Escaping the Rat Race – Our Story. The following is a lightly-edited version of an article published in the summer issue of Permaculture Magazine in 2020.
Background and overview
When a serious health crisis forced us to re-evaluate how we live. I undertook to stay at home to grow and raise as much food as possible as my contribution to our household income. In reality, we had no idea what that might look like in terms of volume or how long it might take to turn our small paddock into a productive space.
Four years into this experience of escaping the rat race, approximately 85% of the food and drink on our table comes from our smallholding. We enjoy a more varied, exciting diet than I ever imagined possible and feel healthier and happier. And, as a bonus, the garden also generates a small income from a seasonal CSA veg box scheme. As the gardens have developed so has our resilience. Not only in terms of our food production/consumption and on a personal level.
Time and energy
I had never imagined that creating such a productive space with a very limited budget would be possible. As with so many things in life, time and energy have been the greatest contributing factors.
It is a complete contrast to the nine to five (read nine to nine) relentless work-load of previous jobs. By escaping the rat race, I now work with the seasons. I spend more hours in the garden and kitchen during the summer and autumn and few less in spring. While in winter I rest, recover and restore my energy levels. Working with the rhythm of the seasons feels more natural and more energising than anything I’ve experienced before.
The soil we inherited on the site was close to lifeless. I dug out 9 small holes, about the size of a spade, in different spots across the paddock. In those nine spadefuls I found just 3 worms. I knew that my priority was to encourage some life back into the soil. The very first thing I did was to build a compost heap.
In early 2016 I started creating the vegetable garden by making a couple of beds using the no dig method. Covering cardboard in well-rotted manure, some bought in top soil and used chicken bedding. I created one bed at a time. And sowed seeds into it or planted with seedlings to get the precious soil covered as quickly as possible. Then I moved on to creating the next bed. Trying to create the whole garden at once would have been disheartening. By tackling it in small steps I saw regular improvements and so was encouraged to do more.
Because we had the space, each raised bed is 120cms by 420cms with 90cms between the beds. Pathways were made wide enough for wheelchair access. My health was so poor at that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would need one before the end of that first year. It’s much easier to design for such events than redesign and rebuild at a later date. During that first year I created 10 beds, using as much homemade compost as possible. Over the second year I created another 10 raised beds.
Poultry and food forest
We raised chickens; they quickly earned their place here by incorporating composting materials into the ground. And then ducks as supreme slug and snail detectives. By moving the chickens’ enclosure, I was able to grow in the ground that they had ‘prepared’. I also started to plant a food forest. It now wraps around the vegetable garden and will, over the years, provide some shelter from the westerly winds and offer a home for a wider variety of wildlife. The total growing area including the wide pathways and flower borders is well under half an acre.
Locally sourced materials
Wherever possible we’ve sourced materials locally. For example, using pallets to create fencing, wood chips from a local tree surgeon for pathways and composting, spent grain from a family-run small local brewery (which was good for creating compost quickly), well-rotted horse manure from my sister’s home and cardboard from local shops. A handy bucket in the kitchen ensures all fruit and vegetable scraps are returned to the compost heap. All working towards improving the soil, its structure and micro-organism life.
Careful planning is the secret
I started by growing a few kitchen staples and also plants that lured me with pretty pictures on the packaging; now I focus on foods that we prefer to eat and especially those that are more expensive to buy in. It makes more sense to plant what we like to eat rather than just what I like to grow. By the end of the second growing season, we were able to store enough food for about 50% of our meals over the winter months.
I work on the basis that ‘nature just wants to grow’. I try not to get too distracted by the ultra-specific needs or intricacies of each variety. Although inevitably that happens too occasionally. I feel that as long as we provide favorable growing conditions and choose varieties that are suited to our climate, we are likely to have success.
Two year after escaping the rat race
During the 2018 growing season we grew, raised, foraged and bartered in excess of 1000 Kgs (2200 lbs) of food; this was more than enough for the two of us for the year. Each raised bed is full for much of the year, during the spring, summer and early autumn as soon as one harvest is completed, another crop is planted and then winter crops are left to stand for harvesting throughout the cooler months. I make use of archways and fencing to grow vertically which frees ground space for other plants to grow. Interplanting and successional sowing makes more use of the limited growing space.
We’ve been trying several perennial vegetables to see whether we like the taste of them and whether they could replace some of the more traditional varieties that we’ve eaten in the past. This experiment continues and has had varying degrees of success.
I found producing this much food relatively easy, by being organised in my planning coupled with being prepared to be flexible about timings in response to the weather conditions. And as my health has improved, the amount of time it takes to work in the garden and the recovery time I need to take has reduced, thus allowing me to be more productive each year.
As we’ve increased the diversity of plants growing here, the wildlife has increased too. With each garden ‘pest’ that has arrived, its predator has followed, creating a more natural balance right across the site. Although I use netting to protect brassicas, I also plant some sacrifice cabbages to continue to support the cabbage white butterfly and cabbage moth populations, those plants are allowed to compost in situ or are added to the compost piles – some for us, some for others and some for the land. And we leave patches of stinging nettles and other weeds to encourage and support other species.
A dramatic change in diet
Our overall diet has changed dramatically, eating more seasonally gives us a variety of tastes and flavours that, for most of the year, are exciting and invigorating. Old staples (e.g. potatoes) have been, in part, replaced with vegetables that store well (e.g. squash, beans and parsnips in the ground) and the pleasure of eating a raspberry that has been warmed by the sun never becomes repetitive, but I am equally happy to use them from the freezer throughout the year. Gone are the pre-packaged processed foods that we used to rely on and they have been replaced with homegrown, homecooked meals. We still have ready meals in our freezers, but now they are created from scratch and frozen for a quick and easy meal at a later date.
Taking responsibility for our health and well-being and for the land that supports us has allowed us to control more of what we consume and how. Perhaps this reads as an over-romanticised view of becoming more self-reliant and resilient; it’s certainly taken a lot of work, but creating this garden has been a healing process, for the land and for us.
Find out more
Byther Farm is a 0.8 acre smallholding in Monmouthshire, south east Wales. We run a seasonal CSA veg box scheme, offer training courses and workshops on site and online, and share our story on YouTube. My first book, Grounded is now available and tells the story more fully of escaping the rat race and I turned a bare field into an abundant productive growing space. Published by Permanent Publications. Signed copies of the book are only available via this website (for UK delivery only). It is also available at Permenent Publications (for delivery worldwide) and at Chelsea Green Publishing (for USA and Canada).