Thursday, June 17

‘I needed space to grow’: why I escaped to the countryside | Gardens


IIn February of this year, my partner Chris and I left London with a car full of boxes, houseplants, and our cat, Rumbles. After 20 years in the capital, we were heading to a new life in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, to grow organic produce and be better connected to nature. Chris grew up in the valley and we were drawn to the area’s creative scene, rugged landscapes, and great baked goods.

Besides, I’m a gardener. The climate of southern Britain is changing, with hotter and drier summers making gardening conditions difficult. Dry periods in spring and summer have become longer and more regular. Certain plants – like dahlias, salad crops, and fruit trees that need moisture – are struggling. Summers have become a marathon of watering, choosing which plants to save and which ones to sacrifice. I started switching to drought tolerant flowers and edibles, like Hylotelephium, figs and herbs.

The peaceful view over the Calder Valley.
The peaceful view over the Calder Valley. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

Moving to Yorkshire was part of a five-year plan that Chris came up with when we were 30 (he’s 42 now and I’m 39). It started to come true in January 2018 when I gave up my career in online publishing to become a full-time landscape designer. I opened my part-time studio a year earlier when friends asked me to help them with their gardens.

The pandemic pushed us forward. The London bull runs weren’t all bad, thanks to outer space. Our 40-square-meter garden, directly below Heathrow’s flight path, became miraculously quiet save for the chirping of birds. And my plot, more than seven miles away, where I grew vegetables, fruits, herbs, and cut flowers, became my sanctuary. The grueling 15-mile round trips on a friend’s bike carrying vegetables and cut flowers along empty roads lined with cow parsley, when the world was falling apart, are my indelible memory.

But I felt that I could no longer cultivate a garden like that; I needed more and more space at our door. Our millionth walk through Clapham Common made us realize that we were living backwards, cut off from the countryside. The sooner we move to Yorkshire the better.

Jack (right), Chris and Alison the hen outside the chicken coop.
Jack (right), Chris and Alison the hen outside the chicken coop. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

Last September, Chris called me on the phone while visiting his parents to find a house. “I think this is the one,” he said. I got on a train the next morning and was overwhelmed by the little farm that Chris had seen, in the location of our dreams, just a short distance from the Hebden Bridge.

It is a 17th century farmhouse, situated 300 meters above sea level with views of a wooded canopy and the Calder Valley beyond. All of our electricity comes from renewable sources, including local wind farms, and we are exploring other sustainable sources, such as geothermal heating, to minimize our carbon footprint.

It has 2.6 hectares (6.5 acres) of land, more than we expected: 660 times the size of our London garden. It has a patio with a place for a herb garden next to the kitchen door and a sheltered home garden, about 10m x 30m, with grass and flower borders where I can experiment with planting. Beyond this is an informal wildlife garden with a pond and polythene tunnel, leading to a forest and an orchard. Go back through a meadow of wildflower hay to the fields.

The owners, Ben and his partner Sally, had raised their children here and pioneered a small, sustainable and wildlife-friendly property, raising chickens and growing blueberries, raspberries and kale. His wildlife garden contained foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), primroses (Primula vulgaris) and cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and, to my delight, a 2 acre hay meadow had yellow rattlesnake (Rhinanthus minor), bad weed (Black centaurea) and ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). They had installed solar panels on the roof of the farmhouse to heat the water, and the productive scrub houses a vegetable garden that slows water runoff into the flood-prone valley.

The assignment.
The assignment. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

We plan to keep the earth’s focus on helping wildlife, the climate, and growing as many wildflowers as space allows. Insect, bird and mammal populations have decreased by up to 68% in the last decades, while two out of every five plants are in danger of extinction due to pesticide use in agriculture, continued habitat destruction, and climate change.

The scrub and wildflower meadow, about 1.6 hectares (4 acres) of the plot, will coexist primarily for wildlife, while providing wood and hay to feed livestock for other local farmers. Everything else is for vegetables, fruits and herbs. I planted potatoes in mid-April, a month later than I would in the south, and will scrape growing shoots with soil until frost-free nights are forecast.

I have also planted a wide variety of salad crops, including lettuce, mibuna, mizuna and mustard on the plot. I have sown hardy bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, pea ‘Oscar’, chard ‘Pink flamingo’ Y ‘Fordhook Giant’and carrot root vegetables ‘Walk away’ and parsnip ‘Gladiator’.

