Well, we’re snowed in again as we enter the second week of this unexpected early freeze that has paralysed most of Northern Europe. Which got me thinking about weather, and winter on the smallholding, and … pressure.

Pressure is often cited as one of the main reasons people want to leave the 9 to 5 day job and ‘go back to nature’ – pack up, drop out and embrace a simpler life in the country.

What people soon realise is that pressure is not confined to the City.

It’s a shock. How can you have the same level of pressure when you have no boss pushing you to achieve ridiculous targets? No daily commute. No angry customers. No time sheets to fill in, no dress codes to follow, no emails to answer, no phone ringing constantly, no multi-million projects dependent on the decision you have to make in the next five minutes…

Well, there’s the weather.

The weather?

And human nature.

Trust me, if you’re a worrier, you’ll be a worrier wherever you are. You just swap one worry for another. And worrying if there’s going to be a frost tomorrow can be as stomach churning as any high-pressure meeting.

This is where I tend to lose a lot of people. How can you possibly equate worrying about frost with a high-pressure, high intensity job in the City? Millions can be at stake, people’s jobs.

The answer is simple. One, an unseasonal frost can kill your crops. Crops that you’re dependent on. When you’re living self-sufficiently off the land, you need those crops to eat. It may not be millions of dollars. It may not impact other people’s jobs. But it impacts you. If the worst comes to the worst – if you can’t grow enough food and you run out of money – you’ll have to look for work. Bang goes your idyllic lifestyle.

Two, and this is the real pressure intensifier, weather is capricious and not under your control. Nothing turns up the pressure more than having a problem that you can’t do anything about. You can be the best farmer in the world. The hardest worker. The most careful planner. But a ferocious thirty-minute hailstorm can rip your crops to shreds. Or a late spring frost. Or an early September frost. Not to mention a humid spring bringing early blight to your tomatoes and potatoes.

And the longer you’ve had the crop in the ground, the more work you’ve expended on them, the harder it is to bear.

Take Broccoli for example. You sow the seeds in April. You water them, you dust them with derris to keep the flea beetle away. You fight off the caterpillars and the slugs. You transplant them in the summer. Wage continual war with drought and heat, aphids and caterpillars. Then comes winter. All you need is a not too severe winter. But one night under –10°C or three consecutive nights under -7°C and you lose the entire crop. We had superb broccoli crops for seven years. We’d pick the plants from April through to mid May. But the last three years we’ve lost them all. It’s soul destroying to cosset a crop for ten months and then lose the lot in one day.

But that’s gardening.

You could say, don’t grow risky crops. But, for seven years, it wasn’t a risk. And smallholders need to make the land produce for the longest growing season they can. Broccoli provides fresh greens in April and May when there’s very little else in the garden. Our year is planned that way – to provide the maximum amount of fresh fruit and veg. We need to take risks by planting our potatoes early to ensure we have earlies at the beginning of June as our potatoes in cold store don’t last beyond May. Yes, it means we have to protect them from frost but the alternative is to buy more food in. And, if you’re living off the land, money is always tight.

Would I swap my self-sufficient lifestyle in deepest rural France and return to London?


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf 

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!




Pressure — 4 Comments

  1. I lost all my tomatoes to a blight last year. It was surprisingly depressing to see these healthy plants and big round almost-ready-to-be-picked fruit turn all splotchy and yucky in a matter of days. And I’m only an indifferent sort of gardener, not a farmer!

    Our modern lives have tons of safeguards that people for most of human history have not. Earlier this year, early warming and a late frost robbed most of the apple trees in our area of their blossoms. We still got apples in the grocery store, imported from other parts of the region. A couple hundred years ago, we’d have to do without.

    But, yeah, there are a bunch of farms around here and we do a lot of our produce shopping at them during the growing season. The vagaries of weather and pest are a constant concern. I would never be a farmer.

  2. The greatest pressure for me, the one that I envy 9-to-5-ers for, is paying the bills. Not knowing when your next paycheque is going to arrive, worrying that your next project won’t sell, or will flop. There may be a lot of pressure in a 9-to-5, but at least it comes with a steady paycheque.

  3. We’ve had this several times with green beans. We plant our green beans in intervals of approx. two weeks, so we have fresh green beans for the entire summer and not just a whole lot of beans for two or three weeks at the height of the season (never mind that green beans don’t freeze well anyway).

    This usually gets us beans until well into October. But if you’re unlucky and have even one night of early frost in September, the beans simply die and there’s nothing you can do about it. If frost has been forecast, you can try to harvest what you can, but the not yet ready crops are still toast.

    Plus, last year the extended frost and snow period made harvesting the kale pretty much impossible. It was right there in the garden, besides kale, at least the variety we call “Grünkohl” or “Braunkohl” in Northern Germany, is the ideal winter crop (I will never understand why the English language uses the term “kale” for several completely different types of leafy vegetables)). But we couldn’t get to it, because of the snow and the frost.

  4. We experimented last year with growing a few broccoli in tubs so that we could move them to the greenhouse in winter to give them some protection.

    It almost worked until we had a really long drawn out cold spell. One of the broccolis did hold on into March but by then it was so small and spindly and weak there was barely any of it left.

    The only gardening plan that seems to work is to plant more than you need, and plant a wide variety of crops. That way, something always does well. Which makes up for the ones that don’t.