Gardening Podcast – Stephanie Hafferty

Byther Farm Gardening Podcast with Stephanie Hafferty Season 2 Episode 5.

Stephanie and I are good friends and in this conversation we talk about preparing the garden for the growing year, the difficulty of growing in unpredictable weather and learning how to grow an appropriate amount of food for our household. Listen to this podcast episode.

The Creative Kitchen book cover

Website No Dig Home

Stephanie Hafferty on Instagram

Facebook group No Dig Gardening – Undug

Creative Kitchen by Stephanie Hafferty

No Dig Organic Home and Garden by Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty

Transcription of my Gardening Podcast with Stephanie Hafferty

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Hello and welcome back to the Byther Farm podcast and this week I am delighted to be able to say I have a friend, a colleague, an amazing no-dig gardener, author, tutor, well the list goes on and on. And this is my friend Steph Hafferty. Hiya Steph.


Did I miss anything out on that list?

Stephanie – Oh yeah, sophisticated woman about town, you know, the usual, all the usual stuff!

Liz – All the usual stuff! So here we are, it’s a cold and miserable winter’s morning. We’ve had freezing weather for the last week or so and today the weather has returned to rain. How is that affecting your garden Steph?

Stephanie – It has been incredibly difficult. We’ve had months of rain, which has meant that the usual routine things you do in the winter haven’t happened because it’s been torrential and then you’ve got to wait for the ground to kind of recover from the water. Things like weeds, which normally you wouldn’t be thinking about weeds in January. You know, I’ve still got loads of weeding to do because they’ve thrived, apart from that week of cold weather, it’s been really mild. So things like rose bay willow herb have been germinating and growing. And it’s not that I’m like wanting to enter ‘lovely garden of the year’ contest, but I need the beds clear so I can mulch them and get them ready for sowing. Otherwise in March and April you’re doing like three days worth of work every day.

Liz – So it’s actually really demoralising to start the gardening year with a year’s worth of weeds to clear up, isn’t it?

Stephanie – Yeah, it’s been, I mean I’ve done one bed I was so excited, that was a real, real excitement and that’s mulched. But the others, I tell you, willow herb though looks really pretty in the frost. You can get some great photos of it. It’s so nice. But I’ve got surgery in four weeks, so the kind of pressure is on to get things ready so that I’m not doing anything too physical And so it’s like on top of the usual, this is the sowing that needs to be doing and the pricking out as it comes. I haven’t done any yet. There’s also that at one of the busiest times of the year, I might be in quite a bit of pain and not feeling… I’m out of action. Not too much.

Which is where I was last year.


Remember me ringing you? So I did, I had lots and lots of phone calls with you when you were standing in your greenhouse and you were either sowing seeds or you were pricking out seedlings. And I was just saying, no, I still don’t feel well enough to do anything. And it really set me back. But it was also really nice to hear the kind of normality of you just getting on with stuff, which was really nice.

Stephanie  – Well, I’m hoping that the sowing and everything I’ll be doing up to that point that you would normally do. And I’m hoping that pricking out and things should be fine. But things like being on the ground and weeding, I want that done. I want all of it. And mulching, I want that done. So yeah, this weather better listen to what I need.

Liz – So what do you generally mulch with?

Stephanie – It depends. area that actually needs the most weeding because it’s next to a lovely hedge row, which has the most beautiful willow herb in, which is brilliant for wildlife, but self-seeds like crazy. So that’s the back garden beds, and that I usually mulch with compost. And the rest of the garden…

Liz – Is that homemade compost?

Stephanie – It’s actually, it was going to be. A lot of my homemade compost is saturated. It’s not in good shape. So I’m going to use that on beds that I’m not going to be planting into until late April, May. Also because the rats have moved in there, which it’s the countryside. I don’t worry about it too much. But I do not want to be sowing radishes into rat compost. I don’t mind taking things out later on. So I have actually, because of this four week window between now and the surgery, I have arranged to have some delivered just so I can get those back garden beds done. I didn’t budget for it, but it’s like life, you know, circumstances have changed.

Liz – It is like life. And if you have a newish garden, which you and I have both done in the last couple of years, you don’t instantly have masses of homemade compost.

No, exactly, and particularly if the rain rains all the time. And so I’ve also got, so in the orchard, I use more, I’ve got some really nice composted wood chip. I had to have some trees chopped down when I moved here. And I’ve got, so it’s two and a half year old wood chip now. So that again, I’m like waiting for it to be dry so I can spread this and this is going in the polytunnel and in the back garden and any uncomposted bits are going to go in the fruit cages and fruit areas. And I’ve got quite a bit of sheep’s fleece. I like to mulch with that.

