Erwin, of @garden.of.oz, first introduced me – via Instagram – to Isolde. When I first clicked on her IG page, I think I spent about 20 minutes looking at all of her pictures and showing my husband all the ones with her sweet St. Bernards cuddling other animals. I commented on one of her posts about the Tropical tomato variety, and before I knew it, she was offering to send me some seeds. Her kindness shows through in almost every picture, from the harvest baskets she brings her grandmother because “you just have to spoil grandmothers,” to the battery hens she rescues and heals. She is one to follow. I have no doubt that you will be inspired by her.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m 23 years old and I live in Belgium, which is zone 8. I have been gardening basically all my life. My dad had a veggie patch, and although he’s always been a very busy man, he had a very efficient way to maintain the vegetable garden: whenever my siblings and I had been bad, he ordered us to weed in the garden.
We also got our own strip to plant whatever we wanted. My sister always dedicated hers to just carrots. My brother planted a red currant bush, which was great foresight since it’s low maintenance. And I had a little bit of everything, mostly simple things like cabbages. Then five years ago we got a greenhouse in which we planted some tomato plants, and that’s when it really started for me.
2. Okay, first things first. I’ve got to know about your dogs. Those pictures with your chicks on their noses are sure to grab anyone’s heart. How did you train them to be so social with all of your other animals, not to mention so calm and tolerant?
Honestly, we never did do a lot of training. Our dogs are Saint Bernards, naturally a very calm breed. You know, my dad is a vet, lots of animals come here, so I guess Basiel and Julie are used to having other animals around. But we always make sure we introduce them very carefully to other animals.
Be sure to read Isolde’s captions. You don’t want to miss the story of Julie and Victor.
These two share a beautiful story. When I found Victor, I took him home. He was a really tiny kitten and he was close to dying. My dad, a vet, wasn’t home yet to start his treatment so I waited outside with my dogs. Suddenly Julie started licking and taking care of him and I’m pretty sure he would have died that afternoon if it wasn’t for Julie’s maternal instincts. #farmlife #aplaceforsaints
3. I have to ask about all the tomatoes you grow! You mentioned Tropical being an absolute favorite cherry tomato. Do you have a favorite heirloom? What makes it your favorite? And where do you purchase the seeds?
My favorite heirloom is Kellogg’s Breakfast. It’s not the most productive variety I’m growing, but the taste is so good. Fruity, sweet, slightly tart, silky and smooth texture. I usually give tomato varieties two years to prove themselves. Varieties that haven’t been very productive in those two years won’t be planted the next year, but I make an exception for Kellogg’s Breakfast. I stopped buying seeds quite a while ago, last time I bought a big amount of seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and now I get new seeds by trading with fellow Belgian and Dutch gardeners.
4. I admire your care and respect for animals so much. Can you tell us a little about your journey to buying spent factory farm hens, or battery hens?
Just recently, four or five years ago, I discovered my love for poultry. I wanted to expand my flock so I regularly looked on the internet for breeds that I wanted, and one day, I saw an ad that said they had hens for only two euros. Laying hens here cost 9-12 euros so the ad caught my eye. The ad also said they were about 18 months old but still laying well. I called and reserved four hens.
A week later, I picked them up, and what I saw tore my heart apart. Hens in a dark stable in cages, several rows stacked above the other. The hens were skinny, barely feathered, nearly white combs and wattles, eyes were dull and they were debeaked. As a daughter of a vet, I have always seen people take such good care of their animals, not once had I been confronted with such animal cruelty.
Right there on that moment, I made a promise to myself I would come back every year for more because I felt so bad I could only give a few a new home. I didn’t care about them laying well or not, I wanted to give them a nice retirement.
Let me explain how such ‘farms’ work. Once the hens have reached the age of 18 months, they’re nearing the end of their first year of laying and naturally, the number of eggs they give after the first year decreases. That’s when they renew their flock. The public first get the chance to buy some, and the others are put in a truck and brought to factories where they become chick fingers, chicken nuggets and whatsoever.
5. How would you direct others who want to purchase (read: rescue) spent factory farm hens as well? Where should they look?
On the internet. You must know that the ‘farmers’ won’t tell in what conditions the hens are. So directly searching for spent hens won’t work. You have pay attention to the price, if you know prices of hens in your region, the low prices will be a great hint. Or you can look for an organisation near you that rescues spent hens. They usually buy big amounts and then they sell them to people once the hens have acclimatized to their new life.
