I’ve been watching the wonderful gardening series Garrai Glas on TG4 since series one. Recorded in the Irish language, it’s subtitled for those of us who don’t speak this old language fluently and the cinematography is beautiful.
What makes Garraí Glas particularly special however is that it’s all about growing your own food.
Síle Nic Chonaonaigh travels around Ireland in her little green Datsun talking to all manner of people about how they grow their food and eat it using traditional and organic methods. I’ve been twitter friends with Síle for some time now and was delighted when she agreed to chat to me about her experiences.
How did you become involved in Garrai Glas, were you a keen gardener beforehand?
“Well it was a series of happy coincidences really. I work for Abú Media, the company that makes Garraí Glas, and my colleague Ali had the idea to make a programme that would show people how to grow their own food. I loved chatting to him about the idea and the people they hoped to visit, and was fascinated by the subject – but I knew nothing about it and had no gardening experience bar planting a few nasturtiums in summer! It was supposed to be a show about a gardener going to visit people and teach them how to grow, but they hadn’t found the right presenter. The producer, Bríd Seoighe, chatted to me about screen testing for the job. My background was acting, I’d worked in theatre and on TV for a few years, but I really had no desire to be on camera again. However I find it very hard to resist a challenge (i.e. I’m terrible at saying no!) and a snowy March morning found me out in a garden shaking with nerves at the idea of being on tv again.”
The sun always seems to be shining during filming, is that just a fluke?
“A total fluke! The shoot dates are all booked far in advance as there’s a crew of five people on the road for 40 days, so every detail has to be organised. We were incredibly lucky in years one and two – last year was more difficult as it seemed to be cloudy all the time.”
We’ve met some fascinating people on your travels; do any stand out for you in particular?
“Wow, that’s a hard question, there are so many! In year one we went to Inis Oirr and one of the guests there was Pádraic Póil. In the final segment of that programme he brought out his mother’s old butter churn and gallons of cream and we stood outside in the sunshine making butter, looking out over the Atlantic. It was magic. Marcus Thornton in Galway was an inspiration; he is an incredibly passionate man who makes the gardening journey seem easy. This year there’s a lady called Nancy Murray in Cúil Aodha. She’s just lovely and though in her eighties is out working every day. Her attitude was an absolute tonic.”
What was the most unusual method of growing food you’ve come across?
“To be honest most methods of growing that I’ve seen have been the old fashioned kind; good soil and seaweed or manure! John Dolan’s garden in this series is amazing because he more or less carved it out of a wetland. He dug the wet areas deeper and used any soil he took out to raise the surrounding space. He uses a permaculture model and has made his corner of the world very beautiful indeed. Trevor Sargent was an inspiration too; he has such a small space in his Balbriggan back garden but manages to nurture it and use every inch productively.”
What was the tastiest recipe you’ve tried?
“Well I’m so lucky to have visited experts like Gaby Wieland over the years – I’ve been introduced to incredible foods! A few stand out – the Gorse Flower Wine we made with Gaby last summer was absolutely divine and I’ve bought a bell jar to make my own batch at home. It was like drinking nectar. The apple and onion chutney we made with Enda Ó Conghaile on Inis Oirr was fabulous. The thing I loved about this, apart from the fabulous taste, was that I got to use up apples from the tree that would normally go to waste, and my own onions went into it as well.”
The latest series has included you creating your own vegetable garden in the garden of your new home. Was this a bit nerve wracking?
“It was! I have a full time job and anyone who gardens knows how long it takes to get it into a condition you’re proud of. I started from scratch with no topsoil, no shelter from the wind and a cameraman recording it all! It’s a true Connamara garden, lots of rocks and not a lot of soil. We began filming two weeks after I moved into the house, which was crazy really. It became embarrassing as the summer went on because, of course, I was away so often filming the show that I didn’t spend as much time as I’d have liked in the garden. All’s well that ends well though. I won’t win any prizes but it provides me with enough food to be able to share with others. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in three years of Garraí Glas its patience; the garden will grow and develop over the years and I’m happy with that. “
What have you learnt from your travels?
“Well, I suppose the wrong way, if there is one, is to ignore the soil. The thing I’ve taken from every single gardener is to feed the soil, not the plant. What have I learned? I’ve learned how to sow a seed, how to use seaweed and manure to increase fertility, how to rotate crops, how to create shelter to protect plants, how to avoid pests and diseases, how to use the produce I grow. That all sounds very simple but those are skills I didn’t have at all three years ago. I can now feed myself from a patch of ground – and that is an incredible thing.”
What have you enjoyed the most about being involved with a gardening series about growing your own food?
“I’ve really enjoyed finding a bit of myself I’d lost. I loved the garden when I was a child but had moved to a city for university and hadn’t touched soil since. Now I find it hard to resist being outside and resent all the things that keep me from it! It’s also been really lovely to meet so many people and be inspired by them. Without exception people have welcomed us into their homes and made us feel like our crew of five people wasn’t intruding at all. And let’s be honest – what a gig! I’ve spent three summers in other peoples’ back gardens, asking them questions about anything that interests me – and that’s called work. I feel very lucky.”
A massive thanks to Síle for sharing her delightful story about being involved with Garraí Glas and for providing the lovely photos for this post. The third series is currently being aired on TG4 on Tuesdays at 8pm. If you’ve missed any (or want to watch some over again), all the programmes from the current series are available on the TG4 player. You can follow Sile on Twitter @Garrai_Sile, Facebook at www.facebook.com/garraiglas or You Tube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/garraiglas.