Time spent outdoors in the fresh air tending to gardens has a rejuvenating effect, which gardener, author and video maker Liz Zorab of Byther Farm can attest to better than anyone. Liz joins me on the podcast this week to share how gardening contributed to restoring her health and to talk about the economical, efficient ways that she raises food for her household.
Liz is the author of two books, “Grounded: A Gardener’s Journey to Abundance and Self-Sufficiency,” and, released this May, “The Seasoned Gardener: Exploring the Rhythm of the Gardening Year.” She also has nearly 900 videos on her YouTube channel offering tips and tutorials on gardening. Her acclaimed videos earned her channel the Garden Media Guild Awards 2022 Vlog of the Year title.
Liz has lived for 25 years, on and off, in Wales, where there is an oceanic temperate climate, “which basically means we’re never very far away from water,” she says. “We always have a certain level of wind and we have a huge amount of rain.” She’s had to “learn to garden around it,” and has been quite successful. “It also means that we have incredibly lush gardens,” she says. “They’re green apart from the odd year where we have heat waves for weeks and weeks on end, like last year. But generally, our gardens are pretty green and pretty lush, and we can grow an enormous array of food and flowers.”
Her gardens are indeed lush, as you can see for yourself perusing Liz’s two books or watching her YouTube videos.
Healing Through Gardening
With her husband, Mr J., Liz searched for land in 2015. Through diligent searching, they found a house they both fell in love with in the Monmouthshire countryside, in the southeast of Wales, and it was a blank slate. Liz being a lifelong passionate gardener, there was no question that there would be a garden on the property.
But also in 2015, Liz gradually got more ill. “I got to the point where just walking around became difficult,” she recalls. She would go to bed during the day and needed help to get up again.
“My body had just said, you are taking time,” she says. She was questioning the wisdom of purchasing a property that was four-fifths of an acre when she struggled to walk. However, she admits she is stubborn and wanted a little house with a big garden — and she was going to have it.
This went on for four months, and Liz did not think she would recover from whatever was afflicting her. She knew she couldn’t go back to the high-stress and physically demanding jobs she had previously been accustomed to doing — and she knew she still needed an income.
Liz decided to stay at home and grow the family’s food. That way, they wouldn’t need to own and maintain two cars, they wouldn’t need to buy lunch every day, and she wouldn’t need to buy work clothes.
“I put on my posh tidy work clothes, and I went to work in the garden,” Liz says. She mucked out old horse stables and active chicken coops in those clothes, significantly reducing their overhead while she was setting the garden up.
Reducing their overhead also meant Mr J didn’t have to work every hour under the sun, and she would work at a pace that worked for her.
Liz began walking with the assistance of two walking sticks, and then with a wheelbarrow.
“It was really slow going, but the more I did, and the more I was outside, and just the more time I gave myself, the better I got, the more healthy I got,” Liz says.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that gardening helped Liz in her recovery. The activity, the fresh air and the mental comfort for Liz of knowing that she attained something that she had been dreaming about all her life must have played a big role in her healing.
By the end of two years of working to set up the vegetable garden, it was a rare day that Liz needed a walking stick to get around. “Certainly by the end of year four, I was, well, I felt fighting fit and healthier than I felt for a very, very long time,” she says.
Making a Thriving Garden on Difficult Land
When Liz first moved to her new home in 2015, the soil was not fit for growing.
“I dug three spades in three different areas, and there were no worms in the ground at all,” she remembers. “It was like the soil was dead. And I feel like as I healed that soil, it was healing me. So it really felt like a reciprocal process of regenerating life back into the soil.”
Not only did worms and microbial life return to the soil, but beneficial insects and other wildlife also came to her garden.
Liz started out drawing a grand plan on a piece of paper, but after moving into her new home, she realized that the space she had to work with was a lot bigger than she remembered it being. So she and Mr J gathered up all the string they could find, tied the ends together, and marked off where garden beds would go.
