How small can you go?
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:52 28 March 2014
One of the best aspects of a smallholding lifestyle is the pleasure of eating food you have produced for yourself. But how much land do you need? Of course, there is no simple answer. Even a small garden can yield a worthwhile contribution to the kitchen table. ALAN BEAT looks at just what is achievable within a given space.
BACK GARDEN SMALLHOLDING
Unfortunately many properties lack even this small patch of land, although a limited range of food crops can still be grown in containers on patios, balconies and windowsills.
But a garden opens up more possibilities. Many people start on the smallholding ladder by learning how to grow food crops and to keep small livestock like poultry in their gardens. Twenty-five years ago, that’s just how Rosie and I first started along the road to self sufficiency (1). We were fortunate to have a good sized garden on the edge of a village, but soon learned that shade and root competition from mature trees and hedges surrounding the back garden severely restricted the growth of our crops, so we kept laying hens there instead and dug up the front lawn to grow vegetables. This provided valuable experience for our move to a smallholding some years later.
How big does a garden need to be? Our organic kitchen garden today measures 16 by 18 yards (288 square yards) and this has provided nearly all the vegetables and soft fruit for our family of four over the last 20 years. But smaller areas can still be highly productive and make a valuable contribution to the household diet. Plants need light more than everything else, so ideally you need an unshaded site that receives direct sunlight from the south.
Fertile soil is obviously a good starting point, but by no means essential, for good crops can be grown irrespective of the soil or artificial surface by simply constructing raised beds, edged by wooden boards and filled with a layer of rotted manure followed by good soil, or compost from your local community garden waste recycle scheme. Feed the soil with fish, blood and bone meal or a proprietary organic fertiliser by forking lightly into the surface just before planting. In this way, any garden receiving a decent amount of direct sunlight can be transformed into a productive space (2).
Climbers make the most efficient use of a small growing area. Runner beans, climbing French beans and tall varieties of peas can be trained up a fence, or a support structure of sticks or canes, to yield the maximum food harvest from a given area of ground. On the other hand, over-wintering brassicas such as spring cauliflowers and sprouting broccoli take up a good deal of space for a long period of time before harvest, so perhaps these are best avoided when space is limited.
Cane, bush and tree fruit can make the best use of any wall or fence with a southerly aspect. All can be trained along wires or other supports to fan out and cover the available surface, capturing the sun’s energy and transforming it into delicious food. In this way the vertical space of a garden is utilised for very little ground area occupied by the roots. We have two wall-trained pear trees that now yield more fruit each autumn that we can cope with, and I’ve just planted a young cherry to train up the wall between them, where tayberries and loganberries have grown successfully in the past.
If there is no suitable wall or fence, how much growing space does soft fruit take up in the open ground? Our garden has: a 12ft row of autumn raspberries; a strawberry bed measuring 11 by 14ft; six gooseberry bushes; and nine currant bushes (four red, four black, one white). In total, this occupies only a small part of our allotment-sized plot. I’ve never weighed and recorded the yields obtained, but we harvest as much during the season as a family of four can enjoy fresh from the garden, plus a healthy surplus for storage and wine making.
Livestock in a garden
What about livestock on a garden scale? The best options are probably chickens and ducks. Ducks can be reared in a spacious run with a temporary pond such as a child’s paddling pool but, the closer they are confined, the more of a muddy mess they make. Chickens need the run but not the pond so, at the smallest scale of operation, the laying hen or table chicken is probably the best choice. At a pinch, half a dozen of either can be kept within just a few square yards, and this is far more space than the average industrially-farmed bird is allocated.
Chickens don’t mix well with vegetable or flower gardens. Their constant scratching and pecking can inflict a great deal of damage in a very short space of time. However, they may usually be allowed access to shrubberies, orchards and woodland without problems. For our first attempt, we fenced off a large corner of our garden beneath some trees, where the hens scratched among the leaf litter to their hearts content, and retired to the shade during hot weather. We bought and assembled a henhouse of modest proportions measuring 41 by 28 inches to accommodate six birds – and with a few repairs and modifications, this is still in everyday use nearly 25 years later. Many people keep their garden birds confined within a small wire run attached to the henhouse (an ark) that is readily moveable to fresh ground at intervals.
A small batch of table chickens is easy to rear on a backyard scale. The progression from day-old chick to oven-ready bird takes around three months. There are many breeds and hybrids to choose from but the important point is to buy birds that are specifically bred for their eating qualities, as distinct from egg layers which are generally unsuitable for the table.
You’ll need a small nursery area to keep the chicks warm, dry and safe from predators, including cats and rats. This could be in a utility room, garage or garden shed. As they grow, they can be allowed more room, inside or out depending on your situation. If moved outside, they will need housing with clean bedding for shelter in wet weather and for shutting away safely at night. Improvise with anything available, from old pallets upwards, but the result must be dry and fox proof.
Rabbits are also worthy of consideration on a garden scale. We have never kept these ourselves but have seen it done using a bank of hutches and small runs in which the breeding adults and growing offspring yielded a steady output of meat for the household from a very small space indeed.
