23: Episode 23 – A lockdown garden activity for mental health

Spending time in our garden is a great way to relieve anxiety and increase our mental health and wellbeing. In this episode I talk about a great garden activity that is beneficial to you and your garden, and will help you to understand your garden space better, using permaculture principles to better assess your garden’s potential.

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A Lockdown Garden Activity For Mental Health

I’m going to be talking about a garden activity that everybody can do and it’s a great lockdown activity if you’re not allowed to leave the house. It’s also a great mental health activity if you’re struggling with anxiety, or you just need to slow down the pace at which your mind is turning over. It’s based on permaculture principles and it’s about learning from nature. What we’re going to do is basically talk about learning from what’s already happening in the space and putting ourselves in a position to make the best decisions for our garden and perhaps come up with some different ideas of how we might use spaces.

Garden Activities in Lockdown Period

There’s no better way of learning about your space and understanding it than spending time in it. So we’re going to talk about an activity that is very useful for food planning and certainly for me. I find it very useful to actually come up with different ways of using spaces and I quite often settle on some ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Noting Down The Essentials

The first thing to do is to get a sheet or two of paper and we’re going to write a list of headings that we’re going to fill out as we spend time in our space. Depending on the size of your garden, I did this in eight different distinct areas. You might have a very small urban garden or you might have lots of different areas with different aspects to them. So you might want to consider doing more than one sheet of research paper to really understand how different parts of your garden are working. So I’m going to run through the headlines and then tell you the sort of things I wrote. I’ve got one of the sheets in front of me that I actually filled out a year-and-a-half ago and it’s quite surprising how much it actually did help change my thinking about the area. So towards the northern boundary of my property, we have a large area that is currently on its way to becoming a food forest. But at the time that I did this activity, it was just a piece of grass or at least one side of it was a piece of grass and the other side of this area was the edge of woodland.

Let’s start with just the location, date and the weather. This is useful because there might be things that are happening that you might expect to see more or less of based on the weather at that particular time. The location for me was picnic area/food forest because that’s where we had our picnic bench and the date that I filled this in was the 23rd of May. The weather was dry and bright with no rain for several days. This is important to note these features because of the fact that I know there was no rain for several days means that when we come to look at what’s happening, we can allow that in our thinking and the temperature was 19 degrees and the overnight low was eight degrees. These are all things I noted. Then I went down to list and wrote that the pH level is 7.5 in that area. pH testers are available online very cost-effectively. The one I’ve got is a reusable one. So I think I paid about 8 pounds for it and I just plug it in the ground and it tells me the pH level and I can reuse that forever and ever.

Absorb Nature

The next thing you do once you set down and you’ve made these notes is absolutely nothing.
You just sit for a good 10 minutes. The reason for this is to allow nature to return whenever you go for a walk in the countryside or walk out into your garden. Quite often a lot of the natural environment quickly changes because there’s a human there and a lot of your small birds and small animals will either freeze or actually disappear. Just sitting still for 10 minutes, you can listen and hear the difference in the birdsong as they return to their normal state, as they become more comfortable with you being there.

Soil Humidity

The next section on my list was soil humidity and humus notes. Humus is the amount of organic matter in your soil and it will largely tell you about how fertile it will be. So whenever you look at a piece of land, if you can tell that it’s not been disturbed for a long time and that’s going to tell you that the soil food web and everything below the ground are likely in a very healthy state because it’s been left to grow and do its thing. But whatever you can tell about your soil is what goes here. So if you happen to know what sort of subsoil you’ve got whether it’s clay or chalk or something different goes in here and this can all help you to make judgments to what type of plants you wish to plant or what type of fertility you have in the area. It’s certainly a good idea to make any notes that you’re already aware of as you go through in all these cases.


The next section was sunlight and what I did is I drew a very rudimentary picture sketch of the area and I labelled where north was. Because a large portion of the area I was looking at was trees, it allowed me to judge where exactly was getting the sun. So I drew a very rudimentary sketch with where the trees were and the pond in the area that I’d partially created and then I just labelled different areas as the full sun to partial shade.

