by Julie Stobbart
this is my first post so I hope you will all be kind to me! Just to introduce myself, my name is Julie Stobbart, I live in an ex-mining town in County Durham with my husband and six year old son in an ordinary terraced house. I work as an Interventions Worker in a local Secure Training Centre (a custodial environment for young people aged 12 to 18) and have just completed my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design after two years of independent study. My designs are primarily non land based and my particular interest is the area of permaculture and emotional well-being. I am currently considering whether I want to teach and/or tutor permaculture in the future. I am keen to remain actively involved in the permaculture community and thought that being an ambassador might be one of the ways in which to do this. I thought it would give me a chance to communicate my work more and become more of an active voice within the permaculture community.
I should mention that my environmental journey began many years ago. It was an area of interest due to a distance learning course I took, and I was then asked to learn how to implement an Environmental Management System for my employers. I did this with gusto, however my heart was never in the dry boring waste management and oil storage that the system required. In my heart, I wanted to own a smallholding and possibly have some tie-dye in my wardrobe. But I live in a realistic world, where my husband is fairly materialistic and lacks the drive required to move with me to a Welsh eco-village. So at the moment I have to be content with doing my bit where I am. So, again, I ask how?
The obvious first step would be to get myself an allotment. I have been on the waiting list for about five years now, and expect to actually get one in about two years time. Don’t get me wrong, it will be a fantastic thing, being able to walk literally along my back street to my own little piece of paradise, an area that will be mine. However, patience was never my biggest asset. So I turn to my own little patch of land.
My back yard is on two main levels, with one very dingy little back yard and another larger area that is mostly gravelled over, with a huge garage sitting on top of it. So I set too and dug out the gravel from a long raised area to the left of the path. The first year I filled it full of annual seed that I scattered willy nilly. This did not end well. I ignored the weeds, which resulted in the area becoming awfully overgrown in a non-productive kind of way. Caterpillars abounded and my poor mother had to come in to rescue me. My husband then threatened me with re-gravelling and I knew I was on my last chance. So I manured and composted and then planted a whitecurrant and a redcurrant. Ooops, then a rhubarb crown, marjoram, lemon thyme, purple sage and rosemary. Then a courgette which unfortunately died due to the lousy summer. Then some plug plants – spinach, pak choi, lettuce, peas, brussel sprouts and leeks. My back garden looked beautiful I have to say and before I knew it I was able to nip out for a few salad leaves for my sandwiches or some spinach for my scrambled eggs. (At this point I have to say, one of my best lunches was homemade soda bread with scrambled eggs, made with purple sage, lemon thyme and spinach).
So what was my next step? I had undertaken more research by this point, wanting to know what exactly I aimed to achieve in my own garden. I knew that my allotment would be the place to grow my annuals in raised beds and plant fruit. I also knew that my own ‘gardens’ were too small for either of these functions. So what did that leave me with? What would I want to be able to access easily and from the house whenever the moment took me? The answer is herbs and salad. I had already planted some perennial herbs in the back garden, and knew that as each year went past I wanted to add to that collection so that eventually this raised bed would be filled with my currants and herbs, possibly another fruit bush or two as time went on. So my head turned to salad.
My front garden is likewise a pile of gravel. It already had two pots, which I filled with mint. I had also been given a fig tree by my husband’s aunt, to whom I duly sneered, ‘we live up North, it’ll be dead in a week!’. So I ignored it. Then the following year it grew. It had been dumped in the grungy back yard deprived of love and sun, and here it was, growing, a testament to the power of nature. So I planted this in a nice pot and put it out the front too. I had a window box with some coriander, chives and curry plants in it. And that was about it. At this point I bought a book. A book on how to keep yourself in salad leaves all year round. My husband laughed. He scoffed. But I knew it was right. Self sufficient in salad. Could it get better than this?
My short term plan was to create a raised bed on top of the gravel. With relatively little effort, I manage to plant up some spinach, chard, lettuce and salad leaf plants in the spring, and add some leaf seeds in between my rows of plants. I was then overrun with salad. Spinach in my pasta dishes, chard in my bulgar wheat salads… Even the grumpy old husband likes my bulgar wheat with raw chard, locally produced lemon-infused rapeseed oil and fresh garden mint…
I have to say, this last year produced nothing throughout the winter months due to my exposed position and the area where I live having it’s own weather system. The ability to grow tends to be limited when the raised bed is under two feet of snow, but having said that, I don’t tend to want to eat salad in these months anyway. I think it is key to grow what you want to eat and grow when you want to, and my raised bed afforded me the luxury of doing that. I have had quite a bit of success with spinach but have found that it is quick to bolt in comparison to chard or cut-and-come-again salads, but for me, it’s usefulness means that I will always grow spinach. I have also found it to be worthwhile to use a combination of planting out young plants as well as directly sowing seed to ensure that my crops are successional. This may cost a little more than just using seed alone, but for me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I would also consider using cloches to extend my growing season.
And what’s next? Well, I want to expand my operation. The big decision is whether I get rid of the gravel completely or use pots? And do I plant perennial flowers and grow my annuals among them? Decisions, decisions. This decision will have to be made by next month’s blog. In a year or two I hope to have that elusive allotment. Maybe chickens, though that will involve considerably more work to persuade the husband. All I know is that for me, permaculture is about doing what you can rather than trying to do it all. Should I give in because I can’t afford a smallholding? No, I should demonstrate what I can do. And that may well be salad and herb self-sufficiency. I’ll keep you informed.