To summarise, any garden of reasonable size can be organised to yield a considerable portion of a household’s annual food requirements, including vegetables, fruit, eggs and some meat. We might describe such activity as “microholding” rather than smallholding, yet it can take you quite a long way towards self sufficiency in food and provide a sound basis of experience for any future move to a larger scale operation.
The next step up from a garden plus allotment might be a little bit more land such as a small paddock. This offers the possibility of keeping more species of livestock such as geese and pigs, or planting an orchard for top fruit, or growing on a horticultural scale. A modest orchard of a dozen to 15 carefully-chosen trees will start cropping within a few short years, and thereafter should soon yield enough apples, pears and plums to keep the family well supplied from August through to March. We inherited five old trees on moving here and planted ten more but, by using wall space as above, the actual growing area taken up by these new fruit trees in the garden is only about five by 15 yards.
Geese are grazers and need a decent area of grass to feed on. This needs to be short, fresh growth, for they will not thrive on coarse tussocks of rank leaves. But, at the right stocking rate, they will keep the grass mown short and save you the trouble of cutting it. In doing so, they will find most of their own food and need little or no supplementary feeding from May to September, making them cheaper to keep and to fatten than other domestic birds. Geese lay relatively few eggs during the spring season only, so are most useful in terms of producing meat for the table. Goslings hatched in April will need a good start on bought-in feed, but this can be phased out after a few weeks so that they continue to fatten on grass alone until the autumn, when they can be killed as the traditional Michaelmas goose, or fed a supplement of cereals to keep them growing until Christmas. Use the services of a professional processor if you can, as plucking by hand is notoriously slow and difficult.
The pig was once the traditional occupant of the cottager’s sty, and should be so again today; but these intelligent animals deserve better than the dark, cramped prison to which they were often confined and still are today by intensive agribusiness.
You must have at least two pigs together, for no social animal should be kept in isolation from its own kind. Their need for shelter is simply a roof overhead and a cosy nest of dry bedding beneath so, during the warmer, drier months from late spring through to autumn, this is easily improvised with pallets, bales of hay or straw, sheets of waterproof material, a few fencing stakes – whatever you have to hand or can readily obtain. Build it solidly, or the pigs will quickly break it down.
Over the cold and wet winter months, something rather more substantial is required, while pigs will turn all except the most free draining soil into a quagmire, so the most practical option is either to house pigs in an outbuilding with hard standing or simply to avoid keeping pigs at all during this period. Young weaners bought at the end of April will reach slaughter weight for pork by early September and for bacon by late October, thus avoiding any need for winter housing.
Pigs do well on free range but will root up whatever ground they have access to. This may be welcome if there are brambles, nettles or other rank weeds to clear, but not if good grazing needed by other livestock will be destroyed. Use them by all means to plough up rough ground for improvement, but otherwise restrict them to an area that can be sacrificed to their activities. They soon learn to respect electric fencing and stay confined within it.
If no land can be sacrificed, confine them further to a sty with an outside concrete pen, but make this large enough to meet their need for exercise and natural behaviour, and provide greenstuffs daily. As a guide, we have often raised groups of four or five weaners within an old stone outbuilding measuring ten by eight feet, with access to an outside yard measuring ten by twenty five feet, where they do very well.
Near-neighbours to us have productive flower, vegetable and soft fruit gardens; a large barn full of laying hens; a series of sties and pens housing a boar, several breeding sows and some fattening pigs; and a small shop by the roadside gate where eggs, vegetables, home-made preserves, pork, bacon, etc are sold direct to the public. They do all this on half an acre of land and, if that isn’t smallholding, I don’t know what is!
We have seen that it is possible to become largely self-sufficient in vegetables, salads, soft and top fruit, eggs and meat on a relatively modest patch of land, and certainly on half an acre. More land enables larger grazing livestock to be kept to enhance the diet and to fertilise the gardens. I know of examples where two acres supports a small sheep flock or a horticultural business; three acres a house cow; and eighteen acres a full-time organic poultry business that financially supports the owners.
On the other hand, I know many who consider themselves commercial farmers, with much larger acreages of land at their disposal, who are unable to earn a living from their farming activities and rely on B & B, contracting activities or the salary earned off the farm by the wife to keep them afloat financially. How can we draw the line between smallholding and farming, when it is a fact, supported by survey after survey, that very few so-called commercial farms are independently viable today?
A smallholding is what you make of it and is not bound by any definition dreamt up by someone else. “Hobby farmer” is a derogatory term used by those who consider themselves (usually wrongly) to be commercial farmers and should be treated with the contempt it deserves!
1. Read Alan’s book “A Start in Smallholding”, available from the CS Bookshop for £6 plus £2 p&p
2. See Myc Riggulsford’s article “Raising up crops”, CS September 2005 issue
3. Alan teaches smallholding and self sufficiency through the Yarner Trust at Welcombe, North Devon – for course details visit www.yarnertrust.org or telephone 01288 331692