On a grey Sunday in early November I finally dug out the last of my potatoes. They were beautiful – big, pink oblongs of luscious spud buried in the incredible soil I’d bought from a company in Donegal at the start of the year. I live on a hill, more or less in the bog, and have soil beloved of none: acidic, wet and compacted. It’s also full of rocks.
Giant, back-breaking, move-me-at-your-peril rocks; lumps of granite set to make me question my decision to return to Ireland, to build a house, to have a garden, to grow food. They’re the reason Conamara is crisscrossed with stone walls; centuries of farmers trying to clear space to grow food or graze animals. After a summer of trying to dig them out I now respectfully leave them be and grow in raised beds.
So, Donegal’s Envirogrind delivered three ton bags in springtime and I filled the two new raised beds and topped up the existing four. It’s the kind of soil you covet, as a gardener. It’s dark, crumbly and it hums with life. It has a fine tilth, which is something you really like to be able say if you grow your own food. I used the two new beds for organic seed potatoes, which I’d ordered from Fruithill Farm. Our hero is Sarpo Mira, a blight resistant, late-maincrop spud. The blurb said ‘Large red oval tubers. High yields. Good all-rounder. High dry matter, good for chips and baking’.
Months of mediocre spring and dour, damp summer passed. The potatoes grew, but, you know, under the soil, so I couldn’t really see what was going on. In very-bad-gardener fashion I earthed them up all at once in early June, before heading away for a month. By the time I returned the foliage was so dense I figured no light could get through anyway and my nod to earthing up was sufficient.
My garden is wild.
It went from overgrown wilderness to building site and then back again fairly quickly. Rather than spray with poisons I’m using slow methods to get rid of the out-of-control dock and bramble; covering with plastic for months at a time and then digging out. I haven’t lived here long and have neither the time nor the money to ‘beautify’ it and it’s gorgeous as it is. I’m slowly working in from the corners with flowers though, adding colours my grandmother would love. I sort of like the idea that the garden is a watercolour that will gradually find its form, and by the time I’m ready to go it will be nearly right, with enough left to do for someone else to make it their own. For these first few years my focus will rightly be the salads and vegetables, as I continue on my journey of sufficiency, of a sort.
By late September I was still harvesting salads, fennel, chard and a few other vegetables, as well as digging the odd potato plant. The potatoes were huge. Really. One of them was enough for two people. Irish people, at that, so – you know – very, very big. The thing is, I don’t really eat that many potatoes so I found new ways of cooking them (involving baking with blue cheese or garlic, usually) or gave them away.
And so we return to the grey day in November, when I was under pressure to get the last of the crop out of the ground before they became fodder for winter slugs. It was threatening rain, my back was sore, and all around me were reminders of failed aspirations: all the weeding and strimming I haven’t done, the topsoil I can’t afford, the walls I haven’t built, the rain and high winds that live, it seems, in my garden. I was digging carefully, with a few open bags around me to fill for various people and I suddenly thought – What am I doing? I won’t even eat these. I planted them, minded them in my somewhat desultory fashion, and I’ve been feeling guilty for weeks about not getting them out of the ground. And I decided not to do it again, not to fall into the trap of sowing a crop I won’t use.
I finished digging the last fruits of one plant and decided to count how many came from the next one. Jim McNamara at the Ionad Orgánach had told me once on an episode of Garraí Glas, the gardening show I present, that no bank will give you the return a potato plant does. As I uncovered each red gem I counted… and counted… until finally there were twenty.
Twenty potatoes. About 9 kgs, enough for dinner for a small family for a week or two, from one seed. That’s a 2000% return, my friends. (Something I’d mention to my investment broker, if I ever thought money was important enough to have one.)
And then something happened.
I felt happy. I started to think about people who might have grown potatoes in that field generations ago, people who couldn’t order soil in a bag. I felt part of something bigger, part of the community of people on this planet who grow their own food. So many conversations I’ve had with gardeners made sense, all of a sudden. It’s not about eating everything you grow. It’s about being part of the world. It’s about knowing that you have the power to do a good thing, and then doing it. Fertilize a little. Sow a seed. Watch it grow. Eat it, or share it. Put your feet on the ground. Look up.
Watch the summer meander by and see the winter come in again, leaving another year in its wake. Look up at the wind and the rain that live here. Look up at that glorious sky and that sun, look up at all that air. Breathe it, deeply. Let it nourish you. Feel the giant heartbeat of the seasons under your feet and know that you’re planted, firmly, on this patch of earth.