Wind Exposure

The next heading title was wind exposure and for this particular area, my notes were fairly exposed to the northeast. So wind exposure can make a difference for lots of reasons, especially if you’re going to be growing annual plants or things that might need to be supported. Whenever you’re planning long-term planting, it’s really important to consider how the wind and sun work because they’ll be certain areas that lend themselves to different plants. Some plants may need support by way of the trellis. If you’re going to implement things like this and that’s going to have an impact on what areas subsequently gets shaded. So it’s certainly worth looking at the wind exposure and the sun area together in my opinion.

Existing Plants

The next heading on my list was existing plants. This should be whatever’s in the area regardless of whether it’s stuff you’ve planted yourself, whether it’s stuff you’ve inherited or weeds. Whatever it is, put all the existing plants down there and this whole system what we’re doing is based on permaculture principles. So what we’re going to do is work in harmony with what’s already happening in the space. That doesn’t mean that we have to have our entire garden running rampant with weeds, but knowing what grows where and what is growing well already will help us to make the sort of changes that require a lot less effort to install but also maintain. Under this heading for this particular area in my garden, I had a large selection of native trees, comfrey around the ponds, various introduced edibles and that was introduced by myself and red clover, buttercups, couch grass etc. The area that I had was largely inherited and I had begun the process of creating a food forest in some of it. The best time to do this is before you start planting an area and I may have changed the exact location of where I planted a lot of my long-term planting in this area had I done this activity first.

Encouraging Systems

The next heading in my list is systems to encourage. So I looked around and saw in front of me and to the north a fence that separated our property from our neighbours. I put here edible climbers to the north fence because that was an obvious area that got lots of suns and that it would be really easy to introduce more edible climbers because we already had some blackberries growing there. It was a great place where we could look at something that was already working as a system and encourage that and add to it by introducing more edible climbers of different varieties.

Something else that was a system working and wanted to encourage was self mulching and leaf litter. This is how the wooded area was working and how it works in every woodland is that the leaves fall and act as a mulch to suppress some of the weeds. That’s why when you walk in a woodland quite often, there’s not much growing beneath a lot of the trees. So I wanted to use that system to self mulch around the base of the fruit trees that I was planting. Another system that I could encourage was due to the nature of the pond that was in the process of
being built. There were duck pest control and manure. Ducks are fantastic for eating your slugs and things like that.

My vegetable garden is just around the corner from this area. So if I were to free-range Indian runner ducks, they could act as pest control for my vegetable garden and some of the area in general. The final thing. I put here was aquaculture, the idea of having the pond system as a way of growing food. So those are the systems that I want to encourage from what I could see on this day. You might have different things growing in your area. You might have a chicken coop in your area. You might have all sorts of things that I didn’t have in this particular area, but there are all sorts of opportunities here for things that you can encourage and we’re trying to look at what’s already working and thinking what can we do rather than cutting and chopping things out or in.

Discouraging Systems

The next thing on my list was systems to discourage. I had a predator and pest Ingress to the property at the northeast boundaries, wasted water overflow from the pond and squirrels stripping nuts from trees. We also could see animal runs so I could see where foxes, badgers were getting in through our fences. We also have lots of rabbits that come in and I don’t necessarily want to stop the rabbits coming in but I do want to stop them from eating certain plants. This area of our property is at the highest point, not on a hill, but it does have a very slight run from the northeast corner to the southwest and this where I had my ponds and wasted water overflow. What I meant by that is water was overflowing from my pond and I thought if I could divert that water towards my vegetable bed, that would be a far better use of it. Because if that water is going to be quite high in nutrients eventually because I’m going to have fish and ducks living in the pond. So I wanted those nutrients to make their way somewhere useful not somewhere I didn’t need them.


