Candida spoke with Tia about what drew her to teaching organic gardening to young people in Primary schools in Bridport, what gardens can teach us, and her hopes for the town.

How did your name become shortened to Tia?

My full name is Mariteresa Perrella, usually known just as Teresa. I am half Italian, half Welsh. The nickname Tia came about when my sister had her first child. We thought it would be great for Francesco to call me Zia Teresa, meaning aunty. When he starting talking ‘Zia’ was too hard and came out ‘Tia’ and it just stuck. A good friend of the family introduced me to some people in the Home in Bridport charity as Tia, so that’s how I got my nickname.

Tell us your background in why you are a teacher in organic horticulture?

I actually originally followed my dad into catering after leaving school, and worked as a chef and pub manager before finding my passion for gardening and teaching. My passion for gardening grew as I learned more about food, nutrition and medicinal plants for healing. I started growing herbs and vegetables (which I grew with my dad when I was young) when I ran a pub that had a big garden. I decided to create special culinary evenings.

I soon wanted to run my own small holding, I found the perfect place in France and soon met my local neighbour who turned out to be a mentor and shaped my view not only on land and animal management but life too.

I was already very much aware of the need to take care of our environment, to be organic and take care of our soil. With the help of new French friends and neighbours I learned about growing veg, taking care of fruit trees and raising animals.

I think it is very important to pass knowledge and passion down and so 10 years later when I decided to come back to England, I found the perfect job teaching adults with learning difficulties at a care farm. We created a garden with polytunnels, an orchard, a plant nursery and opened a cookery school. In the 6 years that I did that I took many courses learning about permaculture, bio dynamic agriculture, forest gardening and various short teaching courses.

This has shaped the way I garden and teach. I have, I would say, taken a bit of each and allowed each garden I work in to teach me what can be achieved.

Can you give us some give examples of what and how the garden can teach you?

It’s important to look carefully at your garden space and be mindful of what’s there and successful already, in this area I would say to protect from South Westerly winds.

I would sit with a new garden for a season at least and observe, what the sun and wind directions are? and what plants and trees are there now and how do they shade the garden? what is the soil type and how best to improve it if you need to because of what you want to grow. All gardens teach us something, we never know everything. We may have a successful harvest one year and not the following year, and we won’t know why. Could it be because we have not been in tune with one or another element?  With climate change, the seasons are more unpredictable. It’s important we think of planting for climate change and protect our environment now. We need to be very careful about how much damage we do through gardening, including the creatures we may displace or harm, and, for example, I always practice no-dig. If we look after the garden, then the garden will look after us.

Would it be fair to say you have learnt mostly from experience, and from your mentors, and has this influenced your approach to working with young people?

Yes, it has driven me to pass on knowledge. My mentor in France was 79 when I met her, and she passed on so much knowledge to me until she died at 84. I worry that some of the best practices from the older people’s knowledge and way of lives will get lost because we live now without most of what was once the norm, like growing food, protecting our wildlife, woodland and countryside. We talk now about climate change and looking after the land and about organic agriculture – all those things were the norm back then in France. It is amazing that now we are having to try to get people to do these things all over again.

My mentor planted by the moon, and her environment influenced the way she gardened. Gardening is about trying to capture a feeling for these things as well as acquiring the practical skills: what you can learn in a classroom is not enough, we need to be out there and enthused by people like my mentor. And my dad has been another major influence.  When I was little, when we got a house, with a garden, we started growing food together – all the veg we needed came from the garden.

In your job at the edible garden in St Mary’s school, what kind of activities do you do with the pupils?

We not only grow and tend plants and maintain the garden we work closely with each year group teacher to help enhance the subjects they are already teaching. For example, last week we worked with year 6 they are learning all about WW2. They came to the garden and we talked about the dig for victory campaign and the need to forage and grow medicinal plants as pharmaceutical drugs were low.

We dug potatoes and talked about their uses, picked rosehips and haws and talked about tinctures, syrups etc.

They are coming back in two weeks to make soup in the garden with potatoes, leeks, onions and squash all from the garden. I’m also doing a jam and preserves workshop with them with blackberries the foraged and blackcurrants grown in the garden. All things people would have done more of in the 1940’s.

What do you do with the surplus veg produced over the summer holidays?

We used to give all the excess produce to the kids canteen or the Food Bank at St Mary’s church. When COVID-19 struck, it became difficult to drop food off, and Sarah Wilberforce and I started a ‘glut stall’ outside the school during the holidays. This got legs and was taken on by Peter to St. Swithun’s, where it has become very popular. Some people feel reticent about accepting ‘free’ food as they do not necessarily consider themselves worthy of it, but increasingly people are in need. The main message is about saving surplus food from going to waste.

What are the rewards/disappointments of the job?

It’s amazing to see how quickly some children get the ‘bug’ they all enjoy being outside and learning in a practical tangible way but some want to know and learn more about growing and are fascinated about plants. The most rewarding thing is to see the children trying fruit and veg they would never have tried and enjoying it, also them slowly gaining more of an interest in food in general. Year 6 recently did a week’s residential on ‘wild side’. They were taken to a small farm, and the Year 6 teacher said that as we had worked with them since year 4 on several projects, the pupils were able to answer lots of the questions about veg growing and pollination which were put to them by the farmer.

One disappointment is that the edible garden and the teaching we do is still not mainstream although what we do is greatly appreciated and valued by the school they are unable to get a budget to set aside for us so Home in Bridport together with Transition Town Bridport have to constantly try and fundraise to pay for me and any other gardening teachers, and for equipment and supplies for food workshops etc.

I believe this kind of education is invaluable especially at primary school age, and every school should have the resources and people available to create gardens like ours. There is more to be done, also, to expand work with young people and food beyond schools and in the holiday periods. Children are losing the knowledge of where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it can be cooked.

Tell us about the second Edible Gardens the team are developing?

We are talking of more schools doing the same: we have been in talks for a while and have just started up an edible garden at Bridport Primary school. We have the full support of the Head and the PTAA. We have met the School Council (made up of pupils from several years) so the garden design and activities will be child-led. We already have a good idea of what they want to grow in their garden. The garden itself lends itself to a forest garden so lots of fruit trees and bushes and native edible trees. We intend to plant lots of perennial veg too and have saved an old polytunnel frame that was found on site so we have lots of options for annual veg and fruit.

The garden so far has been cleared of large overbearing trees, tidied, the polytunnel frame erected and series of compost heap frames put together. This was done by me, the edible garden team and volunteers made up of mums and dads from the school as well as surrounding neighbours. The next job is again fund raising for things like a shed (large, to use as a weather proof classroom if needed.) Fruit trees, equipment like gloves, secateurs etc. and a Cobb oven build.

How do you see Bridport and your future in it?

I am here to stay, I met my fiancé 6 years ago and next year we get married here.

Bridport is the best place I have ever lived in for food culture in general, there are a great number of food-related things happening, including the community allotment and orchard, and it is easy to get involved in things. I was involved in various projects before I found my place. The amazing food culture we have here in Bridport enables me to live the way I want to, supporting local farms and shops in town.

I hope that we can continue to raise funds for the two schools and I would like to make all my living eventually from teaching the next generation in those gardens and from cookery workshops in school or running ‘garden to plate’ workshops elsewhere.

I want to encourage people to do as much as they can do in relation to growing food. If anyone would like to find out more re the Edible Gardens and about my approach, I am happy to show people around either of the Edible Gardens projects, by arrangement. Contact me on 07933 882124.