GIY Founder: In a world gone mad the veg patch is always there...

Former Echo columnist and GIY founder Michael Kelly has launched a new book called The GIY Diaries - which is a celebration of growing and cooking throughout the year, writes KATE RYAN
GIY Founder: In a world gone mad the veg patch is always there...

Michael Kelly GIY.

GIY founder, Michael Kelly, released his latest book, The GIY Diaries, recently. It charts a year in the veg patch, the highs and lows, successes and failures of growing some of his own food.

It’s a book 20 years in the making, drawing on diary entries, columns and articles penned since Michael began his GIY journey in 2003, so although spanning a year, it took a generation of experience to write it.

As an avid GIY-er myself, The GIY Diaries are full of relatable stories: from reining in the eagerness to get out in spring to plant something – anything – just to get the growing underway, the thrill of first harvest, the militaristic approach to persevering what cannot be eaten fresh, to the wind down of the veg patch and the excitement of thumbing through seed catalogues fireside in winter.

Michael Kelly's new book is called 'The GIY Diaries' .
Michael Kelly's new book is called 'The GIY Diaries' .

Michael shows that the activity of growing food is as seasonal as the produce itself, and that when winter’s grip has us almost undone, the very act of planting a seed is a reminder that there are longer, warmer and tastier days ahead…

“I’ve always kept diaries, writing about growing while I’m doing it. The GIY Diaries tries to pull all of that together as a kind of a highlight reel of the highs and lows of growing over the years.

“When I took a step back and looked through years of diaries, the similarities and differences are what jumped out. The highs and lows tend to be consistent but then different weather, pests and diseases and life stuff crowds in to tug at the edges of the growing year.”

The book is packed with colourful illustrations, created by Sarah Kilcoyne. There is a movement and vibrancy to them and reflects the energy of GIYing better than any photograph ever could.

“I’ve always written very honestly about it; what frustrated me most when I first started was all the writing that was about the perfect carrots or perfect cabbages, and that’s not my experience of it at all – it’s rarely perfect.

“There’s always challenges, and I come up against the limitations of my own knowledge and expertise, so I always feel writing about it in that way makes it more accessible for people, and not presented as this thing that must be perfect otherwise it’s not right.”

Although The GIY Diaries is a book on adventures in GIYing, it’s more than just about growing vegetables; tending the veg patch is therapy.

“It’s both those things. In GIY, we have what we call a food empathy journey. Growing food has taught me about the food system and my place in it and has led to very different food behaviours.

“Even if I’m only producing a certain percentage of my own food, its completely changed the rest of the food I buy. I eat more plants, waste less and buy more local seasonal food because of it. In that way the veg patch has been my great teacher.

The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.
The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.

“On that level of therapy, it is an incredibly mindful, positive activity that gets me out of my head and into my hands, working with nature, soil, seeds. It’s brilliant for my head. I achieve a state of no-mind, which is exactly the point of meditation. We all spend so much time in our heads, so it does provide that wonderful present moment awareness.

“You’re always thinking ahead with food growing and there’s a moment in the year when suddenly the emphasis shifts into next year’s growing cycle and suddenly, you’re forward thinking. Having that future focus is a very positive thing for your mental health.”

During two years of the pandemic, people found or rediscovered solace in their gardens, and many took to growing food to get through the endless restrictions – many for the first time. 2022 hasn’t quite worked out the way many of us hoped it would, but the garden, says Michael, is always there waiting to provide comfort.

“In some ways, I think this has been the hardest year because it’s been anything but the ‘normal’ we anticipated. The veg patch is there, that constant companion. I find that verycomforting. In a world gone mad, it’s always there waiting for you to come out and spend some time with it.”

Michael Kelly, founder of GIY
Michael Kelly, founder of GIY

In contrast to the mindful practice Michael finds in the veg patch, planting seeds, sorting seedlings, etc, the other end of the season is harvest and the busyness of the kitchen.

“There are times in September and October when things are relentless and I’m wondering why I am putting myself through this!

“What persuades me to stick at it is the thought of future meals. I love that feeling of my inner squirrel, knowing I’ve stored up this food for the winter, that’s a magical feeling, and just the taste of it.”