The next thing on my list is wildlife. If I was to do this again, I’d put this one higher up because it could influence some things that I’ve already spoken about. But here I wrote squirrels, evidence of rabbit, dear seen in the neighbouring pasture. buzzards, magpies, crows, dragonflies, and miscellaneous water creatures in the pond. This includes things that I saw while I was sat there so this will vary dramatically from area to area in your garden. We don’t see any of these mammals near the house when we get very close to our house. We don’t see any of them because we have a dog running free most of the time outside. It is worth taking the time to allow nature to return to this area and seeing what you see while you’re there.


The next category we’re talking about is some of the bigger infrastructure things and its resources. By resources, this can mean anything man-made or natural. So here I’ve got some ponds, compost loo because we had a compost loo that I built in the woods and woodland partial fencing shade and ducks. So these are all resources in the area that I can use that we should try not to waste.

We’re going to run through them one by one again. Well, a lot of this area was the sun so that’s not a resource that I want to waste. Anything that’s in full sun. I want to be used to photosynthesize, to produce plants, to produce food to feed the soil. The next one was the ponds. You can use them to grow food by way of plants or fish and you can use them to house ducks. You can also use them to produce fertilizer, which is several of the things. I’m doing a great use of a pond. If you don’t really have a use in mind, just grow duckweed as feed for ducks and geese. The next resource was a compost loo. The reason this is Is a great resource because it produces fertilizer, but also it means that it’s an easier to use area. We can spend more time in the area without having to go away back to the house. Woodland is a great resource for coppicing for timber but also for harbouring nature partial fencing. So again, we’ve got some fencing ready in place to act as support for climbers. We’ve also got shade so I spent quite a lot of time researching things that would grow in the shade around my woodland as part of my food forest.

Problems Encountered

The next thing was the problems. I only had two here: pests and soil drainage. We’re on clay so when it rained for prolonged periods, it would get very wet in some areas. I found out that in that area with it being the highest point on our property doesn’t have an issue with drainage. So the only thing I had to think about was pests and we’ve dealt with that largely by building tree guards and many tree farms around most of our planting.

SWOT Analysis

The next thing is a list of four things: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This was basically condensing those thoughts into ultimately opportunities things that we could go forwards with. Under strengths, I put peace. It was a very peaceful place very quiet fertility.
The soil hadn’t been touched and it was a very fertile area and nice sun and shade mix. For weaknesses, I put pests and predators and then we get to opportunities and threats. So for opportunities, we could create strong gilts. There was lots of space that we could create nice strong plant gilts around individual trees in the food forest and other opportunities are edible pond permaculture. So the two biggest things I wanted to go forward with was developing the pond area and developing the food forest. Under threats. I’ve put waterlogging and fox/badger damage. Both of them were mitigated for us. It just didn’t waterlog. We’ve been able to put barriers in place to stop the fox and the badger getting to the plants and in our garden where we don’t want them.

Desirable Goals

The last heading was just desirable goals and here is just a list of things that I wanted to achieve. In this example, I’d written continued introduction of edible plants, create a safe duck habitat, create edible pond permaculture, planting of Edibles between ponds, a water pump and solar power pump. Introducing irrigation wasn’t a problem because the area drains okay and finally protecting some crops from wildlife. So I’ve achieved that goal. We’ve created a safe duck habitat. However, the pond development is still on my to-do list, but we haven’t been able to move forward with it very much because I’ve just got sidetracked with other things like the planting of edibles between the ponds and the water pump. Then finally protect some crops from wildlife and I’ve been able to do that. It really did make a difference and made it so much easier for me to think clearly about this space.

Final Thoughts

One of the biggest benefits of doing something like this is it’s going to reduce the chances that you end up doing something and then wish you’d done something different. So it is something that’s really practical and I strongly recommend you do it. Even if you’re only doing it for the practical benefits, peaceful mental health activity is just a side benefit for me. But I hope you found that interesting and I hope that you go ahead and you do at least one of these in your garden. So if you are thinking of doing what I’m just going to run through the headings once more just as bullet points. When I say resources, these can be anything from water access so water butt would certainly be a resource as would standing water pipe. Resources can really be anything. It could be closed access to the tool shed. So don’t undersell your space when you’re going through this list and I look forward to hearing how you got on with it. I hope that you’ll enjoy doing the process.

