Many years ago, way back in 2005, Stephen and I moved into our own home.
It was a self-build on his father’s land. We were ambitious twenty-somethings and as you can imagine, it was an enormous adventure for us. We moved into the house without internal doors, flooring or furniture, except for a bed and the kitchen (-which was partly finished and of the built-in variety). Priorities, right?! In fact, a couple of days before we even moved in, we got two rescue kittens. We actually had to build a pen with a lid for them because there was no other way of containing them and they would get lost in the bit empty space!
Outside, there was nothing. The site of the house was situated in the middle of a field which had been set as pasture for many years. Grasses and perennial meadow weeds had made the space their own and where we had created earth banks (ditches), foxglove and poppy grew. Hard-core (rough stone) had been laid around the house and served as a driveway. Otherwise it was a blank slate.
As we started to get the house together (- lots of old furniture was donated to us by family!) I was in my element. I was thinking about light fittings, floor finishes, fabrics and furnishings. Stephen left me to my own devices and often said: “You can do whatever you like with the inside, but I get to decide on the outside.”
He chose the plan for the garden and, as we developed it bit by bit, we worked on it together.
Our first garden task was to plant trees, which we did with gusto. Along with birches, we planted fruit and nut trees and a wild fruiting hedge too. Then we started to hunt for shrubs, flowers and other plants to grow in the first beds we had made.
As the size of our domesticated space grew, it became obvious that we would need a lot of plants to fill it. We worked out quickly enough that sowing seeds would be a great way of getting plants at a low cost.
Growing up, my parents had been avid gardeners. Every year there were seeds sown. Without fail, my father grew tomatoes in our conservatory and my mother would sow annuals for colour - Cosmos was a particular favourite and it was a delight to see it in lacy swathes across the colourful, herbaceous borders. As for Stephen, he had grown up on a farm, so he had an innate understanding of the relationship between growing plants and relying on their productivity.
In those early years, we came across the Irish Seed Savers Association. It is so long ago now that I cannot recall if we found them, whether it was through the internet, the radio or if they were recommended to us, but we joined up and ordered seeds from them, delighting in the annual supporter’s gift of some free seeds. Among other things, I remember growing amaranth, physalis (cape gooseberry), chillies (in particular a wonderful yellow elephant-trunk shaped variety which was hugely productive) and lots of varieties of potatoes too.
Starting out with something as tiny and seemingly insignificant as a seed and watching it grow and bloom was fascinating, and then better still, those delicate blooms faded and were replaced by food we could eat. We experienced the joy of being able to grow our own food and also, being able to grow produce that was not available to us in the mainstream grocery stores.
We kept up our supporter subscription for some years and after letting it lapse (- unfortunately it was one of the ones sacrificed when the recession hit and we had to tighten our belts!), signed up again in 2019 when we spoke to their crew at The Electric Picnic festival. We were delighted to be able to support their cause again, as their ideals line up so perfectly with our own.
Part of what we love about the Irish Seed Savers Association is their dedication to the conservation of heritage Irish varieties of fruits and vegetables. Were it not for their efforts many varieties would have been lost and we would not be able to enjoy them today. Through seed-saving and sharing of seeds, we can continue to enjoy and grow these often rare but native species of plants. They also work to ensure that these varieties are available in the future by storing seed. In fact, their orchards house Ireland’s National Collection of apple varieties.
But it’s not just about seeds and growing for ourselves. As a farmer, I appreciate their commitment to raise awareness about Ireland’s biodiversity. As the industry of agriculture becomes more intensified, the focus can lean towards higher productivity and increased profits. It is important for us to understand and be reminded that when we work the land, be it arable (growing crops), pastoral (raising livestock) or a mixture of the two, we must act hand in hand with the nature around us. If we do not care for the wild life: the unique combination of flora and fauna on our individual farms, we cannot be truly successful as custodians of the land.
They work side by side with government bodies, schools and communities to educate and raise awareness. They are part of a global network that safeguards native species, champions beneficial horticultural practices and encourages sustainable habits. I stand with them and through my support of their organisation, I am one of many who ensures that they can continue in the work that they do.
On a more personal note, I am looking forward to visiting them when this lockdown ends. Goodness knows we’ll all need a day out! I visited them in Co. Clare to attend a Cheese-Making workshop about eight years ago. It ran for just a day but at the end of it I had a paneer and a small hard cheese to bring home with me. It was my first foray into the world of cheese making, and though it has been on the back-burner for some time, it is a skill I would very much like to revisit and experiment with this year.
I imagine the past twelve months has been as much a challenge to them as any other organisation, but they usually run a number of different workshops throughout the year. I’m hoping that by autumn, we’ll be vaccinated and able to get back out into the world again because I have my eye on some of their dates! They always have interesting subjects to teach, like rewilding, foraging, beekeeping, orchard maintenance and even herbalism. Whenever I visit their website I usually want to attend all of the courses and in my experience, they have a valuable team that make me want to be part of their world vision… I want to have all the skills and I want to learn all the things!
But workshops come later in the year. For now, I have been studying my seed catalogue and have made a list of items I will order as soon as they start taking orders at the end of the month. I’m excited for the year ahead. With last year’s addition of the polytunnel, I have big plans for 2021. I learned so much about what I need to grow to fill my pantry for the cooler months, and now I get to choose the elements I want to incorporate into it.
This year, they are celebrating their birthday: thirty years of working behind the scenes, gathering our heritage and heirloom varieties and looking to the future by protecting those varieties for generations to come. If you would like to know more about them, I recommend a visit to their website www.irishseedsavers.ie which will tell you all you need to know. You can also support them there, find out about their workshops, buy their products and learn about their impressive network of sister organisations.
I’ve just renewed my family supporter subscription and am looking forward to getting some seeds growing this spring.
Let’s get growing.