Two books you should read in 2019


robin in winter

Well, we made it. Tomorrow is the last day of 2018 (also: my birthday, blah, whatever etc) and here I sit, slightly battered but still functioning. This year has been a funny one. It’s been very money and work-centric, with many “oh shit!” moments thrown in for good measure. That’s what’s eaten up most of my brainspace  – work, juggling finances, and then basically worrying my way through the seasons, increasingly crippled by more and more hours in front of a laptop and it felt, at times, somewhat disconnected from the outside world. My anxiety has been pretty much a constant, manifesting itself as one perceived health crisis after another. I’ve muddled my way through the last two months in particular, barely taking a deep breath or moment to relax. I’m crawling my way to the very end of the year, hopeful that I’ve at least laid a lot of groundwork for good things to come.

And, breathe. I made it. Seriously… breathe Lucy, breathe!

I’m getting to the main topic of this rambling post, but first, let me offer a little background. Sometimes I feel a bit buried, and I often turn to the garden to help me collect myself, rebalance and reboot. Books can often have the same effect, and the right story or passage can lift me up and relight a little fire in my belly. Gardens and books are like medicine. And two books in particular have sparked my imagination this year, helping me to find my way out of the fog. 

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury

The first book that I insist you must read is The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury. I read it in under 48 hours (and bear in mind, I have a very energetic mini teenager in the guise of a two year old to contend with too, so this is quite the feat), and I feel like it’s brought me back to where I needed to be, right on the cusp of this new year. Kate’s story of bringing life back to a bleak, unloved garden space made my heart sing. At times, I felt as if she had lifted webs of thought from my brain and laid them out on the page. It’s not a how-to guide or journal. It’s a real story, weaved with light and dark, tragedy and triumph. It’s a memoir, and an utter inspiration. The protagonist is nature, and the book is a bittersweet but ultimately optimistic account of its perseverance against the odds, in this little corner of Brighton. The overarching story of how Kate invited nature back into such a dead and devoid space is a microcosm for what we all could do on a grand scale, if we all just did a little bit more. 

I loved how she wondered about the history of certain spaces and locations; just like me, trying to see through history of what was before, and how we can breathe life back from under layers of brick, tarmac and decking. Through despair, she also offers hope of what could be, and how we will be rewarded if we redeem ourselves and give nature a way in.

I honestly felt like punching the air at times and shouting “me too! me too!” when she wrote of her love for the sparrows, the dawn chorus, the fascination with the smallest of creatures… how we are never really alone, when nature is alongside us. I nodded when she wrote, with great sadness, about our walling off of gardens and green spaces (I’ve made several holes in our fence to allow hedgehogs a right of passage through our little patch, and love the fact that she may have inspired others to do the same). I have made notes as she described her evolving planting schemes, from the sad, winter-bare sticks of roses that grew to thrive and flourish, to the wildlflowers and nectar-rich plants that offer a lifeline to so many pollinators. I realised that my nettle patch and my lawn littered with “weeds” and wildflowers are both so, so valuable.  I even ordered a field guide to bees after finishing her book, because I really want to learn more about the different bee species that frequent the Smallest Smallholding, and pass this information onto my daughter. 

In short, she’s helped me to fall in love again with the slice of land that I am so fortunate to be a steward of. She’s informed, inspired and motivated me to get back to my mission statement – be the change that I want to see in the world. 

Buy this book, borrow this book, get your hands on this book somehow. Just read it!

The Almanac: A seasonal guide to 2019 by Lia Leendertz

My second must-read is a beautiful find that I will carry with me throughout the next year. It’s essentially a guide to the seasons, an ode to each month and the natural rhythms and events that mark out each month from the next. Meteor showers, lunar planting schedules, recipes, songs, moon phases, flower of the month, hints and tips on what to do in the flower garden and vegetable patch. It does what it says on the tin – as a seasonal guide – but it’s so much more than that. If a book could be a comfort food, the Almanac would be the biggest, warmest hearty bowl of seasonal soup served with slice after slice of rustic, homemade bread.

It’s the little details that really make it – the utterly beautiful illustrations by former blogger at Purple Podded Peas’ Celia Hart, the little guide to native tree buds, the naming of each month, the tables of sunrise and set, and even moonrise and set… this book will gently guide you by the hand back to nature. It will urge you to stop and take not;, to look up, look down, look all around. It’ll help you reconnect and re-calibrate, enjoy the small shifts and big events in each calendar month. It’s a valuable resource that will help you to live life a little more in rhythm with the world around you. 

Just like medicine. 



What is Polyculture?

polyculture potager

Over the past few years of growing my own fruit, veg and herbs, I’ve learned a lot. I started with books (and still reference them frequently), garnered bits and pieces of information from my mum and other growers, and gleaned snippets of knowledge from gardening programmes. I haven’t seen much about polyculture in the mainstream media though, and it seems a shame.

In Britain, I suspect many of us green-fingered types tend to think of a “good garden” or “successful allotment” as a tidy space, where neatness and order abounds. But that just isn’t me. What I love about nature are the blurred lines between order and chaos. I’ve always felt that my garden should be a glorious collision between art and science. That means looking to the natural world for inspiration and guidance, especially when it comes to my planting schemes. That’s where polyculture comes in.

When you try to inflict absolute order over the underlying chaos, I feel like it becomes a fight with nature. I cannot stand reading posts on allotment or gardening forums about the various ways to kill this pest or spray that weed. I feel that many gardeners are at war with their plots. Really, gardening should be more about balancing and nurturing.

polyculture - gyo

That’s why I’m increasingly moving my thinking over to polyculture and permaculture. Polyculture, in essence, means “the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops and animals“. In gardening, allotmenteering and in agriculture, we often see planting done in large blocks (monoculture). There is a lot of uniformity, and this can lead to creating an ecosystem that is vulnerable to quick and widespread attack from pests and disease. This means the blocks of crops or animals can require a lot of support with fertilisation/feeding/antibiotics. In agriculture, soil can become arid and depleted because of the continued drain on its minerals.

