I’m Dr Mairi MacPherson, and I’m a mini-smallholder in the Scottish Highlands, about an hour north of Inverness. I consider myself disabled – I have MECFS and POTS, and their impact on me has been enormous. I’ve grown veg for several years but when my chronic illnesses forced me to give up my job as an academic gardening became one of the few things I was still able to do, despite spending most of my time in bed. Gradually over the past year or so I’ve been able to do a bit more – pootling around the garden, and even wielding a wheelbarrow on occasion – and I’ve been lucky to be able to spend as much time and energy as I can in the garden. We’ve got about 1/3 acre of space: a third of which is currently vegetables, and then there’s quite a few fruit trees and bushes. We have three small polytunnels, and also keep chickens and ducks that spend their days wandering around our garden.
Over the last year or so gardening has turned into my job: a Highland Seedlings I teach others how to grow their own, grow veg seedlings for sale, and host tourists and other visitors on smallholding and chicken tours. The chicken tours in particular are really popular – we spend an hour drinking tea, eating cake, and feeding and cuddling chickens! I’m also involved in a few community projects – we’re setting up a ‘free food garden’ in our village this year where we’ll be growing food for the local community, and I’m working with a couple of local schools and nurseries to help them get their kids (and parents!) growing their own food. We’ve also got a homeschool group that comes every other week and grows veg on their own bed in the garden.
For us, gardening has to fit into our lives – in particular into my energy levels. So everything we do is designed to be as low-impact as possible. We grow in long ‘no dig’ beds on what used to be unkempt lawn, built from cardboard and horse manure, and surrounded by wood chips. We did away with wooden sides because we found there were lots of slugs and snails living in them. Weeding these beds is really easy – as the weeds are mostly only in the top layer (with the cardboard acting as mulch), they pull out easily and, as long as you get them before they flower, they don’t tend to spread. I sit down to weed and plant, so our paths and beds are designed with that in mind, and the paths are wide enough for two people so that I can hold on to someone else when my balance is a bit off. I sow seeds at the kitchen table – we’ve got a plastic tablecloth stapled to the table so the soil is easy to wipe off. I start my seeds in large multi-cell trays as it’s a lot less effort to fill and carry one of those than individual pots. I’ve got a sowing schedule on a spreadsheet (which is also available free from www.highlandseedlings.com/resources) but as long as I sow sometime near the week noted on there it’s all good – I’ve given up on precision and neatness, and just go with the flow. Some weeks I’m too unwell to head out into the garden at all and that’s fine – the plants tend to do ok on their own.
I really enjoy being part of the veg growing / allotment community on Instagram. It’s friendly and folks are really helpful, and always up for celebrating those small and big successes. Your chillies germinated? Great! You grew a wonky carrot? Fabulous! It’s a genuine community, and it’s so interesting to see how other people grow their own. I’m @highlandseedlings there if anyone wants to say hello.