Liz wanted to use recycled materials wherever she could, and she found advertisements for wood reclaimed from inside a building. Though the studs supposedly had just a few nails in them, she discovered that “a few” actually meant about 15 nails and screws in each stud. “So poor Mr J had the delightful job of trying to take all of those out,” she says.
She had intended on using a no-dig method garden, with cardboard on the ground, wood chips around it and compost on top of the cardboard. But in the process of inspecting what the native soil was like, they discovered a lot of glass — four or five shards in each handful. They learned that the property had long ago had commercial greenhouses standing on it where tomatoes grew. When the greenhouses came down, much of the glass broke and the subsequent owner had simply covered the glass in topsoil.
Below the clay and glass layer was a pebbly and sandy layer, “which meant it was interesting when it rained because it would sit there for ages, and then suddenly it would just go ‘whoosh’ and disappear like someone had pulled the plug out,” Liz says.
They decided to build raised beds, which would allow them to control the growing medium. They used the recycled wood that they had bought plus pallet collars. “They were like instant little mini raised beds, and I used several of those, but I also used things like, we had an old wardrobe that was falling apart,” she says.
Any bits of wood she could get her hands on, she would use. She also used tractor tires but soon learned tires are not recommended for growing food in — so she just grows flowers in those now.
“When times became desperate and I really wanted to be growing food, but I didn’t have the raised beds, I used cardboard boxes,” she adds.
She laid compost on the ground and put cardboard boxes on top, assembled in the shape of a raised bed, and filled them with compost. After two or three months, the sides of the boxes disintegrated, but what was left was a perfectly shaped raised bed.
She bought topsoil from a local source, got well-rotted manure from her sister, and she made loads and loads of compost using straw plus spent grain from a brewery.
Liz built 20 raised beds, each 13 feet 8 inches long and 4 feet wide — the dimensions of the recycled studs.
Liz and I both use hardwood mulch in the paths between our raised beds. Liz, cleverly, collects the mulch once it has broken down and adds it to her raised beds for additional organic matter, before topping the paths with fresh wood chips again.
Liz advises that if you need to make lots of compost but you don’t have space for a compost heap, you can put your organic materials like grass clippings and straw in the paths between your beds.
Making a Food Forest
At the end of year one in her new garden, Liz began a food forest. One November, when berry trees were available, she found the trees at a local supermarket for £4.75 per 5-foot tree. She bought 17 trees. She randomly plunked them in the ground and underplanted them with flowering and edible shrubs and seeds like Calendula and borage. She also planted 18-inch-tall hedges around the food forest, and whatever hedges were left, she plunked in the middle.
“One of the lessons I learned from that was to really think about spacing,” she says. “And one of the reasons it looks so incredible there is that everything is so packed in.”
The wildlife love it, and it made a microclimate, but as you walk around, she warns, you need to avoid getting plucked in the eye by the cherry tree and smacked in the face by a wild rose.
“One of the lessons I have learned is actually plants need a little bit more space,” she says.
Another thing Liz and I have in common is that one of the big reasons we enjoy gardening as much as we do is that we love that there is always more to learn. Missteps like planting trees too closely together present opportunities to educate ourselves and improve as gardeners.
Every day is different, and that’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me excited to go out in the garden. I know it’s going to be different than how I left it the day before.
“Constant learning is what makes gardening and growing your own food so interesting, but actually it’s what makes life so interesting,” Liz says.
The food forest wrapped her vegetable garden and flowers in a horseshoe shape. But she didn’t always have flowers.
“All the time I’ve been growing, I’ve been thinking something’s not quite right,” she says. “There’s something missing, and I couldn’t quite place my finger on it.”
Then the penny dropped, she says. She realized what was missing was flowers. She had started out as an ornamental gardener decades ago, and when she started planting flowers around her vegetable garden, she saw the balance of wildlife in her garden improved. Butterflies, bats, hoverflies, lacewings and birds came into the garden.
This year I added a border of flower beds around my vegetable garden, and I will tell anyone who will listen how much better my garden is now than before.
