Son and John’s garden

Son and John grow vegetables and salad for their family of five, around their living structure in 12 raised beds. The beds have taken four years to build, and are increasing in productivity every year as the soil improves. Raised beds enable vegetable planting without disturbing neighbouring tree roots and make weeding and planting easier. The beds are filled with a combination of soil, dug from under their dwelling before it was built, peat-free compost from the local recycling centre and latterly, organic horse manure and Steward Wood compost. The garden is surrounded by trees – mainly birch – so has dappled shade in the summer.

Soil fertility and infrastructure are vital to long-term growing success. The raised beds are wide enough to weed comfortably, with extra space at the back so they can be self-mulching – they incorporate a row of comfrey plants along the back to bring deep nutrients to the upper layer of soil. The family compost everything that isn’t attractive to rodents (food waste goes to the chickens, or the communal rodent-proof composter), and the resulting compost has proved to be of high quality. Rainwater from the roof of their living structure is collected in a 1000 litre water container from the garden. As John points out, water is vital to growing plants, and judging from recent years the weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable. We need to take advantage of times of abundance – even of rain – so that we have enough when the weather is dry

Most of their crops are annual plants. The most valuable crops are peas and beans, which produce storable, animal-free protein, are highly productive and are very tasty to eat! Sweet-flavoured peas are a particular favourite and Son says she can never grow enough; most never get to the table but are eaten in the garden by John and the children. Like most legumes, they have the additional advantage that they improve the soil wherever they grow, and as they are climbing plants, they utilise space above the bed to grow food and can be trained along the balcony of their dwelling.

Other annual crops include brassicas, sweetcorn and salad. Brassicas stand well over winter and a few leaves from each plant can be picked at a time. They need good soil to be productive. Sweetcorn uses vertical space in the summer so can be intercropped with other plants. Salad plants such as lettuce and beetroot like the dappled shade in the summer. The self-seeding salad plant, chickweed, chooses its own patch each year.

The main perennial plants are the strawberries and herbs which are all over the garden, tucked into corners and spaces traditional vegetables will not grow. Strawberries are a useful low-maintenance early fruit, liked by everyone. They are naturally woodland plants and are allowed to spread freely by runners. Herbs include the culinary and tea herbs mint, lemon balm, oregano, and bergamot, all of which are much used and allowed to spread into otherwise underutilised corners. Mint is planted with broadbeans to deter pests.

Perennial medicinal herbs grown include valerian, motherwort, skullcap, wormwood, feverfew, witch hazel, and chamomile. While these are not edibles, they are just as valuable – together with the easily grown annual herb calendula, they are used to treat minor ailments at home without resorting to pharmaceuticals and are low maintenance once established.

Perennial salad plants grown include Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis), lime trees and watercress, planted in a boggy patch below the living structure (deep tyre tracks - a remnant of large forestry machinery from former owners).

Plants that self-seed in inconvenient places are usually transplanted to a ‘wild bed’ to grow on. Son says this is a good way to learn to recognise plants as seedlings and appreciate the value of ‘weeds’ – contribution to biodiversity apart, providing food to pollinating insects is just as important for us as directly planting the seeds, for example. The plants can also be appreciated for their own beauty and ability to thrive where cultivated plants do not.

Raised beds at Son and John's, April 2009

Raised beds at Son and John's, April 2009

Date: 27th April 2009
Terraced raised beds with broadbeans, comfrey, perennial rocket and strawberries. In the background is a newly planted fruit tree in a protective tube.
Raised beds at Son and John's, April 2009

Raised beds at Son and John's, April 2009

Date: 27th April 2009
A long terraced bed combines peas and salad

Last updated: 2009-05-21

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