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If you go back to the early 2000s, there weren’t many allotments or community gardens in the city, according to Robert Moss, the Green Communities Manager at An Taisce.
There were only two or three of them in 2004, he says. In the intervening years, the local authorities in the Dublin area have taken an interest and there’s been a huge increase in numbers because of that.
“There is a strong argument for them and they do deliver a lot,” says Moss.
Along with the increase in the number of allotments, however, there has also been an increase in waiting lists for them – and now Dublin City Council is looking at how to trim down waiting times and further grow the number of plots out there.
There are currently 25 community gardens with allotments in the city according to the draft Dublin City Parks Strategy but these, it says, are usually over-subscribed or full.
The community garden in St Anne’s Park has 400 people on the waiting list for 80 allotments, said Dublin City Council Parks Officer Noel McEvoy.
Moss of An Taisce, who also volunteers at the Bridgefoot Street Community Gardens, where there are 20 allotments, says he estimates that there are approximately 60 people on the waiting list there.
In Ringsend Community Gardens, there is a waiting list of 15 people for allotments.
In a way, that shouldn’t put people off getting in touch, though. The manager of the Ringsend and Irish Town Community Centre, Lorraine Barry, says she would still encourage people to come in and get involved.
They can start by gardening in the communal garden and training with gardeners there if they need some pointers, she said. “They can get hands-on in the meantime.”
Moss said the same of the Bridgefoot Street plot. While there is a waiting list for most allotments, there is often a lack of volunteers to run the community gardens. He thinks that community gardens need to be promoted more.
Like Barry, Moss wants to encourage those waiting for allotments to volunteer in their local community garden in the meantime.
If the draft parks strategy, which is currently out for public consultation, is approved by the council’s Arts and Culture Strategic Policy Committee and followed, it would mean some concrete steps that would make it easier to kick-start more allotments.
Under the plan, the council would appoint an officer for allotments, who would be responsible for identifying new potential sites and working out where they are needed.
The new officer would also coordinate events and activities for allotment holders, including training. The council also plans to launch an online system for applications.
Lesley Moore, chief parks superintendent in Dublin City Council, says that the consultation period for the draft strategy ends at the end of January. The strategy will then be re-drafted and should be presented to councillors in March, he said.
One of the improvements that some community gardeners would like to see is better coordination, says Will Brennan, a volunteer in Blarney Park Community Gardens. “It needs a structure and standardised rules and regulations to apply to all gardens on council land,” he says.
“If it were centralised, you would know where the demand is and therefore where more gardens are needed,” says Brennan.
When Brennan was interested in setting up the Blarney Park Community Gardens and Allotments, along with several others in 2007, the first step was finding somewhere they could use.
“The first stage of the process is to identify a piece of suitable land in your area and then establish who owns the land,” says Brennan.
They found some council land, got permission to use it from nearby residents, formed a committee and drew up a written plan.
“Often the council will help you out in the first year, they might be able to get you a grant or help you apply for grants,” says Brennan.
Once up and running, they had to get public liability insurance and the committee dealt with any early-days problems that came up.
“In the inner city, where people have no gardens, it is really important. It is a piece of land, a green space where people can mix and get involved in growing,” says Brennan.
Each site has different challenges.
In Bridgefoot Street, they have had problems with security and had to erect a large fence, but this then deters people from coming in the garden. Which is not ideal.
“It’s a balancing act between securing the site … and having an open site which provides community interaction,” says Moss of An Taisce.
He also works to help groups that want to start community gardens, and trains volunteers. At the moment, he said, they work with 30 groups to organise events, and share skills between gardens, allotments, residents’ associations, and other community groups in and around Dublin.
“Generally, the events are as wide-ranging as the groups themselves, but they are all based on environmental, horticultural, and natural-history topics and skills that are relevant to people living in Ireland, “ says Moss.
On Hardwicke Street
Many of those community gardens that have grown over the last few years have become more than places to plant and dig up potatoes.
Paul Downey helped to set up the Hardwicke Street Garden Club to give elderly people in the area something to do.
“We started the gardening project in 2010, slowly encouraging elderly people to get involved. It turns out people have a lot of knowledge,” said Downey, on a recent Tuesday.
The project is based in what used to be a small green area for the complex. They have a shed and nine shared allotments, used to grow fruit and vegetables.
(There is no waiting list, but they are full with members from the Hardwicke Street Apartments.)
The shed in the Hardwicke Street community garden provides a social space for the whole community, says Jason Sheridan, who volunteers there.
It has red wooden sides with shelves and a yellow brick wall at the back. Jars of seeds, nails, and screws hang from the ceiling.
Many people living in the inner city don’t have their own sheds to store tools, so the community garden shed provides communal storage, says Sheridan, who is studying for social care.
“The idea of the community garden is to improve people’s health, it also brings together all different age groups, from young children to the elderly,” he says “It’s amazing to see the benefits to people, including myself, anyone could come into a garden and benefit from it.”
The club have extended their project to make use of a piece of concrete disused space in another part of the complex, where they have built a greenhouse to grow tomatoes, and there are hundreds of potted plants.
Back in the allotments, gardeners are growing onions and garlic this winter. Back around Halloween it was curly kale, says Sheridan. Lettuce and strawberries will have to wait until summer.
“We are in the inner city, so we are a bit disconnected from agriculture, so in that way it’s like a re-birth. We are learning so much from coming in here,” he says.
The club’s members strive to limit their use of pesticides and chemicals, and work to attract birds and butterflies into the area.
“We are introducing biodiversity,” says Sheridan, “and as we introduce new insects, we have noticed new birds arriving.”
They have planted verbena shrubs outside the apartment blocks to attract butterflies, and seven new palm trees on the streets. There are flowers, and plants in pots, and bird houses.
Last year, they turned a disused patch into a memorial garden for the 42 children who died in the 1916 Rising. The space now has plants and statues of children.
Not content with expanding throughout their own estate, Downey, Sheridan and the others say they are determined to keep growing.
Downey leaves, off to meet a friend who has a farm. He wants to get his hands on some land outside the city, to progress the project further.
He is keen to start growing wheatgrass in time for the next Bloom Festival. “We could freeze it, then blend it up and use it for ice pops for the kids,” he says, with a smile.