Life Gardens

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Ireland's urban gardens have never been more vibrant

Andrew Douglas, with his potato plants of many different varieties
Andrew Douglas, with his potato plants of many different varieties
Jacqueline Kelleher in the Heritage Community Garden of St Mary's Convent, Donnybrook
Mark Grehan in his balcony garden in Dublin city centre
Fiona Kelly

Claire O'Mahony

From balcony growers to those with more ambitious ventures, Claire O'Mahony meets four urban farmers.

Urban farmers talk reverentially about taste. They speak of the incomparable deliciousness of eating something that they have grown themselves and the satisfaction it brings them.

But equally, how important urban farming is becoming in terms of its contribution to the economy and food availability; how it makes for a greater sense of community and how it builds a greener city, putting unutilised spaces to great use.

It is also playing a key role in educating people about eating locally and seasonally. From growing herbs in pots, to more ambitious horticultural pursuits, the concrete jungle is proving to be a fertile ground for many Irish urban farmers.

Andrew Douglas

Andrew Douglas, with his potato plants of many different varieties

Urban Farm shares a lot in common with a community garden in that its ethos is the same: enlisting volunteers for the purpose of healthy food production and promoting a healthy lifestyle. But founder Andrew Douglas is also conscious of the bottom line.

"Urban Farm lives in a world of rates, rents and regulations, so it's important that it is viable and profitable to continue its work," he says.

Urban Farm, alongside City Composting, built Europe's first fully up-cycled urban rooftop farm atop of the Chocolate Factory building in Dublin's Kilmainham in 2012. Unfortunately they ran into city planning issues and left the premises, but Douglas has been hard at work since to launch Urban Farm #2 in a city-based location, by mid-2015.

Douglas also had the idea of growing potatoes individually in up-cycled water cooler bottles and grew 160 varieties. These potato pods, which are in Douglas's garden in Tallaght, became the basis of the Thank Potato project.

He believes the future of food lies in decentralised production - it's not that we will not have adequate food to feed ourselves but that it will be very expensive.

"When that time comes and it has already in some parts of the world, it's the alternative food sources that will bridge the gap, the community gardens, the urban mushroom farms, the rooftop farms with bees and hens, localised food grown with ethics and care.

"That's the future and it's here now, it's going nowhere, it's getting stronger and it tastes great," he says.


Fiona Kelly

Fiona Kelly

From being a relative gardening virgin, Fiona Kelly has made the transition to avid grower in just over two years, a journey she shares in her blog, Fiona Grows Food.

The office worker has a 100sqm plot at the Malahide Allotments, a project ­run by the Epilepsy Care Foundation, which gives opportunities for people with epilepsy to integrate with the community.

There are 360 allotments here, making it the largest allotment site in Ireland, of which 75 are reserved for people with epilepsy and their families, with the rest open to the public. Kelly has found growing on her allotment has changed her diet.

"I didn't really like vegetables until I started growing them and I can taste them now," she says. "They're fresh, they're not being shipped from God knows where, they're not being frozen, you're not putting any chemicals on them so you're getting them as they're meant to be."

It's labour-intensive - she gardens organically and visits the allotment three times a week, but it means she is now enjoying her crop of onions, kale and peas, fruit and herbs - she makes jams and preserves and gives away any surplus to friends.

Growing her own hasn't just changed how she eats - it's changed the way she lives. "It's grounded me, if you'll excuse the pun. I started my blog and that took off so I'm getting to express myself in more than just a gardening way," she says.

"Everything nowadays is so fast paced and everything is stressful and you're living in this world where everything is virtual. You go out to a garden and it's just you and the garden and it's real. You have to be patient and leave everything up to nature - it's really good therapy. It does a lot for the soul, I find."

Mark Grehan

Mark Grehan in his balcony garden in Dublin city centre

Tiny spaces are no impediment when it comes to creative gardening. Spring onions grown in glass bottles, or salad leaves grown in a wine crate are all possibilities.

But for many people, balconies and roof terraces are usually utilised for herb gardens, and other easy vegetable options that do well in often windy conditions.

As an award-winning landscape gardener and owner of creative floristry shop, The Garden in Dublin's Powerscourt Centre, one might expect Mark Grehan to have an elaborate roof terrace garden in his Dublin 8 apartment but he insists that this is not the case.

"It's like a plumber will always have a burst pipe in his house; there's always something to do on my roof terrace, it's like a busman's holiday when I get home and it's the last thing I want to do. So it tends to be quite manageable in that sense," he says.

He grows a mixture of grasses on his 30sqm terrace, with plants in pots and a variety of herbs. "I only grow what I use; a lot of rosemary, bay, mint and lavender.

"I use them in cooking and the lavender I use a little bit for decoration in the house and also when I'm making ice-cream. I'll often get a bowl and grow salads as well, or a tumbling tomato plant, with some cherry tomatoes."

His garden is exposed and open to the wind so he's chosen what to plant here accordingly and advises anyone with a terrace or balcony to do similarly.

"Look at what the conditions are - is it shady, is it sunny? - before you go out and purchase plants. Generally roof terraces and balconies are windy, so seaside plants tend to do well.

"The other problem is they can dry out a lot so use compost that is more clay based as opposed to peat, and has plenty of organic matter in it," he adds.

Jacqueline Kelleher

Jacqueline Kelleher in the Heritage Community Garden of St Mary's Convent, Donnybrook

Within a walled garden at the Avila Carmelite Centre, Donnybrook, Dublin, lies an oasis of organic plants, fruits and vegetables. This is the Heritage Community Garden, now in its third season and tended by a mixed bunch of gardeners, from all over the city, ranging in age from 12 up to 80.

Ten core volunteers are at the heart of the Heritage, but on any given day there might be 50 people passing through. Jacqueline Kelleher, who heads the project, says that those involved enjoy the community aspect as much as the gardening itself.

"They all have a love for gardening; they all have a love for the environment and looking after it, they're concerned about their carbon footprint, and where their food is coming from. That love, for all those different reasons, means they come together," she says.

There's an abundance of potatoes, sweetcorn, green beans, tomatoes, herbs and plants in the garden and the harvest is shared between volunteers.

Headway, the brain injury group, and other youth and community groups get involved in training courses and garden lessons too.

Volunteer Jean Burtchaell, who trained in organic horticulture, believes that best way to garden is in a community setting.

"If you have your own garden at home, you're on your own, all of the time. Community gardening is great because you have the chance to garden and to go off into your own little world but you also have contact with people and the cup of tea," she says.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life