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Smallholder advice - Growing fruit and Veg

Rosemary champion, AKA the Accidental Smallholder, shares her experience and tips on fruit and vegetable growing.

Being able to live off your own produce is a common goal for a lot of smallholders - and growing your own fruit and vegatables is a key part of that. In the third of a six-part series in partnership with NFU Mutual, Rosemary Champion shares her advice.

“If one of your aims in having a smallholding is to grow as much of your own food as possible, then you will want to have a fruit and vegetable garden. You can, of course, integrate fruit and vegetable plants into your flowerbeds – and some of these productive plants are also decorative – but it’s more likely that you will want to have a dedicated area.

1. Pay attention to your soil

“There are many theories and methods of cultivation – traditional beds, raised beds, hugelkultur, permaculture, planting by the phases of the moon and so on. However, any growing system needs good soil, so make room for compost bins, leaf mould bins and comfrey in your garden. And if you can accommodate a good heap of farmyard manure, then so much the better. Whatever your soil type, it will benefit from additions of good organic matter. We have sandy soil here – it used to be like gardening on the beach – but seven seasons of adding copious amounts of organic matter has improved the soil enormously.

“Comfrey (Symphytum officianale) is magic. It draws minerals out of the soil and into its leaves; it can be used to make a fantastic liquid fertilizer, used to top dress beds as a mulch and weed suppressant, as a wound healer, as a livestock feed (allegedly) and, if you let it flower, bees and other pollinators love it. Do plant Bocking 14 though – this variety doesn’t self-seed everywhere. Even with comfrey, you can get too much of a good thing.

2. Don’t get carried away

“Do grow vegetables that you and your family actually like eating. It’s really easy to be seduced by the seed catalogues – and there’s absolutely no harm in trying out some new vegetables or new varieties, but it’s fairly disheartening if, come autumn, no-one will eat your produce. For us this year, it’s kohlrabi. 

3. Have a plan for your produce

“It’s difficult to predict how much you need to sow to meet your family’s consumption, because you cannot predict what the growing season will be like. One year, we managed to harvest four beetroot; other years, we’ve had fantastic crops and jars and jars of picked beetroot (which we love).

“Consider how you are going to deal with your (hopefully) generous harvest – freezing, clamping, pickling, bottling, juicing, drying, making jams and chutneys are all options, but all take time and effort – so build these things into your schedule for the year.

“If we could only grow one soft fruit, for me it would be raspberries – love ‘em fresh, cooked, as jam and they freeze well too (if there are any left to freeze). We find autumn fruiting varieties do particularly well here. We also grow strawberries to eat fresh and for jam, blackcurrants (mainly for cordial and jam) and gooseberries (mainly for freezing and jam).

“For top fruit, greengages would be my “must have”. Delicious, and rarely seen in the shops here.

4. Think about investing in a polytunnel

“If you can afford the cash and space, a polytunnel is a great addition to the veg garden. It took us a year to put ours up. The frame was easy but the instructions said to wait for a still, warm day to put the cover on – not easy when you live in Scotland, near the sea. After a year of waiting, we just had to go for it. And it’s still there. Having it certainly extends the growing season at both ends and the only time we’ve had a decent crop of sweetcorn was when we grew it in the polytunnel. 

5. Keep an eye on your chickens

“From painful experience, don’t let your hens free range in your vegetable garden – your carefully tilled soil is a beautiful dust bath for them.

6. Dont worry if things go wrong

“And finally, the best thing for me about the veg garden is that, at the end of the year, you can pull out all your mistakes and start afresh next year. It’s one of the best ways to learn as a smallholder.” 

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