Community gardener Joanne Butler works with five community gardens in towns and villages stretching from Gaoth Dobhair to Letterkenny.
They were picking kale at one of them, when one of the gardeners held up one of the leafy heads and asked Joanne, “What’s the sell-by date of this?”
Joanne said our lifestyles have us conditioned, in a way, to think like that. We go to the supermarket for our food, and pay attention to the date the producers tell us is best to consume what we buy.
But if we grew veg in our own garden, we could have a very different way of planning a menu.
“We should be going into the garden and thinking, ‘What should I eat for dinner tonight?’” Joanne said. “The garden tells me.”
Joanne, her husband, Milo, and their three young children live just outside of Bealtaine, down the road from Gort an Choirce. The garden Joanne is creating behind her family’s 300-year-old restored cottage is made up of four raised circles that resemble mandalas: Within each are four separate beds, which facilitate crop rotation from season to season. One bed is for onions, another for courgette, another for salad and the fourth for cabbage. Next year, each of the crops will be moved one bed over. Natural techniques like that enable Joanne to garden without the use of sprays or chemicals.
“You’re working with the land -- you’re watching the land,” she said. There is also an herb garden spilling over with parsley, oregano and rosemary, and Joanne propagates plants for her garden and community gardens in a greenhouse at the back of the house.
On a recent warm and sunny Friday, the garden was a very peaceful place. Two pot-bellied pigs, family pets George and Peppa, were snoozing in the sunshine, and the sound of birdsong was punctuated by George’s contented snoring.
Joanne has always loved gardening. “If there was a course going, I’d be on it,” she said. “You never stop learning.”
She took a Healthy Growing course in 2009 in Falcarragh, through the Health Service Executive, and last year was asked to facilitate the same course. She is also currently doing work experience at the Cluain na dTor Seaside Nursery and Gardens in Falcarragh, one of the stops on the annual Donegal Garden Trail. Cluain na dTor is an ornamental garden, but Joanne is creating a vegetable and herb garden there that will feature more than two dozen varieties when it is finished. Cluain na dTor also offers courses -- a class in Growing by the Sea starts in April.
“There are already a good few names down for that,” Joanne said.
She comes from a background in community work in Donegal, Derry and San Francisco, so her work with the community gardens combines two passions: gardening and working with people.
On Mondays, she is at the garden at the Dunfanaghy Family Resource Centre, where five raised beds were started from scratch; Tuesday is the allotments at St. Conal’s in Letterkenny, where she works with participants from Cara House and their five beds and polytunnel, and with people from Kilmacrennan who work on two beds there; on Wednesday she works with people at the community garden at the Yard in Falcarragh, where they are also creating an herbal remedy garden; and on Thursday she is at the Ionad Naomh Pádraig in Dore, at their raised beds and polytunnel.
“We were out at the beach last week to collect seaweed for fertiliser,” she said.
She also organises speakers for the groups -- a herbalist will come to Falcarragh as the remedy garden develops, and others have come to talk about bees and about juicing. Horticulturist Conor O’Kane gave a presentation on wine-making.
Each course runs through the growing season, March through October. Joanne offers basic principles of growing food naturally, such as companion planting, crop rotation and biodiversity. Other projects include making recycled garden furniture, building cold frames, hot beds and beehives, plus the odd garden party and foraging trip. She would like to organise companion courses for the off-growing season winter months.
“Everything we’re doing is about trying to get the community out there and active, and doing as much as they can,” Joanne said.
Joanne calls her own garden, “a work in progress”. Plans include developing a herbal remedy garden, a walkway through trees down by the river and a butterfly garden, along with polytunnels for fruit and other plants.
“I’d like this to be a garden people could come to and enjoy,” she said. “But I have a lot of work to do.”
Some of the work is for the future. She just got a natural bee hive, not necessarily to collect honey but to help grow the bee population. Pointing toward the river that runs along the far end of the land, she said, “We planted oaks down there. I’ll never see oaks -- we’re planting for the next generation.”
Joanne’s Twitter feed and Facebook page are OURganic Gardens -- “because it’s not mine, it’s ours,” she said -- and the idea is to develop a group to promote cooperative gardening at home and in community gardens. More and more people across Donegal have been taking up growing in recent years.
“A movement is happening,” Joanne said.