1: Episode 1 – First steps toward food security

Here I talk a little about broad strokes towards personal food security. What elements make up our food self sufficiency, and what you can do now, to make steps towards your own food security in the future.

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First steps toward food security

As we've seen in these recent days and weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic that's swept the
globe, so many people all of a sudden don't have food security and feel insecure. They have
food insecurity, and that's what's led to the runs on the supermarkets and people stockpiling.
Well, I'm very fortunate we haven't had to do that. We produce almost all of our food here at our
home and we certainly can produce all our food. We can choose to live off what we produce
rather than buying some things from the supermarket which we obviously usually used to do. I
wanted to talk about how you can look towards becoming more self-sufficient and developing
your own food security.

I look at food security very simply broken down into three different categories. Firstly is plants I
can grow. But also foraging. The second one is meat – i.e. meat that I can raise. And the third
one is dairy and eggs. So I'm going to very quickly just talk about each of those three categories
and then over the coming days and weeks, we will obviously go into them in much more detail
and lots of other things.

How to Take the First Steps Toward Food Security

1. Plants

One thing, if you're panicking right now and you're not sure what the future looks like and you're
nervous and you're worried you've missed the boat, you haven't. It's spring. It's the perfect time
to be putting your plants in. Now, obviously, I'm in the UK and we're still not quite out of the risk
of frost yet, so there's still some seeds I can't plant. You haven't missed the boat. You've got
plenty of time. Get on and get yourself a vegetable bed. You won't regret it. And I can assure
you that any mistakes you make, you'll learn more from those mistakes than you will by not
trying. So just get out and give it a go. It's definitely worth it.

The first really simple step everyone can do is plant some vegetables. Now, what I did when I
first grew a vegetable bed is I sat down and made a list of all the vegetables I could think of and
I basically went for things that my family eats a lot of but also things that are super easy to grow.
Beetroot is a good example. We didn't really eat beetroot in our family, but it's super easy to
grow, so we grew some and now it's a firm favorite. All my kids love it. We love it in salads. We
love it cooked. So do try a few new things, but just do your own research and find the things that
are easy to grow in your area and find the things that your family love and get them growing.
Potatoes are one of the staples for us. We eat quite a lot of potatoes and in the coming weeks
and months, we might be substituting a lot of our cereal and pasta and that kind of thing for
potatoes because it's the one thing we can grow here. We can't grow our own cereal or, at least,
we're not geared up to do that just yet, so I strongly suggest that you include potatoes in your
list. They're super easy to grow. And hang around for the end of this post for a really top tip on
Beans are really easy, beetroots are really easy. If you've got a greenhouse or a polytunnel
tomatoes are really easy. You can also grow tomatoes on a windowsill inside. Get yourself
some seeds and it's not too late. I promise you won't regret it. Please get them in.

2. Foraging

Second thing, having spoken about plants briefly, I also do quite a bit of foraging. I forage for
mushrooms, I forage for all sorts of salad greens and then, when the season’s right a bit later,
it'll be fruit, berries, and nuts. Please check out the upcoming podcasts around that time of year
because we'll be covering all of those things in much more detail. I've also got lots of videos on
YouTube covering a lot of my mushroom foraging.

3. Meat

Apart from plants, the next thing on my list was to raise meat now. There are three animals I
raise here. Two of them are not really for meat, but meat is a byproduct. And one of them is
specifically for meat. I'm going to go through them briefly here.

