The Minimalist Gardener

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Patrick Whitefield spent many years tending his vegetable garden and feeding himself and his wife Cathy with it’s produce. There is a popular misconception that Patrick was a farmer or smallholder, but in fact, he spent most of his adult life living in a bungalow in Glastonbury with small, steeply sloping gardens to the front and back. Like most people, Patrick did not have access to a huge amount of land to support himself from but, like many people, he did manage to grow an awful lot of  fresh food. As a permaculturist he had ways of gardening that worked with nature rather than against it, and over the years he found ways of making the work simpler and less arduous, while equally if not more productive. Through observing, season after season, he found the middle road, the sweet spot between productivity and ease.

I loved to watch Patrick pottering in his garden. His apparent excitement in showing off his splendid leeks, while casually grazing on some perennial broccoli was contagious, and the series of short films he made about growing vegetables leave one in no doubt of his passion for it. But unlike some allotmenteers who seem to delight in the graft of annual double-digging and love a good leaning-on-the-gate type grumble about the poor weather and the slugs, he was all for taking the grunt out of it and focusing on the joy of letting nature do the hard work while we enjoy the bounty. He used to tell students that the ultimate permaculture design would require one simply to get out of bed in the morning, walk into the garden, lay on the ground and allow the food to fall into your open mouth! If this was his aspiration, he came fairly close at times, with his modest suburban garden looking something like a miniature Garden of Eden.

His acquired wisdom from this life-long passion is now distilled into the pages of a new book, published by Permanent Publications, entitled The Minimalist Gardener. Patrick was a contributor to Permaculture Magazine and wrote quarterly seasonal articles about gardening, particularly drawing upon his own gardening experience and the wealth of experienced gained from his years as a permaculture teacher and consultant. The articles have been edited and organised into a comprehensive guide for the domestic kitchen gardener, with top tips for all of the seasons, and guidance on design and the different methods you might use.

The advice that Patrick offers through his articles is so helpful because of the way he encourages the reader to think. If you asked 100 gardeners the same series of questions about how to grow vegetables, or manage the soil, or make good compost, you would get 100 different sets of answers. The real answer is, it depends. The key is knowing the right questions, examining what you want from your garden and knowing how to understand the unique characteristics of the space. The best thing we can do as gardeners is to experiment, keep on watching and learning, and most of all enjoy the garden and the fruits of our labour.

Fruit Cages and Netting

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Soft fruits are one of the most pleasing crops to get from your garden, but also one of the most vulnerable. Blackbirds, squirrels, mice and voles are just a few of the garden visitors who enjoy a juicy berry as much as we do and can strip a bush at alarming speed. It is common practice therefore, to cover soft fruit bushes with protective netting while they are fruiting. If you find you are losing a significant proportion of your crop, this is a good idea, so it’s worth considering the design and materials you may use.


Martin Crawford’s espalier cherry tree

I am often asked whether it’s necessary to net soft fruits at all. The extent to which you fruit is pilfered will depend on the wildlife you have in the garden and what other food sources they have. The extent to which you mind your fruit being pilfered will depend upon how much you want for yourself, and whether you can afford to sacrifice some. If it’s a business, it will be worth investing in protection, and if you have only a few bushes, the crop will be more precious and worth guarding. In Martin Crawford’s 2 acre research garden the only thing he bothers to net is an espalier cherry tree growing on the south facing side of his shed. Cherries are a firm favourite with birds and you can lose a whole crop to them easily. By training the tree against the shed it has a good microclimate, is easy to harvest and can be easily netted by attaching bird netting to the wall with a baton, and clipping it down over the tree while it’s fruiting. All other fruit in his garden is left unprotected because he has so much of it, he can afford to share it.

There are varying attitudes and varying methods, and you’ll need to find the way that suits you.


Permanent Netting:

For permanent protection you will need a structure that will outlive the fruit inside it. Soft fruit bushes can last for a decade, so go for sturdy materials. Scaffold poles are great because they are long lasting and easy to use – you can drive them straight into the ground using a post ram. They can also be upcycled – we used rejects from a local scaffolding firm and these are quite easy to come by now as there has been a change in the material used for poles so many firms are switching.

We chose 2 different grades of wire netting (chicken wire). At the base we used a fine mesh with openings of around 10mm to keep out rodents. At the top we used a larger gage, around 25mm to allow small birds (pest

chicken tractor fruit cage

Our fruit cage made from reclaimed scaffold poles, being ‘tractored’ by poultry

control) and flying insects (pollination and pest control) into the cage, but keep out fruit-gorging blackbirds and squirrels. Our cage (7x7m) is currently being tractored by our chickens and turkeys, preparing the ground for planting this winter, so there’s no roof on it yet. We plan to use a lighter bird netting for the roof, to keep out large birds and squirrels. If the squirrels start to break through it we will resign ourselves to using the mesh, which is very resilient but more expensive and probably harder to install as a roof.

We have been raising bushes from cuttings for the past few years while we had a carpet clearance mulch down to suppress some very vigorous weeds, and then a full season of poultry tractoring to clean up, manure and tilth it for us. I would recommend both of these methods if you are starting out with a dense grass or weed base, but it’s important to have enough chickens to keep the weeds from returning. If it’s a large area with few chickens, you can use something like lino or boards to move around so they have fresh ground regularly and a good supply of woodlice, while being able to keep on top of weed grow-back.

