Anne Hailes: Growing interest in gardening

Jeff Meredith recommends heather and cyclamen for the garden at this time of year

GREEN gyms, allotments, garden centres, even the queen is involved. As you sow, so shall you reap and this is the time of year to think about preparing the land, planting the bulbs, deadheading the flowering bushes and giving the grass the final cut. There's one thing about gardening, it's never ending and it's always changing.

As poet Minnie Aumonier wrote, "When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden."

We've heard recently about Green Gyms, a project run by the Community Volunteers all over Northern Ireland. The idea is to get out into the fresh air and get busy helping the environment as you help yourself by making new friends and watching nature unfold over the weeks.

Every bit of you benefits - mentally, emotionally and physically, keep fit without having to master a treadmill, forget loneliness, enjoy company and fresh air.

At the same time these gyms offer skills and training courses free of charge with qualified instructors. Apart from planting and tending flowers and bushes, you could be dry stone walling, constructing a pond or perhaps the slightly mysterious 'living willow structures'.

Then there's the Billion Seed Challenge, as Alan Titchmarsh invites us to scatter wild flower seeds over the next few weeks; if it was Monty Don I'd be more likely to go hunting for numerous packets.

Even the queen is in on this. She's anxious we plant trees during this month so they will be growing well in time for her platinum jubilee next year. Have you noticed nearer home in some places kind neighbours are cutting back low foliage to place colourful little bedding plants round the base of trees at the roadside, creating miniature gardens and giving something to smile about.

::Since The Lockdowns Began

Last year people turned to their gardens for something to do and slowly the interest has grown until this pastime has become something of a fanatical hobby.

On a wet Friday last week I travelled to visit the senior supervisor working in Creative Gardens near Donaghadee and the car park was jammed with cars as customers wandered around the shop inside, having a coffee and looking for plants suitable for winter growing and picking Jeff Meredith's brain - me too, and the answer is there's plenty on offer with heather and cyclamen at the top of the list.

I first met Jeff in the days when theatre was golden and there were first nights to celebrate and he and his partner were always there. We struck up a friendship and we were especially supportive of each other the scary overnight we spent in the Grand Opera House hunting ghosts.

He had a fascinating career at that time working in the Meteorological Office. One of his responsibilities was to launch weather balloons in Northern Ireland and on the Falkland Islands. The Met Office launch 4,300 balloons each year from various places in the UK; I learned from him that remarkably these climb to the edge of space then return with temperature, moisture, wind and atmospheric measurements to prepare forecasts as well as monitoring climate change.

I also learned that as part of the civil service he was team leader for The Prince's Trust Team Programme on a year's secondment.

However, after 10 years, this man of action decided on a change and high-tailed it down to St George's Market in Belfast where his stall was the talk of the town.

"I was selling all things Northern Ireland, coasters showing famous landmarks like the Giant's Causeway and the Grand Opera House, mugs with local references including Tayto and Punjana Tea, famous golfers and of course Goliath, the shipyard crane."

Key rings and tea towels featuring Ulsterisms - Bout U, Away On, What's The Craic, Ye Boy Ye. Keep Her Lit. "Tourists wanted to know what these saying are all about, 'What does that mean?' was the question I was asked most."

There was always a crowd round Jeff, personalities and politicians, local people buying to send these mementoes to family overseas.

"I was thrilled the day the Game of Thrones cast came to browse but I was a bit miffed when Susan Boyle just walked past without a sideways glance."

Another 10 years on and as the result of lockdown he turned his back on St George's for pastures new.

"I always felt at home in a garden, as a teenager I got my pocket money by cutting grass and pruning roses, I had my own allotment and probably most important of all, in the 70s I worked with my grandfather in Bangor market." It's in the blood.

::Bangor Castle's Walled Garden

Not far away from Bangor market is this Victorian Garden, one of the most popular attractions in Co Down with thousands of visitors enjoying the peaceful walks each year, but there's more to it than meets the eye.

Ards and North Down Borough Council is working with the Newtownards based charity The Warehouse who benefit from gifts of fruit and vegetable cultivated in the garden.

Each week the charity collects items from the Bangor Garden as well as additional produce donated by local food retailers, then their kitchen cooks nutritious meals for those in need and provide approximately 1,400 food boxes across Ards and North Down, the majority of which are distributed by volunteer drivers.

Warehouse community team leader Tracy McVea explained: "Over the past 18 months we've seen our food box distribution triple and we had to recruit a full-time chef to meet the demand."

The charity, which has a number of initiatives including a 'Wear 'n' Share clothing scheme, supports those who have mental health conditions, the elderly and people who have been victims of domestic violence; no referral is required so anyone can contact them.

Sharing the seeds of success in many different ways in difficult times.

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