EI moved from a Brighton house with a small, neat back garden to a wild littleholding that is more than 200m above the sea level in Llandysul (Wales) in 2010. My move was influenced by climate concerns. I was living at sea-level, near an underground river, with fears of flooding. I long for a place where I could be self-sufficient.
After considering the options – Spain (extreme heat) and New Zealand (attractive but too far away) – I decided on Wales. I thought water shortages would be unlikely and land and property were both affordable. So I left behind my old life to turn my passion for organic homegrown food into a full-time career – writing, running courses, making public speaking.
Gardening in this part of west Wales is very different from gardening in Brighton – the land is more suited to livestock than crops, and it has been a steep learning curve. In this cooler, wetter climate, there is no outdoor gardening for tomatoes, aubergines or peppers. There is no protection from strong winds or the constant rain (and in 2018 a drought). Or so I was told. As a result, I had no choice but to adapt all of my gardening techniques.
Today, I try my best to recreate the natural world. I encourage weeds and local fauna, allow plants to self-seed, and utilize wild areas for biodiversity (natural insect control) and protection against the weather. My approach is organic, sustainable, but ultimately, it evolved around a free-spirited intuition and no following of rules.
My experiments have shown me that many of the traditional gardening practices don’t work in today’s changing climate. These practices create situations in which you are fighting the natural world, rather than working with it. I have created a garden that is healthier and more productive by letting the natural world lead. It is also easier to maintain. Here’s how you can start to do the same.
Learn how to connect
Disconnecting machinery or tools can cause problems. My first spring in Wales, I bought a rotavator for my vegetable patch. It churned all that was in its path, even earthworms, as it did so. I do my weeding by hand now, but I don’t dig and leave the plant roots in the ground. This helps to protect the soil and microbes.
Do what feels right. I plant and harvest potatoes, jerusalem Artichokes, and other vegetables. ocas by hand because it’s fun and they grow better that way for me.
Use gloves sparingly. To determine if a plant is in need of water, you can stick your fingers in the soil. Feel, touch, and smell the soil. Touching soil is good for your own gut microbiome – researchIn 2007, University College London and Bristol University published a study in Neuroscience that suggested that soil bacteria can be introduced to the body.Mycobacterium vaccae() can stimulate the release serotonin, which is an antidepressant that makes you feel better.
To barter and to share produce, seeds and other materials with your neighbors and local community, connect with them. Join local gardening and organic associations, as well as local Facebook groups. The nearest garden centre can provide valuable information.
Ask questions and challenge the wisdom of others. You can sometimes germinate out-of date seed, just need to plant it more thickly. You can leave plants in the ground as long as possible. Brassicas like chard, flat-leaf Kale, and purple spouting Broccoli can be grown successfully for many years. This will save you time, effort, and money.
I don’t use fertiliser for hungry Mediterranean fruits like tomatoes (which I grow in a polytunnel) because it makes them needy for more, and stops their roots seeking out natural resilience through symbiotic relationships with underground fungi. Instead, make your own compost using leaf mould and add nettles, seaweeds, chicken poo, borage, and comfrey to it.
Learn from your mistakes
When my long row of tomato plants succumbed due to blight, it became clear to me that the spread of this airborne fungus was easier when plants were placed close together. Now, with mixed planting, and at more than a metre between similar plants, I don’t have blight, pests or disease. I don’t have to use crop rotation now either.
Spend less, but be creative
Use what you have. I have turned old windows into a makeshift cold frame, and created planters out of rubbish – from old pallets and wellies to battered Belfast sinks and a neighbour’s tractor tyres (to house comfrey plants). Make sure you maintain and repair your tools.
Save seed and grow on supermarket leftovers: citrus pips can be grown into houseplants – they will be hybrids but still may eventually bear fruit. In the meantime, you can use lime leaves for cooking. Organic ginger and turmeric stems can produce a viable harvest: choose a golfball-sized piece with an eye – the nobbly, protruding bit – and place in a plastic zip bag in your warmest spot. Plant when the eye turns green, and it starts to shoot upwards. Plum, apricot and avocado stones can be germinated in compost in spring (don’t expect homegrown avocados, but they make attractive houseplants). Dried peas may be soaked in water to make salad sprouts, or can be planted in pots for winter pick-and-come pea shoots.
What works best in your space?
Stop trying to grow high-maintenance plants that don’t naturally flourish in your location and soil type. Look for easier, more durable alternatives.
Avoid sprouts and cauliflower, which require a lot of watering. Instead, grow pick-and come-again leaves like spinach, chard, and kale. Purple sprouting broccoli is easier to grow than the regular variety.
I can’t grow tomatoes outside, but I can grow tomatillos, which are very hardy once established. To help them survive the 2018 drought, I put the stems of the tomatoes in polytunnels. They can now get water from two or more places, which is a huge advantage. Likewise, crystal lemon cucumber flourishes – no matter the weather.
Protect your plants naturally
I was told that I couldn’t grow fruit trees so high up, which immediately made me determined to do so. I found that planting a row if damson trees was more efficient helped my pear and apple trees to grow and establish after only two years.
Ground cover can protect your soil all year. To protect your soil from the sun’s drying glare, plant any bare spots in summer. You can easily grow lettuce, herbs, and edible flowers like nasturtium and pumpkin.
With lots of rain, soil fertility can be lost over winter. Help to keep it together by using green manures, perennial plants, and any other organic means. Mulches and covers are also good for protecting against erosion.
Favor natural pest control
Seed heads, piles of leaf litter, dead branches or stinging nettles all provide a winter haven for beneficial predators such as frogs, toads, newts, ground beetles, hedgehogs, solitary bees, ladybirds and lacewings – as well as providing food for birds.
Embrace free planting (polyculture) as our medieval ancestors did – mixing crops together makes it harder for pests to proliferate, and you will have more natural biodiversity. Complementary planting is a good idea. For example, you could place strong-scent plants like onions or marigolds around carrots to mask the smell and deter carrot fly.
Look to the past and heritage varieties (try Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library) for a wide variety of plants saved from extinction. They may be more resilient to climate change than the small number of modern varieties. Wild fruit trees like plum and crab apples can grow in extreme conditions, and are more able to adapt to local conditions. The Woodland TrustIt offers a great range.