The Sustainable Smallholding – An Aspiration

Hi All

My Blog title, The Sustainable Smallholding, is an aspiration, as opposed to a description of where we are at the moment. The reasons for that are many, and complex, but one of the key ones is the sheer amount of knowledge that you need to acquire, and solutions that you have to find, to achieve sustainability, self reliance, or self sufficiency. It seems that each time that you peel back a layer of a problem, another sits nestled within. In this post I will explore some of the areas that I have identified as important in my search for sustainability.

Food Production

Food production is the area that most people seem to be referring to, when the say that they are self sufficient, or heading that way. In reality, this often means that they are producing some of their own vegetables. To provide most, or all of your own food, needs a lot of skill, and careful planning. What to grow, how to grow it, where to grow it, are all important, but basic questions, which many people consider. Dig deeper, or peel back another layer, and the next questions surface. Where is my soil fertility coming from, how am I going to preserve my food, cook it, how am I going to obtain/make pots, stoves, implements, tools etc?

What to Grow

In her excellent book, The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe writes that the five crops that you need to grow to survive, and thrive are: Potatoes, Corn, Beans, Squash, and eggs (duck). I cannot argue with her logic, but for a cool temperate gardener, three of those, corn, beans, and squash, need to be started early, with protection, to get around the short growing season, and maincrop potatoes suffer from blight in our humid Summers. Where are the materials for season extending coming from? The plastic, or glass, isn’t coming from on site. Breeding varieties that mature earlier will help, as will breeding blight resistant potatoes.

So the first theme of my next round of research/experimentation is seed saving, and vegetable breeding.

I have already written about The Resilient Gardener, in an earlier post.

External Inputs

If sustainability is the aim, then reducing our reliance on external inputs, and producing everything from our within smallholding, is paramount.

Some of the current inputs that need to be addressed HERE are:

Animal manures.

Chicken and duck food, bedding, and housing.

Seed and potting mixes for plant propagation.

Plastic pots, and trays.

Soil Fertility

Our main source of soil fertility is our compost. This is predominantly straw, which is first used as duck bedding, then mixed with grass clippings, and donkey/goat manure from another friend. The straw is bought in from a local farm, which is not organic. So not only am I importing fertility from elsewhere, but that fertility is being provided in a way which is not sustainable. One way to change this is to grow my own animal bedding. Options include small scale wheat growing, perhaps purely for the straw, reeds, or bamboo. I have tried small scale wheat growing before, as one of my earlier experiments. The small scale wheat growing articles can be found by clicking the highighted links. In his book ‘How to Grow More vegetables’, John Jeavons advocates devoting 60% of your growing space to carbon and calorie crops, to help provide the bulk materials for composting.

One of the areas that I am going to look at is grey water harvesting, reedbed sewage systems, and wetland creation. This should help with both the fertility, and bedding questions.


One of the other areas that I want to experiment with is water plants, and more specifically Azolla. Azolla has been mentioned in the Resilient Gardener, and in The Permaculture Home Garden, by Linda Morrow. It is a floating water plant (weed), which multiplies rapidly. It has a symbiotic relationship with a Nitrogen fixing bacteria, which allows it to grow without the need for a source of Nitrogen. It has lots of potential uses, and may become the basis for a series of related/linked systems. My thoughts so far are that if I grow lots of it, in large containers, in a greenhouse/bioshelter, the azolla can be used as duck/chicken food, and as food for worms. The worms will produce vermicompost, to help make potting mixes, and will themselves make food for ducks. Some of the duck bedding could be used in the worm bins, with the rest composted. The azolla would also make a rapidly acting, Nitrogen rich source of  ‘green material’ for hot composting. As well as the value of the Azolla, the water containers will act as thermal mass in the greenhouse, helping to even out the temperature fluctuations.

NOTE. I beleive that here in the UK, you can only grow Azolla indoors, as it is invasive in ponds and waterways.


I already grow a lot of Comfrey, and use it for composting, and to make liquid feeds. If you’re not already familiar with it’s benefits, click the link to find out more about COMFREY. However it also makes a good food for poultry. Lawrence Hills wrote about comfrey, and suggested that poultry could obtain a significant proportion of their protein requirement from comfrey, and my ducks love it. So much so, that they have decimated the plants that are in their forage area, which might be useful to know if you need to eradicate a patch. Another use of comfrey is to feed worms. Again this presents a series of potential useful links. feeding worms, to feed to poultry, feeding worms to poultry, for adding to compost, and mopping up nutrient leaks from compost heaps. I have been mulling over a design for a combined poultry forage/comfrey growing/Late Season vegetable growing area, for some time, and hope to construct it in the near future. Time and money allowing.

