact it’s really just a large garden. But the potential was there to really make the land work for us, and in turn give something back to the wildlife.
In the winter of 2006, a couple of weeks before Christmas we brought home our 4 hens. This was the beginning of the Smallest Smallholding really. Outside was a bit of state, with bird food everywhere, overgrown patches of weeds, no real structure to the place. Having the hens meant that we really had to clean up our act. So I did. I started waiting in earnest for Monty Don on Gardener’s World every Friday night. Not your usual programme of choice for a 24 year old.
Over the autumn winter of 2006 and into 2007, we dug out some vegetable plots, ready for spring planting. We unearthed barrowloads of spent and broken roof tiles, ceramic drain pipes, old bits of metal…all just dumped there by the builder we assume. So it all came in, and in went the compost and soil conditioner. In the spring of 2007 I sowed the first vegetables that we’d eat at the Smallest Smallholding. Just a test run to see how they would fair.
Sadly on Easter bank holiday of 2007 one of our beloved cats suddenly died. Anyone who has ever owned a cat that has become part of the family will know how shocking and distressing it is when they go. We didn’t want to be in the house as it just felt too sad, and so for a couple of weeks we sought refuge outside. It was then that we discovered how much being around nature, the hens, the other cats, the outdoors and the sunshine can be like a therapy. We threw ourselves into this project as a sort of distraction, and now it’s become a real passion. Since beginning our Smallest Smallholding project, we’ve sadly lost our hens one by one to natural causes and old age, but our journey continues, and the fight to improve conditions for commercial hens goes on…
We hope that the Smallest Smallholding will grow over the next few weeks, months and years. I have lots of projects and changes to make to the land. It’s only a small place, but we want to make it work for us, whilst encouraging more wildlife in.