The power of creating community around food

The power of creating community around food

From community Gardening to Social and therapeutic Horticulture and Citizen Science. Dee Sewell is a leading activist in the environmental movement. We’re deeply inspired by her drive to connect communities to food and to create wellbeing in nature.

Dee, how did you get involved in the environmental movement?

I first became aware of global environmental problems over 40 years ago. I joined activist groups and constantly bombarded my MP with handwritten letters. I moved to Ireland 20 years ago with my husband and in 2009 started Greenside Up with the aim of helping people live more sustainable lifestyles.

Gardening and building community are your passion and there’s a lot to say about the benefits of gardening. Please tell us more about how Social and Therapeutic Horticulture can benefit individuals and communities.

Historically Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) has been quite evident throughout Ireland but in recent years, it has become much more so as we begin to understand the biophilia effect of experiencing nature. STH uses plants, gardens and nature to improve mental and physical health, as well as social skills as we mix with one another in community environments.

When health and well-being are at the core of a programme, the benefits reach into food cultivation and awareness, rehabilitation, an appreciation of nature, both observing and working alongside it. STH provides an opportunity to spend time in peaceful, tranquil environments where we might recover from or forget about day-to-day stresses. We are provided with an opportunity to be more physical, develop skills and help with employment skills training.

You’re currently also involved in the GROW citizen science project. What is it exactly and what are the aims of the project?

The GROW Observatory is a European-wide project engaging thousands of growers, scientists and others passionate about the land. Using simple tools, the aim is that we will learn to manage soils and grow food using simple tools, while contributing to vital scientific environmental monitoring.

GROW Place Ireland is one of nine European countries that are asking people with access to land to install sensors that will monitor their soil moisture. The data that is collected by sensor holders via Bluetooth to their mobile devices, is being used by European climate change scientists to validate satellites that are already collecting soil moisture data.

dee sewell community gardens

An open source project with 19 partners, including the University of Dundee and the MET Office in the UK, as well as Cultivate in Ireland, the scientists are hoping that the data will be used to influence policy decisions about Climate Change, will be used by innovators to help find solutions for growers in a changing climate, and by anyone else who wants to gain a deeper understanding of their soil.

Running alongside the monitoring programme where each GROW Place will be ‘planting’ 1,000 sensors (in Ireland that’s in the south-east and in Donegal), massive open online course are running, helping anyone who signs up for free to learn more about soil, soil regeneration practices, and how essential data can be used for actions. There is also an opportunity for citizens to become involved with other experiments, to contribute to a giant plant database, and connect with others on the GROW forum.

On our website we prefer to use the term “food citizen” contrary to “consumer”? What do you understand under a food citizen?

Food citizenship encourages people to think a bit differently about food. One of the first things people discover in community gardens is the amount of variety on offer when we grow our own, options that simply aren’t available in supermarkets. By recognising ourselves as food citizens instead of simply consumers, we learn that we can actively choose and shape the choices that are on offer, helping to create stronger and supportive communities and societies that connect us with each other, nature and our food.

What are your next steps on your food sustainability journey?

Over the coming months my journey will be about soil and healing. This year I finished studying the Advanced Certificate in Food Production and will be starting the next steps at home where we are redesigning our own organic growing area. We will be making it easier to manage and productive, all with a greater understanding of the importance of good soil management.

The unusual weather events this year highlighted our local climate changes and the GROW soil sensor monitors have shown not only how extensive the drought was, but also how long it’s taking for soil moisture levels to return in our growing area. This will help us to put systems in place such as additional rainwater harvesting and be more creative with cloches to protect our crops in the event of severe cold.

Professionally, I am working with more socially excluded groups in public and private social and/or therapeutic gardens, helping them to connect with one another, nature and ultimately food. I also hope to continue with the growth of Community Gardens Ireland, a voluntary organisation that I’ve been involved with for the past nine years that supports and promotes community gardening in Ireland.

Can you recommend any book /movie/podcast that inspired you on your journey/ Or is there any person that inspired you to go on that journey towards sustainability?

I watched the film Symphony of the Soil several years ago, a documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia; it changed the way I think about soil and I’ve since had the opportunity to show it to others. This year I’ve been listening to the Mothers of Invention podcast with Mary Robinson and Maeve O’Higgins and have enjoyed every episode. I find our ex-President so inspiring and really enjoy hearing how others are adapting to climate change. It’s often the under developed countries that are having to work the hardest to combat the significant weather changes primarily caused by those of us in the developed world. This can be tough to hear, but it’s incredibly important that we hear and share those stories so that others gain a better understanding or the consequences of our actions.

Is there any advice you could give to others who are starting their sustainability journey?

Don’t be overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we read about, begin with what you can manage. That might be finding a local farmers market, avoiding as much single use plastic as possible, finding talks that might be of interest or joining a community garden. I started growing vegetables in containers long before I had a garden. How knew that growing and harvesting those first carrots would lead to everything I do now! In County Carlow we recently started an Environmental Network and it’s great to meet up with other likeminded people.

Helen Keller wrote a quote that I live by “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”. That said, there’s an African proverb that is equally as poignant “if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito”.

Is there any event you would like to promote?

It’s World Soil Day on the 5th December and to highlight this, on the 1st December the GROW Observatory are encouraging all their GROW places to hold an event. In Carlow I’ve been working with Cultivate to organise an afternoon at the Visual Contemporary Arts Centre entitled Soil and Community Engagement in a Changing Climate. From 1pm to 5pm there will be theatre, talks and facilitated conversations at Visual Carlow and it’s open to anyone with an interest in soil.

More information:

Where can people get in touch with you?

You can find me at and links to all my social media channels. I’m on Twitter @greensideupveg and Facebook @greensideupveg

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