Home for Kirsty is in the postcard-perfect town of Bradford-on-Avon, a stone’s throw from the historic and honey-hued city of Bath. She and Garry moved in six years ago, renovating and reconfiguring it entirely from the inside-out. Now stands a generous family home that, while immaculately presented, is at once comfortable and welcoming, with the garden as their shared pride and joy. They share it with daughter Molly and pensioner pup Paddy.
When Kirsty and Garry moved into their new home, the garden was already capacious and didn’t warrant extending or being heavily landscaped, but, it had plenty of potential asking to be unlocked. Handily, Garry is a self-taught and well-seasoned DIY whizz, and so quickly got to work himself by hiring a mini digger to level out the area towards the rear of the garden, hidden from view by a privet hedge – the area that would soon become the family’s vegetable ‘patch’.
Much digging, de-shrubbing and sorting later, the land was prepared and conversations on how they might fashion their patch gathered pace. “Garry first determined the pathways between the beds-to-be and then had the idea of taking some old railway sleepers to turn them into various raised beds,” explained Kirsty. “We’d been to our local nursery and they had done something similar and we both liked how neat and manageable it looked and thought, we could have a go at that. So that’s what we did, as well as designating a plot for a greenhouse to make the most of the sun that hits that part of the garden, and then plonking a shed in the shady bit.”
Like with so many garden designs, Kirsty and Garry’s vegetable garden (and what would be grown within it) was influenced by Mother Nature. By mapping out where the sun rises and sets, what soil they had to play with, and how blustery it would be, they settled on three beds – two large and one small – replacing the tricky clay soil with a load of far more fertile soil borne out of the rotted-down leaves that had been raked and left to mulch down by the previous owners. “It wasn’t actually the easiest part of the garden to work with as it wasn’t entirely level and Garry was keen to give the illusion of all the beds being the exact same height and size to lend a more formal look. It’s still not actually the easiest area to work with because that part of the garden is quite exposed so gets pretty windy. We also have some very lovely but large lime trees that take up all the moisture, so keeping all the plants well-watered is one of the biggest challenges,” Kirsty continued.
When it came to deciding what to plant, it was Garry who lead the way, being the more seasoned vegetable gardener out of the two. “We’re both big gardeners but I’ve always been more in the sense of flowers and borders whereas Garry’s great with all the other stuff. I knew bits that my granddad had passed on to me because he was a big vegetable gardener too, but the rest of it is stuff that we’ve picked up along the way. Like planting potatoes to help break down the soil when it’s struggling, which is why we rotate the potatoes as and when the soil needs a bit of TLC.”
A permanent fixture in their garden are the fruit bushes from which Kirsty picks redcurrants to make jelly at Christmas, blackcurrants to rustle up jars of jam and gooseberries to garnish bowls of granola and yoghurt at breakfast. “We have raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb growing in that part too – all things that need lots of sun and aren’t going to get re-rooted and rotated to a different spot. It’s incredibly satisfying going out there and picking bits and pieces, but there’s a restraint involved too because this stuff is seasonal so when they’re gone, they’re gone. We’re so used to walking into the supermarket and getting whatever we want all of the time, but in the garden, it just doesn’t work that way. You enjoy what the land and the seasons give you, and you look forward to when they’ll come back around. Like right now, we have asparagus on the go (though they’ve been blighted a bit this year by bugs) but they’ll probably be done in a few weeks’ time. We’ll reseed and then you just have to be patient until next year.”
In the greenhouse, there are chillis growing next to tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all without the aid of a heater – though Kirsty is all wired up ready to install one for when they want to experiment with ‘cheating’ the seasons. In the sleepers, you’ll find frothy lettuce heads and bunches of carrots as well as spring onions, leeks and beetroot in the smallest one. “That’s our sunniest bed by the greenhouse so we plant accordingly in there. The leeks have to be transplanted out to the bigger bed eventually where they get to live with peas, mange tout, courgette and all sorts really. It all depends on what’s in season. Though we’ve never really had great success with brassicas. But you win some, you lose some.” Being a flower gardener, Kirsty enjoys mixing florals and food, planting sweetpeas in the small sleeper and dahlias and stocks in the larger ones. Originally intended as a cutting garden, she largely leaves them in the great outdoors to admire, only bringing in the occasional sprigs of sweetpea to stop it becoming too unruly. “You can actually eat dahlias if you fancy. It’s nasturtium that I keep meaning to plant as they’re meant to be great for keeping away black fly which would really help our broad beans out! Maybe next year I’ll get around to doing that.”
In the other large sleeper, there’s a surprise or two: “That became our chicken coop in the end. Nothing really grew there because the largest lime tree wasn’t having any of it and I always liked the idea of having eggs laid by our own hens. We had four, but sadly we lost poor Edwina and Henrietta. Ginger and Lady Kluck (named after Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting) are doing ever so well and laying for us lots. Paddy occasionally pads over to them to see if there’s any food he can nick. He might occasionally bark at them but Ginger sends him on his way whenever he does. She takes no nonsense.”
We ended by asking Kirsty if she had one piece of advice for prospective veg-growers, what would that be? “For us, vegetable gardening has been a real learn-as-you go affair. We had a bit of experience but, otherwise, it’s about reading up and having a go. Sometimes, you put a seed in and hope it’s going to do what it says it will, but it doesn’t always work that way. A mouse might nibble at it, the rain might pour and wash away your hard work, or maybe that seed just didn’t fancy sprouting. It happens. You just have to wait and see and then try again. That’d be my biggest piece of advice – don’t limit yourself and just have a go. Goodness, Garry and I have made all sorts of mistakes but look how much we’ve learnt from them. Now, I look out and I can see French dwarf beans, cherries, lupins, spinach, verbena, cosmos, alliums and a whole host of other things sprouting away and it fills my heart with joy, especially as I feel like I still don’t really know what I’m doing out there half the time!”
Life in the vegetable garden
What’s your favourite thing to do in your garden?
“To just spend time pottering away with Garry. It’s a very therapeutic pastime and it’s lovely having a joint hobby. We work well together and find it relaxing and rewarding whether we’re planting, rotating or just sat on the edge of one of the sleepers taking it all in.”
What’s your favourite part and why?
“Heading out with a basket and picking what’s for dinner. It just makes you so proud when you see what you’ve grown and can serve it on the table for everyone to enjoy. Tonight it’s courgettes, carrots and mange tout all going into a shepherd’s pie.”
What could you now not live without?
“Pots! We might have our beds and greenhouse but there’s so much that you can do with pots too, which makes vegetable gardening a possibility even if you’ve got no outdoor space. You can grow garlic, chillis, potatoes, runner beans and all sorts from a plant pot. I love seeing young people doing this with their makeshift balcony gardens in the city.”
“I’m growing sprouts for the first time in the hope they’ll be ready for Christmas. I’ve done them in seed trays and they’re about 4–6cm high now. They’re probably about ready to be re-planted but I haven’t got room for them anywhere! So I’m patiently waiting for one thing to finish for the year and then they can take its spot. Maybe when the mange tout has sung its swan song.”