If the past two years has taught us anything, the need to be more self-sufficient is probably high up there on the list of lessons learned. The global pandemic, followed by the war in Ukraine and the spiraling cost of living have caused many people to rethink their lifestyle and ponder the possibilities of growing or producing some of their own food.
Of course, the idea of becoming a small-time producer is probably a lot easier than the reality but for those who have already taken the plunge, they couldn’t imagine life any other way.
Mary and Damien Corrigan live just outside Ballina in north Mayo. As well as growing their own food, Mary is a chocolatier, at the helm of Noo Chocolates, while Damien runs his own business, providing contract bottling for the spirits industry.
Living on a five-acre plot of land, the pair moved into their home – an old railway cottage – in 2012. Although they had previous experience of growing food in the garden of the semi-detached home they had lived in beforehand, this was a whole new venture.
“Getting started was easy enough as we had plenty of space and plenty of enthusiasm – our only limiting factor was money as we needed to do everything on a shoestring,” says Mary. “Putting up a polytunnel and planting an orchard were our first priorities, followed by planting the vegetable garden and building a poultry run. Over the years we have invested in a larger enclosed poultry run as we had some problems with foxes and mink, and we’ve also built some extra sheds. All the work has been done by ourselves with help from family – and it helps immeasurably that Damien is extremely ‘handy’ and can build anything.”
Having started off quite small, the industrious couple now grow a wide range of vegetables in the garden, including potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, swede, cabbages and pumpkins. In the polytunnel, they grow chillies, tomatoes, sweetcorn, asparagus, salads, courgettes and cucumbers. They also have fruit trees and grow soft fruits and berries.
In addition to this, they also keep hens, turkeys, ducks, geese and bees as well as some Dexter cattle – they used to keep pigs but due to their “Houdini-like nature”, they have had to postpone until they can invest in some better fencing.
Mary says that although there is a lot of work involved, and it can be difficult to get away as the animals need to be taken care of, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
“The anticipation of planting seeds, watching something grow and getting to pick and eat it at exactly the right time is wonderful,” she says. “The journey every morning to collect freshly laid eggs is my favourite part of every single day, while the taste of truly fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit should not be underestimated.
“There is enormous satisfaction in sitting down to a meal where you know exactly where every element has come from, and the mental health benefits are significant too. We are both busy people and running our own businesses can be stressful, but getting out into the garden at the end of a long day just washes that all away, and helps us to remember how lucky we are to have everything we have.
“The price is also a benefit, especially if you are comparing the cost of organic vegetables in the supermarket to homegrown.”
‘No dig approach’
Dee Sewell, who lives in Carlow with her husband and three adult children, agrees and says although she has been working as a social, community and therapeutic horticultural and environmental educator for 13 years, she also always found the time to grow food for the family table.
“I started growing in earnest when the children were little, primarily as a way of providing chemical-free food for the family,” she says. “As a stay-at-home mum, it was a way of supplementing the shopping when the purse strings were tight, and there was no other way for me to buy organically produced food.
“I started by growing food in containers, then moved to a small rectangular bed which was approximately 1.2m wide by 4m long. This was in pre-internet days so all of my learnings came from books. As we went online, I was able to access more information and that, combined with studying a QQI 5 horticulture course when our children were in primary school, enabled me to become more confident about growing more vegetables.
“As time went by, I got carried away until at one point, we had 16 outdoor rectangular beds and the polytunnel. This was fine when I was at home, but then when I returned to adult education and was juggling work with being a mammy who had to drive the children daily to all their activities, it eventually became too much and I had to let it go for about three years. This caused quite a lot of anxiety as I was heading out, showing people how to grow food on a daily basis, and then having to buy our own. As any gardener will know, buying courgettes in the summer broke my heart.”
During the first lockdown in 2020, Dee had more time on her hands so “persuaded” her husband to give up the lawn in the front garden and turned it into a raised bed, documenting the process on Instagram (@greensideupveg).
And by that summer she was back to doing what she loved most: growing a variety of Irish organic vegetables in peat-free organic compost which, due to the “no-dig” approach, there is very little maintenance involved.
“There are so many benefits from growing our own food, from the seasonality and the satisfaction of having grown something from seed to table, right through to learning new recipes and cooking skills, the quality and flavours of the food and the choice of varieties,” she says.
“When we grow food, we start to become aware of food security issues, food wastage and the environmental, community and local impacts of production – for example, one of the biggest surprises for many is how long it takes to grow fruit and vegetables. Purple sprouting broccoli, for instance, can take up to a year from seed to harvest.
“There are also hidden benefits such as working in, and the connection with, nature, noticing weather patterns and seasons, and the feel-good factor we get when we spend time outside with plants, listening to the birds, feeling the soil and the breeze (or wind and rain) on our faces. It is a connection humans have had for millennia but we seem to have lost in the western society over recent years.”
The mother of three says while starting out can be daunting, with a little bit of planning even the least green-fingered among us can produce some food of our own.
“If you don’t know anyone else who is growing food it can be a challenge, as can pests and diseases which visit the garden and you might not know how to deal with them,” she says.
“But with a few basic skills, such as understanding the importance of healthy soil, how to store and sow seeds and how to water, in the end, most plants just want to grow. There are some great gardening books out there now, and YouTube can be really handy for picking up these skills.
“My advice to someone starting out would be to start small, even if it’s just a few containers near the kitchen door or on the balcony. Grow what you like to eat and perhaps grow food that you enjoy but can be expensive in the shops or not easily available such as chard, kale or broad beans. Choose seeds that have been grown in Ireland where possible and have adapted to our growing conditions and offer a host of delicious varieties of vegetables, often along with stories and tales of their heritage.
“And don’t be afraid to adapt as family circumstances change. Sixteen vegetable beds really aren’t necessary when the family has grown up and moved out and there are just two of you. If you haven’t got much space, are not sure how to start gardening or you are just looking for some company and to exchange seeds, tips and ideas, look for a community garden or allotment group nearby and find like-minded people. And lastly, don’t stress if things don’t work out. I have learned more from my failures than any of my successes.”
Corrigan agrees and says planning around your space and time is essential, but she would encourage people to just take the plunge.
“Pick the things you like to eat and grow those – for example, herbs and salads take up next to no space and are mostly easy to grow,” she says. “GIY Ireland is a great resource for information, with straightforward information for any beginner. And talk to anyone around you who produces their own food. Trust me, they are more than likely happy to spend any amount of time giving advice.
“And don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t go to plan – we are doing this 10 years and every year we have some great successes and some big failures. It’s all just part of a learning curve and a reminder that nature will do her own thing when she wishes.”
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