Lifestyle Health

Tuesday 24 October 2017

'Thanks for sharing this Grow It Yourself journey. Happy GIY'

In this, the last GIY column, let's celebrate how growing our own food has encompassed issues far beyond the vegetable patch

Grow your own vegetables
Grow your own vegetables

Michael Kelly

SAD to say, dear reader, that after two years, this is the final Good Life column. Just as everything has a life span in the veg patch, so it is with a newspaper column.

It arises from nowhere, enjoys its first flushes of youth, matures to ripe old age, and (if it's smart) shuffles off this mortal coil before people get tired of it.

In spring 2012, we approached this newspaper with an idea of a weekly column about growing food. Too often, in my view, when people talk or write about growing food in the media, it's done in the 'gardening' context, lumped in with information about keeping your dahlias fresh (or whatever it is you do with dahlias).

Undoubtedly, for many people, growing food is indeed a pleasurable gardening activity. But, for many others (including me), it's not really about gardening at all – it's about food. It's about nutrition, and health, and living sustainably.

The horticultural haughtiness and Latin names etc, are in fact a real turn-off. So, it was a very significant sea change that a national newspaper decided to dedicate three pages to growing food every week, and to give us the freedom to make it exclusively about growing food (and not other gardening stuff).

Not only that, but they put it in the Health & Living section, therefore making it about food and wellness as opposed to gardening and plants.

As a result, GIY has connected with a whole new audience of people who might perhaps try growing food as a lever to better health.

I like to think that it was also significant that the person writing the column had no horticultural training, or indeed no green fingers worth speaking of. In fact, when I started growing my own food back in 2006, the sum total of my experience with plants was a short-lived (but generally failed) obsession with bonsai trees when I was young and interesting, and living in an apartment in Dublin.

Since I couldn't point to my many decades of horticultural experience, I asked people to come with me on a food- growing journey instead, with a promise that, by reporting on my own food- growing efforts each week, we could learn about it together.

I am a better grower than I was two years ago but, generally speaking, still waiting for my expertise to catch up with my enthusiasm. Thankfully, like most people who grow their own food in Ireland, I am not interested in complete self-sufficiency. I grow as much food as I can, but I am constrained by lack of time and expertise.

I still go to the supermarket on a weekly basis, and I don't beat myself up over that. I don't have to buy as much food as I used to, and that makes me happy. Growing my own food has made me a better consumer, buying more seasonal, local and organic food.

One of the most significant moments for us in GIY in these two years was the development of the concept of food empathy, which I've written about many times here.

It's the idea that when you grow your own food at any level, you develop a deeper understanding of food which has an impact in other areas of your life.

Interestingly, food empathy seems to arise for people regardless of how much food they grow. This has been a breakthrough for us, giving us a conceptual understanding of why the person growing some food on a balcony has always been just as important to us as the 10-acre smallholder.

That chimes with my own experience too. Growing food has allowed me to take a look under the bonnet and understand how it all works.

That knowledge has had a profound knock-on impact in all areas of my life. My overall diet has improved, I am eating more plants and less meat.

It has helped to ground me, to figure out my place in the grand scheme of things.

When I look back at the list of things I've written about each week, it strikes me that while there was undoubtedly lots of practical stuff from inside the veg patch, there were also more outward- looking musings – on GM potatoes, urban growing, raw food, below-cost selling, the horse-meat scandal and even a little Karl Marx.

In a similar way, growing food has expanded out of the garden and started to weave its way into other areas of Irish society.

The profile section in the column reflected this shift. There were GIYers from all over Ireland and beyond, household names like Lorraine Keane and Clodagh McKenna, politicians and former politicians, even the guy who convinced the White House to put in a veg patch.

There were also profiles of food-growing projects in schools, hospitals, workplaces and restaurants.

Over the years, I've always wondered how I would answer the 10 profile questions myself. Since it's the last column, I'm allowing myself the indulgence of doing just that (see page 22).

You might recall that it was discovering Chinese garlic in a supermarket that first opened my eyes to the follies of our food chain, jolted me into thinking differently about food and prompted me to take action by growing it myself.

It's not an exaggeration to say that little bulb of Chinese garlic changed my life. I am more excited than ever at the potential for growing food to change lives and maybe even the world – that surely sounds hopelessly optimistic and even naive, but it's how I feel.

I have learned my optimism from the process of veg growing itself – you place a seed in the soil and it seems unlikely that such a little spec could ever become food. Eventually, however, it confounds you and becomes exactly that.

It is appropriate then, the final veg of the week takes us right back to where it all began – garlic.

Thanks for sharing this journey with us and happy GIYing!


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