Spring is here and with it every reason to get out of the house and start planting veggies with the children. No garden? Not to worry, a large flower pot or plastic tub will produce plenty of edible greens. Helen O’Callaghan reports
Since Covid-19 changed our lives with its requirement for self-isolation and social distancing, there has been a surge of traffic to the GIY website.
Social entrepreneur, author and TV presenter Michael Kelly is founder of GIY, a social enterprise that aims to support 100 million people to grow, cook and eat some of their own food for a healthier, more sustainable world by 2030.
“The increase in queries on our social media pages has been absolutely phenomenal. At a basic level, people are stuck at home with the kids and they’re looking for outdoor activities they can do,” says Kelly, who also believes something even more fundamental is going on as people live in the coronavirus shadow.
“People are feeling very anxious and uncertain about the future. But when you grow your own food, there’s a sense of taking back control even if you’re only doing a little bit of growing.”
This, he says, is because sowing a seed is an optimistic activity. “There’s something very powerful about that at the moment,” he says, explaining that, while seeds grow, they may not bear fruit for three to four months – and this creates a happy expectation in uncertain times.
Kelly believes the current crisis could have a positive legacy if we were to recapture some of the connection with ‘growing your own’ that was such a feature of our grandparents’ generation when everybody knew how to produce food. “People realise we’re not lords of the universe, that we’re fragile and vulnerable and so are the systems around us, and that these are skills we need to have.”
And while it’s not realistic for most people to grow all the veg and fruit they need, we can grow a lot. “Depending on the space and time, you can grow a lot and any move away from complete reliance on the supermarket’s a good thing. Almost separate from the food element, it’s a very positive mindful activity that people can do to keep their heads square over the next few months.”
So how do you get the kids interested in growing vegetables? Just start, says Kelly. “They’re very curious. Include activities they’ll really enjoy – get them to make watering cans from plastic bottles and plant labels with lollipop sticks.”
There are a couple of vegetables you can grow outside at this stage. Potatoes are typically sown around St Patrick’s Day and they’ve very straightforward. “When a potato sprouts, it’s effectively turning into a plant that produces other potatoes. Over five or six months, it’ll produce many more under the ground.”
Broad beans are good to start now too. “It’s an easy vegetable to grow, as long as you have a resident ladybird and hose to keep the blackly at bay, plus a beer trap for the slugs.”
Garlic is another easy one. “Take a clove out of the clump of garlic, put it into the ground and it’ll produce a bulb — one clove turns into one bulb.”
Other stuff you can grow at this time of year —tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, beetroot — “start as seeds inside, either in a pot or a seed tray and you’d plant them outside in four to six weeks.”
You can also start off salad leaves and herbs – do a little sowing every few weeks to ensure a constant supply.
“Most of the herbs are easy to grow and can be bought as little plants from the garden centre, or use the seeds.”
For these, not having a garden is no obstacle – an apartment balcony/windowsill can produce quite a lot.
With us all so much confined to our homes now and school off for the foreseeable, Kelly says scheduling an hour of food-growing in your child’s day is a really good idea, especially at such a nice time of year with spring here. “To be nurturing a little seedling is very good for children at this time.”
Between the school lessons each day, Kelly and his wife, Eilish, are getting their son and daughter, aged 13 and 11 respectively, out to sow seeds and look after the food the family’s growing.
“It’s giving them a sense of purpose and keeping them busy. They’ve always been interested but with a little more time they’ll definitely be getting more into it.
“My daughter’s big into helping with the potatoes. She loves coming along behind me, I make the hole in the ground and she pops in the potato. Our son keeps hens at home and he grows cress. He sells the eggs to family members and he gives away a bag of cress with the eggs.”
What if your growing takes off, or you plant too much of one thing, and you end up with a glut? “It often happens. The key is to find ways to preserve the food,” says Kelly, whose tips include making salsa from tomatoes, blanching and freezing French beans and peas, pickling cucumber or making sauerkraut from cabbage. “Carrots and parsnips you can leave in the ground until they’re ready to use. You can dry store onions and garlic – hang them up and store in the kitchen. These traditional ways of preserving food, used for centuries, are still very relevant today to make the most of what you grow.”
In light of the Covid-19 crisis, GIY is making each chapter of GIY’s Know-it-Allmanac, GIY’s Ultimate Family Guide to Growing and Cooking Food Through the Year available free to download on a month-by-month basis.
The GIY website (giy.ie) is a one-stop-shop for everything you need to get growing, including links to the Grow Cook Eat TV series, which is back on air for its third season. GIY’s online community, on Facebook and on the GIY website, has lots of people asking and answering questions about growing. “Though we’re all physically isolated, we’re coming together to grow food,” says Kelly.
He recommends encouraging teens to grow food by giving them autonomy: let them have ownership of a raised bed or part of the vegetable patch to DIY. “Let them plant whatever they want and let them be curious about the foods that interest them.”
It’s important to let them take total responsibility for this patch/plants, so quit looking over their shoulder.
It’s also good to link the food-growing activity back to recipes for the foods they like to eat. Have them grow the ingredients for pizza or salad. “Keep it connected with the food they’re going to eat. Encourage them to grow the ingredients for spaghetti Bolognese for example,” says Kelly.
Ensure you also teach your teenager the nutritional benefits of the plants they’re growing.
Do encourage your teens to prepare a meal using their harvest, so the whole family can enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Grow Cook Eat airs each Wednesday at 8.30 pm on RTÉ1 until April 29. See: giy.ie/growcookeat