How austerity spurred me on to develop my green fingers
Sinead Ryan hears how the recession inspired one man to take up gardening, and how he turned it into a million-euro business
When we talk about the recession and eight years of austerity (which many would say we're still suffering), it's easy only to think of it in terms of the bad things that emerged. The collapse of the financial system, job losses, emigration, a raft of new taxes and sweeping hardship.
But out of adversity comes opportunity, and for IT consultant Michael Kelly, it was a trip to the supermarket in 2008 at the height of the crisis that proved to be his "Damascus conversion".
"I was buying garlic, and saw it had originated in China. I was the least green-fingered person I knew, but that was my moment.
"I decided to grow some myself instead and tried to find a local club to learn from, but they were all flower or plant clubs and I wanted it to be about food. The movement started from that."
Eight years on, the 'movement', GIY International (giyinternational.org), has 150,000 members in Ireland and the UK, and the Waterford-based organisation provides support and products to encourage people to grow food at home or in their community.
Today the doors officially open to the public at the €1.45 million Grow HQ and Food Education Centre in Waterford City.
The centre has been completed on a three-acre urban site provided by Waterford Council, and has already provided 16 jobs. It will be run by four staff and four volunteers.
Over the next 12 months the business will be offering a variety of 15 different learning courses for adults and children, and will serve as an urban grow school, cookery school, café, farm-shop and food gardens.
According to Kelly, Taoiseach Enda Kenny kick-started the fundraising plan for the new centre in 2013.
"Austerity was probably the perfect storm," he says by way of explanation about the resurgence of growing your own. "People wanted to save money, but also grab onto something tangible and real. The life skill of growing and planting grounds people when the pillars of society are crumbling.
"We're more worried about pesticides, what we're putting into our bodies. There's a food obsession at the moment, from fad diets to cutting out wheat and dairy, yet we've never been more disconnected from it; planting is a way to reconnect."
His passion is evident, but the father of two says it's a no-brainer for him and his family. "There's no zealot like a convert," he laughs.
Kelly says you can start out in the simplest of ways. "You don't need a big plot of land, or allotment or even a garden. Getting those herbs in trays from the supermarket, and replanting them at home with fresh compost, will give you six to eight weeks of basil, for instance. For rosemary, a single plant can last you five years, just cutting a sprig when you need it for the Sunday dinner."
Moving outdoors, garlic is dead simple. "Just take a few cloves and put them in soil, in a raised bed or pot, with the tip about 1cm below the surface, with cloves spaced 15cm apart. If they're planted now, they'll be ready in June."
If you have a little more space, or want to move off the kitchen windowsill, salad leaves and root vegetables are the easiest to work with. "Lettuce and rocket will grow in pots, but are great in a small raised bed in the garden. People think food plants will be ugly, but they're not. You don't need a big garden, so it's okay alongside swings and slides or the shed," he adds.
The volume of food that can be grown easily from one plant nails the economic argument.
"A healthy tomato plant will yield 300 to 400 tomatoes in one season; a beetroot, around 50 to 60 in a raised bed, while a courgette plant will give you around 40. People think this stuff is all for rural people with land; it's really not."
But for those who have tried the home option and want to turn it into a serious hobby, there's a large community of allotment aficionados out there.
Many councils operate urban allotment sites, renting out to enthusiastic amateurs. An allotment space of 60 to 100 sqm will cost around €200 to €350 per year in rental costs, with leases typically 11 months (to avoid legal issues with 'ownership').
Fingal County Council manages 900 allotments at four different sites in Dublin at Turvey in Donabate, Skerries and Balbriggan in the northern coastal towns. The fourth site is located at Powerstown, close to Mulhuddart, in the Dublin 15 area.
There are three different plot sizes available to rent: 50sqm, 100sqm and 200sqm, which offers space to suit all levels of interest, experience and time commitment.
Allotments are generally committee-run by growers with an inexpensive joining fee which gives members a say. The Council, in most cases, are merely overseers as land owners.
Because of the increasing interest, it can be difficult to get a vacant allotment in Council-run sites. A Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council spokesperson said there was a waiting list "as long as your arm" for its site in Shanganagh, Co Dublin. It also runs an allotment in Goatstown - also full. "For people living in apartments, they're very popular."
Allotments can also be run privately, or by community or VEC operators in addition to the council-owned ones. It's important to find out what's involved, in addition to what you will pay. For instance, is there on-site security? What about insurance, or storage for tools?
James Kilkelly, a qualified garden designer from Galway, runs a support site for growers, allotments.ie, which gives information on allotments by county, tips on growing and information for beginners.
"Your kitchen waste can be recycled on-site through composting, you get fresh air and exercise is available in abundance and it provides a learning experience for children as they develop an awareness of where their food comes from," says his website.
"Allotment gardening reduces stress, especially when it gets you away from the pressures of modern urban living and you develop skills, picking up tips from other plot-holders while you chat. You will begin to rediscover a sense of community that's missing from so many of our lives today," it continues.
Allotment gardening is a hobby that anyone can try - even those whose gardening prowess doesn't extend beyond snipping a few fresh herbs on the windowsill to add to dinner.