Monday 20 January 2020

Country Matters: Home-grown on a high-rise block

GROW YOUR OWN: John Seymour
GROW YOUR OWN: John Seymour

Joe Kennedy

In Dublin I look out from a window of an old house at new apartment blocks nearing completion and remember a pioneering gardener who once lived in a double-decker bus.

The man in the bus - now long passed on - was a guru of self-sufficiency; he wrote a book about it which had world-wide sales. His name was John Seymour, he was English, and his last smallholding (post his bus period) was near New Ross.

He believed in using every available space to grow fruit and vegetables, abhorred lawn-based greenery and was an advocate of window-box horticulture and growing one's own food wherever space permitted, though he was not a 'guerilla gardener'.

Our own expert, Gerry Daly, had some sound advice for potato growers recently which reminded me of my own halcyon days in Meath and west Waterford when I happily cultivated satisfactory vegetable plots, aided by an abundance of old-style fertiliser from local cattle quarters.

I was never as ambitious or as proficient as John Seymour, who milked a cow, fattened pigs, kept poultry, grew crops, made beer and sang ballads. And there seemed not a craft or skill at which he was not proficient. He was teacher, instructor, defiant, opinionated and a superb writer. His Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (Dorling Kindersley) sold almost a million copies in 30 languages.

Seymour bent his back with spade, fork and hoe and liked to impart his enthusiasm to those voluntarily cornered. But he became impatient with anybody who talked about self-sufficiency but fought shy of the necessary toil. He described them as "self-supporters" whose plots should be given to those who worked them.

He may not have been the first to promote the idea of growing tomatoes in window boxes but he shrugged off any suggestion that he was the 'father' of any particular movement. He said self-sufficiency was not going back seeking an idealistic lifestyle but going forward to a new and better one for organically grown food and "a good life in pleasant surroundings for health of body and peace of mind".

One of today's distinguished gardening writers is Robin Lane Fox, who recently has been encouraging towards the window-box and balcony generation of young apartment renters whom he sees as never owning fair-sized gardens.

Contrary to most gurus of vegetable gardening, Lane Fox says it can be practised in very small spaces and in all sorts of containers such as buckets, dustbins, wine crates - and the signature window-box. Seymour would certainly support his suggestion that such gardening skills should be taught in schools instead of "personal development"!

He reveals interesting plants for the high-rise dwellers such as strawberries that have been bred to climb trellises (Skyline) and scaled down raspberries whose canes will fit into flower pots (Ruby Beauty). There is also a Black Russian tomato and Tumbling Tom Red which hangs down the side of a pot. I trust some of my new neighbours-to-be will have a go at balcony self-sufficiency. John Seymour would be delighted.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life