Full of beans

shallots in the greenhouse

Chilling winds have swept through our corner of Bedfordshire, and I find myself absolutely LONGING for the balmy skies when the thermometer was peaking in the mid 20s. The veg plots and flower borders continue to romp ahead regardless, and bit by bit, my little veg patches are starting to fill up. Much to my surprise, actually.

This year, with a little family in tow, I’ve had my work cut out and my expectations for growing were low. I wanted to keep it simple, opting for tried and tested varieties of fruit and veg and minimising the amount of sowing and potting on I’d usually do… but somehow I can’t help myself when it comes to growing fruit and veg. Already, I’ve planted in new varieties of strawberries and raspberries, and with widespread discount promotions on packets of seeds, I just cannot resist.

Whether I actually get around to sowing on time, is another matter. But I’ve got further this year than I thought I would, and that’s got to be a bonus. Rich’s time has been severely limited, as he spends the majority of his waking hours stuck to a laptop or computer, furiously programming in a bid to keep us afloat whilst I’m on maternity leave. My end of the bargain is to try and keep things running, look after E as she grows and develops at an alarming rate, beat back chaos with an invisible stick, try to keep the house from descending into chaos, and try to feed us all on a budget.

So apart from Rich helping out with the odd lawn mow, it’s all down to me this year. I’ve started off the shallots in the greenhouse, waiting for the sun to warm to the soil and the risk of frost to pass before planting in situ. Shallots are one of my all-time favourite homegrown staples. I’ve also opted for some dwarf bean plug plants, as my ability to water regularly and give seedlings the TLC they deserve is limited more than usual. I am not organised, despite all the will in the world and a very real motivation to do things right, and do things well.

I’ve started a few beans up a willow obelisk, more for decorative purposes than anything really as I love the homespun potager approach to little kitchen gardens. I’ve also planted in a few nasturtiums – partly as companion plants and partly because I love their cascading haphazardness, and the delicate but boldly coloured blooms. Next on the agenda is constructing a pea harp for edible peas and scented sweet peas. It’s a bit of an ambitious task given that E will only tolerate so much time playing in the garden alongside me as I work before she starts screeching like a mini siren…but hey ho, a girl’s got to dream!

beans and willow wigwam

Finding Space & a Polyculture Approach

Calabrese Floret

It’s been nothing short of a tumultuous three or so weeks, and now I’m hoping for blue skies ahead. Work was hectic covering for line managers on leave, preparing handovers and tying up lose ends before maternity leave, and the last week has been spent in a state of half-panic whilst looking after my mum’s geriatric cat who decided to have an imploding serious eye disease just as my mum had finally got herself off on a holiday to Cornwall that she’d been looking forward to for months.

The cat – who is also considered a family cat as we rescued her as the runt of the litter when my sister and I still lived at home (she really is that old, pushing on for two decades now) – is otherwise in perfect health, albeit now with only one eye. And my workload has suddenly diminished as I am on annual leave ahead of my maternity, and now is the time to focus on getting things done and ready for the impending arrival of the squiggly little one in my belly.

Time to find some space in my life and take a few breaths.

There is just so much to do. We’ve got some renovations to finish (builder in hospital), rooms to turn out, wallpaper to remove and walls to plaster and paint, a shopping list of essentials still to buy (working on it), and many tidy tip trips to make.

Kitchen Garden

I haven’t had time to dedicate myself as much as I would have liked to The Smallest Smallholding, but it’s chuntering along none the less. I have broccoli up to my eyeballs and have lost a few florets that have gone to flower… but that will be one harvest over and done with. I’m thinking of replacing the broccoli with flowers to keep the pollinators happy through the summer, and once the onions and shallots have been harvested there’ll be more room for edibles. I’m looking to move forward a bit more with a polyculture of edibles, plants for pollinators and herbs, as I just loved some of the permaculture approaches from RHS Chelsea earlier this year.

Bee on perennial wallflower

I was also given some french and dwarf beans, so I set about trying to find a space for them to grow. I selected a space that’s under the fruit trees but hopefully gets a big enough dose of sunlight at certain points in the day to make it productive. With all the wet weather the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a battle between me and the slugs, but my general non-intervention (occasionally I’ll pick them off at night and fling them in the compost heap) will keep them at bay. I’ve been on the hunt as well for nasturtiums as some companion planting to the beans, as the blackfly have started to make an appearance, but everywhere seems to have stopped selling them.

French beans & dwarf beans

And of course with the rain, sun, rain, sun everything is exploding around me… I’ve just been so tied up and busy that things have got away from me a bit. But now with some time to myself, no work schedules to take into account (save three days later in July) and a relatively clear timetable, I can now throw myself into whatever tasks I have on my list.

I’ve got a little Moleskine bullet journal now that I’ve faithfully been filling up with task lists, to dos, notes and trackers to make sure that these last days before the birth of our daughter are productive and full. Whether we manage to fit in getting my polytunnel up by the end of August… well, that’s another question altogether.

Overgrown Smallest Smallholding


How to start a new no-dig bed

I’m not a fan of digging, so it’s no surprise that I’m a huge advocate of no-dig plots.

I’ve wanted to increase my growing space quick and easily this year, and being well over the half-way mark in my pregnancy and with a slightly dodgy back to boot, a no-dig plot is the perfect solution. And luckily for me, someone who has very little patience and an ever-decreasing attention span, creating a new no-dig vegetable patch is quick and relatively fuss-free.

So how did I do it?

My new plot was going straight onto lawn, so I mowed the lawn down first and quickly removed any perennial weeds. If you have time, you can lay down a layer of cardboard or pond liner to exclude light for at least six months. This weakens invasive perennial roots (think nettle and bindweed) and they eventually give up (or are really easy to pull out). As my patch was mostly grass and clover, I simply laid out some bamboo canes on my lawn as a general guide for where I wanted my new plot to go.

No dig plot - cardboard

Next up, I laid out a layer of quick thick cardboard. I initially had a few large pieces of cardboard to hand, but having completely underestimated how much I actually needed, managed to pick up some little bits for free from my local plant nursery and layer those to ensure all the grass was covered.

Next, I emptied a load of well rotted organic manure onto the cardboard to weigh it down. I used 8 x 50litre bags which, spread evenly, gave me about a 3-4″ depth. To be honest, I probably would have put another 200 litres of finer compost down on top if I could, to add some depth and a finer till. But if you can get your mulch/compost/manure delivered in bulk or make your own compost (we’re getting there), even better. I always go for organic… just because I don’t know what the hell could end up in other non-organic compost mixes!

Mulched no dig bed

I then gave the compost/manure mulch a really good soak. It can be quite prone to drying out at the moment with these warm temperatures so I’ll keep an eye on it. The aim is for the cardboard to do its thing and break down to allow the worms and soil life to flourish underneath.

For this year, I’m going to keep my planting on this new plot light – think salad leaves, radishes, beetroot… Just quick-growing crops that don’t require a huge amount of soil stability or need to root deep down. I also planted in four little ‘Cambridge Favourite’ strawberry plants too, just to see how they get on. I’ll try and keep the strawberry runners in check and it’ll be interesting to see if we manage to get a teeny tiny crop of fruit this year.

strawberries in a no-dig bed

Come autumn, I’ll mulch liberally again and will probably for this first hot growing season keep adding a bit of rich organic compost every few weeks to build up the soil.

We’ve gone from 25C and pure, unadulterated sunshine to persistent rain (but still relatively warm) – which, if I’m honest, is great for the new plot.

I’ll keep you posted on progress!