Many people build a wooden frame for their fruit cage as wood is easy to come by and to attach the wire to. We used cable ties to attach the wire to the scaffold poles, and a nick with

vegeatbles netting

Agricultural water pipe used as a frame for netting

an angle grinder allowed use to thread the top ties through the poles themselves to prevent the wire netting from slumping downwards. If using wood, it’s worth using large timbers: 2×4” is ideal. This means your hard work will last longer. Treated wood is best for outdoor use, or ideally something naturally rot-resistant like chestnut or western red cedar. If you’re lucky you may find good timber or old chestnut fence posts in skips, dumps, free-cycle or ebay – it’s worth a look because wood costs add up.

It is possible to buy fruit cage kits from places like B&Q or Garden Naturally. These are quite expensive and always look a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve never had one myself. When choosing netting it’s worth considering the durability of the material, and deciding what you want to keep out and let in. Places like Mole Valley Farmers and Garden Naturally do a wide range of nettings in different sizes and materials. We generally prefer to avoid using plastic nettings as they don’t last well and leave plastic fibres in the soil as they disintegrate, but they are cheaper and lighter and easier to handle than the wire netting.


Temporary Netting:

If you want temporary or mobile netting, there are various approaches you could take. If you have soft fruit against a wall or fence you could attach soft netting to it with a wooden baton and put in ties at regular intervals so the netting can be tied up when not needed, or when harvesting the fruit.

If there is no convenient vertical surface you can build a free-standing cage from light materials and put it where ever you want. A very popular material to use for this is agricultural blue water pipe. This can be bent into arcs and held into a solid rectangular base made of wood, with netting stretched over the top – a bit like mini polytunnel frame. Getting enough height for tall bushes could be an issue, but we have found that you can push lengths of bamboo or hazel into the ends of the piping to give extra height.

peach tunnel netting

Peach trees with half-tunnel structure to support poly plastic or netting

In a walled garden where I used to work, they had a row of peach trees against a south facing wall. Above it they had some poly plastic attached to the wall with batons, and a half-tunnel framework around the trees. This meant the trees could be protected from the cold in the winter, but open for pollination, harvesting and fresh air in the summer. A similar structure could be created with netting for small fruit trees and soft fruit.

By far the simplest approach to temporary netting, is to throw a net over a bush or group of bushes while it’s fruiting. This helps to protect against larger birds like blackbirds, so while some is still lost to rodents and perhaps some smaller birds, the majority is saved. sometimes the simplest solutions are the best!

With a little planning and the right materials you can protect your precious fruit crops and avoid the terrible disappointment of finding that someone has beaten you to it!

raspberry netting

Nylon bird netting fixed to wall above raspberries with batons.

A Matter of Scale

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

permaculture market garden

Trill Farm Market Garden


Earlier this week I attended an event at Monkton Wylde Court entitled ‘A Matter of Scale’, where Rebecca Laughton revealed the results of her research into the productivity of small farms in the UK. As a key member of The Land Workers Alliance campaigning group, Rebecca realised that what policymakers want is statistics, and there were none available to prove the worth of small scale producers in terms of productivity, social and environmental benefits. The study was designed to gather this information into a report and a series of short films.

rebecca laughton

Rebecca Laughton

“Policymakers rely on evidence. WE need to demonstrate that agroecology can feed the world”

Rebecca also identified a reluctance on the part of small farmers to quantify the benefits of small scale farming, partly because the motivation for land-based lifestyles which prioritise well-being of people and wildlife is based upon ethics and the benefits are somewhat unquantifiable. This said, the results of the report were impressive and the films very successfully conveyed the many and varied positive contributions that small farms make to people and communities, nature, health and local economies. When comparing yields and incomes to standard large organic farms, small farms held their own, often out-producing the large farms. It was interesting to see the level of diversity of small integrated systems which have multiple outputs such as veg, fruit, animals, value-added products, community engagement and education. This diversity gives them resilience as businesses and as systems, and allows a far higher level of productivity per acre than large single output farms.



Dairy cows at Monkton Wylde


Pigs at Five Penny Farm

“Eco farms have many functions (but) food production and financial productivity are key. Future farms must be productive AND sustainable.”


Rebecca focussed on farms of 20 hectares or less, because the government currently only subsidises farms of 20 hectares or more, putting small scale producers at a significant financial disadvantage. The survey showed that many small farmers are living on very low incomes, but that those incomes are comparable to those of large scale farmers before subsidies.


Community dairy facilities at Five Penny Farm

Something which could be clearer in the report is the difference in external inputs to large farms and small diverse farms, where they are able to make use of their own resources to feed plants and animals. Integrated systems allow for ‘closed’ loops by making the waste products of one part of the system, the inputs to another. For example, feeding the whey left over from cheese making to the pigs to avoid importing soya protein.


The report is available online and the results are very illuminating, although it would have been good to hear results from a greater number of small farmers – a case in point that small farmers’ lifestyles are married to the land, and therefore there is little time for filling in lengthy surveys! However, the study is an important first step in giving small farmers legitimacy in the eyes of government and championing the worth of land-based livelihoods for our culture as a whole.



Rebecca Laughton is a market gardener at Tamarisk Farm in Dorset, and author of Surviving and Thriving on the Land a book about how to make land-based projects sustainable for the people running them. The ‘A Matter of Scale’ study was supported by the Centre of Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. The Landworkers Alliance campaigns for the rights of people with small land-based livelihoods and is a member of the international campaigning group La Via Campasina.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor