We all need a bit of hope in our lives right now and throwing yourself and your children into preparing for the plant-growing season ahead is a good place to start.
"It is such a profoundly optimistic thing to stick a seed in the soil and hope it is going to produce food for you at some point in the future," says Michael Kelly, founder of GIY, a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to help people grow some of their own food at home, at school, at work and in the community.
“You are always planning ahead and thinking of six months’ time. I think that is why it is so good for people’s mental health. At this time of the year, I am itching to get started; February is the real kick off.”
Lifestyles have changed and people are more connected to their garden, maybe, and more connected to their food
Turning your hands to cultivating things to eat is an activity that chimes with pandemic living and lockdown restrictions. Research conducted by GIY showed there was "an absolute surge in food growing" in 2020, with an estimated "quarter of a million new growing families", he reports.
“Lifestyles have changed and people are more connected to their garden, maybe, and more connected to their food. They are more interested in trying things like this.”
It was the “silver lining” in what was otherwise a very difficult year for all the programmes run by GIY, which has its Grow HQ in Waterford. For instance, the school-growing aspect of its annual “The Big Grow” competition for children was “completely scuppered”.
After getting the seed-sowing kits into the schools before they were closed for the first lockdown last March, the venture transitioned into a home-growing event as children brought them back to their houses. The schools are closed again now as teachers are being invited to register for The Big Grow 2021 but the hope is that they will reopen in time for the growing season from March onwards.
Run in conjunction with Innocent, both here and in the UK, The Big Grow is celebrating its 10th year and aims to involve 50,000 children in 1,800 schools in the Republic this year. It has grown, Kelly says, “from a very small germ of an idea to construct a programme to make it as straightforward as possible for teachers to teach growing and for kids to take part”.
Although gardens have sprung up at many schools throughout the country in recent years, the two barriers for school growing tend to be lack of space and lack of expertise.
“We wanted to make sure the programme can deal with both, so we make it really simple.” The free kits come with five packs of different seeds and enough compost, growing cups, instructions and fun lesson plans for an entire class.
The seeds given out differ from year to year and for 2021 they are: spinach, beetroot, peas, radishes and oriental greens (salad leaves). Peas, radishes and oriental greens are a cinch to grow, says Kelly, while the other two are a little more challenging and probably suit older children better.
“We try to pick things that will grow within the school term ideally, 12-14 weeks. All these seeds will grow to harvestable stage within that time, so teachers are not left with plants that need minding over the summer.”
All GIY’s work with children is aimed at creating “food empathy”, showing them how fruit and vegetables don’t grow on supermarket shelves.
They are more open to eating veg and eating more fruit
“The research we have done over the 10 years is that it works. They have this food-growing experience in the classroom and it does change their attitude to food and their understanding of food is improved. Intriguingly, it also leads to some dietary changes: they are more open to eating veg and eating more fruit.”
Children are also great at bringing these lessons home and acting as a “Trojan horse” for GIY’s mission.
Kelly, a father of two, recommends that parents encourage, or rather allow, children to get their hands into the soil from a very young age. “We do a lot of stuff in schools and it’s amazing how ‘icky’ a lot of kids find soil. We forget all of our food, and our life basically, comes from the soil, so I think a huge part of learning to grow food is learning to love your soil.”
By the age of three and four, they can “have a blast” outdoors, he suggests. “Let them get mucky, let them pick up worms; they will have ball with it.”
“Kids love to play in muck,” agrees garden designer and mother of three, Jane McCorkell, in Co Meath. “If you can’t get them out when they’re little, you will never get them out. And don’t give out when they’re covered in muck.”
Doing things in the garden is a good way to spend time with children, as they love to play alongside and chat. While she was out gardening, “I used to say to one of my sons: ‘Why don’t you go over there, here’s a shovel and I don’t mind how deep you go.’ He’d just spend ages digging a hole, ages! He was outside enjoying himself.”
Growing things is all about going out and having a bit of fun, she says. People tend to think if they have a failure with one plant, everything else will fail. “It’s not like that, it’s an experiment; the whole thing is an experiment.”
Any time spent outdoors is likely to be beneficial to children in a variety of ways, says Dr Suzanne Egan of the Department of Psychology at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Most children had increased, high levels of outdoor play on a daily and weekly basis during the first lockdown, according to yet-to-be-published research that she conducted last May and June.
The Play and Learning in the Early Years (PLEY) study notes parents’ observations on how longer periods outside had led to more imaginative and creative play, and greater interest in nature and gardening. However, on the negative side, lack of safe play spaces constrained some children’s access to the outdoors during lockdown.
On specific benefits of nurturing children’s green fingers, Egan says: “Growing something from seed gives them the opportunity to learn about nature and may provide a sense of independence and control over the environment. Gardening alongside parents and siblings also provides an opportunity for shared family experiences.”
Raising plants from seed can also support cognitive skills such as planning, organisation and problem solving, she adds.
A systematic review of studies on school gardening, published in the BMC Public Health journal in 2016, concluded that qualitative evidence suggests that participants in school gardening programmes (children and adults) may experience and perceive a range of health and wellbeing impacts. However, it also said that more, high-quality evidence was needed to determine the extent of these benefits.
