Strawberry Fields – Smallholding For Sale
When we first found our dream home, the sun was shining on golden chains of laburnum and frothy pink cherry blossom. The wooden farm gate was open and as we walked down the drive wild birds fluttered away – and – I remember quite clearly – a jay flew across into the field – the first jay I had ever seen.
The house was totally empty – not even a light bulb was left – but it still felt warm and welcoming and we fell in love with it. The garden was neglected – no flowers – but the grass had been cut and there were lots of trees. The traditional Rowan tree by the back door to ward off evil – and a beautiful spruce tree – which we later found out is a Brewer’s Spruce.
We moved in on 3rd August, 1992 with two-year old Dane and Kirt on the way (born the following January), one border collie, two cats and 3 ducks – and lots of ideas for homesteading.
One of the first things I did was visit the local library to borrow books on sheep, pigs and donkeys (google wasn’t around then). After talking to local farmers, I soon realised that it is much easier to have someone else’s livestock in your fields – all the pleasure of sheep bleating in the morning without the problems of dipping, shearing and all the form filling – so that’s what we did.
But we bought some hens and geese to keep our ducks company – and later on I started breeding New Zealand White rabbits again.
With 4 acres, the possibilities were endless.
There was a massive shed for the poultry – which they all shared quite happily.
The conservatory on the side of the house was perfect for growing seedlings – I started out with growing flowers – and had soon filled the patio with tubs and hanging baskets – and some vegetables – potatoes and broad beans – and runner beans. Initially I dug a small vegetable patch which has gradually been extended year after year until it’s now big enough to grow everything – courgettes, pumpkins, onions, strawberries, purple sprouting – all sorts of vegetables – and a rhubarb bed.
I also grew my own herbs from seed. I had brought spearmint and applemint with me – cuttings originally from my aunt – whose green fingers I inherited. When Kirt started home-schooling one of the first things we did was to make a proper herb garden – we marked out squares with bricks and gradually filled them – then extended them. The herb garden now contains Rosemary, Bay, Sage, Thyme, Hyssop, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley, Feverfew, Lemon Mint, Oregano, Marjoram, Tarragon – and the latest addition – Angelica – which is a magnificent plant.
I used to dry herbs and hang them up in the conservatory – and freeze some (like mint) in ice cube trays. Now I dry some herbs in the warming oven, chop them in the blender and store in jars – but I also freeze some in small plastic bags which are perfect for soups and mint sauce – and retain the flavour better.
Mint and horseradish have their own separate spaces as they do tend to be rather rampant. And basil and coriander were grown in the conservatory as they like to be a bit warmer – and also the slugs love them! They were later relocated in the polytunnel.
I also found that dried herbs make wonderful firelighters – when cutting them down in the Autumn, tie them into bundles and hang up to dry. They are much better than – and greener – than traditional firelighters – ad because of the oils they contain – they work exceedingly well.
Dad bought us some apple trees and a greengage and we bought some blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and a loganberry. A friend gave us a cutting of a thornless blackberry – and some raspberry plants. Loganberries, blackberries and raspberries all need lots of space – and need cutting back vigorously every year.
Fruits are wonderful for homesteading – when you have made enough jams you can use the rest for making country wines. Home-made jams taste divine. Wines are a bit more hit and miss – but they are always good for cooking – and elderberry wine makes excellent mulled wine mixed with sugar and spices.
When I lived in Birmingham, I used to breed New Zealand White rabbits – and I had brought all the equipment with me – so we found some breeding stock and started again. Baby rabbits are born blind, deaf and without any fur – but, by the time they are 3 weeks old, they are little white furry balls hopping around and they are absolutely gorgeous. Rabbit manure is excellent for the garden so makes a wonderful addition to my natural recycling programme. Rabbits like lots of wild plants like comfrey, clover and wild garlic – as well as dandelion leaves – and carrot leaves are their absolute favourite.
So we don’t have a green bin to put out for the refuse collectors. We have a compost bin, the rabbits eat a lot of the weeds, the hens eat scraps from the kitchen (their favourite is bacon rinds but you are not really supposed to give them meat!), the dog has meat scraps and the cats demolish most of the chicken bones. And the ducks eat the slugs and snails. I have also seen the hens eat mice and frogs on occasions.
When digging over the vegetable garden in winter, pause for thought and watch the hens scratching about for worms – stop for a cup of tea and return to find the robin sitting on the spade handle waiting for titbits.
The trees are amazing, here is the beech tree through the seasons
There’s a beautiful silver birch and a really old willow tree – which the boys loved to climb when they were little.
This is the oak tree in the field – with broom growing beneath it.
Some of the hedges are ancient hedgerows with blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, alder, beech, hazel and oak, interwoven with brambles and honeysuckle.
We kept part of the field as a wildflower meadow with ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, restharrow, pink campion and lots of different grasses. The butterflies love it and I have spent wonderful sunny summer afternoons counting holly blues, commas and painted ladies – and peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells on the buddleia – and joining in the Big Butterfly Count.
