Grow Your Own with help from Dee Sewell from GreensideUp.ie
Greenside Up is informative, well-written and brightly photographed, which justifiably earns it its award-winning website and blog status. Dee Sewell is the mastermind behind it all, but what is it all? What is Greenside Up all about and why is Dee Sewell the woman you need to seek out when you’re planning on greening up those fingers and getting your ‘grow your own’ mojo on?
I caught up with Dee to ask her some for some advice and tips on growing your own and how she lives the sustainable lifestyle she does … which should set you straight when planning your gardening adventure and will hopefully inspire you.
So Dee, who is Dee Sewell?
DEE: I’m a mum to three teens who play a myriad of sports, a wife to a hardworking husband called Ian, also known as Mr G on the blog, and a keeper of chickens, cats and dogs. Ian and I moved to Ireland from the south-east of England 18 years ago to ‘live the dream of a self-sufficient lifestyle’ but after spending ten years as a stay-at-home mum, I returned to full-time education when our youngest started school to study Horticulture.
We have 13 vegetable and fruit beds and a polytunnel in our garden and for three years kept our own pigs. However, a couple of months ago I became vegetarian as, when I looked into their kind eyes and watched their funny habits, I could no longer make excuses for my meat-eating habits. Yes our pigs were leading a better life than their factory farmed relatives but I realised in this day and age when there are so many alternatives for us than meat, I could survive very well without eating them.
Let’s just pretend that I know nothing about Greenside Up, what’s your elevator pitch?
DEE: Greenside Up is a social enterprise based in county Carlow that helps people to lead more sustainable lives by teaching them how to grow their own food, primarily in social community gardens. When we plant a seed into soil it opens up a whole new world in front of us that teaches us about food and food security, nature and the environment, biodiversity, water, food waste and the climate. Growing your own has been described as a gateway drug to a better life. I totally get that.
I’ve started my ‘Grow Your Own’ journey but only since buying my own home late last year. I was interested in growing my own vegetables and herbs for quite some time before this but as I was renting I felt I couldn’t. In hindsight, it was just an excuse. What advice can you offer those who want to grow their own but don’t own their garden or home?
DEE: Find a community garden close by or start one up! Community gardens are places where we share the work then share the harvest. People enjoy the social aspects as much as the growing but they’re great places to learn about growing your own. Each community garden is unique. Some employ gardeners who can help and advise, some have tutors on board and some have experienced gardeners who are happy to share all their knowledge. They usually only look for you to go in and help out for a couple of hours a week, often on a set time or day but not always. They’re often free or ask for a couple of euro donation towards the tea and biscuits. I’m a volunteer with the Community Garden Network and we’ve recently begun mapping all the gardens to help people find one close by to them. We can also advise how to start one up if there isn’t one nearby.
In the past I have bought umpteen parsley plants from the supermarket. The longest one of these lived was about five months. They’ve all died on me. What do you think about these ‘instant’ potted herbs? Is there a way to make them survive or are they just another consumerism ploy and a waste of money?
DEE: Interesting question. I’ve bought them myself and am thinking you’ve done well to keep one going for that long. They’re grown in controlled environments so when they leave the greenhouses they’re grown in they soon begin to struggle. I don’t think the plants are intended to last very long however, you can try repotting the herbs into some fresh compost when you get them home and just snipping the tops off the plants which will allow them to bush out and continue growing. Alternatively I’d recommend heading down to the garden centre and buying herb plants of your choice and planting them into a decent, large container with some peat reduced or organic compost and growing your own. That’s how I began many years ago.
There’s ‘Irish farmer’ in my blood but I’m unsure if there is ‘gardener’ in my fingers, however I really want to make a good go of growing my own. What are the most important gardening items I need start this adventure?
DEE: Gardening can be costly when you’re starting from scratch but we can reuse or upcycle lots of household items to help us get started. Mushroom trays, yogurt pots and plastic food containers can make excellent starter pots for seeds once a few holes have been made in the bottom of them for drainage. I feel naked without my gardening gloves these days having accidentally come across some dog muck in the flower bed one day when I was weeding! An airtight tin is useful for keeping all the seed packets in and shop around for seeds rather than simply picking up cheap ones in discount stores. Organic seeds from Irish Seedsavers, the Organic Centre and Brown Envelope seeds aren’t as costly as people think. Despite the internet being full of knowledge, a couple of good books are essential. I have three favourites: Joy Larcom – Grow Your Own Vegetables, Chris Beardshaw – How Does Your Garden Grow and the RHS book of pests and diseases. It’s important to label all the pots we fill with seeds and compost as we can soon forget what’s in them; wooden lolly pop sticks and an indelible marker are ideal for that job and talking about compost, try and reduce your peat use so choose peat free, peat reduced or organic compost if you can. Lastly, keep a diary of everything you sow and grow which will help you learn long-term figure out what’s worked, what hasn’t and why.
I want to start my green finger adventure off slow. I’d like to grow herbs inside my home and vegetables in portable crates outside. What herbs and vegetables do you recommend I plant and when should I plant them?
The magazines and growing forums often suggest we start growing in February but May is the best month to start growing in Ireland. For herbs choose the ones you like to use in the kitchen. Most can be grown inside or outside in containers either from seed or from plants bought in a garden centre but keep Basil indoors as our climate is generally too cold for it.
Almost all vegetables will grow in containers once the pots have drainage holes. Choose ‘cut and come’ again varieties where possible or varieties that have been bred to grow in containers. I’ve written a blog post listing 14 vegetables that will grow in a small garden you might find helpful and each of them will equally grow well in containers.
I want to live more sustainably, as well as growing my own vegetables and herbs what other ways can you encourage me to join you in helping create a more self-sustainable world?
DEE: There are lots of things you can do but the important thing is to start. Food waste is a serious issue across the country so look at your cooking habits and perhaps start writing weekly menus and shop only for those meals. Have a look through your cupboards and freezer and write an inventory; you might be surprised at what you’ll find. I did this in the New Year and found three unopened bags of chickpeas. We saved a bit of cash as we thought up and prepared lots of chickpeas recipes to use them up before they reached their use by dates.
Turning down the heating thermostat will help with energy use as will using public transport more often, defrosting the freezer and switching to LED lightbulbs.
It can be difficult to do it all at once so chose an ‘area’ you want to improve and work on that first. This year my focus at home is on water and how we can use less. We have our own well which has run dry a couple of times so are aware how precious a resource it is. That’s made it easier to think of ways of using less like adding water butts outside and putting a plastic ‘pig’ into the toilet cistern. One of these days I’ll flick the fuse switch on our teens showers 😉
My herbs have wilted and my vegetables didn’t sprout, what’s the best piece of advice you can give me?
DEE: Under or over-watering is one of the biggest plant killers so try and keep your herbs in a saucer or tray and water from the bottom. Seeds are living organisms and need oxygen, water and heat to germinate; if they’re missing one of those things they won’t sprout. Check your use by dates on the packets, the seeds may be very out of date; keep them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for longevity.
There are government grants in Ireland for home improvements that encourage greener living. Does the government offer anything to those who are kinder to mother earth through growing their own and minimising waste? If not what should they offer?
DEE: I wish! We’re a bit behind the times in that regards. That said, recycling centres are everywhere and people still fly tip their cans and bottles. I think that education is key in helping to change habits whether it’s helping us to cook healthier meals or learn about local or global food issues. More funding for courses and tutors would be hugely welcomes and grants made available for voluntary organisations like the Community Garden Network who are trying to help people make changes. TV shows, documentaries and advertising campaigns would really help with raising pubic awareness about sustainability and resilience. Ultimately, a long-term vision by the government and a commitment to address and tackle the challenges that climate change is going to thrust upon us is really what’s needed.
In all your years of teaching the green living way, what has been the most inspirational moment?
DEE: Knowing that as a result of learning about growing food in a garden, people go home and make changes. Whether its growing a few things themselves, reducing their waste, shopping locally, trying different ingredients or sharing their knowledge with others. I’ve worked with 14 community gardens in Carlow and Kilkenny so far but at my very first one I taught some complete beginners how to grow tomatoes from seed. At an open day several months later I overheard one of them explain to the chairman of the development committee everything she’d done that helped to make that plant produce such big, juicy and very tasty red fruit and why it was better than any supermarket varieties she’d ever bought. I nearly burst with pride for her achievement. It’s special moments like that which make everything worthwhile.
*all images courtesy of Greenside Up