Some of the beds are mulched with the leaves that I’ve had to rake up from plants so I don’t break my neck. And those beds for things like raspberries, things I wouldn’t sow lettuce into it because it’s going to be slimy, but for bigger established plants it’s perfect. So there’s, yeah, I try to use everything that’s possible as a mulch, ending on different situations. So I’ve got a very small amount of straw, which normally I don’t use here because it’s on a hill and it might blow away, but it came with some trees that I’d ordered, so that will go somewhere. Many mulching, anything I can want, once the grass starts growing, hey, mulch!

Liz – Yes, one of the things that I learned the hard way is things like, you know, wood chips are brilliant, but they really need to be broken down very well before they’re used in beds.

Stephanie – Yeah, because I mean, wood lice obviously go into the wood chip and wood lice are superb. They’re really important. And, you know, they do many great things in the garden and they’re a food for so many creatures, like hurrah for wood lice, but they also eat your crops or lots of them. So, you know, if I planted my baby aubergines in May in a bed of wood chip, goobye aubergines, because woodlice love aubergine plants. Why? I do not know, but they do. So, cucumbers, they’ll eat all your cucumbers, the plants when they’re babies.

So yeah, it’s all working out which mulch goes where, which is great, because then you end up with like a kind of patchwork quilt garden of all these different mulches. It’s not, because it’s not, you know, rather than the ones that just look like a big chocolate cake, which is nice, but you’re thinking, blimey, how on earth have they managed to get so many tons of compost to make it all uniform. Oh, and another one, of course, is green manure, which I use again in other situations.

Liz – Is that a green manure you’re saying?

Stephanie – A little green manure, yeah. So I’ll be spreading some of that when the weather warms up. So that will be definitely late March, April, not now. And the nice thing about that is you can go out in your spring frock with your straw bonnet on because all you’ve got is a little packet of seeds. Then sprinkle it like Margot from The Good Life in a kind of dainty way. And it’s quite nice having something that isn’t, you know, having to lug wheelbarrows about.

Yes. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, one of the ways that I got to know about you, Steph, was through a couple of the books that you had written. So, there was the No-Dig Organic Home and Garden book, which you wrote with Charles Dowding, and then Creative Kitchen, which is the one that I bought from you, and I was so excited when it arrived. You put a beautiful little card in it, which you’d signed and said, hope you really enjoy it. I was so thrilled with that. It was really lovely. So I then went and looked to see, I didn’t, I mean, stalking’s the wrong word. I researched to see where you and find you on Instagram and on Facebook and followed you there and then started chatting to you through those.

But your Instagram account is just beautiful. You do lots of short videos showing what you’re doing on a weekly basis. I don’t mean you do the video, but it’s what’s happening now they’re absolutely up to date and but then you also share the most beautiful photographs.  So if anybody hasn’t found you on Instagram I highly recommend go and find Steph on Instagram and then you you are part of a really good group now is that a group that you set up on on Facebook?

Stephanie  – Yes yeah that was quite funny I set that up some years ago, a no-dig gardening group called No-Dig Gardening and it’s hyphen undug. Now that was someone else who was involved in setting it up at the time and he was suggesting I put undug on and now I think it’s somewhere over 30,000 members now. I’m not quite sure how many. But yeah, so it’s all about no-dig gardening. And it’s run by me and four friends now. Because it got too big for me just to run it. It’s like I’m strict, but we’re strict. We’ve got obvious rules like, you know, no being nasty to people.

But we want to have it as a really safe place for asking what might be perceived to be silly questions. Yeah, because we’ve all got questions that you don’t want to ask because you think it’s a bit silly. And in some groups, as I understand it, I’m not in many groups, but I’m in yours. But in some groups, I think if you ask a quite basic question, some people are quite rude and we don’t like that. So we want a really safe space.

And yeah, it’s really important. It’s really important to be able to ask those basic questions. And I still ask them now because you know, gardening is a constant learning thing, isn’t it? Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, you never know everything. It’s things like, I mean, in more recent years, I’ve learned a lot more about green manures. And so it was really good visiting Jane at Oxton Organics. I think it was, was it last year? Two years ago, or in 24 now, aren’t we? And being able to ask her really basic questions, because she’s like the queen of green manures mixes which she makes incredible. It’s market garden scale, not all of it would work here and she includes sheep in the routine which I don’t, well if I do have sheep in my garden they’re not meant to be there.