We also took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch.
THE SMALLHOLDING YEAR
JANUARY is the time when all the garden catalogues arrive and you can spend hours deciding what you would like to plant – the only problem with having enough room to grow everything is restricting yourself to what you can physically manage.
I soon learned what grew well on our sandy soil – and what our family would eat – which were not always the same things! Peas are definitely better from Bird’s Eye. By the time you have grown them from seed, planted them, protected them from pigeons, fed them, picked them and podded them – it’s blindingly obvious that frozen peas are a much more sensible alternative.
The first winter I was absolutely delighted to discover at least 3 different varieties of snowdrops growing in the garden, closely followed by celandines and coltsfoot.
Coltsfoot flowers appear before the leaves, little stars sparkling in the sunshine. Catkins and pussy willows decorate the hedgerows, sheltering snowdrops and celandines nestling amongst the roots.
There’s an Enid Blyton story about Candlemas Day – when Brock the Badger pokes his nose out to sniff the air – if it’s fine, he goes back to sleep for a bit:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas Day be clouds and rain,
Winter has gone and will not come again.
There’s a badger sett in the big field – our neighbour says it’s been there as long as he can remember. Badgers make scuffs in the ground looking for worms and truffles so you can see when they have reappeared from hibernation. There’s also rabbits and moles – so our field is a sort of combination of Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and Duncton Wood. There’s an ancient beech tree – Queen Fagus – and an oak tree – King Quercus – and on our morning walks we often hug a tree – we can only just reach around the beech tree – finger-tips touching!
Winter is the best time to watch the bird table.
The variety of birds is simply amazing – the first time the Great-Spotted Woodpecker graced us with his presence I was simply dumbfounded. He is so beautiful – he loves peanuts but also sunflower seeds.
I have also seen a kestrel perched on the fence – and a sparrowhawk on the table outside the kitchen window. Buzzards are often seen being chased by crows – and the finches and tits love the pine trees.
We’ve put bird boxes up and the great tits and blue tits use them – but the blackbirds, robins and wrens prefer to make their own nests in various places in the barn – especially in the holly wreaths that I hang up ready for renewing the following Christmas.
Early February you can sow broad beans in pots ready to plant out as soon as the weather allows.
The frogs return to the pond and you can hear them burbling late into the evening, then frogspawn appears and gradually morphs into tadpoles.
Best of all, the birds start singing in the mornings and we open the bedroom window to listen to the liquid notes of the blackbird floating in on the breeze.
The daffodils are out – at one time there must have been a hedge in the big field but all that remains now are three clumps of daffodils.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd – a host of golden daffodils” – which I believe was written about Stourhead – but daffodils always remind me of this poem.
Seed sowing starts in earnest. My Dad bought me a small propagator which is marvellous for starting off difficult things that like the warmth – courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins – and sweet peas – I used to have real trouble getting sweet peas to germinate until last year I bought some Eckford Sweet peas – an old fashioned variety – which grew really well
Time also to plant early potatoes – and the first rhubarb appears – lovely and sweet and tender at this time of year – perfect for rhubarb crumble.
APRIL – the swallows return, swirling and swooping over the fields.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there …
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now …
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—
The apple blossom appears – the crab apple tree first almost luminescent in the twilight of lengthening evenings. The blue tits and great tits are busily feeding chicks, popping in and out of nest boxes.
The yellow flag irises are out in the wild pond
Beltane 1st May – the first day of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar – and the Druid celebration of fertility when the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God. We celebrate with lots of flowers in the house, music – and lighting candles.
Time to plant runner beans and French beans in pots – ready for planting out once the last frosts have gone. Dig a bean trench and fill it with compost from the compost bin – and put the bean sticks up. Plenty of hazel trees in the field hedgerows to cut bean sticks from.
Clear out pots and hanging baskets ready for geraniums, lobelia, impatiens and petunias – lots of colour for the summer patio.
The elderflowers are in full bloom – ready to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne.
The cushions are put out on the chairs around the patio table ready for breakfasts in the early morning sunshine – and summer barbecues. We always celebrate Midsummer Eve – like the Moomin family – it’s a special day – with music and dancing outside under the stars. In the past we had to rig up a speaker with wires connected to a stereo – now we just have a Bluetooth speaker and a mobile phone!
New potatoes, broad beans and strawberries are all ready to pick. There’s nothing like broad beans fresh from the garden – and I love podding them – sitting on the bench in the sunshine. Small sweet broad beans only take 5 minutes to cook. New potatoes, freshly dug, cooked with mint and melting with butter are divine!
Hot summer days, the patio is a riot of colour. The great tits are busy feeding their brood on the bird table. Last year Daisy, our Dorking hen, hatched 4 chicks and Jemima, one of the Indian Runner ducks hatched 4 ducklings. Amazing to watch the chicks crowding around mum, as she pecks corn into tiny pieces for them to eat. When the ducklings are a few days old we give them a bigger bowl of shallow water so they can have their first swim – they get so excited and whiz around the bowl quacking ecstatically.
