I was a submariner in my youth, and submariners are not good gardeners by instinct – we could grow mushrooms, maybe. Gardening came about by necessity. I was a community worker on the peace line in Belfast in the 1970s. The peace line is a misnomer: it’s the interface between the Catholic and Protestant areas. I resigned for a variety of reasons, and then found that if you resign from your job, you can’t get on the bru, which is what they call unemployment benefit here. I was short of cash, to put it mildly.

In those days, any empty properties were set upon and turned to skeletons: the copper pipes ripped out, the lead taken from the roof. A friend brought me here and said, “This house needs you.” It was totally derelict. I moved in, reported myself to the police, got the property listed – it’s 250 years old – and offered to pay rent, but at the same time pointed out all the work that would need to be done on it. I think I had one nasty phone call telling me to get out. After 12 years of uncontested occupation, it becomes yours. It’s mine now.

I didn’t know how long I would be here and I needed to eat, so I spent more time on the garden than the house. I started growing in a tiny patch, buying a packet of lettuce seeds and reading the instructions. I didn’t have a clue. Friends helped with advice and plants, and slowly I expanded it on to some waste ground. It’s the size of a tennis court now. I grow only things you can eat; there aren’t too many pretty things here.

I’m not self-reliant, and nor would I wish to be. I like to go out into the community and local shops. I had a fantastic plum harvest this year and gave them away to about 20 friends. You get a few cans of Guinness in return.

My favourite spot

There is a patch of lawn in the middle and on a sunny day you could be in the countryside. It’s higgledy-piggledy; if a gooseberry plant layers itself, I’ll find a space to squeeze in a new one. I was told this is not a very Protestant garden.

How does your garden grow? Email space@theguardian.com

Rachel De Thame

Gardener at BBC Gardeners World
Rachel de Thame is a UK gardening expert and TV presenter, born in Camden in London, England, popular on the BBC Gardeners World program.