Liz – Accidental!

Stephanie – Yeah, come in for a visit and yeah so it was good being able to ask her questions which are really basic, but I don’t know because I’ve never made a 14 different types of plant green manure mix. And, yeah, it’s important, it really is. Nobody knows everything and I think the thing with anything, gardening in particular, is the more you learn about it, the more you realise that there’s still loads more to learn.

Yes, you can do a gardening course, but it’s not going to give you, it’s just going to give you a teaspoon of the information rather than a gallon.

Yeah. At no point can you sit back and think, oh, I’m so smug now. I know everything about growing veg, because then something weird will happen.

Liz – Yes, and nature just likes to show us all the time that we’re not in charge.

Stephanie – Exactly, exactly, like it’s doing today. It’s as my garden flies by my window in the storm.

Liz – So yeah, so we’re in the storm Isha. And last night I lay in bed thinking, wow, she’s arrived. Or he’s arrived. Is it male or female?

I don’t even know.

Liz – Whichever it is, it has arrived. It was very, very loud last night.

Stephanie –  I slept through it mostly, but I think it was a bit more of a lull here. It really started picking up about 9.30. And that’s when I noticed this. I’d gone out yesterday to put things, like water butts that haven’t been installed yet, shove them somewhere where hopefully they’ll just stay there. And I forgot about this big pile of plastic plant pots which are now enjoying their best lives, going off on adventures all over the place. I thought, well, I’m not chasing them because the trees are flying about, not literally I hope, but yes.

Liz – Yes, I went to let the ducks out this morning and they’re in a barn at the moment for safety reasons because we’ve got a lot of foxes coming through. But when I let them out, they came rushing out of their house and then went, oh, it’s kind of nippy here. And they went half back in and sort of stood in the shelter of their house going, do you want to block of the gaps because the wind was absolutely whistling through the barn. And you know, ducks are complete with cosy duvets on them, so I was a little surprised.

Stephanie –  Oh, and they had a nice layer of fat, you know, they’re pretty insulated creatures.

Liz- And down, but they’re not so keen today. So Steph, you moved to your new home, can we still call it new? After a couple of years, yeah, let’s still call it new. You moved to your new home a couple of years ago, just before we moved here, and so that whole starting from scratch thing, very daunting or or a fantastic opportunity?

Stephanie – I mean, the actual moving part was quite daunting because it was during a lockdown. So a lot of the things that you’d normally do, and I hadn’t moved for 20 years. I’d been in my previous house 20 years, and I moved from Somerset here, so lots of changes. But the actual starting the garden wasn’t daunting, but it had been my job for ages.

You know, I’ve made gardens for clients, I’ve created things, you know, gardens on private estates and what have you. And also I’ve been involved in setting up a market garden at Homeacres. So I was, so the reason it wasn’t daunting is because I knew a lot of things that you needed to do and what preparation to do beforehand. And so I was able pretty much to hit the ground running as much as you could with a lockdown. Yeah, so more exciting opportunity.

I mean, obviously, it’s a different climate here, different soil, different, I know we’re not supposed to call them pests, but creatures as behaving like pests. I’ve never lived anywhere where squirrels were a problem before, for example. And I’d never lived anywhere where sheep got into your garden before. The farmer sorted out the sheep pen, so that’s all right. There’s just the occasional wanderer gets in from a different field. So yeah, it was a really exciting opportunity, mostly. And even with a fairly clean slate that I had here, you’re still thinking, OK, where does the polytunnel go? And you’ve got limitations. So it’s working things out based on what’s there and how things can fit around existing trees and boundaries.

Yeah. So yeah, it was great. So what size is your plot reminds me?

Stephanie – It’s just under half an acre, but that is including things like the footprint of the house and the driveway, which isn’t a very big driveway, but you know, parking area. So it’s bigger than I’ve ever had myself. I’ve gardened in bigger places for work. But I think because I was moving here, essentially this was all just me, I think it was a pretty good size for one person. I did look at places with a couple of acres and I think, because I have to, like all of us, you know, I do other work as well. I would not have been able to create a garden and earn enough money to pay the bills and the mortgage. So it’s working those things out. I think it’s…

Liz – I mean, half an acre with your house on it is actually a huge size, isn’t it?

Stephanie – It’s great. It’s big without feeling overwhelming. Another thing that’s been really quite exciting is I have three kids all in their 20s. And when I moved here, two of them were still students, so technically living with me, although, well, actually they work because of lockdown. And then so now there’s one of my kids is still living here.

