BALT­IN­GLASS HAS A GROW­ING MOVE­MENT

Wicklow People - - IN­TER­VIEW -

THE re­luc­tance of win­ter to depart has caused much frus­tra­tion among the gar­den­ers of Ire­land, all ea­ger to dig and plant. The en­dur­ing grey­ness of the weather cer­tainly has the crew at Tear­mann Com­mu­nity Gar­den in Balt­in­glass strain­ing at the leash.

‘This is not a leisure cen­tre,’ de­clares chair­woman Mary Ver­non as she sits in the large cabin which is the nerve cen­tre of the oper­a­tion. Her tone makes it clear that she would far rather be out and about rather than drink­ing tea, though at least some progress is be­ing made in­doors with the sort­ing of seeds. And as we sit over our steam­ing mugs, the con­tin­u­ing cold and damp al­lows us the leisure to re­view this most in­spir­ing en­ter­prise.

The two acre gar­den and the cabin are lo­cated a stone’s throw from St Joseph’s Ro­man Catholic church which stands tall on the edge of Balt­in­glass town. As Sis­ter Mary Car­mody ex­plains, thirty years ago this area was par­ish land, a largely un­re­mark­able and over­looked prop­erty. Thirty years ago, the quiet spo­ken Do­mini­can nun was work­ing as a pri­mary teacher in Car­low, more pre­oc­cu­pied with school­ing than with pot­ting com­post or plant cut­tings.

Af­ter step­ping down from the class­room, the rev­erend sis­ter was in­spired to con­tact par­ish priest Fa­ther Tommy Dil­lon. She had re­turned re­cently from the Gen­e­sis Farm in New Jer­sey, famed for its spir­i­tual ap­proach to the ev­ery­day is­sues of en­vi­ron­ment and food pro­duc­tion. Sis­ter Mary took a course there in 2004 and she was also in­spired to pur­sue a mas­ter’s de­gree in ecol­ogy at a univer­sity in Wales. Her stud­ies have made her in­creas­ingly con­cerned for the fu­ture of our planet, with its ac­cel­er­at­ing loss of for­est and of jun­gle spell­ing ex­tinc­tion for many species.

‘There’s an acre out the back,’ is how she re­calls Fa­ther Tommy’s re­ac­tion to her ap­proach – and so a re­mark­able ven­ture was con­ceived. Here was a place that could serve on one level as a pub­lic park and on another level as a re­minder to one and all that maybe we need to go back to our roots – lit­er­ally, our roots.

Farm­ers were called in to plough the acre out the back – since ex­tended to two acres and the first crop of pota­toes was planted in 2004, spuds be­ing ideal for clean­ing up the ne­glected ground while plans were laid to open up the gar­den to all of the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity.

Brought up on a farm in Tul­low, County Car­low, Sis­ter Mary counts it as a bless­ing that she was ac­quainted with an­i­mals and crops from an early age. As a teacher she en­sured her pupils were given the ben­e­fit of na­ture stud­ies: ‘chil­dren are in­nately in­ter­ested in na­ture. It is in ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially kids.’

Her con­cern is that the link be­tween farm­ing and the food we eat is not much un­der­stood by the new gen­er­a­tion – even in a town sur­rounded by fields such as Balt­in­glass.She feels we should all be con­cerned with how din­ner ar­rives on the plate and that lo­cal pro­duce is best. Clearly, two acres will go nowhere near feed­ing the ad­ja­cent pop­u­la­tion but Tear­mann Gar­den is not de­signed to do that. In­stead, it aims to cul­ti­vate ideas and sow notions of mod­est self-suf­fi­ciency by invit­ing ev­ery­one in the neigh­bour­hood to grow plants and look af­ter the poul­try.

In 2005, the project was for­malised with the for­ma­tion of a com­mit­tee chaired by Sis­ter Mary, with as­sis­tance of Leader grant aid. She handed over the ba­ton of lead­er­ship to Mary Ver­non seven years ago but re­mains very much the philo­soph­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion at Tear­mann. The word, by the way, is the Ir­ish for sanc­tu­ary, im­ply­ing per­haps that peace may sprout from the pota­toes and the parsnips that grow here.

The lay­out pa­trolled by part-time gar­dener Kieron Nolan in­cludes at least 25 raised veg­etable grow­ing beds, many of them as­signed to lo­cal groups such as the Men’s Shed.

SOME space is pre­sented as a pub­lic park, with lawns, a pond rich in frog spawn, berry canes, glass-houses and an or­chard with ap­ple and plum trees. There is room for chil­dren to play and for fam­i­lies to have a pic­nic in the open air and also wood­land in which most of the trees were planted by stu­dents at­tend­ing lo­cal schools, with views up to Carr’s Rock.

In­deed, any­one ed­u­cated in Balt­in­glass over the past decade or so can hardly avoid be­ing aware of Tear­mann Gar­den. The schools are en­cour­aged by Tear­mann to grow plants and there is an open in­vi­ta­tion to teach­ers to bring their charges to the gar­den. The com­mit­tee runs prac­ti­cal ac­tiv­i­ties in sim­ple hor­ti­cul­ture for the four lo­cal pre-schools and the two pri­mary schools.

