Saturday 19 January 2019

Baltinglass has a growing movement

As the vegetable growers wait for the overdue warmth of spring to arrive, reporter David Medcalf spoke to the folk behind the green revolution at the Tearmann Community Garden in Baltinglass

The reluctance of winter to depart has caused much frustration among the gardeners of Ireland, all eager to dig and plant. The enduring greyness of the weather certainly has the crew at Tearmann Community Garden in Baltinglass straining at the leash.

'This is not a leisure centre,' declares chairwoman Mary Vernon as she sits in the large cabin which is the nerve centre of the operation. Her tone makes it clear that she would far rather be out and about rather than drinking tea, though at least some progress is being made indoors with the sorting of seeds. And as we sit over our steaming mugs, the continuing cold and damp allows us the leisure to review this most inspiring enterprise.

The two acre garden and the cabin are located a stone's throw from St Joseph's Roman Catholic church which stands tall on the edge of Baltinglass town. As Sister Mary Carmody explains, thirty years ago this area was parish land, a largely unremarkable and overlooked property. Thirty years ago, the quiet spoken Dominican nun was working as a primary teacher in Carlow, more preoccupied with schooling than with potting compost or plant cuttings.

After stepping down from the classroom, the reverend sister was inspired to contact parish priest Father Tommy Dillon. She had returned recently from the Genesis Farm in New Jersey, famed for its spiritual approach to the everyday issues of environment and food production. Sister Mary took a course there in 2004 and she was also inspired to pursue a master's degree in ecology at a university in Wales. Her studies have made her increasingly concerned for the future of our planet, with its accelerating loss of forest and of jungle spelling extinction for many species.

'There's an acre out the back,' is how she recalls Father Tommy's reaction to her approach - and so a remarkable venture was conceived. Here was a place that could serve on one level as a public park and on another level as a reminder to one and all that maybe we need to go back to our roots - literally, our roots.

Farmers were called in to plough the acre out the back - since extended to two acres and the first crop of potatoes was planted in 2004, spuds being ideal for cleaning up the neglected ground while plans were laid to open up the garden to all of the surrounding community.

Brought up on a farm in Tullow, County Carlow, Sister Mary counts it as a blessing that she was acquainted with animals and crops from an early age. As a teacher she ensured her pupils were given the benefit of nature studies: 'children are innately interested in nature. It is in everyone, especially kids.'

Her concern is that the link between farming and the food we eat is not much understood by the new generation - even in a town surrounded by fields such as Baltinglass.She feels we should all be concerned with how dinner arrives on the plate and that local produce is best. Clearly, two acres will go nowhere near feeding the adjacent population but Tearmann Garden is not designed to do that. Instead, it aims to cultivate ideas and sow notions of modest self-sufficiency by inviting everyone in the neighbourhood to grow plants and look after the poultry.

In 2005, the project was formalised with the formation of a committee chaired by Sister Mary, with assistance of Leader grant aid. She handed over the baton of leadership to Mary Vernon seven years ago but remains very much the philosophical inspiration at Tearmann. The word, by the way, is the Irish for sanctuary, implying perhaps that peace may sprout from the potatoes and the parsnips that grow here.

The layout patrolled by part-time gardener Kieron Nolan includes at least 25 raised vegetable growing beds, many of them assigned to local groups such as the Men's Shed.

Some space is presented as a public park, with lawns, a pond rich in frog spawn, berry canes, glass-houses and an orchard with apple and plum trees. There is room for children to play and for families to have a picnic in the open air and also woodland in which most of the trees were planted by students attending local schools, with views up to Carr's Rock.

Indeed, anyone educated in Baltinglass over the past decade or so can hardly avoid being aware of Tearmann Garden. The schools are encouraged by Tearmann to grow plants and there is an open invitation to teachers to bring their charges to the garden. The committee runs practical activities in simple horticulture for the four local pre-schools and the two primary schools.

The transition year at Scoil Chonglais is given plenty of opportunities to help out, while organisations such as the cubs, scouts and Foroige are also involved.

Caitlin Coffey from transition year spent much of her Easter holidays in the garden, for instance, and she will be back later this this month with classmates to plant crops. The grounds are dotted with scarecrows made by the students and they also constructed an award winning, five-star bug hotel in a bid to foster insect life.

Adults too are enrolled to the good sister's mission to protect the world's green space and the diversity of species, whether as individuals or as members of various groups. Retired nurse Mary Vernon, for example, arrived at Tearmann through her membership of the district active retirement association. The Men's Shed is particularly to the fore, led by Liam Donegan, while Kare, Cozy Corner Crafters and a biodiversity group may also be found on the premises.

One of the highlights of the calendar is the annual non-denominational harvest festival and mini market. The vegetables grown in the raised beds are enjoyed, tasted, savoured at food tastings which have brought the cuisines of many countries to West Wicklow palates. Polish bread, Lithuanian beetroot dishes and Brazilian stew have all been sampled courtesy of Baltinglass residents from around the world. Meanwhile, the cabin serves as venue for workshops which tackle subjects such as pollution, herbologoy, willow weaving and seed saving.

What happens on two acres will not save the world, as Sister Mary freely acknowledges: 'It is symbolic, pointing to how you could be sustainable in a small space. We hope that people will replicate what happens here at home.'

Tearmann was the first community garden in the county she is happy to report that the model has since been adopted in Aughrim, Wicklow town and Greystones. Perhaps the seed of Baltinglass may sprout even further afield, as Mary Vernon points to signatures in the guest book from as far away as the United States and Australia. The most memorable foreign visitors were from Holland, a choir who emerged from Mass in St Joseph's to sing in the garden.

Committee member Pat Norton first became involved when she brought youngsters here from the Irish speaking pre-school Naonra Bhealach Chonglais. She reckons that you are never too young to begin growing things, though children so small prefer quick maturing crops such as cress, mustard and lettuce. They also take delight in being face to face with a real, live crowing cock who presides over the flock of Rhode Island Reds.

'With small children the biggest thrill is digging potatoes,' reckons Pat. 'The wonder of it!'

Sister Mary pays fond tribute to landscaper Jim O'Toole (now deceased) whose design for the garden stands as a reminder of his genius, along with the artichokes he introduced. Another highlight plant is the vine which, under cover of glass, yields health bunches of black grapes.

The gospel of keeping it local is followed enthusiastically, with horse manure provided by the next door equestrian centre. The gardeners are hungry to explore the latest eco-friendly techniques such as rainwater harvesting and composting. Sister Mary is a dab-hand at the wormery which converts green waste into a rich growing medium.

She sighs in dismay at the thought of supermarket shelves stocked with lettuce imported from the faraway Middle East. Better to grow your own, better take sanctuary in Tearmann: 'For mental, spiritual and physical health, we need these spaces. It cuts out the loneliness.'

Her sentiment is echoes by Mary Vernon: 'My GP says that if more people got out to do a bit of gardening then there would be less antidepressants to prescribe.

'We will have to get back in connection with the earth. We need to preserve green space.'

The Tearmann Community Garden committee was established in 2005 by Sister Mary Carmody and Father Tommy Dillon with the late Jim O'Toole in 2005. The current line-up is: chair Mary Vernon, treasurer Sister Mary Carmody, secretary Mary Norton, Father Ger Ahern, Sister Eileen Deegan, PRO Sharon Jackson, Renee Wall, Martin Twyford, Pat Kearney, Bill Nolan. The Facebook curator is Avril O'Reilly.

Wicklow People