Foundations for a bigger, better year

Lucy and moo the cat

I turned 32 years old on New Year’s Eve and the next day, it was a fresh new start as we welcomed in 2015. Last year was so hard in many ways – so much anxiety, stress and the feeling of hopelessness and being out of control. I’m really hoping that 2015 is a different kettle of fish. More proactivity, more progress. And more smiling.

This year I’ve decided to invest more in my Smallest Smallholding, and in myself. Gardening and growing has become a bit of a soul saver for me and with Rich’s growing interest (no pun intended) in our little patch of Bedfordshire, we’ve found our feet a bit more I think. Just generally, in life as well. I feel like we’ve got a bit more direction and a plan and this year, the stalemate that we’ve been in where it’s the same old rubbish day in, day out might finally end. The dark nights have been a trial of sorts, and I’m really looking forward to enjoying spring and being able to feel the sun on my skin again.

Speaking from a completely horticultural point of view, my first big change and investment is in my soil. It’s always been a bit crap. A bit undernourised and struggling to keep up with the strain I put on it by growing plants, fruits and vegetables. I realise now through my reading on permaculture and no-dig approach about just how much strain I’ve been putting on it, whilst expecting great results from my produce. So I’ve really gone back to basics even more this year and brought in lots of compost.

red onions

For my birthday, I was lucky enough to receive lots (and lots!) of gardening vouchers, which meant that instead of waiting for my compost heaps to be ready, I could get in early and take advantage of the £2.99 reduction on Horizon organic peat-free compost. I’d done a bit of research and it’s scored really well in a number of growing trials, and with a 3 for 2 promotion on the bags, I used my vouchers to really stock up.

But I won’t dig the compost in. I’ll simply leave it on my veg plots and let the worms and other soil dwellers take care of it for the time being whilst I focus on getting my shit together in other departments, like my greenhouse, polytunnel, pruning, learning, sowing. I am determined to get the polytunnel up and in working order this year. Our biggest problem is time and 2015 has got to be The Year That Lucy Got Her Polytunnel Up and Running.

My vouchers also enabled me to buy my first ever heated propagator. No more late sowing of chillies and peppers for me! All these little steps I’ve been taking signify a change and more proactiveness. Last year I almost lost my balance completely. This year, I’m building deeper, more solid foundations so that I can stand more solidly.

Planting Blackcurrants – More Soft Fruit!

Blackcurrants - grow your own

This year my jam, albeit only a few jars, was a stonking success. I’ve decided that I definitely need more soft fruit in my life so I’ve been busy clearing a few overgrown patches to make way for some more bushes.

At the moment we only grow raspberries, but I’m a big fan of blackcurrants, so thought I would opt for currant bushes. Not too many, just a few at first to see how I get on. I’ve been reading that redcurrants and white currants are less fussy than their black (blue/purple) counterparts, but as I don’t currently have the space I’m going to test myself a bit and go for the slightly more “difficult” option. Let’s be honest though, currants in general are pretty easy to look after – well draining but fertile soil and a sunny position (they will also tolerate light shade) and you’re good to go.


Despite it being December, the soil is still warm so pulling out the tap roots of the self-seeded Alkinet, the nettle roots and bindweed without any dreaded breakages was relatively easy. We then raked over the earth and left it to rest. The next job will be nourishing our poor soil with organic compost before planting in and mulching the bushes before Spring. With a spread of around 120cm (47″) we’ll need to ensure that there’s plenty of space for the bushes to grow without having to compete too much.


Already I’m thinking ahead to the growing season next year. Generally it can take up to two years after planting for the best yields to appear, but I’m always optimistic for a little harvest! And if I do have a successful crop of currants I haven’t decided whether I’ll be opting for jam, cordial, jelly, fool, cheesecake… or all the above! At the very least, I’m researching the best varieties for my needs, and there seem to be some frontrunners:

Ben Hope – the most popular variety of blackcurrant now grown in the UK. High yielding, great flavour and a significantly reduced susceptibility to gall mite

Ben Lomond – the leading blackcurrant for many years after its introduction in 1975. A heavy cropper that fruits late in the season and fairly frost-resistant.

Ebony – a super-sweet ‘dessert’ variety that can be eaten straight from the bush. An early cropper (around July) and excellent mildew resistance.

I think I might opt for one of each of the above. Ben Lomond’s mildew resistance is lower these days than when it was first released in 1975, but with plenty of air circulation around the bushes, hopefully this shouldn’t be an issue. And not having to add masses of sugar to the Ebony blackcurrants will be a much healthier option for me, especially if I’m aiming to make desserts, cakes, bakes and puddings! That can only be a bonus.

And you know what else is a bonus? Blackcurrant flowers are great for wildlife (and I wouldn’t mind sharing a bit of my fruit crop with the birds either!).

Polytunnel Planning

I don’t have time to be bored these days. Not when there’s so much to do at the Smallest Smallholding. This weekend we totted up the hours working outside, but the time we’re putting in is really starting to pay off. I spent most of the weekend working on my hands and knees, using a hand fork to dig out several barrow loads of annual and perennial weeds. Using a hand fork saves my back – I would have been crippled after half an hour of digging with a fork.

Polytunnel ground work

We now have a nice neat and very brown bed of bare soil. OK, so it’s not the prettiest bit of garden to look at, but THINK OF THE POTENTIAL. Because that’s where our lovely sort-of-brand-spanking-new polytunnel is going to go. We must have got the polytunnel around a year ago, but we’ve struggled to find the time and capacity to clear the polytunnel site properly. And in that intervening year-or-thereabouts, the labels have washed off and the instructions have gone AWOL. Luckily, First Tunnels have some handy online videos, so we’ll have to do our best with those.

But first, we have to work out where the polytunnel beds and path will go. I’m thinking that we’ll need some weed suppressant membrane and then gravel… or if I can find a few extra pounds, some blue slate chips. The same for the outside of the tunnel, as we won’t be able to strim any stray grass easily around the outer sheet. Ideally I’d have some raised beds inside and move out my greenhouse staging for any seed growing I’m inclined to do. But this year because I know I have had so much back-to-basics work to do, I’ve tried to keep the growing simple – onions, garlic, potatoes etc – and keep the focus on getting everything properly sorted out, under control and ready for next year’s growing bonanza (because, you know, it will be a mega harvest and I will no longer be spending stupid amounts of money on sub-standard commercially produced pap from the supermarket grocery aisles).

I am hoping that we can get a ‘polytunnel team’ together from family and get the thing up at some point this year. My mum suggested an ‘erection team’ but then quickly withdrew her suggestion. Or at least, renamed it. After we sniggered a lot. Once the polytunnel is up and running, Mum will nab our greenhouse and I’ll use the greenhouse site for another much-needed tool shed, with room to grow little bits and pieces in pots around it. I’ll probably paint the shed some cheerful colour, stick a gutter and waterbutt on it, and try to grow a climber up it. Maybe even have a hanging basket off the front for some tumbling tomatoes. I’m trying to think of ways to turn everything into a productive space because I am so sick of doling out money. I just want to disconnect from so much consumerism and my polytunnel plan is a major step in that direction.

Onwards and upwards, as a dearly departed friend would say.