Seed sowing is an absolute joy as a mindful activity
But maybe plant growing is one of those pleasures in life that defies capture by social scientists. When it comes to mental health benefits, Kelly certainly knows what he feels. “Seed sowing is an absolute joy as a mindful activity. You can lose an hour and when you come back in, your mind is absolutely refreshed. You switch off your thoughts as you focus on putting seed in here and soil in here . . . It is great for getting out of your head and into your hands.”
Exactly what we all need, to create a brighter outlook for summer 2021.
* Teachers can sign up for a free food growing kit at innocentbiggrow.com, while stocks last.
Before and after
What was once a drab concrete patch at the back of a Galway city-centre school was transformed into a “colourful urban jungle”, says teacher Jarlath Conboy, after they started container gardening to create an outdoor classroom.
Recycled wooden pallets, tyres and plastic bottles were among the items brought in by the whole school community to be plant receptables, both on the ground and up the walls for a “vertical garden”.
The children, who have used seaweed from a beach clean-up as fertiliser in the soil, proved to be enthusiastic helpers. “You often hear in the news about the benefits of gardening and outdoor activity for kids but you don’t realise how much they love it until you see it first hand,” says Conboy.
For the children, this positive learning experience “is like hitting the ‘reboot’ button. When they have been outside in the garden, they feel better. You can tell the difference when they come back in, there’s more academic focus.”
Four years after starting to create the garden, his first- and second-class pupils at St Patrick’s Primary School on Lombard Street were crowned “The Big Grow” winners for 2020. Although at one stage, as schools were closed for the first lockdown last March, it looked as if that would be the end of their garden work.
Some of the best ideas for the project came from kids who didn't have gardens at home
“But the children were quick to suggest they would bring their plants home with them,” he says. “The enthusiasm was brilliant.” And he was able to incorporate science, English and PE into their growing during the remote learning.
“Some of the best ideas for the project came from kids who didn’t have gardens at home and transformed their balconies and window sills into miniature gardens when the schools closed.”
Growing, picking and eating vegetables is one of the best things in life for a child to learn, he says, creating a healthy eating attitude from a young age.
Aarav Sakhrelia (seven) is one of the pupils who has brought the joy of growing food back to his home, in Renmore. He moved to Ireland from India when he was just one year old, after his father, Nikunj, came here for a job. “We didn’t really start gardening until the Big Grow competition,” says Aarav, “because we thought we couldn’t grow anything in Ireland, until my teacher showed me everything. I said ‘Let’s just give it a try’,” he says.
“It’s just really fun. I like seeing them grow from a tiny seed to a big plant. I also like playing the guitar to them because I heard that playing music to plants makes them grow bigger,” he says, later strumming a few chords on our Zoom call.
Aarav particularly enjoyed growing strawberries last year. “We were recycling and we got old laundry baskets and put the soil in. We grew way too much because there were some coming out the holes.”
He has enjoyed eating everything they’ve grown, with one exception: “I ate the chilli and my mouth was burning.”
The pupils were worried that food left growing in the school garden last summer would go to waste, until they discovered that their lettuce, potatoes, sweet peas, spinach and peas were far better than bread for swans on the river Corrib, which runs beside their school. In what was “a learning curve for us all”, adds Conboy, the surplus was donated to Claddagh Swan Rescue.
Tips for rookie family and school gardeners
“New gardeners need instant gratification, they haven’t learnt the art of patience,” says garden designer Jane McCorkell, who recommends starting with something easy, such as nasturtium, sweet peas and sunflowers.
With children in particular, you need to focus on things that are quick and relatively easy to grow, agrees Michael Kelly of GIY, such as cress, herbs, peas and radishes. For very small children, larger seeds, such as pea, sunflower, squashes and pumpkin, are easier to handle.
“Just go for it, don’t be afraid,” he urges. “Seeds want to grow; they know what to do and you don’t need to do much but give them the right conditions. By and large you will always grow something you can eat, even if it’s not perfect.”
Here are 10 more tips, with thanks to McCorkell, Kelly and the children of St Patrick’s National School, Galway:
1) Fatti Burke's wonderful illustrations help to make GIY's Know-It-Allmanac, a family guide to growing and cooking food through the year, written by Michael Kelly and Muireann Ní Chíobháin, a fun, informative starting point for your dreams. (€25).
2) Don't be limited in your planning by the fact that you don't have a garden: you can grow in containers in any outdoor space, on an apartment balcony and even on your window sills, inside and out.
3) Look in a new way at all the receptacles you use in daily life, to see if they can become pots for growing.
4) There are plenty of Irish online sellers of seeds for lockdown browsing, such as giy.ie, which offers starter kits and tons of advice, mrmiddleton.com, irishseedsavers.ie, wildflowers.ie, quickcrop.ie and howbertandmays.ie, to name just a few.
5) Prepare your soil now for the principal sowing months of March to May. If there are still rotting leaves lying around from last autumn, gather them to create a compost heap for mulch to "feed" the soil. And if she seashore is within your 5km limit, collect seaweed on your next walk for fertiliser.
6) The advantage of sowing seeds in small compostable pots is that they can be put straight into the soil.
7) If you have space, let children loose on a specific patch or raised bed to grow what they want and to give them a sense of ownership in looking after it.
8) At school start a gardening club to make gardening and growing food accessible to everyone.
9) Create a rain catcher to use for watering plants and keeping both the garden and the environment green.
10) Learn how to create and plant a school garden that will appeal to the five senses. Then make a sensory map of the garden, which makes visiting it more fun, especially for students with additional needs.