When my house was built around 1930, rural social housing for those on low incomes was designed to include a garden large enough to feed a family. The people must have worked amazingly hard, tending their gardens after long working days. Older neighbours tell me that in addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, the gardens were large enough to keep chickens (for eggs and the table) and also a pig.
My back garden is approximately 30 ft by 100 ft. No one here now keeps pigs, but about half of the gardens in the little row of eight semi-detached houses are still productive (the rest are a mixture of lawn and ornamentals) and two keep poultry.
It is quite a contrast with the social housing built nearby just a few years ago, with gardens scarcely large enough to fit a whirly-gig washing line – encouraging a dependence on electrical appliances rather than the using free resources of wind and sunshine. I know that there are more people to house now, but as it was part of a commercial development it is more likely that economics rather than space restrictions were the priority.
When we moved here fourteen years ago the back garden was crammed full of mostly very rotten sheds, an aluminium framed greenhouse, an aviary, a pergola and – much to the delight of my children – a wooden climbing frame fort. A large rather ugly area of concrete to the back of the house provided the perfect place for small children to safely ride their bikes round and round and play countless games of Lego in the sunshine. The previous owners hadn’t gardened much so it was overgrown and neglected.
First of all we removed the very rotten, dangerous sheds and aviary, leaving one smallish shed quite near to the house, which was converted into a play house/toy store for my children with a little paint and a lot of imagination (amazing what you can make from old bedside cabinets and various odds and ends) and a large one at the bottom of the garden, which has the benefit of electricity. I was delighted to have the greenhouse and converted part of the lawn into a small vegetable garden. We kept chickens and ducks, too. As the children got older, the climbing frame was removed – it had been found in a skip some years before we moved here and was by now quite rotten. Any rescuable bits were saved for the woodburner.
Five years ago with the help of many friends I erected a polytunnel where the small veg garden and lawn had been. A narrow concrete path, a plum tree and the hedge dividing our house from the neighbours’ dictated the size – a 12 ft by 40 ft straight sided tunnel with an aluminium base rail, a more expensive option but it gave me extra width as it could be situated almost right next to the path. Digging in the polythene would have meant the loss of at least a foot and probably two of width and might have killed the hedge. It was almost no dig: I wanted to get growing very quickly (it was March) and didn’t have enough available compost and well rotted manure to make beds deep enough to kill off the grass, so I skimmed this off and stacked it. The turf has since rotted down and been used to mulch another growing area.
The polytunnel crops all year round and is also an excellent place to dry washing! I use it as a dry place to sow seeds and also keep the saw horse there in the winter which keeps me and the wood dry when I saw up scraps for the woodburner.
In the front garden (approximately 38 x 28 ft) I have a pond, three raised beds, a couple of further beds and a lot of paving which quickly gets weedy.
Due to a previous owner’s extensive enthusiasm for concrete, the growing areas have been dictated by the infrastructure already present. I have been growing very successfully in the polytunnel, greenhouse and front garden beds and reasonably well in some soft fruit and veg areas but I didn’t feel that the garden was being as productive as it could be.
Then, disasters struck … Quite a few of them! Calamities including:
- a freak hail storm with giant hailstones which smashed perspex roofs and the greenhouse;
- storms ripped a hole in the larger shed roof and stripped the felt off and made the smaller one so unstable that it was unusable;
- a very old plum tree had to be chopped down as it had become dangerous and six fence panels were blown apart in high winds;
- the utility/mud room (a lean-to on the back of my house, where I keep the freezer) leaked very badly and needed repairs;
- I tripped and fell last spring, not a bad fall but it triggered an arthritis attack which left me unable to work more than a few hours at a time for over a month, at a time of year when there is so much to do;
- more recently part of my kitchen ceiling fell in and a flat roof needed replacing!
Some of the repair work needed the expertise of professionals – I have osteoarthritis so clambering about on a roof isn’t quite my thing these days! – but the rest has been gradually done around work and family commitments.
Using practical skills and experience from my work, as well as ideas from other gardeners at places I have visited, books and blogs, some permaculture principles and a bit of experimentation, I’m having a lovely time planning and working on the transformation.