A recent trip to Waterford where the porridge flows freely

September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

In nearly two decades of garden writing I’ve been to scores of meetings, seminars and other convocations of people who grow things. But I’ve never been to one with the same buzzy atmosphere and spirit of goodwill as the recent GIY Gathering in Waterford city. (And I’ve rarely experienced anything quite so surreal either as standing in Sunday’s pouring rain on The Quay while the world’s largest pot of porridge — 1,380kg, 550 servings — was being made, as part of the city’s Harvest Festival.)

GIY, of course, is an acronym for “grow it yourself”, an organisation started by journalist Michael Kelly in 2009. It has a strong online presence (www.giyireland.com), and a network of a hundred growers’ groups throughout Ireland, where members share knowledge and expertise with each other. There’s now also a smattering of GIY groups in Australia, and Kelly is planning a British invasion too.

The GIY Gathering was about much more than how to grow good spuds, make compost, or how to deter cabbage white butterflies from laying eggs on your brassicas. It brought together international specialists who spoke about growing — yes — but also about resilience, sustainability, health, education and everything else remotely related to the food we put in our mouths.

Michael Kelly, Lia Leendertz, Roger Doiron, Alys Fowler, Mark Diacono [© Emagine Media]

All the invited speakers gave their time voluntarily. Those who came from farthest afield included New Zealand social business entrepreneur Pete Russell whose Ooooby network (Out of Our Own Backyard: www.ooooby.org) links local backyard growers and smallholders with buyers; and American Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (www.kgi.org), whose “Eat the View” campaign led to the making of the organic vegetable garden at the White House in 2009. British speakers included broadcaster and writer Alys Fowler, writer and erstwhile River Cottage head gardener Mark Diacono, author of the Self-Sufficiency Bible Simon Dawson, writer Lia Leendertz, and sustainability visionary Paul Clarke. Among the participants from Ireland were Joy Larkcom, Klaus Laitenberger, Darina Allen, Trevor Sargent and many others. The weekend’s proceedings were presided over with good humour and intelligence by Ella McSweeney.

With five events going on at most times, it was hard to choose which to attend. Most of the talks I went to had my mind bubbling over with enthusiasm and fertilised with new ideas — although my mental jury is still out on the co-creationist’s method of slug control: include extra plants for the molluscs, and ask them nicely to leave all the others alone.

Are you sure you’re listening to me, little slug?

I was more inspired by one of Paul Clarke’s many projects, Pop Up Farm (www.pop-up-farm.com) where people are encouraged to grow food everywhere and anywhere in their locality: in a window box, on a roof, at a railway platform, in re-purposed drinks cartons. This kind of “extensive farming” is the opposite of intensive farming, and it has none of the associated problems of waste management, food miles, habitat erosion, loss of diversity and so on. A well-organised pilot scheme exists in Burnley in Lancashire where over 30 primary schools grow food in conjunction with each other. It is one interconnected farm, but in many locations. In a leaner future, where fuel and other resources are in short supply, it is strategies such as this that might save the world. It’s not too far-fetched an idea. It worked in Cuba, where the “organoponicos” feed the majority of Havana’s population. These urban organic market gardens arose when the source of cheap oil and agricultural inputs dried up after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

I was inspired too by the recurring theme of involving children in the process of growing food. Paul Clarke noted: “If you get kids growing peas and seeds, they go on to become activists for a better food system.” Trevor Sargent (www. trevorskitchengarden.ie) implored parents to make sure that  their local schools include food growing as part of the curriculum, and that it is integrated into the other subjects. “Maths, English, Irish, geography, history — all of those subjects have a food-growing dimension to them.”

Darina Allen pointed out that the root cause of obesity is the way that food has been produced since the 1950s. Industrial production systems turn out foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt. “Get the children eating fresh, naturally produced, local food in season. We spend 7 per cent of our income on food. How much do we spend on medicine? Our food should be our medicine.”

There were hundreds of other ideas discussed over the weekend, far too many to communicate in this small space. So here are just three to end with. I admired Alys Fowler’s stockpiling produce by preserving, drying, fermenting, pickling and storing underground (her book on the subject will be out next spring). I was taken by Lia Leendertz’s simple solution of sharing her allotment with three other families to quarter the work and quadruple the fun. And finally, who could argue with Mark Diacono’s advice: “grow what you most like to eat”?