The raspberries are ripe – and the ducklings love them. Raspberry jam – and jelly – and raspberry wine. Blackcurrants also make delicious jam and wine – and redcurrants for redcurrant jelly to eat with chicken – and turkey at Christmas.
The poppies are out
AUGUST – shooting stars – lying on the trampoline on quilts and blankets looking at the stars – and spotting wishing stars – and planes and satellites – and watching the bats across the darkening sky.
The sunflowers are out
The butterflies are at their best and I can spend ages watching them on the buddleia – and on the ragwort with the bees and the stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”
1st August is Lughnasadh or Lammas and marks the first day of harvest – when corn dollies were made from the first straw and bread from the first wheat.
Time to lift onions and set them out to dry before tying into ropes.
Courgettes tend to be rather prolific at this time of year and I’ve been quite inventive in using them up before they turn into marrows. Curries, soups, salads, all benefit from the addition of grated courgettes. They are of course best fried in a little butter!
The greengages are ripe – I found the best time to pick them is when it’s raining – as there aren’t many wasps about. They are the sweetest plums and best eaten fresh – although they are also good bottled for winter use.
SEPTEMBER – the harvest – I am usually picking runner beans and freezing them – and picking tomatoes – and skinning them, chopping them and freezing them in tubs to use in Bolognese, curries and soups.
Blackberries are ripe for blackberry jam and blackberry wine – along with loganberries and elderberries. One year I made a ‘many berry wine’ from a mixture of fruits left in the freezer – and elderberries.
Rose hips are ripe – they contain lots of vitamin C (twenty times more than oranges) – ideal for keeping winter coughs and colds away. During the war – when there were no oranges – children were given rose hip syrup from the Ministry of Health. Rose hip syrup is quite easy to make – it makes a lovely summer drink with ice cubes – and a warming winter toddy diluted with hot water.
Time to pick apples and store them for winter use – the rabbits love them and so do geese. One of the pleasures of keeping livestock is enjoying watching them eat titbits – during the summer the rabbits have lots of plants from the garden – in winter it’s mainly apples and carrot tops.
Make Wittenham Cider ready for Hallowe’en
Hallowe’en is always special – The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and we have a sort of combined Guy Fawkes and Hallowee’en around the weekend of 31st October – with a bonfire and sparklers – and ‘Jack’o’Lanterns. There’s a lovely story about ‘Stingy Jack’ and how is destined to roam the earth with his Jack’O’Lantern. https://barbararainford.co.uk/halloween-in-barbaras-back-yard/
The last few years we have had an Indian Summer and the days have been really sunny although the nights are drawing in. Runner beans have carried on cropping into November – when the first frosts finally finish them off – and the nasturtiums are ‘gone willy-nilly, umbrella and all’.
For the last few years I have made an autumn wreath with berries and crab apples and hung it on the bird table, the birds don’t seem to be very interested, but it looks very pretty.
Time to clear the garden, remove the rest of the weeds, take down the bean sticks and tidy up the herb garden. Cutting down or pruning the herbs I found a really good use for the cuttings – I dry them on top of one of the wire hen pens and then tie them into bundles, hang them up to dry in the barn, and they make really good firelighters – and much better than those smelly paraffin alternatives!
Time also to pick holly – before the birds pinch all the berries – and store ready to make holly wreaths.
1st December is Yule – make a Yule Log with holly and pine cones and candles for the table – and holly wreaths with moss and holly and ivy, laurel and spruce and hang them on the old front door – and the barn door. I always think about all the other people in times gone by who have hung a holly wreath on the very same doors hundreds of years ago. Although the house has five bedrooms it has been extended at least 3 times and must have been originally a traditional cottage with two rooms downstairs, 2 bedrooms and a thatched roof. The study still has the original oak beams and thick sandstone walls – and a fireplace which must once have been an old range.
There must be lots of secrets that have never been uncovered – there’s a wall safe that’s never been opened; when we extended to connect the studio to the main house, the roof beams were exposed and you could see the remains of the burnt timbers where we assume the thatch caught fire. There are still some old wide floorboards on the landing.
We’ve installed a wood burner and it’s wonderful to curl up in front of a real fire on a Sunday afternoon with a good book – sometimes watching snowflakes swirl outside or with a glass of mulled wine on a winter evening.
December we usually visit Croft Ambrey to see the mistletoe on the hawthorn trees – and bring a small piece home. There’s nowhere to hang it because the ceilings are so low so it hangs over the Yule log on the dresser.
Our Christmas tree always comes from Holly Farm Nursery just up the road – all their trees are grown locally at Fauls Christmas Tree Farm so are very carbon friendly.
Maynards Farm, two doors down, provide local geese, turkeys and hams for Christmas dinner and we save the last of the parsnips, potatoes and carrots to go with them. We have home-made apple sauce and redcurrant jelly. One year I even managed to grow some sprouts and cauliflower that survived the pigeons and slugs – which were delicious!
And so to New Year and the circle of life begins again.