It’s interesting how the random streams of observation, memory, and a few words of wisdom converge into something you can grab and take with you.
For me it started excitingly with the daughter of a Russian shoemaker, then it picked up speed when I heard an old tape recording from my mother and stumbled upon a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. And then Covid came and latched on.
It was a time when it was easy to settle into yourself, when normal life shrank and shrank to the confines of the home and garden. Boredom and fear made me decide it was time to fight back and throw caution to the winds.
So what was the big fuss about? Nothing seismic, just groundbreaking in a purely earthy way. It was simply a matter of digging up a large portion of the lawn behind and on the sides of the house and turning it into fertile soil for growing various types of vegetables.
Two years later, the once patchy and parched lawns are now home to six raised beds containing carrots, peas, beans, parsnips, celery, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, onions, lettuce, beets, parsley, sage, raspberries, and strawberries of course, potatoes of various varieties that feed us almost all year round.
At the moment the new potatoes are already in the ground, the other beds are bare and are trying to give new life.
I look past them and think of Patrick Kavanagh’s vivid description of how he looked across stretches of moor stripped of their thick heather canopy and ‘grass banks stripped for victory’ and saw a place where ‘peace still peddles’.
When I and my wife Mary started the project in our enclave of Blackrock, Co. Louth, it was our way of fighting the grating, claustrophobic barriers of Covid lockdown. Now, more than two years later, as the terrible war in Ukraine drags on, food prices are rising and fears of shortages are spreading.
So it’s reassuring to know that we can grow enough vegetables to at least feed ourselves.
What fascinates me most is how some of the elements that led to the decision to dig up grass and replace it with vegetable beds were influenced by stories from people who had experienced real food shortages.
In his 2018 book the shoemaker and his daughterConor O’Clery told the fascinating story of Zhanna, who became his Russian interpreter upon his appointment Irish times Correspondent in Moscow in 1987. The book is about her family history and covers 80 years of Soviet and Russian history, from Stalin to Putin.
It is about how her father Stanislav Suvorov, the shoemaker, was imprisoned for five years in 1962 for violating the Kremlin’s strict speculation laws – and after his release from social disgrace sent him and his family, including Zhanna, into voluntary exile in Siberia drove. It’s a story of survival and using every available piece of land to grow food.
It’s not all bleak; In the end, Conor married Zhanna. When she first came to Ireland he met her at Dublin Airport and they drove across the city and through South Dublin to her home. As they passed housing estates and later larger, more palatial houses, all with lawns in front, ranging from small lots to curving and extravagant sections, he asked them what their first impressions of Ireland were. Zhanna simply replied: “All this grass and flowers, nothing that grows that you can eat. Why?”
It struck a chord with me. I was listening back to a tape of a precious recording I made with my late mother in the 1980’s. In it she talks about going to England, just as World War II broke out, to work in the post office in East Ham, London. She witnessed the Lightning’s terrible devastation on a daily basis, but always praised the stoic bravery of ordinary Britons and particularly how they rallied when rationing and food shortages threatened. She remembered people digging up front yards and backyards and public parks to grow vegetables to help them through the lean years.
And to top it off, somewhere I stumbled across a quote from Mahatma Gandhi that struck me. He had said, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil forgets ourselves.” In other words, forgetting one’s roots.
I was born on a small farm in Co Mayo, all 16 acres of scattered fields and land strewn with howls and rushes. But we survived with two cows, a couple of oxen for sale, growing oats and barley, and enough vegetables to survive. I left it all decades ago to work in Dublin. Gandhi’s simple words made me realize how far I had strayed from the land and fields I worked on and loved as a boy, and all memories and stark nostalgia faded.
So now I’m digging up the earth, breaking up the sods, tracking down the weeds, digging in fertilizer and compost, and feeling nature stirring and struggling to burst into new life. It may sound idyllic, and most of the time it is, but it’s also bloody hard work. Mary’s plants, shrubs and flowers are sprouting and blooming everywhere. In the greenhouse, her tomato plants thrive, and my vegetable seedlings pop delicate heads from pots and nursery trays.
I devour everything I can read or see about gardening, absorb any advice from seasoned growers, and find myself absentmindedly whispering words of encouragement to struggling plants. In other words, I’m on my way to becoming a garden bore. But I have rejected some advice so far. At this time of year, growers everywhere are concerned about whether the soil is still warm enough to start planting vegetables and flowers. The well-known British gardener Alan Titchmarsh advises that it is best to drop your pants and lay your bare bottom on the ground. If it’s not freezing your butt off and you’re feeling some warmth, then it’s time to take off. Haven’t tried it yet, but I’m tempted.
I’m sitting on an old tree trunk with my trousers intact, drinking a coffee and looking over the freshly dug high gardens. A blackbird slithers happily around, picking out worms to feed its young, a busy tinkle hisses past my ear, and somewhere in the distance, an ice cream truck jingles The teddy bears’ picnicall harbingers of sunnier, warmer and better times.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/how-the-drive-to-grow-my-own-food-came-from-gandhi-my-mother-covid-and-the-russian-shoemakers-daughter-41626192.html How the drive to grow my own food came from Gandhi, my mother, Covid and the Russian shoemaker’s daughter