We need to be more down to earth about what we eat
We need to garden our health, our food, our gut. Think colour, variety, texture, seasonality, taste and fun
Are you eating a rainbow of colours to make your tummy happy and your head healthy? Photograph: Getty Images
Hang around with a bunch of dedicated gardeners for long enough, and you soon realise that something strange keeps happening: people you expected to babble on about asparagus crowns and potato blight and aspidistras actually seem to spend most of their time talking about . . . health.
Actually, it’s not just health gardeners seem obsessed with. It’s health and wellbeing – physical health and mental health. Halfway though Sunday morning at the recent GIY (Grow It Yourself) gathering in Waterford, I began to feel I had wandered into the psychiatric break-out session of the IMO congress.
All around me were mind-boggling facts about physical and mental health. “Gardening de-stresses people,” said Alys Fowler of the Guardian. Fiann O Nuallain told us that eating the rainbow of vegetables on your plate isn’t just good for your digestive health, it is good for your mental health as well.
He also said that growing thyme in your garden will equip you with both a magic food and a medicine, while Alys said “just smelling lemons boosts your immune system”.
Hans and Gaby Wieland from the Organic Centre urged us all to get fermenting as soon as possible, not just because fermented foods taste so good, but because they are so good for our health. Ferment some milk and you get more vitamins, more folic acid, more B vitamins and more riboflavin. Get some lactic acid fermentation in your life and you will get foods that will also act as antivirals.
Ironically, the theme of the GIY weekend wasn’t gardening and health: it was all about how gardening can inspire empathy. But the health issues kept popping up, whether it was Sally McKenna revealing that seaweeds contain 50 times as much iron as spinach, or Kitty Scully demonstrating that growing a resilient garden gives you a more resilient character. (Full disclosure: Sally McKenna is my wife, and has been for more than 30 years.)
And it struck me, listening to these eminently wise and modest people, that we need to take the structure and philosophy of their work – their role as gardeners, as keepers of the earth – and transplant it to the way we think about our health and the way we live and eat.
People, we need to garden our health, we need to garden our diet and we need to garden our gut. To make ourselves feel good, we need to get out the spades and the trowels.
For many people, diet is like a suburban lawn: nice and neat, flat and boring. No one goes there or uses it or thinks about it. It soaks up a lot of chemicals in the bid to stay pretty but, fundamentally, it’s decidedly unhealthy.
Now picture the garden of your dreams. It will be diverse and colourful, productive and harmonious, with buzzing bees and beautiful butterflies.
And, sorry about this, but there have to be some caterpillars as well. And slugs, of course. And the birds just got your last few raspberries.
This garden provides food and flowers, it provides escape and shelter, peace and tranquillity. It is an asset, but also an aesthetic.
Now, picture what you cook and eat in the same way. Are you eating some fermented foods to keep your gut bacteria healthy? Do your daily meals change with the seasons?
Are you eating a rainbow of colours to make your tummy happy and your head healthy? Is there fruit to crunch, and grains to chew, and good drinks to make you feel vital?
“Gardening is a point of catching happiness,” said Alys Fowler, but she could also have said that gardening, and cooking, and eating are all points of catching happiness.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide (guides.ie)