Liz loves having butterflies in her garden so much that she plants “sacrifice” brassicas just to attract cabbage butterflies. She also allows stinging nettles to grow specifically for the butterflies that use stinging nettles as host plants.
The brassicas that she plants to eat, rather than sacrifice, she covers in netting so the cabbage butterflies can’t lay their eggs on them. By using barrier methods in her garden rather than toxins, she can enjoy her crops without harming or excluding butterflies that she enjoys watching and that are food for bats and hedgehogs.
Snails and slugs are the main diet of hedgehogs, a beneficial species that has been on the decline due to industrial farming.
“If you live in a very wet environment like we do and the Pacific Northwest, anything that has a diet of slugs and snails is your friend,” Liz says. It’s the same reason why ducks are friends in the garden.
How Gorab Liz Zorab Grows Potatoes
One of the things Liz is known for is how she grows potatoes. She is a big no-dig/no-till grower, and she applies those principles when growing potatoes. She practices a modification of the Ruth Stout method, which is named for the original promoter of “no-work” gardening.
Liz’s method is successful whether growing in the ground, in a raised bed or in a container. It starts by placing seed potatoes on a layer of compost and covering it with straw, hay, grass clippings, leaves, wood chips, used animal bedding or more compost — anything organic that will block the light. Then apply water or leave it out in the rain, and the potatoes will grow. As the potato foliage grows taller, top up with more organic material. Liz prefers grass clippings and applies thin layers. Thick layers of 6-8 inches will result in black, slimy, stinky anaerobic decomposition — so using thin layers is key.
Indeterminate potatoes can grow up the stems, so the more thin layers you add as the plants grow, the more tubers you will end up with. When you are ready to harvest, push your hand in through the cover layers and pull out however many potatoes you desire for that meal.
Liz has experimented with a few different mixes of organic matter. She tried hay mixed with used duck bedding and found that it made a huge difference: four times as many potatoes and larger potatoes. All the beneficial microbes from the mix of hay and animal bedding really did the trick.
When she used hay only, weeds grew in the hay and bound the hay together, making it hard to reach in and get tubers out. Duck bedding did not have that issue.
Liz does not use fresh used chicken bedding on her potatoes because it gets hot as it decomposes and it is too alkaline. After it has sat for a while and is no longer hot composting, it can be used.
Liz also notes that in the United Kingdom, feeding kitchen scraps to your chicken is prohibited, unless you have an entirely vegan household. This is due to fear of disease outbreaks.
Liz Zorab’s Second Big Garden
After writing her first book, “Grounded,” Liz felt there was more she wanted to learn. She wanted sheep and pigs, but that wasn’t going to work where she was living, considering all of the glass in the ground.
“If we wanted to do that, we needed a different site, and at the same time, the amount of traffic around us was increasing and it was getting noisier and noisier,” she says.
The traffic noise, being between two freeways, made it a challenge to record videos in her garden, so she and Mr J searched for a home where they would have no neighbors and could keep animals. They found one in the summer of 2021 with a smaller house and a bigger garden, further west in Wales and 675 feet above sea level.
She started out with a 4.5-acre blank slate. The previous owner had kept horses there, so the ground was compacted. But there was no glass in the ground, and worms were present. She got to work improving the soil.
Applying the lessons she had learned, this time she planted trees and other plants further apart and waited for them to grow closer together over time. It doesn’t achieve an instant “look,” but the garden will be better for it.
Her new vegetable garden is almost the same size as her old one — a size she knows she can manage. She also has a quarter-acre orchard and a half-acre food forest, plus some sheep.
Liz is also growing peach trees under a polytunnel and had a great harvest this year — hundreds from two trees. “I never imagined that you’d be able to grow peaches in the U.K.,” she says. “… I’ve got some trees outside and some undercover and there’s no comparison. The ones undercover are gorgeous, amazing.”
Though she can’t grow tropical foods, she can grow Mediterranean crops through cold crops. She says they can grow crops rated from zone 3 to 9.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Liz Zorab, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title to do so now.
Has gardening improved your health? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.