How to thrive at micro farming
The ins and outs of cultivating your patch, no matter the size
Many of us like the idea of growing our own fruit and veg, or even investing in a brood of chickens. But these dreams are often put off until an imagined future in which we have more time and space.
However, while we may not have the sprawling acres of our dreams, we can still have a go at "micro-farming"—making use of what we have now and dipping our toes into the world of growing on a smaller scale.
Small is beautiful
While allotments or large gardens provide an ideal space to grow your own fruit and veg, those with more modest gardens needn’t be put off. In fact, it’s possible to produce your own micro-crop even if you have no garden space at all, by taking advantage of balconies, or even pots on windowsills.
“Tomatoes are a really good crop for a balcony,” says Helena Dove, head of the Kitchen Gardens at the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens, “You could even get trailing ones and use them in hanging baskets.”
Sara McQueen, 25, a PR executive from Leeds, has been growing her own herbs for years, and has recently branched out into tomatoes, even sprouting an avocado, despite not owning any outdoor space. As well as the excitement of producing her own modest crop, Sara also feels that growing her own has been good for her mental health.
“My mum is a keen gardener and my grandfather was a farmer,” she explains. “I get this curious joy from re-potting and sorting all my plants out.”
Space-savers For those with a garden area, albeit limited, Helena suggests space-saving crops such as dwarf French beans. “They don’t get too tall, and they don’t tend to get many pests or diseases,” she says. “They come in a range of colours too, which is great if you don’t have a lot of space as they’re decorative as well. Beetroot also tend to be really successful, and as you can eat the roots and the leaves, it’s a great multi-purpose crop to grow if you haven’t got too much space.”
If large-scale is your thing, you may want to consider renting a local allotment, or getting involved in an existing project.
Jon Knight, 49, works with the Transition Loughborough community allotment project, which runs four allotment spaces on a privately owned site where volunteers grow vegetables including sweetcorn, spinach and strawberries, as well as flowers to “encourage pollinators and other wildlife.”
The Transition Loughborough allotment project
As well as enjoying growing, Jon finds the social aspect of the scheme incredibly rewarding. “We run things like our annual Potato Day spud seed purchasing scheme and sell plants and handmade shopping bags to fund our projects,” he says. The scheme has also encouraged community groups to work with them, including a local group for vulnerable adults.
If no such projects exist locally, those keen on the idea of creating a shared space may wish to petition the council to see whether local plots of unused land could be commandeered for this purpose.
Hannah Garcia, 33, co-founder of Green City Events, together with her business partner Rebecca Clark has recently acquired a peppercorn lease on piece of land in Splott, East Cardiff, which they plan to transform into a thriving community garden.
“We found some local land which had previously been a park but had been chained up and overgrown for years.” The pair petitioned the local council and—despite a delay of three years—have now been granted a 20 year lease on the plot.
If you’ve always dreamed of keeping your own chickens, or even raising a larger animal for meat, you don’t necessarily need to wait until you retire to a sprawling countryside plot. In fact, when it comes to housing chickens, the quality of space trumps quantity.
Hannah Garcia's garden in Cardiff
“The house the chickens live in can really be quite small, because all they do is sleep and lay eggs,” explains Hannah—who has worked with chickens for over 12 years. Outside space needn’t be enormous either: “Chickens don’t need to range or run, but they like things to do—things to scratch, different levels, different textures—something like a chicken playground!”
Hannah currently keeps four bantam hens in a 10ft enclosure in her tiny urban garden on the outskirts of Cardiff—leaving 20ft of garden spare for her vegetables, wormery, birdfeeders and her wildlife garden.
Creating a buzz
If chickens aren’t your thing, one creature that also needs very little space is the humble honey bee. Former Barrister Sally Hay, 60, began keeping bees in her garden three years ago in a bid to help the environment and lower her stress levels.
Keeping bees isn’t for the faint-hearted, but Sally—who attended a beekeeping course before she began—has overcome her fears.
“You can get surrounded by thousands of bees, which still gives me the heebie-jeebies,” she says. “But you wear a bee suit and I’m meticulous about staying covered.”
Despite her fears—and one memorable incident when 30,000 bees swarmed in her garden turning the sky black—Sally enjoys her hobby. “I have allergies and I’m sure eating locally sourced honey has helped them,” she says. “I’ve also been able to give plenty of honey away to friends and family.”
Larger animals, necessarily, need more space—but those wishing to try their hand at rearing their own meat may be able to make use of nearby unused land. Elsa Pawley, a retired NHS worker in her 60s together with a friend who works as a local ranger for the council, has been keeping pigs on a local disused farm plot since 2016. After having the initial idea, the pair were granted permission by Ealing council to use the land, on which pigs root freely in a wooden area, and wallow to their hearts’ content in mud.
Keeping pigs is quite labour intensive, so Elsa—who took a training course beforehand—has now recruited volunteers from a local community group.
As well as the pleasure of caring for their little drove, the group also benefit from free-range, succulent meat once the pigs are sufficiently grown. “We take them to a humane abattoir in the Cotswolds,” explains Elsa. “It’s probably the hardest time—quite an emotional day." For Elsa, the experience of raising pigs has been life-changing. “It’s wonderful being outdoors, respecting the animals and the meat they produce.”
If you want to raise your own chickens or other livestock, keep an eye out for courses in animal care, beekeeping or chicken keeping at your local institution. Unsurprisingly, there are strict laws when it comes to keeping farm animals, so before starting out, you need to check out legislation with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) online or by phone.
If the joy of gardening or raising animals isn’t enough, getting outside and tilling the earth can be great for your mental health. Counsellor Angela Davies from Merseyside began to practice Horticultural Therapy after realising how good gardening could be for stress relief. “Gardening takes your mind away from your troubles, clears your thinking—it’s very good for people with anxiety and mild depression,” she says.
Keeping animals, too, can be great for both body and mind. Dr Deborah Wells, of Queen’s University in Belfast, explains the benefit of being around animals goes far beyond any produce they may afford: “Studies have shown that interactions with animals, even the mere act of looking at them, can serve as a powerful stress-buster, helping to lower heart rate and blood pressure,” she explains.
Of course, one of the draws of growing your own food is in the eating—and there are myriad benefits. “Home grown fruit and veg are usually more nutrient dense because the produce is moved from farm to plate much quicker”, explains Rachel Clarkson, RD at the DNA Dietitian, London. “When we consume foods from far away they lose vitamins during transit.” Eggs and meat from free-range animals raised on high quality food are also likely to have a “better nutrient profile,” according to Rachel.
Helping the Environment
It may seem that working on our little patch of soil would have limited effect on the environment; however, small changes can be beneficial. “One of the best places to start is your own back garden,” explains Ben Raskin, head of horticulture at the Soil Association. “Growing soil-saving plants is easy and benefits the environment.”
With proven benefits to body, mind and even the environment, perhaps it’s time that we all picked up a trowel and tried our hand at farming on a smaller scale?
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