Pigs are one animal I raise solely for meat. Until very recently, what we did is we buy two or
three piglets a year and we raise them here on our property. Then we slaughter butcher them
and then they go in the freezer. And two to three pigs a year is about right for our needs.
However, what we're going to do in the future, and I've been speaking to my wife about this just
yesterday and we've made this decision in the last 24 hours, we're not going to be bringing in
piglets anymore. We're going to keep one of our gilts, the female pigs, and we're going to breed
her. We're going to keep a male and a female and we're going to breed our own pigs. It is
slightly more work. It means we're going to have to keep two pigs over winter, which we don't

normally do. But I think for food security, it makes so much more sense than buying in piglets
every year.
I recommend pigs. Two reasons I recommend pigs: one is there are lots of ways that you can
make up their food costs from next to nothing. You don't need to buy a lot of pig food. You can
make it up from lots of other ways. I'll go into that in a lot more detail on another episode. And
the other reason is they're very respectful of one strand electric fence so they're really easy to
contain. Pigs are super smart and once they know where the fence is, that's it. They won’t go
near it.
The next animal is goats. Now goats we keep predominantly for dairy, but a byproduct of the
dairy is obviously meat. Every year our milking goats are bred and the kids will either go on to
replace an animal in the milking herd or they will go to meat. And then the third animal is
chickens. Now again, we breed chickens for eggs, but the byproduct of breeding for eggs is you
get a fair amount of cock birds, which again we raise up and that is meat for the freezer. A small
way I supplement this is by taking wild pheasants and also, fish. We have crayfish in the river,
so I trap crayfish. There are a few other ways that we gain meat for our freezer. But across the
board, we're very much self-sufficient on meat.

4. Dairy and Eggs

The final category was dairy and eggs. Now, dairy and eggs are covered by what I believe are
the first two animals you should get if you're considering going down the animal route to self-
The first one is chickens. Chicken should be everyone's first animal. They're so easy to look
after. Three hens in the back garden are going to produce maybe ten to fifteen eggs a week
unless they're a real egg-laying breed and then you might get as many as 20 eggs a week. So
that's eggs for a family taken care of. They’re great pets. They're great for kids. They're really
easy to breed. They're fun to have around. And of course, if you're going to breed them then
you've got the byproduct of the meat as well.

The second animal that I recommend for anyone looking at going into self-sufficiency is goats,
and that's because milking goats produce tons of milk. If you have two milking goats, you're
going to be producing far more milk than a family needs, if they are a decent milking variety.
And that enables you to produce cheese, butter, cream, ice cream, all those things. So we're
completely egg and dairy self-sufficient.
So those are my first thoughts on becoming self-sufficient in regard to food security. Get
yourself a vegetable garden. You really must do that. If you've only got a tiny outdoor space, get
a little run, get some hens in it. They don't need much space. And that puts you significantly
further ahead than 95% of the population. So it's not too late. Everyone should take stock, think
about where they are, and what they can do to look after their families and feel more secure
about where their food is coming from, not just today or tomorrow, but into the future.

Self dependence

The idea of becoming self-sufficient can seem very exciting.  It certainly is to me.

However, sometimes it can also seem very daunting or even impossibly out of reach.


As with so many things I do, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the massively ever increasing to do list.  And there can be times when it feels that you’re not sure it’s all worth it.

I think it’s important to say that the idea of self-sufficiency is one that comes with an element of harkening back to an ancestral yearning to b

e in charge of your own destiny.

And that’s more how I think of being self-sufficient.

Do I currently produce every single thing that my family consumes in our garden or by my own hand?


And I doubt realistically, that I ever will, on whatever level, you want to look at it.

I don’t think any of us really want that. I certainly don’t want to live in a world where I cannot enjoy the benefits of things such as the connectivity of the internet. I never want to feel that I can’t have access to the wealth of information that a smartphone provides me or that I can’t share my wins and losses. With countless people I may never meet.

No, to me self-sufficiency, is more akin to self-reliance, in its strictest sense. And what I mean by that is, I want the destiny of me and my loved ones in my hands.