The focus for so long has been eating more vegetables with little focus on how they’re produced, their taste and nutritional content. Taste and flavour are the new frontiers in food, fuelled by greater knowledge of the benefits of healthy soil producing more nutrient dense and flavoursome food. Often, says Michael, the most important job of a grower is to build better soil.

“When I started growing, I thought it was all about the plants, but now I realise it’s all about the soil - get that bit right, everything else is easier.

“In many ways, your job as a grower is to build your soil and that’s an important mindset shift because it helps to understand the importance of good soil to good food.

“All the food writing out there from a nutrition perspective is focused on, for example, carrots being high in Beta carotene, but never about Carrot A being more nutrient dense than Carrot B because of where it was grown.

“If we could prove food that’s home grown coming from living soil is more nutrient dense than the alternative, to me that’s the holy grail. At a time of dwindling planetary resources, we are focused on how many calories can be produced on a piece of land, but not about the nutrients produced. Happily, that marries taste and flavour, so the two combined make a very compelling reason to grow some food yourself.”

One of the illustrations in The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.
One of the illustrations in The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.

Food is a big world concept, one that’s impossible to take on, change, question and understand in one enormous bite. Apathy and a sense of helplessness can quickly set in.

Perhaps, then, the easiest way anyone can take on the food system is by getting involved with GIY?

“We have some really interesting research with people who take part in our programmes or grow their own food with regards behaviour changes that happens during their food empathy journey,” says Michael.

“Over a period of three to five years, their behaviour around food changes and some of those changes are top climate mitigations, according to the experts - the big two being eat more plants and waste less food.

“They are the single biggest climate mitigation measures any of us can take as individuals - way more than not flying. So, if those behaviours happen naturally when people grow their own food, that becomes exciting because the biggest impact GIY can have as an organisation happens outside the veg patch. It’s the behaviour change that happens in the supermarket aisle when someone is consuming food because of the bit of food growing they’re doing.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years, food growing is seen as this nice lifestyle hobby, whereas I feel it can be a hugely important piece of climate activism when you think of those behaviour changes that come as a result of it.

“We all go through life surrounded by systems we don’t really understand,” says Michael – the TV, mobile phones, or that fancy new heating system.

“But if we can at least understand how food works, that’s a really empowering thing and makes you feel like some bit of control over that aspect of your life.”

One of the illustrations in The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.
One of the illustrations in The GIY Diaries by Michael Kelly.

Anyone who reads The GIY Diaries will feel inspired to start their own GIY journey, but it doesn’t overly romanticise the experience either.

“I do want to inspire, but I also want to be realistic about the pitfalls because otherwise people will feel like it’s been over-promised. It does need to have that practical element to it to make people feel it’s possible.

“Despite my lack of knowledge and expertise, and all the problems that can happen, I still manage to produce an absolute mountain of food every year - even in the beginning when I had even less knowledge that was still the case, and that’s the beauty of it.

“I’ve refined what I’ve grown over time. I’ve been exploratory, experimental and ambitious when I wanted to try everything, but now I’m much more focused and know that ten or twelve plants produce 90% of the veg we eat.

“It’s about getting those core crops out of the ground every year that I know are crucial, and getting much more focused, necessarily so because life outside the veg patch is so busy.”

If April through June is the busiest time of year for sowing and planting out, and September and October the busiest for harvesting, I ask what’s Michael’s favourite time in the growing year?

“I love all the seasons for different reasons, but if I had to pick one, Spring would be it. It’s getting back out there again; the sap is rising in the plants – and in us, too, and it’s the time when there is 100% potential.

“Every year I worry my enthusiasm might not return after the winter, but it always does. It’s such a hopeful time of the year.”

So, what seeds is Michael looking forward to sowing as the new year ticks around?

“There’s a new six-part series of Food Matters coming out in mid-March on RTÉ One, and we’ll be kicking off our Let’s Grow schools programme in partnership with SuperValu. We already have 500 schools sign up; our target is 1,000 but there’s always more demand than we have supply for!”

Self-effacing and thoroughly inspiring, The GIY Diaries is the companionable guidebook to navigating the joys of the veg patch.

A few seasonal recipes for good measure, and suddenly everything seems possible!

The GIY Diaries is published by Gill Books, €26.99.

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