So I’ve gone from gardening to feed a family of four, plus any other people who are visiting. So now it’s mostly just two of us. And I’m rethinking this year because I go straight into feeding the 5000 mentality. And it’s like, I love beetroot. I really, really love beetroot. If I ate all the beetroot that I grew in the past year, I would be an interesting shade of purple now, I think. It’s working out.

And so that is exciting because it’s working out how much, some things you want loads of like tomatoes because you can can them, but other things it’s like cucumbers. I grew cucumbers as if I had a family of three kids plus their mates here. And you’re looking at me like, okay, great, I’ve got another 12 cucumbers. What do I do? I just now want 500 jars of cucumber pickle.

Liz – And you know, your neighbours go off you when you leave too many of the same thing on their doorstep.

Stephanie – They do. The word goes round and they all run away.

Liz – Ah, it’s courgette time!

Stephanie – Actually, ours were rubbish this year, last year, last summer, because it was so miserable. I planted out loads of, what I thought was too many, but I wanted different varieties because some are less moist than others and they’re better for other recipes. But I hardly had a courgette. And I think it was because with the relentless rain that we had here, every time a courgette flower opened, the slugs, which were the size of sheep by this point. So it was like a courgette was something miraculous. I had billions of them.

Liz – So I’m going to be trying courgettes, growing them in my polytunnel this year, which I did. The first year I had my polytunnel in the old house at 2019. And honestly, they grew enormous and they were crawling across the floor by six or eight feet and it was just amazing. And I’m going to do that again. I’m going to have a couple of spots where I really enrich the soil, big and probably plant them on a mound of compost in the hope that they will really flourish.

Stephanie – I think that is looking at the polytunnel and I used it very much still as if I was in Somerset, which is much warmer and sunnier than Wales. I mean I used to grow courgettes at the polytunnel when I ran kitchen gardens for clients because they wanted earlier harvests. So that would be why I was doing it, but for myself I never really. I would do one in a pot, because then you’d get the few early ones, but you could hoik it out easily. But I think definitely rethinking the use of that polytunnel space. I’ve got fruit trees in it now, which I went last year, so they’re still babies, and grapevines, to make it more of a diverse food space in the summer, rather than just aubergines, tomatoes, 11 million cucumbers, etc.

Liz – Well if you’re growing fewer cucumbers and you don’t necessarily need all of those aubergines, then you’ve got a bit of a huge…

Stephanie –  I do. I do.

Liz – You love aubergines.

Stephanie – I have an obsession with them, yes. S

Liz – So I don’t like the very big, like the aubergines you would buy in a supermarket, the big dark purple ones. But I do like kind of quite thin ones. I think maybe I don’t like the seeds in them, or maybe I don’t like the flesh when it gets too soft. I don’t.

Stephanie – One that’s really nice, and I’ve forgotten the name, but you can get the seeds from Seeds of Italy, is it’s a big white one with a kind of pinky violet top. And that, if you slice it, it really holds its texture. And it’s really meaty. So you can use, as you would chicken, say, it’s going to hold it rather than a purple. The purple fat ones tend to go, I mean, to a delicious, I think, mush, but they’re more mushy. This one really holds it.

I think the thing with aubergines, there’s so many different kinds that are good for different recipes. So there’s round one, which is green with like pale green speckles that they use a lot in Thai cuisine. And that one you can actually eat raw as well, which is weird for an aubergine, and that really holds its shape in curries. And those long green ones, the thin green ones, I think are so sweet and delicious. But yeah, I could go on about aubergines forever.

Liz – So I grow the long, thin, purple ones.

Stephanie – Yeah, they’re nice too.

Liz – Yeah, I’ve now worked out I do quite like those. So if you were growing fewer cucumbers, the same number of aubergines, but then you would have more space in the polytunnel for a wider variety.

Stephanie – Yeah, definitely. And the other thing I’m going to do differently this year is start my overwintering polytunnel veg earlier, probably two or three weeks earlier than I normally would, because I noticed that the size wasn’t, they weren’t growing as quickly as they did in Somerset, which is, these are things we move into a different area, but here, autumn is almost like an off switch. You wake up one day and then nature’s decided it’s autumn and it’s so damp. So certain things that in Somerset would keep going maybe through to November, here it’s like, okay, now we’re going to go a bit mushy. So, and it’s much darker.

Mushy, blighty, mouldy, all of those things. All the stuff. It’s all the damp things, isn’t it?

