Thursday 22 March 2018

How to grow fruit and vegetables in your family garden

When Michael Kelly's kids started to garden it meant muck, upside-down planting and over weeding. But it also meant they grazed on peas and carrots, and learnt where their food came from and how to handle a hoe

Michael Kelly, Dunmore East, Co Waterford
Michael Kelly, Dunmore East, Co Waterford
Nicky and Vika Kelly

Michael Kelly

When I look back on the memories I have of growing my own food here at home over the last 13 years, the fondest moments generally involve one or both of our two children (now aged eight and 10). Actually, the Eureka moment about the importance of food-growing with children came to me courtesy of Eldest Boy, as he sat shelling broad beans at the kitchen table one summer's evening three years ago.

When I look back on the memories I have of growing my own food here at home over the last 13 years, the fondest moments generally involve one or both of our two children (now aged eight and 10). Actually, the Eureka moment about the importance of food-growing with children came to me courtesy of Eldest Boy, as he sat shelling broad beans at the kitchen table one summer's evening three years ago.

Now before you go thinking that our house is like something from Little House on the Prairie, let me say that we don't generally sit around podding beans every night before dinner. But I did get him to sit still for 20 minutes and as he worked, he looked up at me and said: "Dad, we need to keep some of these beans for next year's growing." And I realised that from just a peripheral involvement in the growing I do here at home, he understood the full life-cycle of a broad bean plant: from sowing the seed, to that seed becoming a plant and producing food, and finally, that the beans we eat are also the seed for the following year's crop. At GIY (Grow It Yourself), we run school programmes every year (see panel on page 2), and it's these lightbulb moments that motivate us. Though things are improving, we still unfortunately hear children in classrooms talk about food as if it just magically appears, wrapped in cellophane, on the shelves in a supermarket. They don't necessarily understand that someone had to sow it, grow it, tend to it and ultimately harvest it. Even the smallest food growing (or harvesting) experiences have huge value in helping children to understand where their food comes from.

Getting children interested in food is a common motivation for people to start growing some of their own food. I started a good few years before our kids came on the scene and my motivation was a little different. It came from a gradual interest in the utter madness of our food chain. Why were supermarkets selling imported veg, fruit and herbs that grow perfectly well here? Garlic from China, strawberries from Israel, beans from Kenya and so on. Once you look down that rabbit hole, there's really no going back.

With my interest piqued I started growing some of my own food - badly, it must be said. When I tried to find an organisation I could join to learn more, I was disappointed to find there was nothing out there other than flower and plant clubs. An ad in the local paper turned up a group of like-minded souls, out of which the first GIY group was born in Waterford in 2008. Hard to believe it, but just eight short years later, we support over half a million people to grow their own food in over 8,000 community food growing groups and projects in Ireland and the UK.

What I've discovered over the years is that the more food I grow myself, the more I've really re-connected with my food in a meaningful way. In GIY, we call this food 'empathy' and it's a deeper understanding of food and how it's produced that you get from growing some of it yourself. Along the way I've rediscovered the joys (and frustrations) of seasonality. Our meals now are led by what's in season in the garden (or locally) rather than being led by the ingredients in a recipe from the celeb chef cookbook du jour.

By definition that means an utter transformation in what you eat and how it tastes. It means eating food that is at its most nutritious and tuning into nature's wisdom about the foods our bodies need at different times of the year.

We don't grow all our own food, or anything close to it - but here's the interesting thing: the food we do have to buy is different because of what we've learned from our food growing. We buy more seasonal, local and organic food and because we know the effort that goes into producing it, we're more willing to pay a fair price for it.

Like my son, Youngest Girl loves to help out in the veg patch. I have a mental picture of her standing, beaming, after we've sowed rows of tomato plants in the polytunnel together. An annual tradition of sowing spuds on Paddy's Day has blurred into a single, precious memory. We mark out a row, I stick my hands down into the cold soil around a foot deep to make a hole, she pops in the seed spud and covers it with soil and then we shuffle on along the row.

She talks constantly while we work, peppering me with questions about anything and everything. I say: "Do you ever stop jibber- jabbering?" and she laughs and says, "No!" I cherish these memories and am hopeful that once she gets teenage angst, college woes and early adulthood behind her she will come back to the memories and the food growing.

Eldest Boy is more into the harvesting side of things. I can picture him standing proudly with the latest harvest: a big baking bowl full of ripe tomatoes of all colours and sizes, a trug full of pears, a giant bunch of dirty carrots, or trying to get his arms around a giant orange pumpkin so he can measure it.

The more food we grow together, the more their palates and tastes expand. If you've a picky eater in the house, getting them to grow some food themselves is a great way to increase their willingness to try new foods.

Happily, our kids will literally eat anything. Now, it's possible that we're just very lucky in this regard, but I think the two things are connected. They will eat wilted spinach under a poached egg for breakfast, and would happily munch a salad of spicy, hot oriental greens.

They'd eat beetroot till the cows come home (particularly if it's in a brownie). In the summer months, I often look out the window and see them grazing in the veg patch, often trying things that they might be inclined to turn their nose up at in the kitchen.

I remember noticing when they were small that my pea plants seemed to have no pods whatsoever on the plants above three foot. I scoured gardening books to see if there was some exotic disease that caused half the pods to drop off pea plants.

Then I realised that the kids were devouring the pods and three foot was as high as they could reach at the time.

Though I sometimes bemoan the extent of their pilfering, it is hard to complain about them eating delicious and healthy food direct from the plant.

Even though we encourage them to grow things themselves, because I am a neat freak, I have to watch through gritted teeth as they sow things upside down, inside out and generally in the wrong place. They pull 'weeds' that aren't weeds and have a penchant for overwatering things to the point of drowning them. I've learned to go with the flow (a little).

I love that they pick up slugs and worms, and come up to their dinner mucked up to the eyeballs - that's the way kids should be. We might get frustrated occasionally about the amount of dirty clothes going into the basket, but, on the other hand, research shows that our children's lives are far too hygienic and it's not good for their health. I encourage them to eat things that are still a little mucky. Soil is teeming with microbes that are beneficial to our gut health. Grab a carrot, give it a rub on your trouser leg and have a good munch.

As they get older, they get more useful and less detrimental to the veg patch. For a strange reason, best known to himself, Eldest Boy is fond of weeding and good with a hoe. Leave him off, I say. Both are getting good at seed sowing, and can efficiently fill a module tray or two with seeds for me (particularly if they are slightly bigger seeds like beetroot or beans).

When giving them a job to do, I'm always aware that I am treading a fine line between instilling a love of growing or a profound and resentful aversion that might last a lifetime. Let's hope it's the former.

Mick Kelly is founder of GIY and author of GROW COOK EAT. GIY is a not-for-profit organisation that supports people to get healthy by growing some of their own food at home, school, work and in the community

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