An 88-year-old gardening dynamo, who feeds 50 pensioners a week with her allotment-grown fruit and vegetables, has passed on her advice about better eating in later life to the top bosses at Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership.
Green-fingered great-grandma Dena Murphy, who is the chair of New Moston residents’ group NEPHRA, produces so much fruit and veg that a weekly three-course meal can be made for 50 lunch-club members.
“I grow enough to fill our freezers and keep us going for a year,” she says.
“This year I’ve grown at least a 100lb of carrots, 30 cabbages, 60lbs of leeks and 140lbs of onions.
“Gardening is something I love and I’ve had a ball doing it. To me, gardening is a basic skill, which lies dormant in a lot of people.
“Plus, it’s a way of making friends – either by tending to the allotment – or by going to the lunch club that uses the produce.”
Dena, who is widowed, says she more than understands the temptation to not cook or eat properly when you may only be doing it for one.
“I call it the ‘tea and toast’ syndrome. It’s all too easy to get into a pattern where you feel tired because it’s so hard to buy food in small quantities. Then that stops you feeling hungry and it’s a vicious circle.
“These days there are so few local shops or butchers. If you go to a supermarket you can’t just buy a single chop – you have to buy a packet of them. Same with a lof of other fruits and vegetables, that come in large pre-packaged quantities.
“So that’s one of the reasons why gardening is so valuable and you can see how much it helps our lunch club and ensures that people are eating a varied diet full of nutrients. That is in turn helps with good health and fighting falls or illnesses,” she says.
“I’d also like to see more breakfast clubs across Greater Manchester. Not only could they make sure that older people eat well and keep hydrated, but they are also a social outlet, and a good start to the day that doesn’t feel intimidating if you are on your own.”
According to retired nurse Dena, who spends around three hours a day gardening, there’s no plant, fruit or veg that can’t be grown – the secret is to nurture seedlings like a child.
“Give them care, attention and empathy like you would a child,” she says. “But don’t take any nonsense – and there won’t be anything you can’t grow.”
From alpine strawberries to French breakfast radishes and pak choi – you name it, Dena has grown it. And the second secret to her success is never to ask for anything.
“I’ve always been very lucky. I never ask for anything, but people have always been very generous to me. If I need something, somehow it just happens and people will turn up and offer things for the allotment,” she says. “I call it ‘grandma’s wish list’.
“I’ve always believed that there is no heart without love. The more you take out of a heart the more it fills up.
“That’s how I’ve lived my life and a garden works on the same basis.”
And for those, who may be under the impression that Dena’s diet is singly wholesome, think again. “You have to try everything in life,” she says. “It’s about keeping all those doors open. This includes trying all sorts of different foods and having everything in moderation.
“I’ve had a life-long passion for chocolate – but a little of bit of what you love can never be bad for you.”