Third Age: All is now rosy in the garden

GARDENER Dermot O’Neill has a lot to celebrate. A new TV series is currently being aired, he has a book coming out in the autumn, but more importantly he has been cancer free for two years.

“I feel a great sense of freedom,’’ he says. “Cancer is a heavy burden to carry, and when you are being treated you are not sure which way it is going to go. So when you do get good news it is fantastic.

“I appreciate and value life. When you face something like cancer, it forces you to re-evaluate life and look at things.”

In 2009, O’Neill attended hospital for what he thought would be a routine visit to deal with an ulcer. Instead, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and told that he would have to start chemotherapy immediately as the cancer was “growing so quickly.’’

But as O’Neill began the treatment, he succumbed to the vomiting bug and also got pneumonia. His weight plummeted to five stone and he admits, there were a few dark days.

“There were a couple of times when I thought I was so ill that maybe I wouldn’t survive. Those moments were very scary, but I pulled through,’’ he says.

O’Neill believes that his passion for gardening gave him a focus and determination to be positive and fight the cancer. “It was very difficult, and that is when the gardening helped big time,’’ he explains.

“It helped me to think about the future, it was a great distraction. I had planted lots of bulbs, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and I was looking forward to seeing them flower. I could visualise them growing and I had lovely magnolias, which I knew were going to look fantastic when they came out.”

During his “exhausting’’ treatment, which saw O’Neill get a hole drilled into his skull to combat the cancer cells growing in his cranium and spinal fluid, he continued to film his TV programme, Dermot’s Secret Garden.

Now, in series two, O’Neill hopes to achieve his ambition of fully restoring his secret Victorian Walled Garden, ‘Clondeglass’, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in Co Laois, and to become fully self-sufficient.

“This horsemeat scandal makes you think where you are actually buying your meat from,’’ he says. “Growing your own food is amazing. There is a wonderful feeling of satisfaction.’’

Since recovering from the cancer, O’Neill is determined that his garden should be as organic as possible. He does not use any chemicals, unless it is an “absolute necessity’’ and always wears gloves to protect his skin.

“I think it is important to be in control of what your food is growing in. I want to be as organic as possible. I make my own compost, which is great, as that is going back into the soil. There are a lot of organic fertilisers and a very effective organic slug killer out there. So there are other options, which is wonderful,’’ he explains.

O’Neill is also delighted that his sense of smell and taste have finally returned. He can now appreciate his organic products and the “amazing’’ scents of the flowers in his garden.

“When I was ill, my sense of taste and smell was practically zero, so it is fabulous that these have come back. I can now enjoy food. To be able to see, smell and touch things is very important to a gardener, and it is marvellous that I can do it,’’ he says.

* Dermot’s Secret Garden is on RTE 1 at 7pm on Thursdays.

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