Sara Ward on Living the Good Life January 2024

Image above: Sara Ward

Learning lessons and looking forward

Guest blog by Sara Ward

As we hunker down, whilst the nights are still long and the fairy lights have been packed away, we have the opportunity to look at the year ahead, as a blank canvas, and dare to dream before the weeks turn into months and the fruit trees are in blossom again. It’s always good to take stock, review the old aims (were they hit or miss?) and look over the lessons learned allowing ourselves to be confident with our new wisdom moving forward.

Here at Hen Corner, we’ve turned our Victorian terrace house into an ‘urban smallholding’ complete with 22 hens, four colonies of honey bees, 15 fruit and nut trees and an overflowing kitchen garden. Down by the canal, I’ve also got an allotment, with more bee hives, I run a microbakery from home every Friday and love to share all that we’ve discovered through our series of courses.

No, we’re not based in the Cotswolds, we are in Brentford!

What were the main lessons that we learnt last year?

  • Sow seeds generously – in preparation for failed germination, drying out, drowning, leggy seedlings, too hot, too cold, slugs, snails, caterpillars, pigeons and chickens. I think I only got a harvest from around 20% of the seeds sown
  • Know your own strength – last May I was pulling on a stubborn bramble in the church garden, I heard a crack and I realised that it wasn’t the plant snapping – it was one of my ribs. That took six weeks to heal and put my gardening on hold for a while.
  • Figs don’t ripen in the bowl – so don’t bother picking them when they are green and hard, have patience.
  • Squirrels know – when all crops are just becoming ripe (peaches, olives, almonds, etc.), so cover precious harvests with strong mesh, and if you see the squirrels scurrying along with your treasure in their mouths, stop everything and gather in all that’s left on the tree.
  • Smaller trees can’t complete – Sadly, a favourite Plum tree died last year because a huge bay tree was sucking all the moisture out of the soil. Plant trees where there is space for them to thrive without competition for sun and water.
  • Cauliflowers aren’t the only cauliflower – My big ambition for last year was to grow all the vegetables needed for my award-winning piccalilli recipe, we had a super crop of runner beans and cucumbers. Carrots and onions did fine as well, but all my cauliflowers failed, see reasons above, so I relented and bought plug plants, which grew really well but, as a winter variety, was sadly much too late for our late summer pickling project.

However, even with these setbacks, we still managed to harvest a total of £4,200 worth of food from the back garden, nearly 50% up on 2022, and have even higher ambitions for this year.

Looking forward, what are our plans?

I’m regularly asked how to plan a plot and what to grow and, over the years, I’ve found the following tips a really good foundation for a getting a valuable harvest

  • Fruits – These usually harvest every year with the minimum of maintenance, we have apples, pears, peaches, figs, plums and a variety of soft fruit
  • Perennials – The old faithfuls that feed us year upon year; rhubarb, artichokes, hardy herbs, horseradish, etc. Our favourite is asparagus and, once established, a bed can feed a family every week from April to June.
  • Favourite foods – See what grows well in our climate (not bananas or pineapples!) and try growing something that you love to eat; french beans are fun, tomatoes are tasty and cucumbers are crunchy.
  • High value – Raspberries and redcurrants can be pretty pricey in the shops but growing your own can produce bowl after bowl for many months of the year. We harvested around £35 of raspberries one year!
  • Best fresh – Most of the food we buy in the UK is at least a few days old, if not more, and many fruits and vegetables convert their natural sugars into starch once harvested. New potatoes and baby peas are just a couple of crops that taste amazing when freshly picked. Where else can you eat food within minutes of its harvest?
  • That which stores well – Winter squashes keep for ages in a cool place, rhubarb and runner beans are happy in the freezer, and other foods can be preserved or fermented allowing us to enjoy them all year round.

Why not have a go yourself this year? What would be your favourite food to grow?

As for me, I’m planning to grow all the ingredients for our range of pickles and preserves (excluding our marmalades and mango chutneys of course!) and would love to harvest all our own veg for this year’s traditional Christmas Dinner…

Coming up at Hen Corner:

January

Mondays, 6-8pm: Online Bread Courses

Tuesday 23 January: Introduction to Making Bread

Thursday 25 January: Introduction To Making Marmalade

Tuesday 20 January: Become a Bread Angel – Start your own MicroBakery

All courses, virtual & face to face, can be found at HenCorner.com

Sara Ward is the founder and owner of Hen Corner in Brentford and author of Living the Good Life in the City

Hen Corner is a member of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme, offering discounts on her courses and on her book Living the Good Life in the City.

See her Club Card offers here: Hen Corner Club Card offers