The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Grow your own

runner beans with flowersJohn Coe helps me in the garden every other week. His main interest is the vegetable patch, although he likes to see me till the soil. He gives advice, orders and supplies some of his own good seedlings.

He is Sole Carer of Lawn, Edging and Hedging. The main structure of the garden.

When we need to replace/shore up fencing he is there. When we tackle house repairs together he is the king. With a background in the building industry he has a wealth of experience. My role is always ADC, and this is the one time that he calls me Dear, which is both companionable and keeps me in my place. I hold the nails whilst John drives them home.

I knew that something was wrong the moment he came through the front door last week. He slumped into the big chair looking haggard. I tentatively passed him his mug of coffee
“24 yards of potatoes have got the blight. I’ve never had it before. I ripped them out.”
He sipped his coffee.
“It broke my heart.”

“And the rabbit is back, the one that I thought was a baby last year. It’s a pigmy, sod it. It’s probably three years old with loads of experience. It has masteminded chicken mesh dug in to at least a foot.”
The man that has sixty yards of asparagus, grown from seed, leant back in his chair and quietly announced,
“I’m thinking of borrowing a gun.”

At 75, John is part of what used to be a dying breed. That crazy bunch who have grown all their own vegetables and soft fruit for the past 50 years. His bungalow sits on half an acre with the traditional small flower garden at the front. The back is dedicated to all that is edible.

When I first came to the cottage he was amazed that I only grew flowers and shrubs,
“It’s very beautiful, but such a waste.” He forced his spade through the stony ground and stared intently at me.
“What on earth do you mean?”
Suddenly awkward, he swallowed and added “You could be growing vegetables. Useful stuff.”

Believing that he needed more to interest him in my garden, I hatched a plan. There was a dull strip of land at the bottom of the garden, overshadowed by the neighbours’ Leylandii and full of weeds. He could dig it over and plant some vegetables.

I imagined the complete range of vegetables magically ripening in season. He would be in his element and it would be handy to have a few vegetables if I didn’t have time to get to the shops.

I was so excited with my plan that I broached it on his next visit before he had even kicked off his boots.

There was silence. He carried his Wellingtons through the kitchen and propped them carefully beside the back door.
“No.” He muttered emphatically..
I was stunned. He caught my eye.
“You wouldn’t look after them properly, Fiona.”
Did vegetables need special care?
“They need watering, weeding, daily attention. You are in London for five days a week.”
“But the flowers do fine.”
“I don’t know about flowers. But I do know about vegetables. It would hurt if I saw my vegetables were not tended well.”

Having grown vegetables for a few years, I now understand what he means. Vegetables and soft fruit need to be cherished. Even if it’s just the daily drift down to the patch to water and check that all is well.

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  1. John sounds like a good friend. It’s so discouraging when things like this happen. I hope he feels better soon. Maybe he’ll have a great harvest in the rest of his garden.
    For me it’s usually insects. We had flea beetles so bad that I grew the eggplant on the porch in pots the last three years. This year I just didn’t bother.

  2. Fiona Nevile

    Of course, you have a drought in Australia, KJ. I think that drought must be worse than rain.

  3. Poor John Coe. I hope he’ll be okay.

    Here in Australia everyone has had the opposite problem – watching veggie patches wither and die due to water restrictions and drought. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

  4. Fiona Nevile

    Absolutely spot on Pat. Beautifully written. And I am sure that John knows this too. He has two passions vegetable gardening and ballroom dancing. The latter is going well and I am certain that he won’t ditch the former.

    I’ve known him for over 45 years. Perhaps he should downsize but he wouldn’t consider it. 2007 has just been a terrible year for him and so many others (veg wise). He knows that he can come here, sip coffee and rant. Loosing a crop hurts. With his experience it must hurt a tiny bit more. He is a mini farmer. When he gives us vegetables in return for eggs his smile says it all.

    Suddenly he has lost his old identity.

  5. Fiona, I know I have battled bugs and weather and critters and all sorts when it has come to gardening. And I look at it this way that whatever you get from a garden is such a bonus. Because part of gardening is the process of gardening. Doing the battle with the things that go wrong and the pleasure when it goes right. It is an adventure with each little seed and plant that is sown. So don’t let him give up. Maybe he just needs to downsize a little. Think of all the benifits of gardening. And then think of the alternative. I think I will keep gardening.

  6. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Pat,

    John’s own vegetable garden has suffered so much this year that he has got really down about it. He did say they other day that he was wondering whether it was worth continuing.

    I’m sure that he will, but I can understand where he is coming from.

    Hi Amanda,

    You have done really well in your first year! What a year to choose. Next year will be a doddle compared. Although I have failures every year and they are generally down to me being forgetful.

  7. Amanda

    He’s so right. I’m sorry that everyone is suffering but I feel very good reading this post as I realise for sure now that we really have done well for our first year. We’ve had quite a few potatoes and cut our first red cabbage today. It just makes me feel better that we’re not the only ones who have lost and it’s not due to total inexperience alone that it’s happened.

  8. Ohhhhhh So sorry to hear about the loss of the potatoes. Seems to be a bad year for alot of plants. I am still trying hard to keep the courgettes going. Keep cutting off the bad leaves.

  9. Fiona Nevile

    What a shame Rosemary, it’s so disappointing.

    Humidity and warm make it spread quickly, so I think we can blame the weather.

  10. Rosemary

    All of our potatoes have got the blight,we planted main crop for the first time this year as well as first and second earlies.Is it because of the rain ? So disappointing as a lot of work went into preparing extra ground so we would have a good crop to keep into the winter.

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