Urban farmers innovating space at four storeys
An unlikely north Dublin location is providing the home for a new breed of city cultivator
Most of us have a favourite variety of potato. But if we were asked to name all the potato varieties we know, I'd imagine that the majority of us would struggle to go beyond a dozen at a push.
This is reflected in the amount of land dedicated to different potato varieties in Ireland – of the 8,700 hectares under spuds (in 2012) almost 80pc is dedicated to just five varieties: Rooster, Kerrs Pink, Queens, Golden Wonder and Records.
Food growers will almost certainly be able to add an extra few to the list. One of the great benefits of growing potatoes yourself is that you can try out lots of different varieties that typically won't be available to buy commercially.
But even potato growers would be amazed at the extent of variety that's possible with the humble spud. This point was brought home to me on a recent visit to the Urban Farm project in Dublin (Kings Inn St).
High up on the roof of the old chocolate factory, a remarkable food empathy project is taking place – vegetables are being grown in the most unlikely places and in the most unusual of ways. Recycled pallets and containers are used to grow all manner of herbs, fruit and vegetables. There's even a corner on the roof where hens are scratching happily, and their manure is used to super-charge the compost which feeds the veggie plants.
For the moment this is mainly a food education project, which can teach people where their food comes from and challenge assumptions about where food can be grown. But eventually the plan is that fruit and vegetables (and presumably eggs) will be sold to the cafe downstairs in the Chocolate Factory. Very cool stuff.
Ascend four flights of dark stairs, and you emerge blinking in to the light on the roof, with remarkable views of the city all round. But there's another view worth taking in too – 160 varieties of potatoes are being grown in long rows of 'up-cycled' water-cooler bottles. Yes, you read that correctly – 160 varieties.
There are lots of clever growing rigs on display at Urban Farm – in a grow 'laboratory' they have an aquaponics unit where vegetable plants are grown in soil-less conditions, fed from beneath by nutrient rich water that is created by fish pooing in it.
To my untrained eye, there seemed to be a complete absence of blight in the plants, and of course it's the time of the year when blight is problematic. This year in my own garden I am growing just four varieties of potatoes – the early varieties: Red Duke of York, Homeguard and Orla, and the main crop Setanta.
Even though this seems to be a good blight year, the Duke of York plants were decimated by blight. Since I grow organically, and don't spray for blight, my only option was to cut the plants down to prevent it from travelling to the potatoes.
All the more remarkable then that there seems to be no blight whatsoever in the 160 varieties on display at Urban Farm. Could it be because of the altitude at which they are being grown? Potato blight is airborne, and presumably isn't prone to be blowing around four stories up in the city centre of Dublin. Perhaps the blight-free, chemical-free, GMO-free future of the commercial potato industry will be about growing potatoes on roof tops?!
The collection of spuds comes from David Langford and Dermot Carey's Lissadell collection, which is the largest private collection of potato varieties in Ireland, currently standing at 225 varieties.
The collection includes a variety of names that most of us will never have heard of: Smile, Pentland Squire, Black Bog, Irish Peave, Linzer Delikatess, International Kidney, Bambino, Ulster Chieftain. The variety 'Irish Apple' is the oldest variety dating back to 1768.
The collection also includes the infamous famine 'lumper' potato, reliance on which led to the Great Famine. The lumper was grown not because it was particularly tasty but because it was a huge cropper and therefore produced masses of food.
Several, consecutive years of potato blight meant that the lumper crop failed miserably, and our population was decimated from nine to four million. The potato famine seems particularly poignant when one considers it could have been avoided had our ancestors diversified a little.
And what you might ask will happen to all these wonderful Urban Farm spuds at harvest time? Some of them at least will make the short trip to Gallagher's Boxty House in Temple Bar where they will be celebrated at a very special tasting evening.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.