Life

Jilly Dougan encouraging our children to be edible gardeners

Jenny Lee chats to Co Armagh 'edible gardener' Jilly Dougan who believes that introducing children to fresh fruits and vegetables at a young age is a fundamental first step towards developing healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime

Jilly Dougan with pupils from St Colmgall's PS in Antrim

ASK your average seven-year-old where milk comes from and the inevitable answer will be Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's or some other supermarket chain.

"We owe it to our children to at least inform them in simple terms where their food comes from, who produces it, how it is produced and to give them enough knowledge to inform their food choices through life," says Jilly Dougan, author of a new free resource available for schools this spring to encourage them to grow and cook their own vegetables and herbs.

The Co Armagh woman has always worked in agri-farming – from starting off with six wild boar to a business with a £1.5 million turnover. Her meat company Moyallon Foods was sold in 2009 to Hannan Meats where she continued to work in marketing and sales three days a week, gardening the rest of the time.

Married to Yellow Door Deli owner Simon Dougan, Jilly said goodbye to her office job a few years ago to become a full-time edible gardener – supplying produce for The Yellow Door restaurants as well as maintaining edible food gardens for Hastings Hotel Group.

I spoke to Jilly in her polytunnel at her Gilford home, where she grows various salad leaves, micro herbs, edible flowers and vegetables. Jilly also tends to her orchard where she grows various varieties of apples, pears, plums, blackcurrants and gooseberries, and looks after her own bee colony.

She is responsible for a number of herb beds and gardens above, inside and outside various restaurants in Belfast, including the large rooftop garden in Belfast's Europa Hotel and herb beds at the Ulster Museum and Native@The MAC.

Last year Jilly was asked by the Belfast Food Network to produce an edible gardening toolkit for restaurants to encourage them to go sustainable and grow their own fresh herbs; now she is turning her attention to school children.

She believe that introducing children to fresh fruits and vegetables at a young age is a fundamental first step towards developing healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

"We are so used to grabbing our fruit and veg from supermarkets where everything is washed, scrubbed and sliced until most of the goodness is removed. Not all food has to come from a supermarket, over packaged or overly processed. It’s natural for root vegetables to have soil on them; milk comes from cows that eat grass, and the cooker in your house is not just for reheating stuff," adds Jilly.

Emphasising the process and encouraging children to grow and eat their own food is the idea behind her book Sow, Grow, Munch which this week is being delivered and made available to Northern Ireland schools and is free for families to download.

Jilly brings food education to life by including recipes alongside all the practical information on growing early, quick-growing varieties of fruit and veg – which if planted in spring are ready to harvest and eat before the summer holidays. These include potatoes, salad leaves, spinach, spring onions, cress, herbs and baby beetroot and carrots.

"It's important to introduce children to growing their own early as it creates food empathy and can help reduce levels of child obesity. Often kids who refuse to eat fruit will be inclined to try it if they can pick it off a bush.

"Children love getting dirty gardening and it's great exercise as well, while cooking from scratch simply and quickly with raw ingredients and minimum effort can be very empowering for both parents and children."

Jilly highlights that you can even grow peashoots, basil, parsley, coriander, cress and chillis inside your home and that outdoor gardening doesn't have to cost very much.

"Pots and containers can be made from recylced things – yoghurt pots and mushroom containers – while plastic bottles with holes punched make great watering cans. If you have something that will hold soil then you can grow food," says Jilly, who will be demonstrating this point in next month's Garden Show Ireland in Antrim Castle Gardens, with her 3m-squared show garden based on recycling.

The show will feature plenty of opportunities to learn more about gardening, with talks on how to grow your own veg and floral arrangements for your dinner table and plenty of opportunities to meet the experts, including BBC celebrity gardener Monty Don.

There will also be artisan food stalls and local crafts while a digging and planting pit will allow children to get their hands dirty and learn at the same time. There'll also be workshops on how to make headbands with feathers and sticks or fresh cut flowers to spark their imagination. There'll be an adventure area with a climbing wall, archery and crazy golf.

Reflecting the show’s focus on 2016 Year of Food & Drink, primary schools are also being challenged to make edible container gardens as part of the Garden Show Ireland school's challenge.

  • The 2016 Allianz Garden Show Ireland runs from May 6-8 at Antrim Castle Gardens. For tickets and information visit www.gardenshowireland.com.

Try these recipes by Jilly Dougan:

Home-Made Tomato Ketchup

2 tablespoons rapeseed or olive oil

220g onions, peeled and chopped

600g tomatoes, chopped

2 garlic cloves peeled and crushed

75ml white wine vinegar

75g brown sugar

A pinch of cayenne pepper or chilli flakes

½ teaspoon ground all spice

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onions and stir over a medium heat until cooked and beginning to colour.

Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for about 30 minutes with the lid on. Everything should be very soft at this stage. Remove from the heat and whiz everything together with a hand blender or in a liquidiser.

Push through a sieve into a clean saucepan. If you don’t have a liquidiser or blender you can mash the mixture with a potato masher and then push through a sieve or leave the mixture chunky.

Simmer, uncovered and stirring regularly, for about 20-30 minutes until the mixture thickens.

Strawberry Eton Mess

450g strawberries

6 – 8 meringue nests

560ml double cream (or half double cream and half Greek or plain yoghurt)

Halve the strawberries, or slice them into smaller pieces if they are very large. Break the

meringues into large chunks. Whip the cream into soft peaks and then fold the cream, meringues and strawberries together. Serve in a big bowl or six individual dishes.

  • Sow, Grow, Munch by Jilly Dougan can be downloaded for free from The Education for Sustainable Development Forum (ESDF) at www.eefni.org.uk/publications
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