At the Botanic Gardens, a Vegetable Patch Offers an Education in Cultivation

Joan Rogers rises around 6 am.

By 7:55 am, she has left her hometown of Kells headed to Dublin, where she makes her way through the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin to the walled garden adjacent the cemetery.

Since 2010, she has held dominion over this small organic fruit-and-vegetable patch. With each season, she tells me, comes fresh challenges: crop rotation, pests, disease, and pollination.

And with each challenge comes new ways to inform the public. As Rogers sees it, the walled garden exists for two reasons: to preserve heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables, and to educate.

The Seasons

It is Sunday and beyond the garden’s walls, communion parties seek shade.

Rogers comes down the stone path that runs through the walled garden, nearing the end of her shift. “It’s an unusual garden in that it’s triangular in shape,” she says, starting off speedily, drawing lines through the air with her finger.

Established in 1839, this patch of fruits and vegetables was once a simple orchard. In 2008, it was redesigned and opened to the public.

Apples grow down a shaded path to the right. They have been taken from counties throughout Ireland and cultivated in the Botanic Gardens, says Rogers. These rare varieties yield fewer fruit than she might hope.

“They’re not the most prolific,” she says. “They’re not like the hybrid variety. We would certainly take some of them and try them, but the problem in here is it’s very public and apples are very attractive.” The challenge of a hungry audience.

Rogers originally trained and worked as a graphic designer before studying horticulture. Nature can’t be replicated, she says.

“I’m very lucky because this is one of the areas that’s completely empty come spring. It’s a bare palette,” she says.

She is pointing to the centre of the garden, where four vegetable patches surround the fountain. Near the entrance, a man takes a selfie as he munches on what appear to be chives, taken from the herb bed.

From April, most things grow rapidly. Springtime is the toughest time of the year for Rogers, because as soon as she starts to plant, the pests and diseases start to arrive.

“You’ve got the cabbage root fly, you’ve got the caterpillar, you’ve got birds then you have the carrot root fly,” she says.

Slugs persist around this time of the year, too. “I’ve a friend who works in a pub so she keeps me stocked with beer,” says Rogers, smiling.

If you put a drop of beer at the bottom of a small cup, the slugs crawl towards the beer trap. “They get a whiff of the malt and go in and they die happily,” she says.

Once spring has come and gone, harvest season arrives around August, and after that comes soil preparation.

Crop rotation is next, and each strain and variety is moved to a different part of the garden. “It’s advisable not to put the same crop into the same area within a four-year period,” says Rogers.

An Education

Within the walled garden, Rogers grows the more widely available native fruits and vegetables: carrots, leeks, beetroot, parsnips, onion and rhubarb. It doesn’t all go to waste.

Staff take much of the produce home and trial the new varieties that Rogers has planted for the year. This year, she is testing out a new strain of lettuce.

“Anything that’s ready for harvest,” says Rogers, when I ask her what’s given away at the end of the day. “It’s cleared out amongst the staff and then sometimes, in the autumn time, on the day when people are here I’ll just hand them out to them.”

“People are just delighted,” laughs Rogers. “They’re getting them from the Botanic Gardens so it’s almost like a trophy.”

More and more people in Dublin are growing their own fruits and vegetables these days, says Rogers. As such, aside from the daily gardening, she also works as an educator.

She runs monthly workshops, and the walled garden is here for the public to see just how these varieties should grow and the best route to cultivation, she says.

Nearby, massive green leaves protrude from a patch of soil.

There are old and heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables like the Irish apples and the Gortahork cabbage, a mammoth strain saved by one household.

“It’s a delicious cabbage, kept in cultivation by one family in Donegal,” says Rogers. “It was used at the time [in the 19th century] for feeding the family, feeding the animals. It’s quite phenomenal.”

Like the Gortahork cabbage, lilywhite kale almost vanished in recent years. Rogers points out the white flowering strain of the popular vegetable.

“It’s very nutritious but was nearly extinct in the wild,” she says. “It grows along the shores and people used to gather it, and actually Mathew Jebb, the current director, brought some of this back from County Wexford and he grew it in the nursery to build up the population of it.”

Towards the rear of the garden – next to where Rogers’ bees hum and buzz in their apiary – is the glasshouse where she cultivates fruit.

She points out a long stalk creeping along the inside of the glass, at the end of which sit tiny globes; they are Irish grapes cultivated from the cuttings of old varieties when the garden was an orchard.

“They’re delicious,” says Rogers. They’ll be ready come September.

Opposite these, nectarines and peaches begin to fruit in the fetid glasshouse. To pollinate these, Rogers takes a small brush and, like a bee, wiggles it, shaking the pollen from the anthers into the stigma.

Rogers finishes up around 5:30 pm each day. It’s a long enough shift, she says, up since 6 am or so. But the public seem to appreciate it, she reckons.

“There’s this exchange of information,” she says, as the final communion parties filter out.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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