Can we grow it? Yes we can, together

Grow It Yourself helps people to grow their own food, in any garden big or box-sized, and after a while with these enthusiasts…

Grow It Yourself helps people to grow their own food, in any garden big or box-sized, and after a while with these enthusiasts, there is a feeling they have a luxury that the rest of us are missing, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE

IN THE SOUTH Parish Community Centre in Cork city centre, the audience is rapt. Caroline Robinson, a commercial grower for 16 years, is talking about vegetables: bolting, whiterot, pheasants taking out whole lines of peas.

How to make your own potting compost – combine 90 per cent cow, sheep and horse manure, all of which has been left for two years underneath deciduous trees, with two trowels each of calcified seaweed, wood ash, horn meal (that is, ground animal horn) and seaweed dust. “My impression is that people are under-fertilising,” she says. You could hear a pin drop among the audience, made up of members of Grow It Yourself (GIY).

Robinson demonstrates several types of oscillating hoe. She talks about planting clover under brassicas, once the brassicas are up, and having flowers – nasturtiums and borage – for the bees. She talks about the population density of earthworms, and how ancient Egypt “at its peak”, as she puts it, had a hundred tonnes of worm castings per acre because of the Nile flooding; on an ordinary farm these days, you’d be lucky to get one tonne of worm castings per acre.


She is modest as well. “I’ve now cracked garlic, after about a hundred years,” she says in response to a question from the floor. “Bulk- up is a problem for everyone.”

With more than 100 branches of GIY all over the country, there must be two or three of these events happening every night. The meetings are free. The going rate for GIY membership is €35 per annum, but that’s a donation and entirely optional, according to GIY founder Michael Kelly, who started the organisation in 2009.

GIY now has 12,000 members in Ireland. Some of the unexpected off-shoots of GIY include group unity, helpfulness and good humour: the very things that community leaders, psychologists and social engineers sweat blood trying to create elsewhere.

GIY wants to include everybody. It makes a point of being opposed to what its new magazine, Grow,calls "horticultural snootiness", and to the off-putting use of Latin botanical names.

Larry Murphy, who was once a quartermaster in the Army and who now drives a bus for Saint Luke’s Day Centre, stands up to talk about a new youth project, which it is hoped this branch of Grow It Yourself will support. It is in Douglas, a suburban village of Cork. The Douglas West Garda Diversion Project helps young people between the ages of 12 and 18, who are regarded by the Garda as being at risk of offending .

One of the beauties of vegetable growing is surely that it’s the same – or pretty much the same – for everyone.

Larry Murphy’s daughter Louise is a youth worker on the Diversion Youth Project. “The young people did gardening last year and it worked out really well,” she says in a phone call a couple of days afterwards. “The GIY people will bring gardening expertise, and provide positive, pro-social role models. They’ll also demonstrate self-sufficiency, and we hope that will have a ripple effect, because the young people will bring that home with them.”

PEOPLE ARE meant to place their orders for seeds from the Brown Envelope Seed Company, which is based in west Cork, during the tea break – but it turns out that there is no tea. The man who has custody of the community centre kettle is ill. People line up to place their orders unrefreshed.

“I just grow what I like to eat,” says Maura O’Leary. “Sugar snap peas, carrots, garlic. I like the idea of not being totally dependent on somebody else for everything, I hate buying sugar snap peas from Kenya. People in the city don’t think they can grow, but they can. I live in a mid-terrace city house in Togher. I’ve a small back garden with a 6ft by 4ft raised bed. I got a friend of mine to make it. Plus a plastic greenhouse.” O’Leary is an administrator in the public service, and is on the steering committee of this branch of Grow It Yourself.

Maireád O’Reilly is a midwife. In her house on the north side of Cork city she has a raised bed of 8ft by 12ft, and she has access to a glass house elsewhere. Her big successes last year were her garlic and her tomatoes in the glasshouse. “My cucumbers failed terribly. I want to talk to Caroline Robinson about that.”

O’Reilly attended the GIY Gathering at harvest time in Waterford last year – “It was fab” – and it is she who offers the most cogent reason for GIY’s success. “I suppose it’s growth. Everybody likes growth.”

Barry identifies himself solely by his first name. “I mightn’t come now every time,” he says. He has grown lettuce, cabbage, carrots and onions. He has four children. “The three small ones are mad to help, like.” GIY has started going into schools, he says, so that the children learn about growing food there. Barry has been unemployed for a couple of years. He used to work, “Down the quays. A docker.”

Séan Byrne says that GIY, “Is an internet, if you like. It’s instant. I was a complete beginner.People never seem to forget that they were beginners once. It gives a great sense of community. I used to go to work, go home, do some things on a social basis . . . But you’re in a group here, you’re conscious that you’re part of something. It’s nice to connect with people.”

Byrne’s great success last year was his parsnips: “I’d parsnips for six months.” His failure was his carrots, which he pulled up by the roots early on, thinking they were weeds: “I was too industrious.”

His day job is as a post-office clerk and he is slagged there by his colleagues. “Oh, constantly. They weren’t surprised when I joined because it fits. They already called me a tree hugger.”

Larry Murphy, who was in the Army for 41 years, is overwhelmed by the response there has been this evening to his announcement about the Diversion Youth Project. “There’s been unbelievable comeback.” Even the people who could not offer to work for the garden said that they would donate seedlings.

Murphy is cautious about the new initiative, which is a bit of a seedling itself. “It may work out, it may not work out. We’ve never taken on a project like this before.” Murphy has been involved with this branch of GIY for three years.

"The thing is that everyone is so helpful and so enthusiastic about it. In August, in Carrigaline, last year, we had a gathering in the allotments. We'd sandwiches. We'd dips. We'd a barbecue. And the pride of the people, even if they'd only a few carrots, it was great, like. Sure, it's better than watching Judge Judyand the soaps."

Grow It Yourself: Sowing the seeds of support

“I’M AFTER MAKING loads of friends,” says Nollaig O’Sullivan, from Bishopstown in Co Cork. She describes herself as “Married, with two adult children who are very fussy.” She joined Grow It Yourself, the new gardening movement, simply to learn more.

“I was growing on my own and I found it quite isolating. Everybody is welcome here. I turned up one night on my own, and I was wandering from room to room looking for the GIY meeting.

“And then someone found me wandering around and said, ‘Come in, I know you’re a learner.’” O’Sullivan found the atmosphere at the meetings to be non-competitive and generous. “Everybody shares, nobody holds back . . . In the past people did this kind of thing instinctively and naturally.”

One of the good things about GIY is that you can do as much or as little as you like. “I went to the seminar in September and it was mind-blowing. My kids love me doing this, they boast about me sometimes. My husband has got into making jams and jellies, with all the fruit.”

Then there are the eternal surprises of gardening – or should that be farming? Every success and failure is burned into the grower’s soul.

When you ask people here about how they got on last season, no one hesitates for a second. The triumphs and disappointments are on the tips of their tongues; O’Sullivan is no exception: “My courgettes were very good. My carrots were phenomenal, although they had many legs. There was a lack of sunshine, and the grapes . . . we made grape jelly and we made grape concentrate and gave it to many people. The tomatoes were so-so. The spring onions and the plums were phenomenal.”

It’s a strange thing to say about an organisation so firmly founded on the basics, but you do leave a GIY meeting with the feeling that it provides some sort of emotional or social luxury, which the rest of the population is missing out on.