Saturday 21 September 2019

Darina Allen: 20 good reasons to grow your own vegetables

The doyenne of Ballymaloe Cookery School is on a crusade - to persuade you to pop a seed in the ground, watch it grow and serve it up.

Darina Allen Pic: Tony Gavin
Darina Allen Pic: Tony Gavin

Fran Power

When Darina Allen was a child her mother gave her a little patch of her own in the garden. "One of the first things I grew were nasturtiums. The seeds were wizened and large enough for a child to pick up easily. They grew quickly in all different colours - reds, golds, yellows - and they spread and trailed all over the place," she says. "A brilliant ground cover and also pretty to bring to the teacher at school or to pop into a tiny vase for mummy."

That young gardener famously went on to marry into the Allen family of Ballymaloe, then a country-house restaurant run by her mother-in-law, Myrtle. In 1983 Darina set up the world-renowned cookery school with her brother Rory O'Connell, a training ground for many a talented chef, among them Catherine Fulvio, Brother Hubbard's Garret Fitzgerald and Stevie Parle of London's Dock Kitchen.

Darina Allen
Darina Allen

She is often asked if she came to cooking via gardening or the other way round. "Actually," she says, "I realise it's neither." When she arrived at Ballymaloe House as a bride, she found a garden full of exotic possibilities, including globe and Jerusalem artichokes and sea kale. For cooks, says Darina, it's all about freshness and flavour, and how better to ensure that than to grow it yourself. "Not only do freshly harvested vegetables, fruit and herbs taste remarkably different, but they cook faster, saving energy, and in some cases the texture is also very different."

The notion of the restaurant kitchen garden is now popular among chefs around the world, including Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, voted best restaurant in the world four times. But Darina was an early advocate, planning out a formal kitchen garden at Ballymaloe that was inspired by the gardens at Villandry in the Loire and at Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk.

Since those early days, she has noticed a positive shift in attitudes to food in Ireland. "The sale of vegetable seeds has grown hugely in the last decade. There is now great interest in healthy food and millennials also want to know about the provenance of the produce they buy." And she is on a crusade to encourage everyone to 'have a go' at growing their own, whether they live in a high-rise apartment or a farm.

For beginners, she says, "I'd suggest an exciting mix of organic salad leaves in a seed tray on the windowsill. Radishes, pea shoots, spring onions can even be grown in large recycled tin cans; all germinate quickly. Peas, French beans are brilliant value and can be eaten at several stages of their natural growing cycle. Home-grown beetroots are a revelation to most people and can be eaten raw or cooked from the time they're the size of a ping-pong ball; the stalks and leaves are also delicious - imagine three vegetables for the price of one."

But her mission doesn't stop there. "It would be wonderful if Ireland were to become the organic food island," she says. "I long for the Irish Government to share this vision. All over the world there's a growing concern about the quality and flavour of our food, and an increasing market for food we can trust. Ireland, the food island, already has a reputation and market for clean, green food. It's vital for the prosperity of our farmers and the health of our nation that we fully deliver on this expectation rather than just trade on it."

She has travelled a long road from those first nasturtium shoots. "Little did I know then that the peppery leaves are not only edible but also delicious, that the flowers enliven a salad and the seeds make the most tasty pickle akin to capers." And it all began with a single seed.

Here are Darina's 20 reasons to start on your own growing odyssey...


1 … because your food is from right here. For me, the security of knowing how our food is produced is reason enough to 'grow your own'. And it adds another dimension to the word 'local'. After all, there's nothing more local than food that comes from your balcony or garden - it's the ultimate in traceability. And it gives a supply of fresh organic food ready to eat at a moment's notice.

2 … because you reap the health benefits of eating your own fresh produce, grown on rich soil which will include the beneficial bacteria and enzymes of your local area, known to enhance your immune system.

3 … because it gives you much more choice. You can choose from hundreds of varieties, both heirloom and hybrids, to deliver the flavour and attributes you crave.

4 … because fresh, locally grown vegetables, fruit and herbs are undeniably higher in nutrients than those that have travelled long distances over several days.

5… because you save money on medical bills. GPs I've spoken to estimate that between 60-70pc of the cases that present to them are caused directly by the food people are eating and can be significantly improved by a change of diet.

6 … because you reduce your food costs - growing some of your own produce reduces the cost of providing your family with a supply of fresh organic produce. A packet of seeds costs a couple of euros, often less than one item of fruit or vegetables. A pack of fresh herbs costs virtually the same as a plant in a pot that can last for years.

7 … because you save on food miles - and do your bit to help to lower your carbon footprint. Growing your own food sustainably helps to reduce fossil fuels and the pollution that results from transporting fresh produce by airplane and truck from all over the world to our shops and supermarkets.

8 ... because you reduce food waste - it's not so easy to chuck out something when you have planted the seed yourself, nurtured it and patiently waited for it to grow into something delicious to eat; we are much more likely to eat or preserve every scrap rather than waste a morsel.

9 … because you need to worry less about food safety, food adulteration and food scandals when you grow your own.

10 … because gardening is a powerful way to relax, de-stress, and enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Many find it therapeutic. Every gardening activity provides exercise and you can burn off as many calories in 45 minutes of gardening as in 30 minutes of aerobics.

11 … because you're educating children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours on where their food comes from and it gives them an understanding of how dependent we are on the 12.5-15cm of soil around the world. Children who are involved in sowing seeds and planting seem to want to eat everything they have helped to grow.

12 … because when you grow and harvest your own vegetables, you discover that you can eat multiple parts, eg, beets - root, stalks and leaves; radishes - bulb and fresh leaves, flowers and seed; spinach - stalk and leaves; courgettes - vegetable, flowers, tender leaves and tendrils; beans - pods, shell beans, dried seeds - eat at many stages; peas - pods, shoots, tendrils; sprouts - sprout tops, peeled stalks ...

13 … because you'll make new friends, and connect with your neighbours when you share your vegetable gluts….

14… because you save on bin charges. Add your food waste to a compost heap and the eventual humus will help to enrich the soil to produce more healthy vegetables and fruit. Create a virtuous triangle.

15 … because having a deeper understanding of growing even a little of your own food gives a greater appreciation of the time and effort that goes into producing wholesome, nourishing food. Hence, you will be less likely to complain about the price of real food again!

16 … because you get a feelgood factor. 'Growing your own' produces a wonderful sense of pride and satisfaction at each new achievement. It may also spark new interests in nutrition, botany, landscaping, photography ...

17 … because you might kickstart a small business.

  • You may want to sell your surplus food on a little table or stall with an 'honesty box' outside your home. 'Veg on the hedge' is a Guernsey tradition. As you travel around the island, you can buy a range of local produce, usually grown by the owner of the box, and set out on a rickety table, including home-grown vegetables, fruit, flowers, eggs, homemade jams, preserves. The stalls are unmanned, everything is sold on trust, you just put the money in the box or tin.
  • Farmers market - apply for a stall at your local Farmers Market.
  • Offer surplus to your local shop or cafe.
  • Put a sign up outside your house - 'Food from the Garden'.
  • WhatsApp to alert neighbours that you have surplus produce for sale so they can come and pick their own.
  • Barter with your neighbours.

18… because it makes meals more personal. We regularly sit down at Ballymaloe to meals where something or almost everything on the plate comes from the farm and gardens, even the rich yellow Jersey butter - that's what memories are made of.

19… because you can become a seedsaver and help in the important work of preserving old varieties and saving seed.

20 … because growing your own connects both you and your family to the impact of weather, pests and the reality of nature - no bad thing.

Darina's book 'Grow, Cook, Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion in 500 recipes' is out now in hardback, €30

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