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Follow Your Curiosity

January 8, 2017

Follow Your Curiosity

Returning to Education

In 2008 I made, what turned out to be, a life changing decision to return to education as a mature student. For the previous ten year’s I’d been a stay at home mum of three and was project managing our ongoing house renovation on top of a Carlow hill.

This week, aged 53 (I’ve finally said that out loud), as well as working with Carlow and Kilkenny community gardens, over the next two years I’ll be continuing with my own education as I head to Kildalton College in Pilltown, Co Kilkenny two days a week to study the Advanced Certificate in Horticulture.

I’m embarking upon this new journey with an open mind. I had no idea when I returned to education in my forties that it would lead to me starting Greenside Up a month after finishing, or that I’d go on to become one of the founders of Community Gardens Ireland. Who knows where this new adventure will lead.

A Stay at Home Mum

I was blessed to be able to spend ten years at home with our children before I returned to education, watching them develop and grow. Giving up a wage meant our lifestyle was very basic but it was a decision we’ve never regretted.

If Ian and I had stayed in the UK things would have been very different. There’s no doubt I would have continued to work full-time so we could pay the mortgage on our semi-detached town house. We’d have spent all the extra money on childminders, watching someone else bring up our kids and sharing their special moments instead of us.

If I’d been following my dream career, I might have justified it, but I wasn’t. My job was simply a way of earning money to pay bills. There was no satisfaction and the desire to rear our family outside of a polluted town environment was partly what influenced our decision to move to Ireland almost 19 years ago.

Follow Your Curiosity

An early school leaver

Like many of my generation, I left school at 16 with a handful of basic qualifications, to join the female equivalent of an apprenticeship. In a school of 1,300 around 30 stayed on for sixth form before moving on to study for their degrees. I wasn’t one of them. I hated the authority of school and couldn’t wait to leave and join the workforce. In the beginning, I worked in a large international business as a secretarial trainee, learning from the other departmental secretaries four days a week, then heading off to college one day a week to develop my shorthand, office practice and typewriting skills, qualifying at 18.

After several years, I left that job to join the throng of ‘commuters’ who travelled by train to London, first finding employment in a glamorous design company a few doors away from Oxford Street, before moving to a large accountancy firm close to St Paul’s Cathedral. My last City job, now in the fast-moving financial district, held the most responsibility as I supported the Marketing Director of an international financial news agency, helping him set up offices around the world. My twenty something lifestyle was a busy one – working hard and playing harder. However looking back, other than my friendships and the motorbiking lifestyle the money I earned supported, I felt very unfulfilled. I was an ‘earth girl’, never a city one.

Follow Your Curiosity

Falling in love

And then I met Ian. We fell in love and within a couple of years I found myself in a new country where I barely knew anybody. We shared the rental of an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with another couple and their child, living miles from the local village with only one van between us and no phone. I used to write to family and friends to begin with; they’d reply with stories of their new online world of email, Facebook, summer holidays and winter parties and I felt homesick and left behind. We didn’t own a computer for several years, weren’t connected to the internet for many more, and despite joining a couple of toddler groups, I’d only made once close friend.

As a stay at home mum, the one thing I hadn’t anticipated about being out of the workforce was how it would diminish my confidence. We’d left the UK, a large circle of close friends and extended family to relocate to a new country and as my social circle closed, so too did my ability to fit in. I joined the primary school parent teacher group and became involved with our local scout group, attending leadership courses, but I was still searching for my  elusive ‘tribe’.

Horticulture – it’s not just about digging

And then my life changed. It’s another story how I ended up choosing a full-time Horticulture course. I knew I never wanted to work as an executive secretary again; as a full-time mum I was used to being my own boss and the opportunity of returning to adult education helped me look for alternatives.

From day one as I headed out every day on my own without little ones in tow, I studied and learnt, handed in assignments, quizzed tutors, and attended work experience. I felt empowered. Adult education was more than learning about flowers and shrubs, soil and plant science. It was a transformative experience.

