Give kids room to grow
Community gardens give urban kids the skills and space to grow their own food and have fun in nature. But they're not just for children, learns our reporter. For grown-ups, the cups of tea and chat are as important as the flowers and the plants
It's a glorious autumn afternoon. A gentle breeze wafts the sweet smell of lavender in my direction as I walk past vegetable patches, fruit trees and various other colourful shrubs and greenery. One woman is pruning twigs and tossing them into a wheelbarrow. Kids laugh and run between the raised beds, cheekily stealing raspberries straight from the bush while the adults are preoccupied with stoking the fire in the outdoor pizza oven.
It sounds like a scene of domestic bliss on a hippie commune, but this is Mud Island Community Garden: a small but perfectly formed haven of tranquillity tucked down an alleyway off North Strand Road, one of Dublin 3's busiest thoroughfares.
Once he's satisfied that the pizza oven is sufficiently warmed, Paul Redmond shoves a cupful of blackcurrant cordial into my hand and ushers me over to one of the garden's seating areas, situated in between the potato beds and the herbs.
As it happens, we're sitting on the grounds of what used to be an old folks' home back in the day. "This used to be a bedroom - and behind you was a shower," he says, gesturing to a perfectly square section of tiles that remain embedded in the concrete. "They knocked it down with the intention of giving them over to a developer - but then the arse fell out of that. Before we started all this, it was just big mounds of rubble."
Looking around Mud Island - named after the area's original moniker - it's hard to envisage it as a once derelict site. Local residents had petitioned Dublin City Council for permission to use the land as a community garden since 2009, and it first swung open its gates two years later. Since then, it has become a thriving community hub that also happens to grow everything from pears to pumpkins, lettuce to leeks and more besides; like an allotment on steroids, and a hell of a lot less solitary.
In fact, Redmond - who is a committee member originally from Portmarnock and who now lives on one of the roads bordering the garden - says that the social aspect of Mud Island is one of the best things about it.
"That's always been a key to it," he says, nodding. "Back when we first started, we always made a big point of having a tea break, and you'd have to sit for 20 minutes. But that's how you get to know people - if you're just all here working, it's no good. Strangely, I knew nobody that was involved in it when I joined, as was the case with a lot of people, and we've now all become very good friends. We have a corny line that 'the garden built the community', as opposed to the other way around - but it very much is the case. We're a big bunch of hippies, really - so it's all very easygoing and relaxed, so there's no big falling-outs or rows. Somebody took a load of plums one day that people weren't happy with," he laughs, "but that's been the extent of it."
The garden - which has won various awards and was most recently nominated for a prestigious 'Pride of Place' national award - relies on various grants and funding bodies to keep things running. Their location within a 1.5km radius of Croke Park means that they qualify for some funding via the Croke Park Community Fund (which paid for the hard-to-miss colourful caravan parked in the corner, for example) but overall it is run on a volunteer basis. That includes members who give up their free time (in exchange for recently harvested fruit or veg, if they're lucky) to share their wisdom on both garden-related topics, as well as various other events. There are regular drama workshops, poetry evenings and more, while in the past there have been art events, plus filmmaking, ceramics and print-making classes. The point, says Redmond, is to involve the community as much as possible, whatever their skill set.
"I've never touched a plant in the garden - I'm a builder, not a grower," he laughs. "And I say this all the time, but I like the fact that we don't have to garden. One of the girls is a graphic designer, so she does all our posters; someone else is very good at filling in application forms. There's a girl up there who's a herbalist, so she knows all about herbs and she takes care of that. There are some very good gardeners, too, but I'd say they tend to be in the minority, really. There are different skill sets and that's the thing that amazes me - and that's why the garden works. If it was all gardeners, we'd be nowhere. You need different people to do different things and get involved in different ways."
The biggest challenge for Mud Island Community Garden, says Redmond, is to keep new members interested enough to continue volunteering on a consistent basis. There could be 50 people in for tonight's pizza night but maybe only two or three during the colder winter months.
"You need to have new people starting and we're very open to that," he says. "Most Tuesdays, somebody would join, but a lot of times, you don't see them again. We have 500-odd members on Facebook, but we've never had 500 people here. You do need fresh ideas and fresh energy all the time. But we get involved with the school down the road, too, we try to communicate with different groups; [the refugee centre at] Mosney was a big one this year. Eighty people came down from Mosney just to learn about gardening and raised beds, and we had food and music, and then we went back up there for a big visit. We're always looking for things like that. Interaction."