Potting Mixes

Another one of my external inputs is potting material. I am avoiding  the term compost here, as I have used that for decomposing organic matter. I have been using bought in material for seed sowing, and for potting on, transplanting etc. That is not sustainable, so I need to find alternatives. In the Permaculture Home Garden, Linda Morrow suggests a 50/50 mixture of river sand dried powdered cow pats. With a stream, and cows close by, this is something that I’d like to try for myself. In the meantime, only importing seed sowing mixes, and producing my own medium for all of the rest is a good starting point. Incorporating good garden soil, and my own compost should be fine for this purpose, as my own seeds/plants will already be visible, and any imported seedlings should be easy to recognise, and deal with.

Pots and Trays

Like most gardeners, I use a lot of pots and trays, most of them plastic. In the future, will I have to sow more seeds directly, and how will that affect what I grow? How can I produce my own containers? I’m sitting on a hill made of clay, but how do I use that, fire it, and stop it from falling apart when it freezes? This is an area which I should find out more about, but have yet to do so.

2011 Plans and Experiments.

In order to continue moving towards real sustainability I have to find answers to the problems outlined in the article, and have decided to do the following in 2011:

1.     To obtain and grow Azolla, and see how it works as poultry and worm food, and use it as mulch and a compost activator.

2.     To use cow pats and river sand as a seed mixture, and see what is the best way to make it, and how it performs.

3.    To make more use of my own soil/compost in potting mixes.

4.    To identify a good area for an integrated comfrey/poultry forage system, and work on a good design.

5.    To save more of my own seed, and try to select some of the key plants for early maturity.

Areas for further research are reedbeds, greywater harvesting, and wetland creation.

That’s my list of projects for this year, but what are yours? What are you doing to increase your self reliance, or sustainability? What are your plans.

Take Care


4 thoughts on “The Sustainable Smallholding – An Aspiration

  1. foodnstuff

    Hi Deano,

    I’ve just bought, and begun, The Resilient Gardener, on your recommendation. It’s looking like a valuable book to have.

    On azolla: I grow it in 2 second-hand baths and scoop it off regularly. In summer it multiplies very quickly. So far, I’m using it either as mulch on the top of wicking water boxes, or in the compost tumbler, or feed it to the worms in the worm farm. My permaculture teacher said it could be dried, pulverised and used in potting mixes. I haven’t tried that yet.

    One thing I discovered; it seems to like fresh water with little or no nutrients. At one stage I thought I would help it along and added a bucketful of liquid from the composting toilet to one of the baths. The azolla promptly died. I’m assuming it was nutrient and not pH as the dilution wouldn’t have been enough to greatly affect pH.

    Another thing that convinces me that it prefers fresh water is that one of the baths receives little or no inputs of fresh water other than rain. I often use the second bath to gravity water vegies and top it up regularly from the mains water. The azolla there is always green and healthy, but on the one that receives no fresh water, it gradually browns and doesn’t grow as well.

    I don’t have chickens (as yet) but a friend has just bought some. I’ll take some azolla to them and see how they go.

    Hope this helps. Let’s know how you go.


    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Bev
      Thanks for the information.It confirms that it’s worth persuing. What I’ve read suggests that what the azolla needs is minerals, so I’m guessing that you have more minerals in your tap water, than in your rain water.
      As for the poultry, I’m planning to use it for ducks, but hope that the chickens will eat it too.
      I hope that you do find the book useful. I certainly did. Tell me what you think, once you’ve worked your way through it.
      Take Care

  2. Miles Goodman

    Inspiring and informative Deano.
    This year I am continuing to focus on energy, in my case logs and hydroelectricity (very small scale). Of course planting and planning planting has now begun, this spring seeming to turn on like a switch up here in the north.

    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Miles
      You didn’t say where ‘up North’ you were.
      Like you, I’m concentrating on wood, using simple woodburners, a pizza oven, and perhaps a rocket mass heater in the greenhouse that I hope to build.
      All of the best


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