Growing vegetables can be a daunting experience, but our new campaign aims to help absolute beginners, says Michael Kelly
When you have been growing your own food for a few years, it's easy to forget what it felt like when you started out first. I am talking about that incredibly sweaty, daunted, almost frightened feeling. Afraid to start, afraid to give it a go, afraid to make a mistake, afraid to look foolish if it goes wrong.
I am reminded of something that a friend once told me when I asked her why she didn't grow her own food. She said that not only did she not have green fingers, she was absolutely freaked out by the idea of growing things.
Her Dad gave her a beautiful flowering orchid once as a present, and instead of feeling gratitude she felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, knowing that it would only be a matter of days before she would kill it. The feeling in her stomach, she said, was 'pre-emptive guilt' that she couldn't keep this beautiful living thing alive.
I can completely empathise with that guilty feeling. In my late twenties, living in an apartment in Dublin and enjoying a disposable income for the first time, I went through a profoundly unsuccessful bonsai tree growing phase. It ended because I was tired of feeling endlessly guilty about the fact that I had killed about half a dozen bonsai trees that someone had spent years tending to and that had a collective age of about four millennia.
In my first few years of GIYing I was completely and utterly useless at it. I read up on how to plant things and was still none the wiser. A veg-growing guide might, for example, tell you that you start growing garlic by sticking a clove in the soil – I would immediately wonder, "which end do you stick in the soil?" and riddled with indecision, I would be reluctant to even try. The first time I sowed carrots, I ended up weeding the little seedlings away, because I had no idea which were the weeds and which were the carrot seedlings.
I hate the concept of "green fingers". The idea that you are either born with an ability to grow things, or not, is deeply unhelpful.
In reality, growing things is a skill and like any skill it takes time to master. So, all of us have to go through that phase where we are novices and we have to accept the fact that we will most likely kill a lot of plants while we wait for our ability to catch up with our enthusiasm.
Most people start their GIY journey by buying a book – usually some sort of a vegetable-growing guide that has an A-Z listing of all the vegetables one can grow. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people buying books, but I always think that starting with an A-Z guide is a little like a virgin using the Kama Sutra to learn the basics of sex.
What one really needs of course, is to stay away from the veg-growing guides, which to the novice may as well be written in Sanskrit. We need to get right back to basics, and recognise that we have no base level of knowledge whatsoever when we are starting out.
We need quick wins, that will give the beginner the confidence to keep going. We need projects – very simple, finite projects. We need to focus on vegetables that are easy to grow. (That's another thing beginners tend not to appreciate – not all veg are the same. Some are easy to grow, while others are really difficult to grow).
In GIY, we've been grappling with this issue for years – how can we convince those people that are really freaked out by the idea of growing things, to give it a try? So we asked ourselves – what's the easiest vegetable in the world to grow? The answer is cress. You could throw a handful of cress seeds up in to the air and it will more than likely grow wherever it lands.
This thinking eventually led us to set up a campaign called Operation GIY Nation. The concept is simple – we designed six simple growing projects and we send them to people by email each month, starting in April. The first project is growing cress, and it gets a little harder each month, thereby building the expertise and confidence levels each month. The final project in September is growing spuds for Christmas.
We decided to target Operation GIY Nation at families – because getting kids involved makes sense – They have none of the hang-ups that us adults are burdened with. The projects are written with complete novices in mind. The vegetables we have chosen for the projects can all be grown in pots/containers if required – so even if you don't have much of a garden (or any garden at all), you can still take part.
Each month, we will give you a list of materials you require to do the project – but don't worry, all the projects can be done very cheaply with materials you can buy in any garden centre – basically a few pots, some seeds and compost.
As an added incentive, this year, we will be giving one lucky family a prize of a weekend away to the GIY Gathering in Waterford in September (14/15). We will pick the family that excites us the most with the blogging, photos and videos of their GIYing.
So come on! GIY Virgins of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our lawns.
To get involved, simply register at www.giyireland.com/giynation.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY