Home Farmer magazine’s July 2008 issue features an article written by me, Lucy, all about the Smallest Smallholding and it’s inception:
A Growing Realisation
Lucy Debenham describes how a budding interest in vegetables grew into an online-documented bid at living the Good Life
I call my Mum and enthuse about how my chilli seeds have finally germinated. I wax lyrical about our awesome new wooden compost bin – we’ve built a gate on the front that allows us to turn the compost easily. We talk about my ‘girls’ Yoko, Pattie and Maureen. We discuss the virtues of ‘Stuttgarter Giant’ and ‘Hercules’.
But despite what you may be thinking, I’m not old enough to qualify for a free bus pass. And neither Mum nor I are anywhere near entering retirement. At 25, I sometimes feel like I’m living on the fringes of society – particularly when it comes to my own generation.
The Good Life
It’s not hard to see why as a vegetable-growing hen keeper, I don’t fit the mould. My generation is often depicted (and often perfectly obliging to satisfy preconceptions) as a cohort of selfish money-grabbing, career ladder-climbing, sex-obsessed, gadget-wielding boozy consumers with little or no interest in more worldly issues. I’m supposed to party hard, work to pay to party, and live for the weekends. By not conforming, I’m made to feel like I’m missing out.
I used to feel like a peculiarity and felt that some of my peers regarded me with a mixture of affection and mockery. Am I paranoid? Possibly. But I’ve read recently that I’m one of a new emerging ‘rebel’ (!) movement known as the ‘New Victorians’.
Supposedly I’m part of a legion of 20-something non-conforming conformists. We buck the trend by being all about family values. We enjoy growing our own veg. We’re conscious consumers. We opt for civilised dinner parties rather than alcohol-infused hedonistic lost weekends. It all sounds terribly uptight to me. But although I am at pains to pigeonhole my way of life, there is some element of truth in this description.
It also seems that being green and ‘self-sufficientish’ is en vogue. Part of me wants to shout “but I was like this all along!” probably in an effort to validate that maybe, I was always a bit cool. But I realise that cool only matters in relation to things like germination. Working outside with nature tends to give you a sense of balance and perspective – like free therapy.
The Inception of the Smallest Smallholding
We’re lucky enough to live in a fairly old house that still has – for this area at least – a good chunk of land with it. Before they moved out, my parents acquired a plot of land next to the original long, thin garden. Lack of access to the plot from the road meant that any planning permission for further housing development would not be granted. As a consequence it was left to the mercy of Mother Nature for a good two and a half decades.
The plot was an overgrown tangled thicket of 6ft brambles and bindweed when my parents finally purchased it. The sprinkling of fruit trees – crab apple, damson and Victoria plum – was hidden from view. Research later revealed that they were the remnants from an old market garden that had existed there until the early part of the 20th century.
To tackle the relentless brambles and bindweed, and despite Mum being an avid gardener, the majority of the plot was turfed. The fruit trees and a few shrubs were left in place. Once my family moved out, and my partner Rich and I moved back in. We weren’t interested in the land really. Although the space was great, the flower borders and poor weed-prone soil were a lot to contend with.
But after a while, a burgeoning interesting in vegetable growing was slowly taking its grip on me. I’d always been interested in wildlife, but until that point had never really quite made the connection with an interest in gardening and growing. I’d grown up with a grandfather who steadfastly grew vegetables, sweet peas and gladioli. My mother and aunt were avid gardeners. As children, my sister, cousins and I hung upside down in apple trees, munching the fruit. We picked and gobbled fresh raspberries. Sunny afternoons were spent hiding in the runner beans and popping pea pods.
When ‘Pappa’ passed away in 2002, it made me evaluate what connected us as a family. A couple of years after his vegetable plots had been turfed over, Deborah and I decided to resurrect them. My degree took up most of my time, which meant that Deborah did most of the work. Nevertheless, I was hooked. When my degree was over I was a relatively free agent. So my attention turned to my own available space.
It just seemed incredible that I’d not thought of it earlier – I had all this space, why on earth wasn’t I using it? I adore eating and cooking, so growing vegetables would ensure that I could control the process from ‘field’ to fork. I could use organic methods, and actually encourage wildlife. It just all started falling into place and making sense. So over the winter of 2006 I started digging in earnest. That winter also saw the arrival of my 4 ex-battery hens. The Smallest Smallholding was born.
I was a complete chicken-keeping novice when I went to collect my hens. The one thing I did know was the names I wanted to give them. My being over-enthusiastic about the Beatles meant that they were going to be lumbered with Beatle wife names – Yoko, Maureen, Pattie and Cynthia.
Seeing all the rescued threadbare and tatty looked retirees for the first time was quite sad, but also thrilling. They were out. They were free. We didn’t choose our girls – they were randomly picked up, had their nails trimmed and carefully placed in our travel carriers. The journey home was quiet. They blinked through the carrier bars and shuffled around every now and then, obviously used to the cramped environment.
A New Life
The next two weeks saw massive changes – they learned to perch, scratch and lay in a nestbox. I called my parents to celebrate the arrival of our first egg. If they were pecked, they could simply walk away. They blossomed from pale, robotic and listless looking creatures to vocal, glossy-feathered chatty girls. Their arrival here opened up a whole new way of living for them. And for us too, as I started thinking more about where all my food came from.
The hens discovered sunbathing, dustbathing, the delights of worms and grubs, running, jumping and dozing under a hedge. It was uplifting to know that I was – and still am – providing that for them. When Cynthia quietly departed in March, I knew that because of the time she’d spent with us, she’d known the majority of her life as a free range bird. She’d been happy.
I probably seem overly sentimental about my hens, but they are first and foremost pets. So when they’re ill, their productivity isn’t the main issue. We are emotionally attached to them, but I don’t see it as a bad thing.
As a vegetarian, I have no need to keep livestock for meat. As the omnivore of the household, Rich now only buys his meat from reputable sources. He eats less of it, and says he gets far more enjoyment from seeing our animals out and about than he would from a few meals of chicken or pork.
However we both feel that anyone that can ethically raise their own meat should be supported and encouraged, not restricted by swathes of red tape. It’s just not something we could ever do – simply a choice that we’ve made.
Vegetable growers and smallholders are far from being a bunch of wrinkly old Luddites. I found that a glut of technically-capable allotment holders, downshifters, home farmers, smallholders and hobbyists of all ages and backgrounds were blogging away. Reading and sharing in their tales of triumph and tribulation made me realise that I’m not the oddity that I thought I was. So I decided to give it a try.
By blogging, I don’t profess to being an expert in vegetable growing, hen keeping or wildlife gardening. I’m just a young person who does what makes her happy, and I’m still very much on a steep learning curve. Of course, I often dream about running a ‘real’ smallholding by the sea one day.
But for now I am more than happy with my plots at home, and my allotment. The aim of the Smallest Smallholding has become not only a medium to share my experiences of my type of home farming, but a means to try and reach out to an audience and prove that you can provide for yourself in some way. Whether you own just a window box, a postage stamp-sized garden, or you’re lucky enough to be blessed with ample space, you can do something. It doesn’t matter where you live or how old you are. It’s easy.
If everybody had a go – if everyone made just a few changes – then the impact en masse could be revolutionary. It’s a really exciting prospect.