The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

New border

Phot: New border

Phot: New border

The one photograph that stands out in my mind in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s first River Cottage Cookbook is the picture of a fenced vegetable garden with a large plot outside the confines.

We now have this too. I saw HFW’s photo before John Coe and I created our kitchen garden a few years ago, and was careful to create enough space for what I imagined would be natural growth.


Obviously, I had no idea how much space our vegetables would require. John wanted to contain everything into a small area that we could easily nurture and sustain. He knows that we don’t have a lot of time to tend vegetables. So we settled for four 12 foot square beds. It seemed vast untilI started to plant seeds.

Within two years I was planting extra veg in tubs and pots. And this spring Danny and I decided to extend the kitchen garden beyond the confines of the fences.
“Let’s give spuds one final go.”  We lost the last two years of potatoes to blight.
“Why don’t we grown the potatoes in large four spud ridges, like my father did back in Ireland?”
“Let’s make a new plot. I’ll give John Coe a buzz.”

John doesn’t work in deep winter. He has a three month break between December and April. Somewhere deep inside I knew that John wouldn’t be happy. He would happily dig over the new plot well but he would not:
• approve of the ‘foreign’ ridges
• welcome our own seed potatoes (I had Maris Pipers chitting – perfect for the soil in this area.)

“Hello John. I was wondering if you’d like to start this week and help us out?”
“Of course.”
“We’re planning a new potato plot. Outside the kitchen garden, in the orchard area.”
”No problem.”

John reversed into the drive at 7.45am on Wednesday morning. He glided into the cottage proudly holding a tray of well chitted seed potatoes and my heart sank. How was I going to explain that we wanted to try Irish ridges? That we had enough seed potatoes already?

Over the next gossipy half hour drinking coffee, I explained that Danny wanted to experiment with the sort of ridges that his father had used. John’s face flickered. I also pre-empted the possibility of discovering our chitting potatoes.
“I bought some seed potatoes a month ago. Maris Piper.”
“They are very good.” The tone was terse, for John.
“But I’d love to try yours. They have really good shoots. What variety are they?”
“Arran Pilot.”
“Let’s put a couple of rows in the border with your broad beans. I bet that yours will do better.”
He looked blank and I felt a pig. He’d brought the seed potatoes and probably imagined planting them in his new border.
So I added: “I was hoping that if I let Danny have his head with the potato border that he might give get the veg growing bug and give me a hand with the vegetable garden.”

John managed not to laugh. He knows that Danny has to be cajoled to lie on the swing seat in the garden. He observed me with a kindly, sympathetic nod.

The 16’x12’ border was dug in an hour. By a man in his 70s. Impressive, to say the least. Turf neatly piled up for repairing the muddy Min Pin path that destroyed the lawn this winter.

Photo: Small potaoe ridges

Photo: Small potato ridges

When I returned from work that evening I spotted two small ridged rows beside the broad beans. John had planted 24 feet (8 metres) of Arran Pilot potatoes.
“He took the rest of his seed potatoes away with him,” Danny explained. “Let’s hope that his spuds do better than ours.”
John had also mowed all the lawns and edged the borders.

I rang John immediately to thank him. Within a couple of minutes he was discussing the soil in the new bed. He’d found just one brick and  a few stones but almost friable loam.
“I reckon that after 17 years we’ve finally struck gold. This must be the old basket weavers’ vegetable patch.”

Hooray!  Suddenly I’m eying up the rose walk. As far as I can remember there were no stones there when John dug the borders years ago.

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Amanda

    We have lost our spuds to blight these past two wet summers and I’m determined to do all that I can to get both competitor’s potatoes to survive!

    Let’s hope that we have a good summer this year.

  2. You’re absolutely right and my money is on JC’s. Lovely that you’ve known him for so long.

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Wendy

    I’m so lucky to have John Coe. I first met him when I was eight (47 years ago). Although I’ve only got to know him well over the past seventeen years.

    He must have been young when I first met him but as I was eight he seemed very old.

    Hello Joanna

    Danny was brought up on a smallholding so the idea of gardening and digging is anathema to him. John Coe is a much more reliable partner in arms.

    So pleased that the snow has finally disappeared. Hope that you have a great Easter out in the garden.

    P.S. I love your comments from Latvia. It seems like a different world and so interesting. Thanks for contributing.

    Hi Linda

    I’ve seen a few of my older clients preparing very deep ridges for spuds. It just seems the most practical way to approach growing them. JC usually start out with flat ground and then I make the ridges as they develop. This is quite hard to do.

    Hello Amanda

    Glad to hear that generations of your family used this method! Perhaps we’ll have success this summer.

    Of course you can place bets but I’m going to give JC’s spuds loads of extra care as he needs to win.

  4. I remember my Grandfather and Dad planting potatoes like that. I’m hoping that all the work which has been going into our veg patch pays off this year, as it was certainly very expensive veg that we ate from it last year…

    Are we allowed to place bets over which potatoes will win – JC’s or D’s…?

  5. Not just the Irish way – I remember rows like this in Pembrokeshire in several veg gardens. It makes it easy to bank up the rows as they grow. We used to have a long handled, almost heart-shaped spade especially for the job.

  6. Forgot to mention the snow has just about gone and now there is a flurry of activity in Latvia with folks who have been itching to get in the gardens. It will be frantic for the next month because although the season is short at least the summers are warmer.

  7. I have a gem of a husband he loves digging and has dug a huge amount of garden last year, what he is not good at is weeding once the seeds have come through. Oh well!

  8. Absolutely terrific. I wish that we had a John Coe! My husband prefers to come on guided tours with me around our large garden rather than do anything to it. He is an Engineer and more inclined to bits of metal than clods of soil. However this year for some unknown reason he has been showing an interest in my seed planting and has offered to do some proper edging on the raised beds and make some ‘metal’ structures for growing things up – hey – things can only get better?!
    By the way I always love seeing your stone dog, I mentioned last year that we have two of the same one. x

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