When you meet Joanne Butler for the first time you cannot but be addicted to her energy, her effervescent and friendly personality.
I had the priveledge of spending time with Joanne recently at a permaculture and forest garden design course in Falcarragh.
This woman inspires, radiates warmth and effortlessly displays a wealth of knowledge about plants and gardening. But what stands out most about Joanne is her natural leadership qualities, leadership by doing, and her modesty.
From the early days in her parents’ garden, to the development of community gardens all over Donegal, Joanne tells her story of how it all began as she embarks on another growing venture at the walled garden project in Ards.
“Looking back at old photos, I always had my hands in the ground, always mucked up to my eyeballs as my mother would say,” she said.
“My dad had, and still does have, a lovely garden and I would ‘help’ from a young age, growing up in Derry.
“There are no shortage of photos of me, spade in hand and a smile on my face. The joke still in our house is about the time my dad was admiring his lovely red hot pokers which had begun to bloom for the first time. He asked me to go over and look at the one stem that had appeared. I went over, pulled it out of the ground and came over all proud with it for him. He wasn’t impressed.
“Later as I got older I fell away from helping my dad, my teens were beckoning me and gardening fell to the wayside.”
But Joanne was already grounded.
“In 2003 I came to Donegal to the rugged coastline and the salt spray,” she continued.
“My then partner, now long suffering husband, and I rented a house with a small garden to the front and a field where the landlord’s father kept vegetables to the back.
“One day while admiring the lovely field of cabbages, the old man asked me if I wanted any of them. I could help myself as they would go to waste if not.
“I love cabbages, so needless to say I took him up on the offer. That evening my now husband came home to see the back yard covered in cabbages. They were all so healthy looking and nothing like I had seen in the shops before.
“We parboiled them all and stored a full freezer of cabbages – we ate a lot that year! The next year we asked the landlord for a strip of the field to grow vegetables on, and my young childhood learning with my dad came up trumps and off we went.
In 2008, along with their first child, they bought their home on a four acre stretch of land in Cashel na gCorr.
“The land was previously owned by my husband’s family and it had always called out to us from the moment we had met,” Joanne said.
“It runs down to the river and has a wonderful view of Errigal mountain as well as 180 degree views of the countryside. Some people see that as idyllic, I see that as wind, rain and sunshine all coming, and all going.
“By now I was hooked on all things green, growing my own veg, having more pot plants than you could swing a cat at, and taking cuttings and sowing seeds to my heart’s content.
“My daughter loved veg (especially cabbages) and was quickly followed by two more young veg lovers, so the incentive was there to get growing natural vegetables and creating a garden space my three children could roam in and learn from nature.”
Next week we’ll bring you the second part of this feature, where you can read about the struggles and rewards for all of Joanne’s hard work. Meanwhile, she can be found facilitating the Ards Walled Garden Community Project. For further information contact Joanne at 0861789971. ETB supported.