Joanne Savage meets an aunt and nephew whose passion for gardening has helped them bridge the age gap.
Hilary Wallace, 67, is a retired civil servant who lives with her husband Ray in Newtownards. Hilary’s nephew Michael Kerr , 39, a photographer, helped her create a vegetable allotment in her back garden. Growing their own fruit and veg and then making chutneys and jams – they’re quite competitive about who makes the best conserves - has become an important shared pastime.
“We’ve grown everything you could think of - potatoes, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, onions, beetroot, broccoli, courgettes, chillies, peas, beans, red cabbages, Brussels sprouts - anything and everything,” says Michael.
And there’s a bounty of fruit in there too: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and a recently added cherry tree.
“Hilary used to grow potatoes a few years ago but recently we started working together on her allotment to grow a whole range of fruits and vegetables.
“Like many people we were bitten by the whole grow-your-own trend, but we also wanted to do something together.
“If you want to grow champion veg and have a beautiful, tidy allotment this could be a lot of work - but if you just want to grow things simply and easily it’s actually very easy.
“It doesn’t matter how small your outside space is, you can still grow something so long as you have soil and compost.
“You could even grow some vegetables in a little pot on your patio. Get the seeds and but them in with the soil and compost, keep them watered and that’s it really. As long as the sun shines and the rain falls things will grow. You can get whatever seeds you need from your local garden centre or online. For tomatoes you ideally need a green house but you can get one second hand as we did, at a reasonable price; we’ve also had success just growing them on the patio too. Tomato plants don’t like a lot of cold or wind so it’s best to keep them sheltered.
“For us it’s about trial-and-error and having fun,” says Michael. “We don’t stress about the odd weed and it’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t work out.
“You usually get to a point in August when you’re harvesting so much every week that you do feel as though you could probably open a shop. But that glut usually only lasts for a couple of weeks.”
Hilary loves that the produce is deliciously fresh and free of the chemicals laden on supermarket fruit and veg.
“You definitely taste a difference when you grow your own - these fruit and vegetables are much, much fresher and therefore taste better than what you might buy in a supermarket.
“My favourites that we grow are tomatoes and green peppers.
“I make a really good tomato jam that’s lovely with chicken and cold meats.”
“I love the chilli peppers,” says Michael, “in my opinion you can never add enough of them to a dish.
“It’s unbelievable the difference in flavour, even in something as simple as a courgette from the supermarket and a courgette from the garden. The fresh garden flavour is by far the superior.”
Michael does most of the digging and planting and Hilary enjoys watering the plants each day, as well as making jams and chutneys out of the produce.
At this rate they could probably open their own fresh fruit and vegetable shop, or a nice little stall down in St George’s Market. But that’s not what this is about: the priority for aunt and nephew is the banter they have working on this together.
“I absolutely love being out in the allotment,” says Hilary. “I love being out there in the fresh air, and I find gardening very relaxing. But mostly I love it when we work together and the bond that we have.
“Michael and I are really good friends. He’s like a son to me really.”
“Hilary and I have always been close because she has no children of her own and I spent a lot of time in her house when I was growing up,” says Michael.
“More than anything we work on the allotment because it’s a great way to keep in touch with each other and we have such good craic.
“As I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that the whole generational thing just isn’t important. People are people - why shouldn’t you be able to be friends with an older person?”
“I’ve always been quite green-fingered,” adds Hilary. “But the best thing about all this is that we just have a great time working in the garden together; we have great banter and have become a lot closer since starting on this. There might be a generation between us but neither of us feels it.”
Age is just a number after all.
In fact, Hilary could probably outstrip Michael in certain areas – such is her boundless energy and iron will.
“This year in the allotment Hilary tripped over a hose pipe and broke her kneecap on her way up to water the tomatoes. But almost the day after she was out there again with her watering can in the green house. You can’t keep this woman down. She’s indomitable.”
“I like to be determined,” Hilary laughs.
Michael opens the well-stocked kitchen cupboard: orange marmalade, tomato jam, blackberry jam, damson jam, jars and jars and jars.
What are the best flavours?
“My beetroot chutney is really good,” insists Michael, “it’s great with a very strong cheese.”
“My tomato jam is way better than his,” says Hilary, laughing.
Now they have put a lot of compost and manure on top of the allotment ground for the winter when the harvesting halts; in March they will start planting again.
“I will take care of the chilli plant on the window sill through the winter, though,” says Hilary. “I don’t like them myself but they’ll be ready for Michael to use in his curries and things.”
This pair seem like the best of mates. Michael has no difficulty naming his aunt’s best qualities: “Persistence. Plus she is always very positive in her outlook and unlike me, very hard to anger.”
“He’s very talented,” says Hilary warmly, “as a photographer and a musician. He used to play his drums in my kitchen many, many years ago, which was trying – my husband Ray and I were long suffering. Michael is fantastic. I don’t feel that generation between us at all.”
This being the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between the Generations, organisations like Age NI are encouraging people to get past the age barrier.
The European Year is focused on encouraging older people to stay in the workforce and share their experience; to keep playing an active role in society; to lead as healthy and fulfilling lives as possible. Harmony between the generations in societies that have rapidly increasing numbers of older people – like Northern Ireland – is the prized goal.
The EU says the challenge for politicians and stakeholders here “will be to improve opportunities for active ageing in general and for living independently, acting in areas as diverse as employment, health care, social services, adult learning and more”.
According to statistics from Help Age International, by 2050 there will be more people in the world who are 60 and over than children aged 14 and under. Older people are becoming the most dominant age group and policymakers are realising that action must be taken to combat the challenges faced by older people: illness, isolation, age discrimination, lack of income. Rapid population ageing will have a huge impact over the next 50-100 years and 2012 is the EU’s time for renewing commitments to help older people feel central to society rather than marginalised and ignored – as is all too often the case.
Local charity Age NI aims to make life better for older people across the province. With more than 350,000 older people in Northern Ireland today – many of them battling isolation, loneliness, financial difficulty - this is a vitally important issue. The charity provides support, challenges inequality and discrimination, delivers care services and provides advice to help improve life for older people.
“Stories like Michael and Hilary’s show how much the generations have to share and learn from each other and the positive impact of remaining healthy, independent and active in later life,” says chief executive Anne O’Reilly.
“Northern Ireland has an ageing population and our older people have valuable skills and experience that younger people can learn and benefit from. Staying active as we grow older is key.
“This being the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations, it’s important to acknowledge the shared interests and experiences that our younger and older people have.”
“Age NI have been working to close the gap,” says Hilary. “They do so much for older people, helping them to feel integrated within society and keeping them connected with the younger generation. It’s good to know they’re there when you need them.
“I would need eight days in the week to fit in all the activities I do,” says the 67-year-old, who is quite the role model for ‘active ageing’. “I work for a local animal sanctuary as well as spending time gardening. I’m out and about all the time and feel blessed to have relatives I’m close to and who keep my life feeling so full.”
Hilary is one of the lucky ones. The challenge is to get more people bonding with elderly relatives, friends, neighbours, in order to help collapse the generational divide and reduce the sense of marginalisation and isolation that too many older people face.
Monday 29 April 2013 is European Day of Solidarity between Generations.