So being able to produce a significant portion of our calorific intake means that I am significantly less vulnerable to the vagaries of outside pressures that come from government, markets and global politics.

Knowing that I’m able to Fix a great deal of things that may go wrong with the building I live in means that I’m far less likely to be putting the wellbeing of my family at risk because I can’t afford to hire a contractor immediately when the roof leaks.

Being able to generate the small amounts of income from selling eggs at the side of my road or teaching cheesemaking to kindred spirits are ways I can supplement my income that are unlikely to be affected by things like redundancy or a downturn in the economy.

These are what I consider to be the real key to self-sufficiency.

There is certainly something to be said for division of labour. Many of you will be reading this on a smartphone or a PC.

These devices weren’t made by one person. In fact, I would be quite certain that there isn’t a person alive that holds the knowledge to construct every single component, from the tiny screws made from ore mined from the ground up to the coding and microchips and touchscreen glass. It is the division of labour and delivery economies of manufacturing that this produces that allows these magnificent miracles to exist in our world.

And while I’m not seeking to give these up. To me personally, it’s important to be less dependant on these things to be more self-reliant, more self-sufficient.

That’s what it means to me and while I will work towards producing 100 % of my family’s consumption, it is the journey, not the goal that is important to me.

First year at mill close homestead

Our first year at mill close attempting to become more self-sufficient has been a roller-coaster of amazing learning experiences. While there were definitely setbacks, I have absolutely no regrets about attempting to become more self-sufficient and trying so many new things. We definitely had success with our hens in the wood and in doing so we are also able to save more than 60 ex battery hens and give them a happy free-range retirement. They have already paid back more than their running costs in eggs.

The 3 pigs we started with Which were supposed to be a breeding pair and an additional female turned out to be less than we had hoped all 3 showing signs of extreme older old age and not a piglet in sight. My wife and I eventually had to have them put down humanely as one of them couldn’t even stand up alone after less than a year here.

We had a period of 2 weeks when we lost my favorite milking goat 3 pigs to old age and 15 hens to a Fox strike. That was a difficult time.

But we’ve come out the back of that and are going into our second year with some weaner pigs in the wood one very productive milking goat and 2 flocks of highly productive hens.

I have found Saint George’s mushrooms in the food forest; I have made wild garlic and Walnut pesto from foraged ingredients and have had a vegetable garden that is exceeded my wildest expectations. Against the backdrop of incredible successes, we have also had a flood in the house, escaped animals and the difficult challenge of balancing a full-time job with maintaining our dream here.

I definitely feel that we have achieved several milestones that only needed doing once. For instance, the 2 paddocks are 80% fenced so the huge job of fencing them is replaced by a much smaller job of maintaining them. The overgrown area at the North of the Meadow has been cultivated and turned into a vegetable plot which I believe will be enough to feed the family with a bit spare. The duck ponds are dug and inhabited and the main part of the planting for the food forest is also complete.

There were definitely times when maintaining the gardens and keeping up with the lawn mowing hedge trimming, wedding, animal feeding, children raising and having a full-time job was almost more than we could manage. But as things slow down now in September, with the weeds starting to feel sleepy ready for the winter and the nights drawing in meaning the animals get bedded down earlier, I am already excitedly planning my vegetable garden for the next year.

I’ve certainly learnt from many mistakes. For instance, the value of electric fencing with a solar charger has kept are 

chickens and ducks safe since the bloodbath of the first six months, and I feel this is something I can manage much better in the future than in the past. The importance of correctly labeling and maintaining the labels of seedlings is something I vastly under estimated and the absence of doing so I hold responsible for significantly diminished returns from the garden.

In this last year I have learned to make cheese, milk goats, build and use a compost loo, as well as thousands of small lessons on raising animals and plants. I have also tapped my first tree. In doing all these exciting and testing things with my family I also feel I have shared some really special times with my children and wife which I cannot put a price on.

I am already extremely excited about what year 2 will bring.