Over the last couple of weeks I have been asked by a number of people to explain more about the Community Garden Project. I am always delighted to do so, that is one of the purposes of the garden to help start a dialogue about our environment.
I think a catchy way of explaining about the garden is by calling it an All Garden, this is a play on the term All Ireland that is used commonly to denote an Irish National Competition and coming from my sporting background it seemed appropriate. So why an “All” garden? Well the intention of the garden is to provide an Educational, Environmental, Ecological, Cultural and Edible space where All our community can come together.
I have been an organic small holder for over 30 years and 30 years ago I was collecting black silage plastic from my farming neighbours and along with PET drinking bottles taking trailer loads up to a recycling centre in Cork, as this was the closest place at the time. I know most people thought I was crazy at the time with a barn full of plastic but recycling is hopefully now a very common practice. I was also on a committee that brought one of the first recycling facilities to the village where we can put our bottles and cans. There was quite a bit of opposition to that at the time as people were afraid it would attract rats and be unsightly.
My children spur me on to walk the walk and not just talk the talk and we go out regularly to clean up beaches and collect the vast amount of plastic that gets washed up on our shores. I am an environmentalist, some may feel that is a dirty word with all our demands for less pollution and how we try and point out where we could improve and create less waste. I know environmentalism is difficult and it makes life inconvenient but I believe I do have a responsibility to make this world a better place and I want my children to have a good life, I maybe deluded but I believe that Global Warming and Climate Change are real, I believe the scientists when they tell us that more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, so what can we do about it?
As a gardener I know of the importance of pollinating insects. The Irish National Biodiversity Data Centre states “One third of our bee species are threatened with extinction from Ireland. This is because we have drastically reduced the amount of food (flowers) and safe nesting sites in our landscapes.” Our community garden is now part of the National Pollinator Plan and we have been planting native species to encourage the bees and we agreed to leave a fallow area to provide nesting for hibernating bees. If this was the only reason to have a Community Garden then I think it would be worth it, but that is not all the garden is about.
I also wanted to provide a space where people could come and learn about growing their own food. I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture and over 30 years of growing experience, even with all this there is so much I don’t know but I would like to learn. We have had a number of visits by various horticulturalists who have been able to give advice on things from the pH levels of our soil to the best way of composting our organic waste. I think the garden is a great place to come and learn a bit more about growing and we are always up for a chat. One of our volunteers has been teaching me all about beekeeping and another the proper way to make lazy beds.
I had asked the local Community Council if they would be interested in getting involved in creating a community garden near the community centre. In all honesty the community council is a very busy voluntary organisation and this was not a high priority project but after I said I was willing to manage it and all I required from the CC was a small piece of spare land and I would abide by any appropriate health and safety requirements they generously agreed to let me give it a go.
The small piece of land is the slope beside the polytunnels and leading up to the gate. The soil was only an inch deep laid over rock and rubble that had been moved there when the centre was built. It was covered in grass and had been strimmed a couple of times every year.
The three polytunnels had been used to grow early potatoes for at least 5 years followed by tomatoes. I had expressed some concern over the fact that the tunnels were not being rotated and after testing the pH levels discovered the acidity was around 4 which was also concerning. I agreed to maintain the tunnels for a year and try and provide a variety of veg for the local Social Centre for the elderly. This was however a separate project but as is the nature of things they appeared to dovetail nicely and I was able to propagate some plants not just for the community garden but for the village, growing plants for hanging baskets and tubs. Over 20kg of lettuce was produced along with courgettes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, beans, cabbage, spinach, chard and some unusual veg including Komatsuma, Pak Choi and Kohl Rabi. With all the hot weather we grew watermelons and strawberries, I grew a crop of Xerochrysum bracteatum for dried flowers, Calendula marigolds, Aloe vera and a number of herbs creating a polyculture and by using permaculture methods removing the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides from the tunnels.
In order to develop the community garden we entered a competition held by Grow It Yourself (GIY) an organisation based in Waterford who promote growing of your own food within the community and sponsored by Energia. We won one of the main prizes and received €1000. We agreed to use this money to provide raised beds and to fence the area. The raised beds were expensive as we wanted to make them last for a long time. I have tried out many different methods but I had not tried using recycled plastic wood. I do use recycled plastic fence posts and they have lasted very well. We had enough grant money to buy 4 beds along with the wood required for the fencing. I was delighted when our local TD and member of the community council Michael Collins decided to sponsor another raised bed and then Mark from the Barleycove Hotel also said he would like to contribute. A couple of other sponsors have also said they will sponsor a bed but we didn’t get the money before we had to order the plastic wood so with their agreement that will have to be used for another project.