And that’s just me, though, isn’t it? But, yeah, so I’m going to do that. And the thing, and also I’ve just been doing my seed ordering. And I’ve managed to not buy 20,000 different types of tomatoes. I’m feeling quite chuffed. Still got a lot, but not that many. But I’ve bought some F1 hybrids, which I know open pollinated is really great and all the rest of it, but I’m trying these out to see if they will increase production in this kind of environment. What this guarantee is, rather than having a dark, damp summer and autumn, it’s going to be like Tuscany here.

So yeah, so it’s a kind of, but yeah, so it’s working out the adaptations, but we genuinely don’t know what is going to happen. I’m hoping it’s not going to be like last year, but we don’t know.

Liz – I’m hoping so. And maybe not even the year before, because the year before was dry for so long in many places. Yes. I mean, we did very well here on that little bit of hillside because we had rain. So not last year, the year before, we had rain about every three weeks. And while friends were sending me photographs of dried gardens, I had photographs of the children on the beach, and then it turned out they weren’t on the beach, they were at the local park, but the grass had turned completely brown, sand-coloured. We still had green grass. We still had lush growth because we were, you know, in our little tiny microclimate here, we’re still getting some rain.

Stephanie – Yeah, we had rain here. Yeah, so, you know, like having to mow your lawn still because it was still growing. Yeah. And then, yeah, other people were just tearing their hair out. So it’s in situations like that where it’s like, yeah, it’s really great to mulch with grass clippings when it’s really hot and dry. But the problem is you don’t have the grass clippings when it’s really hot and dry.

Liz – Yeah, you’ve got to kind of mow knowing that it’s going to be really hot and dry. And if you don’t,

Stephanie – What we could do is we could mow our lawns, package up the grass clippings and mail them out to people who are really dry and make our fortune!

Liz – We are going to run out of time in our conversation fairly soon, but I did want to talk to you a little bit about some of the courses that you’re running.

Stephanie – This year I’m doing a grow year-round, no dig gardening type courses. First one starts in a few weeks. Also this year, new to here, not new to me teaching, but new to me doing it here, I’m doing one based around Creative Kitchen. So it’s looking at, you know, you grow all this stuff, what to do with it. So seasonal plant-based recipes. A Homesteading skills course. So different, teaching different skills that I use to preserve the harvest and different things to make with it. And doing some specific polytunnel ones and wildlife ones too. And there’s another one, and I’ve completely forgotten what it is. That’s the best part.

Liz – A mystery course.

Stephanie – A mystery course, brilliant.

Liz How do people find out about those and book on those?

Stephanie – It’s all on my website, which is either my name, so, or Both go to the same place.

Liz – OK, so I will make sure that I’ve left the links to all the things we’ve talked about today in the show notes so that people can find those really easily. And one last thing Steph, do you have a fairly quick gardening tip to share with people for starting their garden this spring?

Stephanie – Start small, if you’re starting your garden start small, I have been gradually making this bigger and bigger. But it has taken, you know, I’ve been here three years this March. And if you start with a smaller area, you can do it properly, and you can do it in a way that you’re able to manage it. It’s gonna be lovely and productive, and you can be happy and then you’ve got all these other things to look forward to. And one thing, you know, as you gradually make it bigger and bigger, because when you move somewhere, you have so many other things to do as well.

And if you could see the room I’m in at the moment, well, you know what it’s like here. So I’m here with my wood burner that I had installed in October 2021, and it involved quite a bit of re-plastering wall, I still have not painted that plaster. I am in a house completely undecorated, apart from, you know, if something was absolutely crucial, any minor repairs just haven’t been done, because I’ve been focusing on my garden, and maybe living in a house where you’ve actually fixed a few holes might be appealing to people.

Liz – But as we’re having this conversation, Steph’s sitting in her sitting room with the undecorated fireplace. She’s looking at me with a wall I’m just having put in behind me, which is not only undecorated, it’s not yet plastered. Yeah, and I did the same thing. I concentrated on the garden and then in the winter I concentrate inside. But, you know, I’d much rather be out playing in the garden.

Stephanie – Yeah, well, I haven’t even concentrated. In my defence, I am working on some other projects, which are projects, so they have to take priority.

Liz – Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts today.

Stephanie –
Thank you.

And no doubt, it will not be very long. In fact, I know it won’t be very long because you and I will be meeting up next month when we do an outing.

Stephanie – Oh yes, to the big smoke.

Liz – Yes, another outing of the big smoke. Thank you very much and we shall speak to you and hear from you again very soon.

Stephanie – Okay, thank you.

The podcast you’ve been listening to is a Byther Farm production. All rights reserved.

Liz Zorab

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