Cork woman turns her garden into allotment to teach children GIY

A Cobh early years educator in who converted her own garden into a community allotment for kids, has won an award, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE, in her monthly Green Women column in WoW!
Cork woman turns her garden into allotment to teach children GIY

Louise O’Connor, from Cobh.

LOUISE O’Connor has grand designs for her garden and is buzzing with excitement.

At her home in a quiet estate in Cobh, the mother-of-three is busy planning for the polytunnel and raised beds she is going to install in her back garden.

“I’m very excited about the polytunnel,” she says.

“And we’ll still have room to put a couple of beds in next to it, and then we’re going to fence out the front, put in a seed-saving shed in the top of the garden, and then have at least ten large beds.”

Louise isn’t on some solo mission for suburban self-sufficiency: two years ago, she started converting her own garden into Patch na bPaisti, a community allotment where she runs food-growing workshops for children of four and up.

And she’s just been announced as the national winner of non-profit GIY’s annual Get Ireland Growing competition: the grand prize is €5,000 worth of garden renovations, including a polytunnel.

Louise’s garden is already home to six large raised beds for growing veg, and a treehouse with a storage area for children to keep their gardening equipment in, but for the many crops that do better indoors in the Irish climate, last year she and her little helpers were relying on a flimsy “mini-greenhouse” to grow in. So the polytunnel is going to be an exciting leap forward for Patch na bPaisti.

Louise’s journey to her current work hasn’t always been a smooth one, and she’s weathered several storms, sometimes quite literally: having come through the Covid lockdown and worked to distribute grow kits to families and elderly people stuck at home, August’s Storm Ellen caused devastating damage to Patch na bPaisti. For Louise, who had worked so hard to establish the allotment, it was a big blow.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Louise says.

“I had so little left after the storm: only things that were very low on the ground survived. Our equipment was very basic and a lot of stuff just fell apart.

“There were sunflower heads and tomato plants that I don’t even know whose garden they ended up in because they were just gone.

“After the storm, I was a bit devastated and I was about to give up on the whole idea. I felt like, what’s the point in this if everything can be wrecked this easily? Then I saw the Get Ireland Growing competition and I thought, OK, I’ll enter. I’ll try to come up with a solution to make next year even better for the kids.”

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Two years earlier, Louise, who trained as an early years educator in the play-centred, child-led High Scope curriculum, weathered another storm, but this time a personal one: having run her own pre-school, she had launched a children’s entertainment business, LouLou’s World, in Cobh.

But two years ago, she had to close LouLou’s World. Having run a few nature-based workshops as part of her business, she decided to start small group workshops for children in her own garden.

Reconnecting with nature and with growing her own food was, she says, therapeutic for her during a stressful time.

“We were in a difficult transition period financially after I closed my business and it was quite difficult for my own mental health,” she says.

“I genuinely didn’t know what was going on in my life, so that ability to get back out into nature gave me a sense of power back because I was very vulnerable at the time.

“I was wondering how I was going to provide for my family. And I started thinking about other families going through something similar and how they could benefit from connecting with nature.”

Louise is a mother to three boys aged 21, 13 and 10. Although Cobh is now an urbanised satellite town, she says her childhood growing up in Glenmore on Great Island had all the freedom of a rural upbringing.

“I was one of those ’80s kids,” she says with a laugh. “Basically we were told to go out and play and off we went. It was very unrestricted and I was around nature all the time. The beach was two seconds away and we had woodlands.”

Louise O’Connor, who runs a not-forprofit ‘Patch Na bPáistí in County Cork, won the 2020 Get Ireland Growing grand prize worth €5,000 from Energia and GIY. Pictured is Louise, centre, with  Alan Mulcahy from Energia on the right, and Karen O’Donohoe from GIY, left.
Louise O’Connor, who runs a not-forprofit ‘Patch Na bPáistí in County Cork, won the 2020 Get Ireland Growing grand prize worth €5,000 from Energia and GIY. Pictured is Louise, centre, with  Alan Mulcahy from Energia on the right, and Karen O’Donohoe from GIY, left.

NURTURING THE YOUNG

For the groups of children who go to Patch na bPaisti on Saturday mornings, Louise says it’s clear that the therapeutic and educational value of gardening and growing food are every bit as important for children, if not more so.

“Children naturally blossom in the outdoors,” she says.

“It stimulates all of their senses and they really relax and can concentrate very deeply. It’s very nurturing and I think it helps their overall development.

“There’s no right or wrong with gardening: it’s all just experience. I think it definitely teaches them patience too. Our world is full of instant gratification now, but gardening teaches them to care for something.”

She laughs as she recounts the story of one little boy who proudly took home the pumpkin he had grown from seed himself: “His mum sent me a picture that night of him cuddled up in bed with it,” she says.

“I don’t even know if he let them eat it or do anything with it, he was so attached to that pumpkin he had grown.

“When a child grows something themselves, to them it becomes a living thing; they realise food isn’t just something you go and get in a shop.”

Louise has also noticed that the children are keen to sample the foods that they grow, which can be a godsend for parents of fussy eaters who are struggling to get their children to eat healthily.

“I’ve definitely seen a more positive approach from the children when they’ve grown something,” she says.

“I have one boy and he hated onions and scallions but he was so proud of his first harvest of scallions that his dad sent me a voice recording of him saying ‘I like scallions now’. He eats them all the time now. Because they’ve put a bit of work into it and learned about it, they are more inclined to want to taste it, and it’s not being forced on them.”

SPENDING TIME OUTDOORS

The modern pace of life and the demands and pressures this puts on families has a knock-on impact on kids, Louise believes, resulting in children spending far too much time indoors, even in rural and suburban communities.

“I think our lives in general are so busy now that it feels like a city life no matter where you live,” she says. “Everything’s on the internet and a lot of our lives are indoors. Children need the outdoors, they really do. I don’t want it to be something to be forced on children, but I want the opportunity to just be there with them and give them that time to explore.”

It’s well observed at this stage that the Covid-19 lockdown brought about a boom in interest in gardening and growing your own food. For Louise, this is the most natural thing in the world, and something she hopes we can take with us into the future.

“Everything was taken away from us and we were left with family and nature, so I think people really connected back to it,” she says.

“And I think a lot of people are really saying, I want to keep this in my life as I go forward.

“Everything else can be taken away very quickly from you, but nature will always be there.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content