It’s just after 9am and Tony Lowth is outside the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) on Thomas Street, holding a cardboard sign at belly-level.
“Re-open the NCAD community garden!” the text reads, illustrated by a photo of the garden, which used to be at the back of the college.
Since last Monday, Lowth has staged a one-man protest each morning outside the college, where for three years, he says, he helped to build, tend and compost the vegetable and fruit garden.
Lowth says he was contacted by students this past summer, who – like him – hope to see the once-thriving garden put back into a use that involves the community. A spokesperson for NCAD says the college has plans for the space that include both college research and public events.
Building a Garden
Lowth calls himself a “self-trained gardener”.
He was involved with the NCAD garden since its early days, he said, an hour earlier at Caffé Noto, down the road on Thomas Street.
In 2014, he met with two student-union presidents at NCAD about developing a garden – which first was known as Our Farm, and later the NCAD Community Garden.
“It was totally degraded land,” Lowth says, of the site. “It had been used a car park, then it had been left. There were rocks, stones, everything on it.
“We just started to carve out sections and expand it,” he says.
Developing what would become the Our Farm garden was a “community effort”, he says. “Students came in, groups came in, businesses.”
Lowth’s job was to delegate work and put in a no-dig garden. That’s when “compost is put on top of the ground and the plant is on the compost”, he says.
He made compost out of waste and manure, which was used for the raised-bed garden.
Local schools, community addiction programmes, and school-leaver programmes all used the garden too.
“We started going to the community policing forum,” says Lowth. “I went in on the condition that I could help do social outreach.”
“If you can get someone to use a wheelbarrow and a shovel, you can get them a job on a building site,” he says.
The main grower on the site was a guy called Martin Obst, says Lowth. “Some vegetables were rocket science to me. He was fundamental.”
The gardeners grew strawberries, pear trees, apple trees, gooseberries and figs. They farmed potatoes, kale, garlic, mushrooms and rocket.
Lowth, who worked as a volunteer, says the college was unhappy with the use of compost on the site.
“We’ve been supporting him,” says Octavian Fitzherbert, who has come to Caffé Noto to bring Lowth his sign.
Fitzherbert graduated from NCAD in 2017. He and other students also want the garden to be restored for community use, he says.
He enjoyed the time he spent there gardening, he says. “I’d go there once a week, do some work. It was nice for getting a bit of food.”
About 50 people are in the campaign to open the garden, including ex-gardeners, new gardeners and the college’s Green Society, says Fitzherbert.
But a spokesperson for NCAD said that the college plans to use the site for a new project called NCAD Field.
It’ll support learning and research “through which we can explore and develop new practices in art and design that respond to the climate crisis and build new relationships between humankind, learning and nature”.
Fitzherbert says the plans lack inclusivity. “Our problem is, it’s a lack of outreach to the area.”
Current student Dylan Crosbie says the same – and that he’s trying to organise a campaign within the college for that to happen.
“The plan is to bring groups together and turn it into an allotment for the community,” he says. “There’s not much integration happening.”
The NCAD spokesperson said that aside from teaching and research, the garden would also be used for public events.
Lowth says he got a phone call in September to say that the garden had been destroyed by a digger. The garden is still in use and some of the wooden boxes for planting remain – but it’s mainly overgrown.
Says Fitzherbert: “Most of it was levelled. We felt really hurt the college didn’t tell us they were going to send a digger in.”
Fitzherbert says the entrance through the college to the garden is still there. But current final-year student Dylan Crosbie said by text that it’s usually locked. “There’s a list in the college where you can put your name down for access to the key,” he said.
The NCAD spokesperson said that: “Some clearing was undertaken in a section of the site during the summer months at the request of Dublin City Council and as a result of issues with vermin.”
And “students are working in NCAD Field this semester as part of our Studio Plus programmes in fine art”, they said.
Back outside the NCAD entrance, Lowth says he is digging in with his protests. “I’ll be out here every day,” he says, a black beanie pulled down over the tops of his ears and his faded leather jacket flapping open.
About “1 percent” of people walking in and out of the college stop to talk to him about his demonstration, he says.
“I just want people to be aware,” he says. “It’s the community garden. People came in and used the garden. There were activities, people sat on the mountain of compost and ate their sandwiches.”