Communication and co-operation were also what first inspired the idea for a similar community garden in West Cork. Kirstie Smith - a Bristol native who has lived in Ireland for 14 years - is involved in running the Dunmanway Community Garden, a hugely successful project in Tonafora that opened in 2013 and is run in conjunction with the local Family Resource Centre. "We had a very small patch of land that we had earmarked as being suitable for a community garden, but when we approached the council about it they actually suggested this much larger plot," she explains. "Then some funding from Safefood Ireland became available, so we put together an application."
When that funding eventually came to an end, there was an unexpected resilience in the community to keep the garden open. These days, they rely on various fundraising events, donations and small grants to remain in operation. "I know other projects, when the Safefood funding ran out, they just went, 'Right, that's it - we can't continue'," says Smith. "But there was a real feeling in Dunmanway that it wasn't going to stop us at all, that we'd find a way. And the whole community really does support the garden. We do things like bingo and cookery demonstrations and craft nights. Schools and different groups will come in, use the garden and make a donation."
Because of its association with the Family Resource Centre, there is a particular emphasis on the 'community' part of Dunmanway Community Garden, but that doesn't mean that the 'garden' part is neglected. Their motto, after all, is 'Grow It, Cook It, Eat It'.
"I would say that the project has actually changed the way we work in the Family Resource Centre as a whole, in that it's really brought to our attention the importance of food," she agrees. "In Dunmanway, there is deprivation and there is poverty, and we've found that you need to offer any group that comes in good, wholesome food; a packet of biscuits isn't gonna cut it. For example, in our Babytalk group, we'll have mums that come in and they might not have had a chance to have breakfast, so we can provide food from the garden in those groups, like courgette bread, or carrot cake, or soups."
While the idea of growing your own food on a patch of land in an urban area may evoke images of EastEnders' Arthur Fowler poking around his allotment, Smith believes there is a good reason for the growing popularity of community gardens in Ireland.
"I do think the recession absolutely helps with this stuff," she says, nodding. "Our focus on the garden was around making good food affordable, but also we did look at sustainability: how to reduce energy costs, reduce water costs. So it did meet a need for people trying to find ways to manage on smaller budgets. And also, I think the awareness of what we put in our bodies and our children's bodies. And the community didn't want allotments, either; it was about people sharing ideas and sharing produce, and being about so much more than going to your little patch and growing some food for yourself. I think we've definitely achieved that, anyway. Everybody uses the garden; it's amazing, it really is. It's such a lovely place to be."
Dee Sewell has witnessed first-hand the growing popularity of community gardens and sustainable food systems. As founder of Community Gardens Ireland, a network that offers support to the ever-expanding number of gardens around the country, the Englishwoman moved here with her husband, Ian, 19 years ago, with the intention of living a more self-sufficient life. These days, having returned to college to study horticulture after her third child left for college, she practises what she preaches with Greenside Up (greensideup.ie), a social enterprise that educates both individuals and communities on how to grow their own.
"The idea for Greenside Up came via visiting people's homes and gardens and offering individual advice on growing food; something I would have liked to have myself," she explains from her renovated farmhouse in Co Carlow. "My aim was to help as many beginners as I could grow food successfully and confidently, but it soon became apparent that the best way to do that was to hold workshops and demonstrations, so I began sharing everything I'd learnt in local health shops, family resource centres and village halls."
Sewell has her own theory on the popularity of these gardens in Ireland. "They offer the best of everything in the gardening world. People share the work and the produce; they also share knowledge and the opportunity for companionship and friendship. The cups of tea and chat are as important as the plants and flowers. That sense of community seemed to go astray in the boom years, when people became too busy and lost the connection with nature and each other. People often start allotments with lots of enthusiasm but no real knowledge of the amount of work involved; community gardens allow us to share that."
Creating a network of gardens around Ireland has been invaluable, she says, with over 130 community gardens already listed amongst CGI's ranks. "It was encouraging to find there were like-minded people out there," she agrees. "Primarily we are an online support, with a newsletter, Facebook page, Twitter account and website where we try to hold as much information as we can (cgireland.org) but we aim to meet two to three times in different locations around the country for garden visits, networking and workshops on anything from seed-saving to conflict management and fundraising. We're thrilled to see the interest in community gardening escalate. The gardens offer the opportunity for outdoor centres of environmental education, as well as places that people from all walks of life in all communities can visit or learn."
Mud Islander Paul Redmond agrees. "Here we are, sitting in the sunshine," he grins, preparing to go check on the oven once again before the hungry hordes arrive. "We're surrounded by neighbours, friends and food that we've all helped to grow, and we're about to have pizza. What more could you possibly want?"
Photos: Frank McGrath