Interview with Klaus Laitenberger ~ The Self-Sufficient Garden
I came across Klaus Laitenberger in what seems a lifetime away now. It was 15 years or so, when we finally managed to get reliable internet into our house and I could browse online instead of relying solely on books for my gardening advice.
Klaus was working at The Organic Centre in Leitrim and I remember the feeling of joy at discovering there was a place in Ireland where I could learn more about organic vegetable growing. Klaus also appeared on Garraí Glas with Síle Nic Chonaonaigh, along with Hans Wieland, also of the Organic Centre and now co-founder with his wife Gaby of Neantog Farm a kitchen garden school in County Sligo. Knowing there were people out there who were as passionate as I was about growing food without chemicals gave me great comfort and encouragement. Unbeknown, they were instrumental in helping me forge my own path in environmental and horticultural community education.
Since then, Klaus has written four gardening books: ‘The Self-Sufficient Garden’, ‘Vegetables for the Irish Garden’, ‘Fruit and Vegetables for the Polytunnel and Greenhouse’ and ‘A Vegetable Grower’s Handbook’ which I refer my own students to. He works as an Organic Inspector for the Organic Trust and manages a number of private gardens.
Together with his wife, Joanna, they started a seed company, specialising in the most suited vegetable varieties for the Irish climate, as well as the most resistant and delicious ones. Klaus is a regular contributor to the BBC Gardener’s Corner and to various gardening magazines eg. The Irish Garden, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner. He also works as an organic advisor and runs gardening courses throughout the country.
I was delighted when Klaus agreed to chat with me about all things gardening and growing, and about his latest book, The Self-Sufficient Garden.
What brought you to The Organic Centre and how did you help to develop it?
I came to the Organic Centre in January 1999. I noticed an advertisement in a UK organic growers magazine. At that time I was running a bio-dynamic market garden in Gloucestershire and couldn’t resist the wonderful opportunity in the “beautiful and un-spoilt Co. Leitrim”. I only found out about the rain when half the vegetable field washed away in the first month!
There was one polytunnel and two shared sheds – one for staff and the other one for 15 trainees. Even the weekend courses were held there. It was a wonderful pioneering phase with lots of hard work and youthful passion with wonderful trainees.
“If you can’t do anything else you should become a gardener”
Was there much interest in growing food organically in Ireland at the time, and have you noticed a change in attitude?
In 1999, the interest for organic food and gardening was just beginning. The job as a gardener, however, was still completely undervalued. The attitude was – “If you can’t do anything else you should become a gardener” and I was even worse – I am an organic vegetable gardener! Luckily this attitude is quickly changing and so many young people are becoming organic market gardeners. This is partly due to inspirational growers like Richard Perkins in Sweden, Charles Dowding in the UK and Jean Martin Fortier from Canada.
My heroes were Joy Larkcom, Eliot Coleman and Iain Tolhurst.
I also noticed in the last few years that many people are seeking a closer connection to nature and growing your own food gives a great sense of belonging.
I visited the Community Garden in Bundoran, Co. Donegal that you are involved with. What do you think are the benefits of community gardening? Do you think there should be more in Ireland?
I’m still heavily involved in the community gardens/allotments in Bundoran. We are actually currently giving an online organic gardening course there. I do it with Sr Assumpta who is running the community gardens. There are still spaces available if anyone would like to join.
I think every town should have a community garden. It’s wonderful to see how it brings people together as a group and how a piece of land (mostly grass) can be transformed in a haven of fruitfulness and biodiversity. A community garden can also be very productive and all participants usually bring home a large bag of fresh vegetables.
You have published several excellent books about growing food in an Irish climate, and in a polytunnel, that I often recommend. What prompted you to dig deeper with your latest book, ‘The Self-Sufficient Garden’?
I realised that there was an increasing interest in being self-sufficient in food while at the same time Ireland becomes less and less self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables with fewer and fewer growers. Imagine there are only around 40 commercial apple growers left. That’s the same amount as in the village I grew up in Germany!
I also wanted to show that it doesn’t need to be a full time commitment and can be done in a day per week. There are a number of scenarios from partial self-sufficiency to literally grow all you can eat and store.
For more information about Klaus and his work, books and courses, check out Green Vegetable Seeds. If you’re looking to try a different growing technique in your vegetable garden, you might find this video about constructing a Huegelbed of interest. It’s a great method to start a new garden plot and tidying branches away whilst storing carbon in the soil, something we’ll be trying in the Greenside Up garden.