The first signs of growth in the polyethylene tunnel.
The first signs of growth in the polyethylene tunnel. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

Rhubarb grows particularly well in this part of the world and we are fortunate to have an unknown variety out there, plus a generous cage of fruit with treats including blueberries. These need acidic soil and in London that meant growing in pots in peat-free ericaceous compost pots, but here they flourish, although brassicas like cabbage and broccoli, which prefer alkaline soils, are a challenge. All fruits will have a generous 5 cm layer of well rotten manure that will be added to the surrounding soil as organic fertilizer.

On our windowsills, waiting for nights above 5C, there are tomato, chilli, eggplant, zucchini and pumpkin plants. Right out of the kitchen, I started growing an herb garden with the goal of supplying all of our herbs: white flowered rosemary, sage, chives, various mints, and angelica. From seed I am growing chamomile, thyme, basil, dill, fennel, cumin, and parsley.

We adopted two chickens from Ben and Sally, and plan to rescue a few more battery hens for free-range eggs. Nothing says “farmer” like herding our flock of two, which has begun to lay beautiful speckled eggs.

The challenge for minifundios with a view is that they are invariably on slopes, exposed to wind, rain and ice. However, we know this land well and carefully calculated the exact position we needed to grow: a south-facing slope, which heats up quickly, tucked low enough into the valley to ward off the harsher weather.

The key to exposed gardens is the shelter, of dry stone walls, trees, shrubs and hedges. Hardy hedges like Ligustrum ovalifolium (henna), Griselinia littoralis and indigenous Ilex aquifolium (holly) weakens the winds to create sheltered microclimates, increasing the range of what you can grow. Deciduous Prunus spinosa (blackthorn) and Sambucus nigra (the elderly) are great too: bees love their flowers and birds love berries.

Pots on a chili plant.
Pots on a chili plant. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

Spring in Yorkshire is a month later than London, autumn a month earlier, and I confess a sense of relief at this shorter growing season. Summer can be manic in the garden due to watering, weeding, and mollycoddling edibles, the most labor-intensive plants, especially in conjunction with my work in other people’s gardens. However, I will extend the cultivation into winter using the poly tunnel, hopefully a greenhouse and horticultural fleeces and cold frames.

Polyethylene tunnels and greenhouses can be used to grow heat-loving tomatoes, aubergines, bell peppers and chili peppers in summer; and, in winter, to protect hardy salad crops like lettuce, mizuna, and mustard.

Pests are on a different scale than London snails and squirrels – deer leap over walls, rabbits jump menacingly closer to our greens, and fences to keep them out around perimeters will eventually need to be replaced. But the extra space makes gardening so much easier: a tool shed, a polyethylene tunnel for growing large numbers of seedlings.

Every night we go for a walk directly from our doorstep, over hills and moors, or through wooded valleys. We have seen a barn owl, bluebells, sunsets, and stars. Stars! Hidden from us for two decades by London’s light pollution.

Of course, we miss our friends, the Clapham community, and our little urban garden filled with happy memories. We have a lot to learn: Chris needs wellies and the winters will be harsh. But now we can visit the city from the countryside, and not the other way around. Life is about balance and the scales have tipped

Six ways to start with a simple plot

Herb If your plot has bare soil, hoe or remove weeds by hand, especially the roots.

Soil mulch Add 3 cm of compost without peat. Well rotten manure can also be used, but it should be left for a couple of months; if it is fresh it can burn roots.

Lettuce seedlings.
Lettuce seedlings. Photograph: Tessa Bunney / The Guardian

Plant crops in modular trays You can sow crops directly into the ground in summer, but I think it also helps to sow many crops in peat-free pots or compost trays. It allows you to protect them from slugs and snails. Plant fast growing crops like lettuce, spinach and beets in separate cell trays, and larger pea, bean, zucchini and zucchini plants in individual 9cm pots.

Start composting A compost pile is the top priority. Recycle yard waste (one-third green to two-thirds brown and woody) for the next year. Shred large pieces of wood.

Create new areas To start a new vegetable or flower bed, cover a grass or weed area with a poster board and a 5cm layer of compost on top. This will slowly kill the plants below by depriving them of light. Plant seeds or plugs directly into compost (immediately fine); the roots will grow through the wet card.

Observe and record In the first year, watch what grows and how the sunlight falls in all seasons before making big changes. Take lots of photos for reference.


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