Follow your curiosity

Horticulture enabled me to design our own garden and other people’s. Armed with my new knowledge I could grow heaps of organic vegetables which enabled us to feed our family healthier meals and then teach others how to do the same.

I developed a love of writing and began to blog. I set up a small business, taught myself about business plans and how to use social media, to create and update websites, design logos and lesson plans. After the sheer horrors of public speaking I began to feel more comfortable with it which led to gardening talks and demonstrations and coordinating pop up gardens at Electric Picnic. I spoke to journalists on radio and print and regularly met others in the realms of business and social enterprise.

Follow Your Curiosity

Horticulture developed my forever love of our planet as I stepped out of the indoor office and home environments and outside into the garden, learning to fully appreciate the magic, healing and wonder of the natural world around us.

Kildalton College

This week I’ll starting again, continuing my education as I learn more about entrepreneurship, ecology and the environment, trees, and shrubs. Next year I’m hoping to add commercial market gardening and other modules that will make up the Advanced Certificate. Perhaps in my sixties I’ll find enough time and money to finally study for my degree.

Or maybe I won’t.

I really have no idea where this new adventure will take me but I’m willing to be open to changes, opportunities, and new ideas.

I have half a lifetime of experience behind me and now I’m adding structured education to the mix and all because nine years ago, I took the plunge and followed my curiosity. I’d love to hear if you’ve followed yours.


“If you can let go of your passion and follow your curiosity,

your curiosity just might lead you to your passion”

Elizabeth Gilbert

Community Gardens

Community Gardening: Horticulture, Hurt, Healing & Hope

March 11, 2013

Credit: Twin Towns Community Garden on Derry City Walls

A wild, wet March day in Derry / Londonderry

I’ve just returned from quite an adventure (for me anyway). My first journey into Northern Ireland and the longest drive on my own for many years, with Donegal and Derry / Londonderry the destination. This was an 800 km round trip undertaken in just over 24 hours when we’re doing everything we can to reduce our mileage/carbon footprint!! However, weighing up the pros and cons, the journey was necessary and not taken lightly.

The reason for it was a meeting and get-together of the Community Garden Network that I was instrumental in establishing and have voluntarily coordinated since its inception in the autumn of 2011, hence my need desire to attend all the meetings!

We decided in the very early days that we’d aim to hold quarterly meetings that would move around Ireland and Northern Ireland to give as many community gardeners the opportunity to meet, network and share experiences and knowledge. The fact that the group is countrywide rather than local just makes it slightly longer to establish and trickier to make arrangements. I’m therefore very grateful to have the help of local community gardening enthusiasts to help with local arrangements! The next steps may include Skype and Google+ hangouts but in the meantime, there’s nothing like meeting face to face all the people involved in establishing a network.

So far we’ve met in Dublin, Waterford and Athlone and when we announced that we’d like to meet in NI and were looking for a venue, we were delighted to be invited by the hosts of the UK City of Culture 2013 (which Gareth Austin has developed a City of Horti-Culture programme around) to hold the Network meeting in Derry / Londonderry.

I don’t mind admitting that I was personally anxious about this trip. I was about to embark on a five-hour journey on my own into a country with a history that, like many of you, has surrounded me for many years. I’m an English woman who’s lived and borne three children in the Republic yet the van load of mortars that were discovered in Derry last week instantly took me back to my years of commuting and working in London during the height of the bombings, with all the fear and uncertainty that brings.

As it happened the journey itself was uneventful though it did provoke emotions I hadn’t expected. I crossed the border almost without realising, there being no checkpoints or border controls. It was only that I noticed road signs had changed colour, petrol pump prices switched from euro to sterling and my mobile phone flashed its roaming sign, (something I hadn’t considered when I planned to sat nav my way across the country) that I realised I was now officially in the UK and the English voices on BBC Radio 2 confirmed this.

