Living easy on the land – Deborah Ballard

We live in the very south of County Carlow. We have been in this farmhouse and garden for nearly 20 years. We have about a hectare of land, of which about half is a field, kindly grazed by a friend; I hasn’t been fertilised for about 60 years, so there are plenty of wildflowers. At the bottom of this field we intend to plant a belt of native trees this autumn.

We have been growing vegetables since we arrived, and have doubled the vegetable plot, which we rotate every six years. About 10 years ago we bought a large polytunnel, which means we can grow more tender vegetables like French beans, peppers and chillies, tomatoes, and sweetcorn – springs are generally cold here.

We have also planted an orchard, soft fruit and an artichoke bed, two asparagus beds and a seakale bed – when the Hungry Gap comes along we eat like princes. We eat seasonally, so we look forward to each vegetable when it comes round, and we do a lot of successional sowing. – salad leaves especially We do store a few potatoes and apples, and make jam and freeze tomato sauce for winter. We also make our own cider vinegar from windfall apples.

We use the no-dig method, layering compost or manure on the vegetable plot and polytunnel to preserve the mycelium web, worms and microscopic soil life. As our soil is so dry, we sometimes cover this with hay from the meadow to stop the manure drying out. When we roll back the hay to warm the soil in spring, we scoop up the slugs which lie between the hay and the manure and rehome them down the boreen. The manure has been absorbed into the soil and formed a perfect tilth for sowing. We get our manure from our next-door neighbour, who keeps his cattle on straw in the old-fashioned way – we think slatted sheds and slurry are horrible. We also sow some green manure and make tonnes of compost.

We also layer on compost or manure in the ornamental garden, but do occasionally dig out and divide the herbaceous perennials when the borders get too crowded. If perennial weeds take hold (we are martyrs to hedge bindweed) we dig them out with a trowel, although we do straighten the edges of the rather migratory vegetable beds once a year. We mulch the vegetable-plot paths with grass-clippings from the paths through the meadows – grass seed comes in, inevitably, but on the plus-side, we find that slugs hate crossing grass-clippings.

We plant a lot of single flowers and perennials, for the pollinators, and choose pollen- and nectar-rich ones – the nepeta, agapanthus and lavender are alive with ­honey, bumble and solitary bees. We have buddleja in the ditches and grow sedums and Verbena bonariensis in the borders for the butterflies. I love old garden roses and peonies, but we also have semi-double roses and single peonies, and there are not many of the doubles compared with the single flowers we grow.

We leave ivy on the walls for late pollinators and late-winter forage for birds, and grow some other berrying shrubs. We feed the birds from October to May – I want them to feed their nestlings with pests, and there are also plenty of seeding weeds here.

We have a lot of grass in the orchard, full of wildflowers and underplanted with bulbs, native bluebells and cowslips. We also sowed a wildflower meadow in front of the vegetable plot, the seed kindly given to us by a friend as a house-warming present. We allow these meadows to grow – they are especially beautiful in May and June – and cut it once a year, at the end of August or beginning of September, when it lodges (August is a rainy month here). If it needs another cut, we use the lawnmower, but it hardly ever does. We mow paths through it, for access and to make it look more disciplined and less wild, and this is the source of our grass-clipping mulch.

In front of the house is a large gravelled yard surrounded by ornamental borders, and I am amazed at how worms colonise the gravel. It gets a bit weedy, but a rake soon sorts out the small ones. As we live in an isolated, agricultural area, weeds do drift in, and our wildflower meadows don’t help, either.

What we don’t have is a pond, apart from a large tank, originally for farm horses, and a breeding ground for midges – the swallows love them. Our soil is extremely light and gravelly, and a pond would have to be lined with a butyl liner, which we are reluctant to use; clay for puddling would have to imported from God knows where, so is unsustainable. There is a stream on the boundary of the field, so birds and animals don’t go short of water.

We don’t use fungicides, pesticides or herbicides. We strongly believe in nature balancing itself out. We don’t kill pests; I rebury soil-borne ones, although Carole occasionally feeds them to the hens if  there seem to be too many in the vegetable plot, and no sign of predators. We have hedgehogs, a woodpecker (newly arrived from Wicklow) pygmy shrews, field-mice, rats, foxes (we have lost a few hens, when we get home too late) and a noisy host of insect species – bees, wasps, hoverflies, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers, crane-flies, midges, the odd mosquito (our summers are warm) and doubtless countless others, including ticks – we wear boots in the garden. We keep patches of nettles for butterfly larvae, and leave one ragwort (beheaded) for the cinnabar moth larvae.  There are countless little creatures in our wood-pile. We felled some elderly spruces which were shading our orchard, and used the brash to make a dead hedge, a hibernation resource for hedgehogs and insects, and (doubtless) rats and mice.

We have a neutered cat, but, luckily, she’s not a good hunter – our last one, also neutered, was a robotic hunter and could bring in three rabbits a day; we took them from her and skinned, paunched and ate them, lest they go to waste. We are only too aware that cats are terrible slaughterers of small mammals and birds, but a neutered female cat does keep mice down in the house and rats in the outhouses.

We have seats for looking at the garden and a table and chairs to eat lunch under one of the apple-trees, and there is also a hammock – not that we often manage to use them!

Deborah Ballard and Carole Nelson

Co Carlow

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