Three of the beds are up in situ and levelled off and are already in use with garlic, onions, cabbage and potatoes planted. The rest of the beds and fencing are still to be finished off and anyone who wants to lend us a hand let me know! We grew Bionica potatoes last year in the patch where the raised beds are now located. This was an interesting project as Bionica are a new type of potato that are blight resistant, so we did not spray the plants and even though the soil was extremely shallow, I did add loads of seaweed, we got a reasonable crop of potatoes, for me not as tasty as Orla’s but there was no sign of blight.
During the summer a local table quiz was arranged with Claire over in Crookhaven. These quizzes are held regularly during the summer months and the funds raised go on many local projects and charities. I was very grateful that the Community Garden was included and I went round collecting prizes from loads of local businesses that were very supportive and generous. We eventually raised €600 towards the garden. There are so many ways to spend money on a garden! But we settled on the materials for a new path, a beautiful handmade garden gate (definitely worth checking out) a bird feeder made from a recycled windmill and a logo design and signs to promote the garden.
As I’ve said before the soil was so shallow! Surprisingly there are loads of worms I can’t get over how many there are, I think because the soil is so shallow that they all live fairly close to the surface so whenever you dig you get a spade full. I made a central flower bed in using a Celtic Knotwork pattern and filled it with compost and coffee grounds thanks to the local café, Along the Way. We also had an open day at Easter where kids planted loads of sunflower seeds and bulbs, the bulbs suffered a bit in the dry weather but the sunflowers gave a brilliant display during the summer in another bed I dug specifically for them.
Colour is very important in a garden and after seeing some fence pots for sale in the supermarket I came up with an idea to raise some money for compost, seeds and plants for the garden. We started asking local businesses if they would “Adopt A Pot,” basically they give us €20 and we provide a pot with their name on it and plant it up with flowers and maintain it. I wasn’t expecting it to prove so popular and we now have 43 pots up on the fence and we were able to buy not only basic gardening materials but we bought some tools, agricultural fleece and things like organic slug controls, ground limestone and peat free organic compost to try and improve the soil in the garden. Thanks to a local builder and a farmer we have a load of soil and well rotted manure to give the garden a real boost.
The responsibility of accounting for every penny raised, researching, planning, promoting, updating websites, along with spending hours digging, weeding, cutting grass and propagating plants for many would be hard work and it is, it is also a huge consumer of time, so I can well understand why I am so often asked why do it?
I have been motivated by the great reaction I have had from so many people, strangers have complimented the garden, we even had the RTE Programme Grow Cook Eat ask if they could film the garden as an example of what a small community could achieve which I think should be a source of great pride for the village and district. However I know with success comes the knockers, “who does he think he is!” I should expect it, stick you head up above the parapet you are going to get shot at. There will be those who don’t want to understand, there are those that will think it a crazy idea, there are those that think that climate change might be a good thing, we might get better summers and who wants creepy crawlies messing up the place. I don’t agree with you, I’m not arguing with you or trying to force you to do something you don’t want to. The community garden is probably not for you and anyway we might make very little difference. I do hope when my kids look back when I’m gone and they will think their dad was a little nuts and he was over reacting, for me that would be far better than look at the mess they made of things and our dad didn’t even try and do something about it, we deserved better.
Simply, I do want to make the world a better place. I believe that we need to look after our environment better than we are doing now. I feel a responsibility to leave a place better than when I arrived. I want my children to get the very best out of life. I will go on marches to save the whale and I will try and encourage my children to be concerned over the bee, the beetle, the hoverfly, the ladybird, the chaffinch, the chough, the frogs, the hedgehogs, the plants and we all live and rely on the soil. I believe it is no coincidence that we live on a planet called Earth and we need to treat it better than we are now. So what does a community garden mean to me? A lot.
On a side note on the Saturday 23rd February I am managing another Goleen Cottage Market up at the community centre why not come along and take a moment to have a look at the Community Garden, imagine the possibilities and let me know what more we could do to make it a place that you can be proud of. The Cottage Market is another important initiative alongside the Community Garden trying to support a sustainable community it is not only the natural environment that needs addressing but the local economy is going to change to but I’ll leave that for another day.