Driving along the ‘A’ roads through the fog, passing sign posts that for many years have been synonymous with ‘the troubles’ I struggled to make sense with what I was seeing. The countryside didn’t look any different from that which I’d just left. I was still driving along the same road. Through the drizzle I was glimpsing signs of beautiful rolling green hills, farms, villages, shops and roads that didn’t look overly different from the ones I was familiar with. Men, women and children were shopping and spilling out of schools, workmen were fixing roads and delivery vans going about their daily business.

However, I was also passing by names of towns I’d only ever associated with pain and hurt, not beauty and green fields…. Armagh and Omagh, Enniskillen and Belfast and I was driving closer towards Derry, a city laden with a troubled history.

On arrival in Derry, thoughts jumped around again. Yes, there is a history with visible signs of conflict, but there’s also architecturally beautiful buildings, huge green spaces and parks with old trees, as well as shopping centres that were busy and bustling – something that’s missing from our own local towns. There are a lot of hardworking, genuine people there doing really good things like Conor from NI Youth Action, Marion who wears a Transition Towns and GIY hat and who organised the lovely straw bailed & solar heated meeting room for us at The Playtrail, and there are lots of community gardening projects taking place too.

It was fascinating to hear Gareth, a Scottish horticulturist and our guide, talk about the many community projects he’s been involved with. For the past six years he’s been teaching young and old, nationalist or unionist, how to garden and take pride in their surroundings. He promotes gardening on Radio Foyle, writes about gardening, drives a car emblazoned with flowers, butterflies and Todds of Campsie (he’s a green ambassador for Todds Kia and their EcoDynamic message) and if that wasn’t enough to keep anyone else busy, he recently added voluntary weekend walks for anybody interested in major parks with local historian GeraldMcGill to combine history and horticulture to his interests.

As someone with no particular political or religious persuasions myself, just a love of our planet and a desire to look after it, when I asked Gareth about his motives he simply said:

“A blade of grass doesn’t care where it grows”

I immediately knew where he was coming from and what had motivated him to move to an area that wouldn’t immediately attract newcomers to it and to try to help with its healing. Gareth’s overwhelming desire to bring beauty, flowers and plants to a city that’s still divided and enclosed by wire fencing, barbs and bars and to give every individual living there pride in their place no matter what ‘side’ they’re on, was truly inspiring.

The beginning of a new community laneway project

We know that horticulture, or the simple art of gardening, is a tried and tested relief for mental health issues and goodness knows the stress people living within cities so full of conflict (past or present) must have to manage – stress that many of us hope we’ll never have to face.

We were given a tour of two community garden projects that are working hard to  overcome the issues that surround them and actively do something to improve their lives. It was tremendously encouraging to say the least.

My next blog post will share the story of the two community gardens as to add them now might send you to sleep it would be such a big post!

Leaving the North

So what did I and others come away with after our brief tours, talk and meeting?

I know I wasn’t alone with the positivity I felt as I left, as well as a feeling that a considerable amount of people want to see and help to improve their surroundings through horticulture. That when groups of people (or individuals) want to enact positive changes in their communities rather than negativity they can do so. That these laneways and ‘brown’ spaces exist everywhere, not just in Northern Ireland and there’s no reason whatsoever they can’t be replicated. That classrooms full of young children are growing up in the UK with Horticulture on their curriculum so they are learning the power of plants from very young ages, which can only positively influence them as they grow into young responsible citizens.

Lastly I came away with a sense of hope. The recent security alerts that are resurfacing in Northern Ireland cannot be ignored, but from one city at least, people are trying to overcome their issues through growing flowers and vegetables. They are experiencing  for themselves the positive place gardening leaves them in… which can only be a good thing however difficult their task.

“Hope is a walk through a flowering meadow.  One does not require that it lead anywhere” ~ Robert Brault