The tran­si­tion year at Scoil Chonglais is given plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to help out, while or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the cubs, scouts and Foroige are also in­volved.

Caitlin Cof­fey from tran­si­tion year spent much of her Easter hol­i­days in the gar­den, for in­stance, and she will be back later this this month with class­mates to plant crops. The grounds are dot­ted with scare­crows made by the stu­dents and they also con­structed an award win­ning, five-star bug ho­tel in a bid to fos­ter in­sect life.

Adults too are en­rolled to the good sis­ter’s mis­sion to pro­tect the world’s green space and the diver­sity of species, whether as in­di­vid­u­als or as mem­bers of var­i­ous groups. Re­tired nurse Mary Ver­non, for ex­am­ple, ar­rived at Tear­mann through her mem­ber­ship of the dis­trict ac­tive re­tire­ment as­so­ci­a­tion. The Men’s Shed is par­tic­u­larly to the fore, led by Liam Done­gan, while Kare, Cozy Cor­ner Crafters and a bio­di­ver­sity group may also be found on the premises.

One of the high­lights of the cal­en­dar is the an­nual non-de­nom­i­na­tional har­vest fes­ti­val and mini mar­ket. The veg­eta­bles grown in the raised beds are en­joyed, tasted, savoured at food tast­ings which have brought the cuisines of many coun­tries to West Wick­low palates. Pol­ish bread, Lithua­nian beet­root dishes and Brazil­ian stew have all been sam­pled cour­tesy of Balt­in­glass res­i­dents from around the world. Mean­while,

the cabin serves as venue for work­shops which tackle sub­jects such as pol­lu­tion, her­bol­o­goy, wil­low weav­ing and seed sav­ing.

What hap­pens on two acres will not save the world, as Sis­ter Mary freely ac­knowl­edges: ‘It is sym­bolic, point­ing to how you could be sus­tain­able in a small space. We hope that peo­ple will repli­cate what hap­pens here at home.’

Tear­mann was the first com­mu­nity gar­den in the county she is happy to re­port that the model has since been adopted in Aughrim, Wick­low town and Grey­stones. Per­haps the seed of Balt­in­glass may sprout even fur­ther afield, as Mary Ver­non points to sig­na­tures in the guest book from as far away as the United States and Aus­tralia. The most mem­o­rable for­eign vis­i­tors were from Hol­land, a choir who emerged from Mass in St Joseph’s to sing in the gar­den.

Com­mit­tee mem­ber Pat Nor­ton first be­came in­volved when she brought young­sters here from the Ir­ish speak­ing pre-school Naonra Bhealach Chonglais. She reck­ons that you are never too young to be­gin grow­ing things, though chil­dren so small pre­fer quick ma­tur­ing crops such as cress, mus­tard and let­tuce. They also take de­light in be­ing face to face with a real, live crow­ing cock who pre­sides over the flock of Rhode Is­land Reds.

‘With small chil­dren the big­gest thrill is dig­ging pota­toes,’ reck­ons Pat. ‘The won­der of it!’

Sis­ter Mary pays fond trib­ute to land­scaper Jim O’Toole (now de­ceased) whose de­sign for the gar­den stands as a re­minder of his ge­nius, along with the ar­ti­chokes he in­tro­duced. Another high­light plant is the vine which, un­der cover of glass, yields health bunches of black grapes.

The gospel of keep­ing it lo­cal is fol­lowed en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, with horse ma­nure pro­vided by the next door eques­trian cen­tre. The gar­den­ers are hun­gry to ex­plore the lat­est eco-friendly tech­niques such as rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing and com­post­ing. Sis­ter Mary is a dab-hand at the wormery which con­verts green waste into a rich grow­ing medium.

SHE sighs in dis­may at the thought of su­per­mar­ket shelves stocked with let­tuce im­ported from the far­away Mid­dle East. Bet­ter to grow your own, bet­ter take sanc­tu­ary in Tear­mann: ‘For men­tal, spir­i­tual and phys­i­cal health, we need these spaces. It cuts out the lone­li­ness.’

Her sen­ti­ment is echoes by Mary Ver­non: ‘My GP says that if more peo­ple got out to do a bit of gar­den­ing then there would be less an­tide­pres­sants to pre­scribe.

‘We will have to get back in con­nec­tion with the earth. We need to pre­serve green space.’

The Tear­mann Com­mu­nity Gar­den com­mit­tee was es­tab­lished in 2005 by Sis­ter Mary Car­mody and Fa­ther Tommy Dil­lon with the late Jim O’Toole in 2005. The cur­rent line-up is: chair Mary Ver­non, trea­surer Sis­ter Mary Car­mody, sec­re­tary Mary Nor­ton, Fa­ther Ger Ah­ern, Sis­ter Eileen Dee­gan, PRO Sharon Jack­son, Renee Wall, Mar­tin Twyford, Pat Kear­ney, Bill Nolan. The Face­book cu­ra­tor is Avril O’Reilly.

LEFT: Ge­orge Hart, Ken Han­non, Mary Ver­non, Gerry O’ Leigh­lin and Andy Whe­lan at Tear­mann Com­mu­nity Gar­dens in Baltinglass. ABOVE: Mary Ver­non and Andy Whe­lan

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