But in nature, even the smallest patch of wild land is a mish-mash of plants of different varieties, heights and distances. Each plant has a function, growing pattern or yield time that often benefits other plants, such as companion plants or intercropping. Sowing the same crop in different places at different times can extend the harvest period, and keeps groups of plants safer if one group falls foul to a pest or disease.

And polyculture can also extend the growing capacity of one plot throughout the year, keeping both plants and soil healthy and thriving whilst helping to reduce the need for weeding. Yes, less weeding!

Together with a no-dig approach, polyculture has helped me to reduce the time required on the plot maintaining the soil from weeds and trying to tackle hungry pests, like aphids. Essentially, in between a little weeding here and there, my veg plots look happier and much fuller. OK, they might not look particularly orderly or neat, but they are thriving.

The nasturtiums were planted next to my beans, and have proved a total success. Whilst some of my flowers in the borders and the elder was ravaged by blackfly, the little suckers have been attracted to the leaves of the nasturtium and left my peas and beans well alone. The marigolds have not only produced a burst of colour on the plots, but I also think their strong scent has served well as a deterrent against munch-happy bugs too.

There is so much more I can do this year, with plenty of time to sow and plant into my plots. I’m excited to learn more.



Top Ten Attractive Companion Plants

I’ve been battling with the aphids in the last couple of weeks. Well, I say “battling” – I’m a vegan and I find it very hard to do any direct kind of pest control, preferring to leave nature to take care of the job… more of a permaculture holistic approach. But in the absence of predatory ladybirds, the aphids have been mounting attacks on my flowers, fruit and veg and I’ve had to take some sort of action. Companion planting.

English lavender

In the large vegetable plot, I’ve already planted nasturtiums and french marigolds around the beans and sweet peas to ward off aphid attacks – the idea is that the strong scented plants confuse or attract the “pests” away from crops and blooms. But I need to extend my companion planting to other areas too. The aphids are relentless at this time of year!

I’ve also come to learn that although companion plants may be functional, but they can also add a touch of cottage garden elegance and charm to veg plots and garden borders. So after some research, here are my top ten companion plants for the allotment, potager and kitchen garden:


  1. Marigold/Calendula
    Another popular addition in many kitchen gardens is the marigold. Whether it’s a frilly french marigold (Tagetes patula) or the simpler, but delicate and pretty english pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), these bright blooms are a welcome addition to any successful growing plot. The strong scent confuses and deters many pests, with french marigolds in particular useful in warding off whitefly. The open single blooms of english marigolds also attract pollinators, which in turn pollinate flowers that yield crops.
  2. Nasturtiums
    A mainstay of any potager, the humble nasturtium is easy to grow from seed, or cheap to buy as a pot-grown specimen. Copious orange blooms and a strong scent lure aphids and pests away from tender crops like beans, whilst nasturtium leaves serve as an attractive site for cabbage whites to lay their eggs – so a great ‘sacrificial crop’ for brassicas too.
  3. Thyme
    When in flower, this perennial herb is attractive to beneficial insects. It’s also a great deterrent for whitefly that are attracted to brassicas like cabbages – just distill some fresh sprigs in water for 24hours to make a “tea” and spray your brassicas to leave a scent that could send the aphids on their way.
  4. Sage
    Like most herbs, the strong scent of sage confuses pests and aphids. Sage is a great companion plant for brassicas like cabbages, brussels sprouts and broccoli, but also works well with carrots and strawberries too.
  5. Garlic chives
    This striking member of the allium family produces long spikes topped with star-like clusters of small flowers. The strong scent is great at deterring and confusing carrot fly, and can also serve as a pest deterrent when planted near or under roses.
  6. Lavender
    This popular flowering herb is a veritable pollinator magnet, so will help to increase pollination rates and yields. Its strong, pleasant scent also confuses pests, and is particularly well-placed near carrot crops, leeks and tender vegetables.
  7. Sweet Alyssum
    A charming, low-growing ground covering plant that can not only help to suppress weed growth, but also helps to protect potatoes from pests by attracting natural predators.
  8. Rosemary
    Chillies and pumpkins are two grow-your-own favourites that would benefit from rosemary companion plants. Blue flowers in spring help to attract pollinators, and the
  9. Zinnia
    Bright and bold, these blooms are a brilliant addition to any edible garden. Opt for single flower strains, and mix and match taller and shorter varieties to attract aphids away from crops and capture the interest of butterflies, who tend to cruise higher above the ground.
  10. Mint… or Catmint! 
    OK, so it’s not the prettiest plant around, but mint certainly has an attractive aroma, especially the likes of spearmint, applemint and even pineapple mint! But good old ordinary mint, when restricted and planted in a pot (even in open ground), can be really useful in confusing pests and potential plant munchers with its strong scent. Plant near brassicas, tomatoes, carrots and alliums like leeks, onions and shallots as a deterrent to the likes of aphids and ants.
    If you’re not keen on introducing the thuggish mint into your veg plots or borders, try the similarly named (but unrelated) cat mint instead. Cat mint – or nepeta – produces pretty spires of blue flowers that pollinators love, and its scented leaves repel the likes of flea beetle, aphids, ants, squash bugs and even rats and mice. Plant near squashes, pumpkins, beetroot and even roses to keep pests at bay.