I reckon the easiest part of starting ‘The Good Life’ is deciding to embark on it in the first place. My mind was full of amazing vegetables, beautiful fruits and fragrant herbs. I was attacking this project with vigor and enthusiasm – my expectations for what we could achieve heightened every day. I endorsed our prospective garden as the ‘8th Wonder of the World’ to anyone who would care to listen. The ‘Wonder’ however was soon to become mine.
Questions started to arise… Is the soil we are planning on growing in actually any good?? How are we going to grow things on the steep hillside of our chosen field?? Where would we build poly tunnels and how would we heat them?? What were we actually going to grow?? How much will we need to grow to keep ourselves stocked up for 12 months of the year??
In reality I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. Fortunately there are some great people involved in this project. Ken Holland has 10 years experience as a very successful specialist grower. My father, Tom (TB) is a farmer with a problem solving mind. My Sous Chef, James is the most ferociously hard-working guy I have met and he was keen to roll up his sleeves and be heavily involved. Our dream team complete we set about the task of turning our 2.5 acres of weed-ridden land into the Gardens of Babylon.
The field is on a steep slope with a flat top and we quickly identified the top of the hill as the ideal place to put our fruit cage. But how to make the best use of the hillside? We took inspiration from TB’s recent trip to Provence were he had seen farmers using terraces to grow olives on steep hill sides. Ken told the group of the amazing Love Apple Farm in California who use a similar system. So it was decided we would build terraces. The idea being it would not only be very practical but look beautiful too.
We began digging the terraces and instantly hit a snag! The field is close to an old quarry which meant that when we dug there was only 6 inches of soil before we hit bed rock. Disaster!! How do you grow carrots in 6 inches of soil?? This was a problem – one that worried me. I began to question the whole project. What was a massive problem for me, however, was just another challenge for TB.
TB worked out that if we brought in 500 tons of top soil we would be able to shape the terraces and grow in the beds that we had planned. A quick check on the cost of top soil revealed a rough price of around £50,000. Now I am the ultimate optimist but it would appear that we would have to grow an awful lot of vegetables to get anywhere near covering our costs.
There was one other option and our only option if we weren’t going to give up on the project altogether. We would have to bring the soil in by tractor and trailer from TB’s farm. We could only do this when crops were out of the ground and the soil was dry. We had to work fast. For two weeks in September TB and Andy (our resident handy man) worked all hours to bring soil to the field and build the terraces. Watching from the kitchen as load after load of soil arrived was a humbling site. The terraces look fantastic and I am sure they will both be proud of their work.
A useful deal with a local farmer gained us 30 tons of well-rotted cow muck. We worked this into the terraces and the land was ready to grow in. All that was left was to build the poly-tunnels. Ken and his team set to work and soon had them built and covered. One tunnel would be our ‘Propagation tunnel’ this will be heated all year round. The propagation tunnel is where we will grow everything from seed. It is also where we have built our ‘growing in the dark system’ although Ken has asked me to keep that one quiet for now. The second tunnel will be unheated for growing tomatoes and cucumbers during the summer and then kale and brassicas in the winter.
Problem solving is something of a regular occurrence due to the location of the Black Swan. We needed an efficient and green way to heat our propagation tunnel. Last year we installed a generator as the lack of 3-phase electricity in the village meant we couldn’t use the kitchen equipment that we needed. It runs 16 hours a day and blows hot air out of the exhaust for the duration. What if we could use that waste heat to heat our tunnel? I failed to come up with any sort of sensible idea that did not involve covering our beautiful plants in diesel fumes. Step up TB once again who designed an ingenious system to heat four huge containers of water from the radiator of the generator. The water in these containers then circulates through the benches of the tunnel through little pipes. The design stolen from the underfloor heating we installed in the bedrooms works a treat. It is very satisfying now to see the seeds we have grown in the winter using this once wasted heat.
So that’s it, you are up to date. The propagation tunnel is full of little seedlings but the real work starts here!!!