Teacher Aine Kivlehan and her son John are literally watching their Christmas dinner grow in their backyard.
he green-fingered couple from Derry have been involved in a year-round gardening project, growing everything from summer salads to winter kale.
Now their efforts are focused on growing enough Brussels sprouts, sprouts, potatoes and chard to spruce up the family dinner table on Christmas Day.
While most kids are currently mulling their lists for Santa Claus, nine-year-old John is more concerned with how his cabbages are doing.
âJohn loves checking out our veg for Christmas dinner,â laughs Aine. âThis project has been so good for him.
“It’s just an opportunity for him to spend time outdoors, tinkering with things and getting his hands dirty – a complete antidote to all the time kids spend in front of a screen these days.”
Aine (48) has always been passionate about gardening, admitting to being a huge fan of Monty Don and Gardeners Question Time.
John was often out with her, tinkering, watching what she was doing, and occasionally eating strawberries.
So when the opportunity arose to apply for Acorn Farm’s âI Can Growâ project late last year, her friends urged her to do so.
âI have a WhatsApp group of friends and the girls all said I’d be crazy not to apply,â she laughs.
“I’m well known for my geek when it comes to things like Gardeners Question Time and my husband took me to a conference in Antrim with Monty Don, I’m a huge fan.”
Acorn Farm’s âI Can Growâ project was a partnership between the NI Community Foundation and Derry and Strabane District Council, and was part of the National Lottery Community Fund’s Climate Action Fund.
He gave 250 local families raised beds and seedlings to enable them to create their own vegetable gardens and learn the basics of food production from the comfort of their own homes.
The families were then mentored by horticulturalist David Montgomery throughout the growing season to help them get the most from their crops. Assistance was also available online.
âHaving that support and having someone to ask questions was absolutely brilliant,â says Aine. âThere were discussions and a chance to interact with other families.
âI think we all got a little bit lonely during Covid. I worked throughout the job, teaching the children of key workers, but still missed the opportunity to socialize, so the project was great for bringing people together.
âAll of this has supported me a lot. One day someone would say their garden had been wiped out by the slugs, and I would be relieved mine hadn’t been, and then two days later the slugs would arrive.
Aine and John started with a mix of different seeds and also young plants.
âI’ve always aspired to be a sustainable hippie type, but I’m also a very busy working mom,â laughs Aine. âThe project and the support made things a lot easier.
âWe started in the spring with things like peas, beans, salad leaves, radishes and edible flowers. Then, in the fall, we focused on the cabbage, broccoli and kale.
âFor John, I think it was really special for him to see people eating the things he grew in his own backyard. It might have even made him a little more eager to eat his veg on his own.
âWe had a bumper crop of cabbage; luckily my mother-in-law took part of it. The thing we’ve struggled with the most is the cauliflower – I think we’re too close to the river and it doesn’t like our soil.
Aine and John won the My NI Climate Heroes competition for their environmental efforts. The accolade followed an online poll where the public was asked to vote for their favorite climate hero, and they received a Â£ 150 voucher from the National Trust.
Aine, who teaches P1 at Good Shepherd Primary School in Derry, is now hoping to take over a few beds at the school next year and start a growing project with some of the students.
Shauna Kelpie of the NI Community Foundation is responsible for the Acorn Project and the âI Can Growâ initiative, which is also supported by The Conversation Volunteers and University College Cork.
She says that with climate change high on the international agenda, she hopes the project will inspire local families to think about more sustainable diets. âIt’s part of a larger food program,â she explains. âThinking about our relationship with food is one way to act against climate change that we can all do.
âTake a tomato, for example. If you buy it in a store, where does it come from and how many kilometers has it driven? How was it cultivated? Could you perhaps think about growing tomatoes yourself?
âIt’s about getting people to think about local products, to buy seasonal products, to reduce the miles of food and the amount of food thrown away.
âJust doing simple steps like growing lettuce in a raised bed is a great way to start. “
Shauna hopes the Acorn Project will continue with more educational initiatives next spring.
Meanwhile, Aine and John are already planning what they could grow in their garden in 2022.
âMe and John will definitely continue to grow,â she adds. âI have seen such a change in John, he finds being in the garden so relaxing and nourishing.
âIt’s pure pleasure. When I garden on my own, I’ll just have a quiet potter, but with John it’s a constant stream of chatter.
It’s clear that mother and son decided to grow up together, even reusing old cables and containers to grow their own produce.
âI just think it’s so amazing that 250 local families got involved in this and really went for it. I’m sure it got us all thinking about where our food comes from and how we should try to buy less plastic coated supermarket veg.
âKids spend a lot of their lives in front of screens these days, but there are so many benefits to their mental and physical health from spending time outdoors, in nature, and getting their hands dirty. “
Their enthusiasm was also contagious, neighbors came to take a look and were inspired to get into the culture themselves.
So what are Aine’s best gardening tips?
âHave a good cup of tea and make a list of your gardening tasks before you go out,â she suggests. âIt will be different each time, but it’s the joy of gardening. “
For more information visit www.derrystrabane.com/icangrow or find it on Instagram @acornfarmicangrow