“Seeds of Hope and Remembrance” is the theme of this year’s Afri Famine walk in Northwest Donegal. “Choctaw heirloom squash seeds will be planted at the community garden in Falcarragh to honour the Choctaw, who helped to feed Famine Ireland” explains Maire Nic Fhearraigh, a walk organiser. The squash is called issito in the Choctaw language and matures into a large, oblong shape that is bright orange, both inside and out. Sean O Gaoithin, head gardener at Glenveagh National Park recently reflected on the planting of Choctaw squash seeds at Glenveagh and on food security, community gardens and how planting seeds helps us to remember our heritages:
“Heirloom seeds connect us with our histories. In the past twenty years at Glenveagh we’ve collected many plant seeds unique to Donegal and the country, like the Gortahork Cabbage and Irish apples. By growing them we become the keepers of these plants and we connect to our heritage directly, to the biodiversity of this particular place and to our ancestors. By bringing these kinds of plants in and highlighting them in a high profile growing venue, Glenveagh in a sense has become the Botanic Gardens of Donegal.
We’re introducing wild plants into the garden at Glenveagh as well because we want to reverse the trend of exotic plants that escape from the garden and are messing up the native flora. As human beings we are also acclimatised to this place through the geology and the weather. Geology dictates soil conditions and the climate gives us a particularly wet environment. Ecologically it all fits together. As gardeners we work with all of these things.
Plants are like the first books, they were nearly the first things we named and had different associations for. They were used for food and for ritual and for medicinal purposes. All plants have a use if only we knew what to use them for. That’s very much part of the Irish tradition, so giving our attention to what’s of this place connects us very much with the essence of this particular landscape, whether it’s a potato or a cabbage or a native oak or a native woodland, and when we experience places like Glenveagh we become reconnected to the spirit of them.
We have the purist air, the purest rainwater falling on us. It’s all coming off the north Atlantic where there is no industry and so we have pristine conditions for plants to grow in. It would be hard to imagine Donegal without fuchsia, it’s from Chile. It would be hard to imagine Donegal without whin bushes, they’re from the Mediterranean. So we need to be more respectful I think, about how we see flora and especially successful flora. The Choctaw heirloom seeds are taking well to Irish soil. They are very happy. We are going to grow them in the glasshouse because we want fruit and seed off them.
Community gardens are taking off all over the world! When people come together to garden it becomes a very satisfying and complete community activity. People start sharing resources and experiences. Community gardens are wonderful interactions between humanity and nature. They are natural schooling grounds, a health promotion environment for plants and for people. Community gardens have a great role to play and Glenveagh too in a sense is a community garden of Donegal. In the end, community gardening is community building.
Irish food sharing traditions tell us that the best way to conserve a plant is to give it away and we know that by sharing we are likely increasing the chance of us succeeding as well as the plant, because if we lose a seed we can get it back from other people. There has always been a sense that what we produce belongs to us all. Irish people have always shared their crops with others as a community activity. We have a very strong sense that food is a basic human right that we all share. We talk about different kinds of wealth but free wealth is all that nature provides.
We have free air, free water, free fertility but in ways much broader than just ourselves. For example, we couldn’t garden without birds and bees and earthworms. At Glenveagh we collect tree seed, herb seed, shrub seed and vegetable seed. There is a challenge with Choctaw heirloom squash seed because we don’t have the climate and it’s not part of our own heritage, but having said that, the pumpkin is part of our culture now and so we shouldn’t be too purist because all culture belongs to all people. The Choctaw heirloom squash will probably mature in August or September.
The Irish State maintains a collection of over 500 varieties of potatoes in East Donegal. From that they reintroduce virus free potatoes, but increasingly, food has become genetically modified by industry. Seed companies like Monsanto have control over certain world crops. They have bred Roundup Weed Killer resistant wheat so farmers are free to use herbicides on their crops. The active ingredient of Roundup is turning up in cornflakes. That is really bad for world health, for the soil, for ground water, for what comes out of your tap and many gardeners are very aware of this.
But if we have our own growers of our own seeds then that’s real food security, like the Sweeney family perpetuating the Gortahork cabbage whose seed originated in Scotland, or growing new seeds like the Choctaw Heirloom squash. At the end of the day, we need more good seed and more gardeners”
Sponsored by Action from Ireland (Afri) and Concern Worldwide, the walk will begin at 1:00 PM on Saturday, June 4, from the Dunfanahy Workhouse Museum to the old Famine storehouse in Falcarragh, known as The Yard. Transport will be provided from Falcarragh to Dunfanaghy and then back to the Workhouse Museum, following music and refreshments. The walk route covers approximately 9 miles. Everyone is cordially invited to participate without charge. Suitable walk clothing is encouraged.