GIY Gathering Themes

Resilience: growing local food, using low energy home-preserving, planting diverse crops to avoid monocultural disasters and minding the soil all build a strong food system.
Rethinking energy-heavy, disaster-prone industrial systems: smaller self-contained growing operations make more environmental and social sense. Lessons can be learned from nature where there is no waste and where all is cyclical. We can learn also from subsistence farmers, who respect the land.
Good food is undervalued: growing our own, even if it’s only a tiny box on a windowsill, leads to an awareness of the benefits and worth of real food.
Community: better food networks are built when more people are involved — sharing knowledge, skills, spaces, crops and responsibilities.
Doing: just growing something, no matter how ham-fistedly, is far better than doing nothing.
And finally, let me commend to you… From the Ground Up: How Ireland is growing its own by Fionnuala Fallon, Irish Times gardening columnist and one of the speakers at the GIY Gathering. The book, which is beautifully produced by the Irish publisher, Collins Press (€24.99), celebrates 16 very different Irish food-growing operations and the people who tend them. Fionnuala’s subjects are as diverse as an eight-square-metre apartment balcony, the 2.5-acre walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, the monster pumpkins grown by teenage twin brothers in Co Louth, and the Cork-based, organic Brown Envelope Seeds. With each chapter, she captures the passion and dedication of the people involved, and deftly imparts large chunks of their know-how. Fionnuala’s husband, Richard Johnston, is a tremendously skilled photographer, and his pictures complete the book with great style.

This blog post is an elongated version of my Sunday Times column, published on September 23rd 2012

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Queen of the Road — and Vegetables too

July 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is August 1976, and an old Mercedes van with a small caravan in tow sets off from a farm in Suffolk. Its passengers are a couple and their two children. The cargo spread among the two vehicles includes all the usual camping paraphernalia as well as bicycles, a table, chairs, a telescope, school books, and a small kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, spices and other staples. A gang of teddies, dolls, knitted animals and sundry other gregarious characters crowd the windows, catching a last glance at the East Anglia landscape. Behind them, lumpy black plastic sacks of clothing are piled high. Shelves of reference books, empty biscuit tins and a typewriter complete the inventory. Out on the road, the caravan’s momentum gradually swings open the unsecured doors of the cupboards, dumping their contents onto the jumble of possessions.

Thus started a year-long road trip that garden writer Joy Larkcom and her family made around Europe collecting old and interesting seed varieties (hence the biscuit tins), and gathering intelligence both on traditional cultivation methods and commercial growing practices. The “Grand Vegetable Tour”, as they called it, took place at a time before technology made travelling the constantly-connected and cushy business that it is today.

Communications, accessing money and finding running water were major ordeals. Despite this, Joy — sometimes in shorts and T-shirt, sometimes in scarf and mittens — would set up her typewriter and little table next to the van almost daily, and tap out hard-won notes and articles. Husband Don Pollard, meanwhile, was kept busy fixing the vehicles, schooling the children and coaxing meals (including birthday cakes) out of the caravan’s cooker.

It is thanks to the efforts of this raggle-taggle troupe, staying at camp sites and in farmers’ fields, that British seed companies began to offer vegetable varieties and mixed-leaf salads similar to those found on the continent, and that gardeners became familiar with European methods such as “cut-and-come-again” harvesting and polytunnel growing. In short, Joy’s research and seed collections acted as a catalyst for change in vegetable gardens throughout Britain and Ireland.

In the 1980s, while researching oriental vegetables, she went (sans famille) to China, Japan and Taiwan, and to Asian communities in the United States and Canada. Later excursions took her to vegetable patches, seed companies, markets and trial grounds in many countries. For four decades, she has been a one-woman research institute, collecting seed, making notes and taking pictures wherever she goes, whether it is a Cuban agriponico or a Dublin garden.

Her articles, published in trade periodicals and in magazines for home gardeners, are meticulous, rich in detail and beautifully written. They take a single subject and examine it from every angle. They are virtuoso performances on artichokes, on peas, on pumpkins, on mulching, on the correct spacing of vegetables for greatest productivity, on how to grow mammoth onions, and even on how to achieve champion giant gooseberries. They cover everything to do with the edible garden, and often introduce new ideas and crop varieties.

Joy, now 76, has won many prestigious awards (including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal) and has published many books. Ten years ago, at a time in their lives when most people are winding down, she and Don moved to a farmhouse near Clonakilty, in west Cork, and started a new garden from scratch. “It was just brilliant almost from the start,”, she tells me, “the sheer beauty of this place — and to hear the sea!”

