Every day on the smallholding is a school day writes Tom Pearson.

Smallholding wasn’t always a dream for me, or my partners for that matter, however in the last few years it has developed from a dream to a reality and lifestyle. I grew up in the rural community that is Rutland, my father a head gardener and my mother a florist, both whose dream was to live in a cottage in the countryside living a self-sufficient lifestyle like Tom and Barbara Good. This journey began when I met Pete Hendy nine years ago on holiday. He’s a self-proclaimed 'city slicker' who spent almost his whole life living in Exeter. He grew up with his mother and grandparents, with a city garden, growing tomatoes, with a garden that was overtaken by his garden railway.

The first big step on our journey was for me to move from the Midlands I knew and loved to Torquay with Pete. We had a house, with only a flight of steps as a garden which, after the odd trip to the local garden centre, ended up a collection of pots with flowering plants. It turns out that my passion for gardening was re-invigorated; it’s funny how things we learn as a child stick with us more than we realise. We grew a few herbs on the kitchen windowsill and attempted tomatoes. Also our collection of pets grew from Pete’s five cats and my fish tank to include three guinea pigs and two labradors.

Then life goes and throws one of those amazing curveballs at you. Pete’s uncle and only remaining close family member passed away. This meant moving into Pete’s childhood home, with a garden. The number of visits to the garden centre grew; our passion for gardening (and our green fingers) grew. At this time I went on a social media workshop with work and learnt that Facebook and Twitter are tools to be used and not just windows to stare into other people’s lives.

While living in Exeter we would visit NGS gardens, visiting some inspirational gardens and the seed was sown, we decided that one day we would move to a cottage in the countryside and grow our own food and retire happy (and grumpy) old men together. As our lawn shrank and our flower borders grew, so did my interest in cooking and baking, so we created a small but adequate vegetable garden. At the same time I was connecting with a global network of gardeners on Twitter, all sharing help, advice and stories. The plans for the garden grew and I kept recalling my parent’s vegetable garden and chickens.

We agreed to get three chickens as a few fresh eggs would just add to the fun of the small kitchen garden we were planning to develop. This is where both Pete and I need to finally admit we are both very - and I mean very - good at getting carried away with ourselves and not really knowing when to stop. So… three chickens suddenly became six. As a child I recalled hearing that there were chickens that laid green eggs. A quick online search and a couple of Facebook groups later and I was on my way to pick up a Leghorn, Auracana and Legbar. YES! We were going to have white, blue and green eggs, how cool.

Oh yes, we also now had nine chickens in a garden that was really only big enough to fit three.

The smallholding dream was finally actually in place. We asked eachother, "Why wait until we’ve retired? Let's live for the moment!" and within two weeks we’d had the house valued, an offer made and accepted and were moving. The search for our forever home wasn’t the easiest. We had a small list of requirements, a fire place, space for chickens and to grow our own food and level enough for Pete to have the miniature railway he’d always dreamed of.

Nothing we viewed in Devon was quite right, so the search widened, an old cottage which needed more work than we desired but had more land than we wanted and was in Somerset, yep, another of those curveballs. Rose Cottage was soon to become our home.

Within two days of moving in, I went to pick up a cockerel, plus the two hens he came with. Things haven’t moved as fast was we’d like with some aspects of Rose Cottage, as the building has needed more love than we originally thought and well, things don’t always go to plan, in fact we’re learning things never go to plan.

Our flock grew, faster than we could really cope with, so we’re learning to slow down with things, which is harder for us than it sounds. We get excited about the new adventure and where we can go and both Pete and I find it hard to say no.

It hasn’t always been a bed of roses. The first loss of poultry to Filbert Fox was, as expected, not a great moment. But it was a learning experience; we haven’t made the same mistake a second time. Also being plagued by red mite was also soul-destroying, they breed faster than my family and we’re like rabbits.

Social media is a reassuring place at times, tales from others experiencing the same as you with advice to match suddenly means you don’t feel like you’re doing it all wrong all of the time. Not all the advice was suitable for us, but there is a library of life experience and the majority of people are helpful and supportive.

Being online isn’t just for when things go wrong either. Our neighbour gave us some quince, I’d never seen one in the flesh before, so I posted a picture of them on Twitter and asked for suggestions and now we have quince jelly, quince wine and a recipe for beef and quince stew.

An “Oh look!” tag to Pete on a Facebook group and whoops, we welcomed three goats. We were going to get two, but Bo picked us and she still had her daughter Tinker in tow, but I’d fallen for a cheeky little lady and in honour of a promise I made to a friend we had Goaty McGoatface too.

However this does all take a lot of time and energy which has meant something had to give before our sanity did, so I reduced my hours at work. This is a lifestyle and needs the dedication, however smallholding is different for each and every one of us. On the days I’m home alone I carry out all the general tasks and days Pete and I are off together is either bigger tasks or trips to local garden centres or the farm supplies.

We are learning to work more efficiently, becoming wiser and imaginative with solutions.

Smallholding is not only about becoming as self-sufficient as possible, but it’s also about learning our own limitation and learning patience. Although our journey will no doubt always be guided by six words…‘What’s the worst that could happen?’


This article by Tom Pearson was Smallholder magazine's first Smallholder of the Month feature. To enjoy more of these personal accounts of smallholding why not subscribe to the monthly magazine.