If you are a keen gardener and haven’t been living under a rock, you will be familiar with the BBC programme Big Dreams Small Spaces presented by the gardening king Monty Don. Helen and Richard were the gardeners in the first episode in the first series back in 2014. They had moved into a bungalow which hadn’t been updated for at least 20 years, so you can imagine what the garden looked like. They wanted raised beds, fruit trees, chickens; the lot. We got in touch with Helen to see how they were doing, what challenges they faced, and what she learned from her gardening hero.
1) What was your gardening experience prior to moving to the bungalow?
I’m not sure where my love of vegetable gardening came from. My mum says it was from my granddad, who used to grow veg in his back garden when I was a little girl. I got Richard interested and we began growing vegetables ‘properly’ in 2006 when we moved into a house with enough space to do this! We had no idea what we were doing and made a lot of mistakes, and we’re still learning every year!
2) Most important lesson learned?
Monty’s help, both on and off camera, was invaluable! He’s awesome! He gave his so much advice, particularly with the layout of the garden (what needs to be in sun/shade, where to put the compost bins, etc) but there are two things that particularly stand out to me.
The first, and most important, was to make the greenhouse the feature of the garden, rather than sticking it in a back corner which is what we originally intended to do. This completely changed our outlook on the garden design, suddenly it gave us a focal point from which to plan the rest of the garden, and helped with planning the paths through the garden, which allowed us to section off different areas. Once we did that, it all fell into place!
The other piece of advice that Monty gave us, off camera this time, was how to plant up a herb bed. I had already planted a load of herbs into one of the raised beds when Monty pointed out that they needed different growing conditions and the Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme, would grow best in very rough, well draining soil. After this, I dug up the plants, grabbed a load of rubble from the house renovation work, and mixed it into the raised bed then replanted the Mediterranean plants, and put the more tender herbs into another bed! Just a small thing but it made a difference to the way I thought about planting!
3) What advice would you give to people who want to go down a similar route to you?
I would say, prepare yourself for some hard work; it’ll take longer than you expect and you’ll ache more than you ever imagined! You’ll need to be out there in all weathers and you’ll hit stumbling blocks, but it’ll be worth it when you see the finished result, which will last for years and years!
4) Did you source anything second hand? Or reuse anything?
Yes! Because we stripped so much of the existing garden back so drastically, we tried to reuse as much as possible, out of respect for the garden, if you like! The main thing we reused was the wood from the trees we pruned and chopped down. The log roll that lines the path is made from smaller branches of the trees, the bark chippings around the raised beds was also from these trees. the soil we dug up for the new driveway was sifted and used to fill the raised beds. And we made a huge effort to keep as many of the trees as possible, which we’re still getting apples, chestnuts and plums from now.
We made the compost bins from pallets that we begged from a local firm and the fencing around our fruit garden (not featured on the programme) was originally from the set of a video shoot that we once did at work!
5) Similarly, did you do anything to economise? What did you splash out on?
The greenhouse was the biggest expense, because it was going to be the focal point, we wanted the best looking one that we could find within our budget! I’d have loved a brick and timber built one, but funds didn’t stretch to that! We economised by using the wood from the garden, and by doing most of the work ourselves with the help of family and friends!
The only thing we paid for someone else to do was to take the trees down as we wanted this doing professionally and safely! We also splashed out on the wood for the raised beds, as we wanted big, rustic looking sleepers which were more expensive than other options.
6) How much prep was there to building the beds?
Lots, both in the planning and building. We had 11 raised beds in total so we needed to take time to decide how to lay them out before we bought the timber and started building them. We laid out a ‘template’ using pallets, boards and string to make sure they looked right and were practical before we started building. Building them was also time consuming, mainly because we were working with such thick wood it wasn’t easy to cut and drive nails through! Then there was the task of filling them with soil, which we sifted into each one! Monty said afterwards that sifting wasn’t the best idea as the soil became too fine and formed a ‘crust’ which stopped water from soaking in, but the soil we used had bits of glass and other debris in it so we felt we had to do it that way.
7) Have you benefited from using your own compost?
Yes, we started a compost bin before the garden was finished, and we’ve continued ever since. The garden’s been in place for 3 years now and every year we’ve been able to top up the raised beds with compost made in our bins!
8) Has the garden evolved since the programme?
Only in the respect that it’s matured and seasoned so it doesn’t look so ‘new’ now. And of course we’ve rotated the crops in the raised beds each year. Since we filmed the programme, we’ve been busy ‘growing’ our two boys who were born in 2015 and 2017, so the garden has had less of our attention than it did in the first two years! But the fact that we put so much effort into it initially means we just need to plant each year, do a bit of weeding, and we still get our own fresh veg! Our eldest son, Henry, is 18 months old now and last summer he was weaned on fruit and veg from the garden. He’s quite used to picking berries and tomatoes and eating them direct from the garden!
9) You have your slice of smallholding, do you have a front garden which is also being used?
We actually have a side garden and a front garden! The side is taken up with our fruit garden which contains blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, loganberries and tayberries! The front garden has three huge flowering cherry trees which are stunning in spring so we have kept them and just tidied up the lawn and planted a new beech hedge on the perimeter.
11) Which has been your favourite veg and variety to grow?
I love pumpkins! I always grow too many and can never use them all, but they’re just so fascinating to see them grow and turn colour! You can get so many varieties too, and I try and grow different ones each year.
12) Something you just can’t seem to be able to grow.
Asparagus! We dedicated a whole raised bed to it and you can’t harvest it for 2 or 3 years, but after year 2 nothing seemed to be happening, so we dug up the crowns and they’d all rotted! We’ve also never had any success with cucumbers, not sure why!
Well, what a transformation, right?! You can follow Helen and her family’s adventures over on her blog. She writes about the renovation of the house and the garden, food and, well, gardening with boys! She can also be reached on Twitter.