So, you have found yourself browsing my blog, but who am I and why am I writing about gardening? Well, the first part is easy – my name is Jonathan, although friends usually call me by my initials, JV. How I came to be writing the blog is a slightly longer tale, but mostly it was due to the encouragement of my wife, Christina, or CT for short. Since spring 2011 we have been working to build a kitchen garden at our home in the South of England, with the help of family and friends. This website is all about the kitchen garden and our associated livestock: chickens and bees.
Although an engineer, researcher and lecturer by training and profession, I was influenced by gardening from an early age, following in the footsteps, not to mention wellies, of my dad, who also started at an early age, keeping an allotment whilst still at school. Both of my parents are great gardeners, and especially knowledgeable about flowering plants of all sorts. When I was growing up, they grew fruit and vegetables in the back garden until its transformation into a decorative space, when they took over a plot at the local allotments. Although we would groan about it from time to time, we would hardly travel anywhere without stopping at every garden centre and plant nursery along the way. This early exposure no doubt contributed to, if not caused, my interest in matters horticultural, and now I am equally tempted every time I see a garden centre. I have never undertaken any formal training in horticulture, but have studied a great many books, ancient and modern, with a particular interest in the kitchen garden. I remain fairly ignorant when it comes to flowers and decorative planting, but have gathered a reasonable understanding of methods of the cultivation of fruit and vegetables.
When we bought our first house together, we developed the relatively small back garden into a highly productive space, focussed largely on soft fruit, which we both appreciate. The garden was filled to bursting with strawberries, raspberries, a loganberry and a tayberry, blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, a Victoria plum tree and a filbert, along with two small vegetable beds, perhaps six foot square. The vegetable beds were small and secondary to fruit production, yet we still managed to produce some treats for the kitchen, our favourites including parsnips and beetroot.
When we moved to our second house, with a slightly larger rear garden, plans were drawn up to renovate the mostly overrun space, but we never got around to. Now in our third – and hopefully final – house, we are fortunate to have a large plot of almost 1.25 acres. Now we had the space to grow more or less whatever we wanted, but it was a few years yet before anything happened in the garden, as renovations to the house were prioritised.
In 2008 I made the not entirely surprising discovery that a genetic heart condition and 80 hour working weeks did not go together very well, and I ended up leaving work. After taking time to recover to some degree, I found myself with a lot of time, if not much energy, on my hands, and used it to lay out a kitchen garden. The overall plot is far too big for us to manage, and exposed to the ravages of the local deer and rabbit population, so the plan was to wall and fence off part of the garden to provide a protected growing space. Various scale plans were drawn up, until I was satisfied with the layout.
Of course, planning is easy and, at least for me, very enjoyable. Nothing practical happened for quite some time, although we would grow some crops, particularly tomatoes, on our balcony, which conveniently sits just outside the kitchen. In the Spring of 2010, my parents generously bought us a greenhouse to put my tomato collection in – at 10′ x 6′ it was big enough to grow lots of tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines. That turned out to be the first step on a rather larger project.
In the following Spring, one of our neighbours, Abi, had expressed some interest in growing fruit and vegetables and when she heard of our plans was quite enthusiastic about joining in the project and turning it into something other than a paperwork exercise, rather like one of the garden share schemes. So, one evening, after drinking a little too much wine, we agreed to start work on a full size kitchen garden. Abi was to replace her visits to the gym with digging and weeding, which solved my biggest problem – a rather limited capacity for such physical work.
So it began: marking out, renovation of the garage and outbuildings alongside the garden, construction of walls and fences, installation of larger glasshouses, digging of beds, etc. We planted up as we went along, so as to get the motivation offered by seeing crops in the first season. However, the labour problem was not so easily solved – we saw our neighbour only a few times, and I have since made it a rule never to make decisions on wine, but to wait until the morning and make them on coffee instead. Nonetheless, we have Abi to thank for getting the project moving, if not entirely in the way we expected. Some hired help was brought in for construction and renovation work and some of the other ground works. Otherwise, Christina and I worked away on it, with a great deal of help from my parents and mother-in-law, and a few friends.
By Spring 2013, after two seasons, much of the construction work was completed. Despite the concentration on construction work, by planting up as we went along, we still managed to produce a large quantity of fresh vegetables; fruit takes longer to mature, so we are still waiting for a good harvest from our young fruit stock. There are still some big projects left, and a lot of mess to sort out, but the garden is up and running now. Hopefully, by the end of the year, it will be in good shape for a productive 2014.
As well as fruit and vegetables, we also keep chickens and bees. The chickens arrived in May 2012. The bees have been here a bit longer. I am still learning beekeeping from my dad, who has kept bees for many years. Together we keep up to four colonies here, while he keeps a few small starter colonies at home.
As many gardeners can no doubt attest, gardening is very therapeutic, offering something more than just fresh air and gentle exercise, although these are obviously beneficial. It is certainly good for my sanity to have such a project to engage in. I may not be able to do as much work on the garden as I would like, but we have tried to limit the work needed with various low maintenance features. At least when I am not able to potter around in the garden, I can now be writing about it on this website. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to shake off my background as an engineer and researcher – informal writing is a skill that, if I ever had it, has long since departed, with the authorship of too many engineering documents, technical reports and academic papers. Perhaps after a while I will get the hang of it; time will tell.