I highly recommend buying spent hens. They’re incredibly thankful and it gives so much satisfaction to see them transform. If, by showing pictures of my rescued hens, people are encouraged to rescue some too, then I’m very glad. But the main reason why I post such graphic pictures is to make people aware of where cheap eggs in stores come from. They are the victims of mass production.
6. I saw on one of your Instagram comments that if you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life, it would be homegrown tomatoes. What are your favorite ways to enjoy them?
Eating tomatoes like an apple is my favorite way to eat them. Or on toast with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a slice of cheese. Or thin slices on pizza dough with olive oil. Let’s say I don’t really have a favorite way to eat tomatoes, they are so versatile and delicious however prepared.
7. Your Instagram profile says that you are 23 and a student. It looks like you already know SO much. I’m curious what you are studying and what your plans are for after school. Can you tell us?
I’m a business/economics student, and I recently started my internship at a very big firm where I’m focusing on the continuous improvement process, quality and sustainability. Sustainability is very important to me, so I really wanted to do my internship at a company for whom sustainability is a high priority. I’m also currently writing my master’s thesis. That, together with my internship, is the last step to get my master’s degree. I’d like to do a master after master programme, preferably one that combines economics, sustainability and agriculture, but I’m not sure yet. Who knows what the future holds.
8. Your life looks so peaceful and full of beauty. Do you have a daily routine? If so, what is it? If not, what might a typical day look like for you?
I’ll describe a weekend day because during the week, my life isn’t that peaceful anymore since I started my internship. I get up around the time the sun’s rising because that’s when I release my chickens. They get locked up every night to avoid fox attacks. Firstly, I get Hans, our orphan baby goat, out of his bench. He still sleeps inside. Then I make a bottle of milk for him while he uses the litter box – we’ve potty trained him. Then Hans, Louis (the rescue dog we recently got) and I go outside to wake up Basiel and Julie. We all cuddle a bit and then I wait until Louis has peed, then I put him inside again because he’s too weak to walk all the way to the back where the chickens are. After that, I release and feed the chickens and then I go feed the ducks. While I’m watching the ducks eat, I give Hans’ bottle. Then the pony, the donkey and the dogs get fed. After that, I eat breakfast, and then I work for school. I take breaks to clean the coop, bake something, give Hans milk and go for a walk with the dogs. Usually I go to bed early, but before going to bed, I lock up the chickens, put Hans in his bench and spend some time with Basiel and Julie.
9. Based on your photos, it looks like there’s not much you don’t grow. Is there anything you haven’t tried to grow before that you are hoping to in an upcoming season?
I just received Roselle seeds which I’m really excited about. Also, a few years back my dad and I planted more fruit trees and a fellow Instagram green-thumb gave the advice to remove the blossoms for three years after planting so the tree can focus on its growth. Next year will be the first year that we’ll leave the blossoms so if everything goes well, we’ll have home grown peaches next summer, which I am super super excited for.
10. I think all of your Instagram followers are wondering just how big your garden is. Can you tell us, or better yet, show a zoomed out picture?
The last few months have been hectic because of my education, so I have neglected my garden. Basically, I’m mostly harvesting what I planted in the spring. But my veggie patch is about 250 square meters. This picture is to give an idea. I feel kinda ashamed to show my garden because now it’s quite overgrown.
11. I can’t tell you how much I love the harvest baskets you take your grandmother. I long for the day I will have that much produce to share! If you were to give three pieces of gardening advice that are actionable items someone could implement in their garden, what would they be?
First, don’t start too big. A garden needs lots of maintenance so start small, and see how much time you can invest in your garden and then gradually expand. That was my main mistake this year. But mistakes are the best teachers, you’ll learn that along the way.
Secondly, if you plan on growing brassicas, you may want to buy an insect net to plant them under. Not only to avoid the pigeons turning your brassica patch into a brassica graveyard, but also avoiding butterflies to lay eggs on your brassicas. But butterflies are amazing and beautiful, so I highly recommend planting some brassicas a little further away in your patch for the butterflies.
And lastly, love what you’re doing. Life is too short to do things you don’t enjoy doing.
Grandmother’s box this week contains lettuces, kohlrabi, tomatoes, beetroots, fennel, onions, shallots, eggs, zucchini, cucumbre and turnips. Her box is smaller than last year because she’s no longer able to cook everything herself so I bring her vegetables that don’t need lots of preparation and we do the rest.
Thank you so much for the lessons and inspiration, Isolde. We are so grateful you shared a bit of your world with us. You can find Isolde on Instagram as @imatsol.