The couple approached the plot, on a fiercely windswept slope, with the same dauntless enthusiasm that fuelled their year on the road in Europe. “The challenges of starting to garden here were so absorbing. It was a blank sheet, and it was just a lovely experience altogether.” The garden, an intensive patch filled with fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, is entirely organic. Joy, who was never keen on using chemicals, ceased abruptly over forty years ago. While spraying her apples with a particularly nasty tar oil wash, she discovered baby Brendan, caught in the crossfire, covered in great globs of tar.

 Although the move to Ireland was supposed to mark the start of her retirement, the woman who is widely known as the Vegetable Queen is still working as hard as ever. She has just published a book, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99), based on a collection of around a hundred articles written over four decades. Interspersed with photographs, diary pages and other intriguing snippets, they are linked together with a charming and extensive commentary. The book is so warm and appealing that it gives you the feeling of spending an evening with a wise and good friend, with a box of old photos, clippings and other memorabilia.

Although it is still early in the season, I’m pretty sure that this is my book of the year.

 

An edited version of this article appeared in my weekly column in the Sunday Times

 

I do like to be beside the seaweed

November 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

The recent gales on the east coast of Ireland dumped inches of rain onto the land. Much of it ended up as floods — yet another one of those “once-in-a-hundred-years” disasters that have been occurring with alarming regularity during the past decade.

But let’s talk about that in another post. Instead, I’d like to write about seaweed — for that was the silver lining, as it were, that arrived with those dark cloudy gales. The movie below contains some energetic waves, which were laden with seaweed, although you can see only a little of it. (I’ve included some dogs to liven things up instead.)

Seaweed has been used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner in coastal regions for as long as man has been growing food. In Ireland it was added to the the poor, stony soil on the Aran Islands, and all along the western seaboard. It is especially good for sandy and light soils, as it contains gelatinous substances (alginates) that retain moisture and help bind soil particles together. The Victorians used great quantities of it, often burning it first, and applying the ash. It was recommended especially for asparagus, which originated as a coastal plant. It is still used by some people for vegetables, particularly potatoes.

Perfect for potatoes

Scotsman Alan Romans, who is the King of Potatoes in this part of the world, has used it in the past for his spuds. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me: “Seaweed is one of the best potato fertilisers. The carbon-nitrogen ratio is absolutely perfect; it breaks down almost instantly into compost at something like 1 to 14. If I were going to use it now, I would trowel in a seed potato at the right distance along the line, I would lay the seaweed on the surface and put a spadeful of earth on it to keep from drying out. Potatoes are quite happy to grow through organic fertiliser, and take the nutrients.”

Back in Ireland, in west Cork, our adopted Queen of Vegetables, Joy Larkcom, is a great fan of seaweed. She and husband Don Pollard collect it after it is washed onto a nearby beach by strong southwesterlies (see Graham Rice’s blog post here about it). “The question I am most often asked”, says Joy, “is whether you wash the salt off before using it. We don’t. We put it straight onto the ground. It disappears quite quickly, so you need a four-to-six-inch layer. I think it may deter slugs when it gets crispy.”

On Joy’s beach, the seaweed sometimes accumulates in piles as high as a person — which means it’s nicely gathered together for collection.

The long seaweed walk

On our east coast, the sea is less obliging, and one has to travel a longer distance to fill one’s bags. Collecting can be heavy work, so if the seaweed is thinly spread on the shingle or sand, walk off some distance with your empty bags and start filling them there, working your way back the way you came. You don’t want to find yourself lugging an increasingly bulging and heavy bag in the wrong direction from your car. (I dream about fitting panniers to the dogs’ backs, like those creels that Irish donkeys used to wear. I don’t think the dogs would find that as amusing as I do.)

Perseus and Medusa go to the seaside

A word of advice: don’t harvest seaweed that is growing on rocks — you need a licence for that, and a good reason for doing it. Only pick the stuff you find washed up on the beach. And, of course, be careful about disturbing wildlife, and trampling all over a fragile ecosystem.

I can’t end this post without mentioning seaweed baths. Taking a seaweed bath is one of those things you should try at least once in your life. I’ve had several, at various places in Ireland. The best are in Sligo, right next to the sea, where you can hear the waves as you lie entwined in algae. One of these businesses is at Strandhill,  and the owner’s father grows champion vegetables on his organic farm. Isn’t that nice? You can lie in a seaweed bath and dream of giant leeks.

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