Growing your own food is they key to health and happiness

I have a friend who is a gifted gardener. Her focus is on growing food to eat. She has neatly laid out plots and a productive polytunnel which allows her to continue gardening in the worst of weathers.

Eating at her house is always a rare pleasure. If she feels something is missing from the meal, she simply dashes outside and digs it up.

Of course, like any gardener, she has her frustrations. Marauding slugs, and hungry rabbits and a sun that simply refuses to shine when it is most needed. And of course, gardening can be very labour intensive.

At my place oak, ash, birch and holly proliferate and though this to me is glorious, attempts at sneaking a little soil for growing were generally defeated by coming into contact with the trees’ complex and admirable root system which I had no desire to harm.

Eventually I opted for container gardening and utilized a variety of sturdy plastic receptacles, all properly cleaned out and supplied with drainage holes.

This has worked really well and we’ve had delicious peas, squash, potatoes, kale and courgettes.

Of course, keeping an eye on the moisture levels and regular feeding during growing time are important, but that quickly became a regular routine. And as anyone who has tasted fresh-picked home grown produce will know, there’s no going back.

For Michael Kelly who founded Waterford based Grow It Yourself (GIY) there’s altogether too much food apathy out there.

Kelly had his own awakening when he was about to buy Chinese grown garlic at his local supermarket. The absurdity of shipping something halfway around the world that could easily be grown in any back garden hit him forcefully and he began putting together a like-minded group and he began growing his own food.

But it wasn’t until he was awarded a small grant from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) that his ideas began transforming from a hobby to an organisation which now boasts over 50,000 supporters.

“To become connected to a network of social entrepreneurs was invaluable” Kelly says.

GIY now employs eight people to run its programmes which include an on-line shop to book publishing and magazines.

“We have an absolute time-bomb of diet-related illnesses” Kelly comments

“And in some respects, that time-bomb has already exploded.”

It is ironic that at a time when interest in food has never been higher and cookery programmes seem to dominate our television screens, obesity and other food related illnesses have reached an all-time high.

In West Cork, where artisan food production has become a part of the fabric of local life, 32 towns and villages have united to celebrate Ireland’s premier food festival with the 12th A Taste of West Cork Food Festival, running from September 4 to 13.

With an impressive line-up of 140 events including cookery workshops, dinners and interactive food demonstrations and the addition of events from the Beara Peninsula to Bandon, even bigger crowds are expected this year.

The Community Orchard in Skibbereen is one organisation which is committed to restoring the values and benefits of encouraging people to grow their own food. Jacinta French and Marian Crudge are both active members of Skibereen’s GIY group. Jacinta told me how it came about.

Q&A: Jacinta French

Jacinta, you’ve had a pretty varied background, I believe.

Yes, that is quite true. I have been a speech and language therapist, a rainforest campaigner, a supporter of indigenous peoples who live in the West Coast of Canada and a National Policy Officer to promote the planting of native species and the control of Sitka spruce.

Now I am an active farmer, a grower, educator and a wife and mother. The orchard was established in 2010 by Sustain West Cork in conjunction with Skibbereen Town Council. We provided trees for the group and I helped to plant them.

Local meitheal groups formed to progress the work and together we planted fifteen trees. There are nine apple trees, one plum tree and five Cob/hazel nuts.

How have things progressed from there? Has maintenance been difficult?

The maintenance was continued with Sunday afternoon meitheals. Topsoil is very limited on the site so we used cardboard spread under each tree to slow down weed and grass growth This was covered with seaweed and topped with organic compost. Then children became involved and planted in strawberry runners and onions and the results have been very successful, helping trees remain moist and to get nutrition.

How has it been having children involved?

It’s been fantastic. The best part of this exciting project was the arrival of the schoolchildren. The excitement was tangible and their knowledge and interest surprisingly good. We have 10 schools involved now and lots of new beds, herbs and cottage garden style plantings. We live on my husband’s family farm.

It’s about 40 acres and we have forestry, stone walls , hedgerows and a small beef herd, all on a small scale. I suppose you could call me a blowback, someone who has returned to their roots.

My Dad was brought up on a farm but he left it when he was 24, because life was just too hard. But in those days everybody farmed in a sustainable way. They had to. Everything they did had to count and they could live all year round on what they could produce on the farm.

Why do you think this sort of activity is so important for us all, and particularly children?

They love it.Those who are involved get to plant and dig, harvest and take produce home with them. It teaches children skills that are being lost and it gives them the experience of contact with nature.

Everyone who is involved are volunteers and we would certainly welcome more, older people and perhaps more schools and of course, we’d like more parents to become involved.

The opportunity to expand came with the news of funding from A Taste of West Cork Food Festival for the development of a Garden of Eden. We’ve hosted events during the Festival for the last four years. It’s a great initiative.

We welcome anyone who’d like to visit and see what we’re doing here and better still, get involved. It’s a great way of producing some delicious fruit and vegetables and making new friends.


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