Ducking out through the back door of his new wholefoods store in Inchicore, Peadar Rice gestures to a small garden with a well-kept vegetable patch.
He points out the lettuces, peas, potatoes, beans, courgettes, some parsley.
Rice set up his first Small Changes Wholefoods store in Gorey in Co. Wexford in 2010.
He made the move to Dublin in 2015, when he opened a shop in Drumcondra. The garden at the back of the new Inchicore store on Emmet Road – which opened in April – is a new venture.
“The whole idea behind here is it’s not a commercial garden,” Rice says.
Rather than selling what grows, Rice hopes that the garden will become an educational tool for local residents and customers, he says.
“We’re growing to show people what can be done in an urban setting.”
When Rice first visited the premises at 120 Emmet Road in early March, he was surprised to find a patch of land at the back, he says. “I didn’t know that this existed.”
The building had been a motorbike shop and the back was overgrown, he says. “Over 30 years of rubbish, engines, you name it.”
It looked like landfill, says Cillian Byrne, who tends to the garden and helped to transform it into what it is today.
Byrne got to know Rice through shopping at Small Changes in Drumcondra.
Byrne’s own back garden became a safe haven during the pandemic, he says. Working in it relaxed him, he said. “Last March … it was just a very anxiety-provoking time.”
Rice asked Byrne about hopping on board to help in the Inchicore garden.
“Credit to him, he hasn’t been looking over my shoulder at all,” Byrne says. “He was just like, ‘you go for it’.”
The pair used a gardening style known as “no-dig” for the vegetable beds so as not to disrupt the ecosystem of the small patch of land, long untouched.
“Instead of digging down and turning the soil, we’ve layered it with compost,” Rice says.
“The thinking is that if you start digging in, turning, you destroy that ecosystem,” Rice says.
The garden isn’t ready for the public yet. On a recent Wednesday, Byrne was setting up to do a bit of construction, a few pieces of loose timber lying around.
Rice hopes to get people out the back soon, he says, where they can get hands-on and learn. He wants to run classes for schoolchildren.
“People can see that it’s quite easy, relatively easy, to grow in the space that they may have,” he says.
“It’s also to give the local residents who may be living in balconies or who may not have access to a garden, they can come in, get their hands dirty,” Rice says.
Having access to green space is important, says Rice, and Dublin City Council needs to work harder to accommodate those needs.
It would be simple to insist that as part of a planning application there should be an area set aside, he says, to “allow every resident in the apartment block to grow their own food, if they wish”.
Robert Moss, green communities programme manager with An Taisce, says that it could be beneficial to mandate that developers to include allotments in the construction of housing in the city.
Supporting “the provision of community gardens/allotments/local markets/pocket parks, where feasible” is part of the Dublin City Council’s city development plan for 2016–2022.
But still, allotments across Dublin – many of which are facilitated by the council – have long waiting lists.
There are 65 people on a waiting list for 48 plots across locations at Braithwaite Street, Reuben Street and St Thomas’ Abbey, on South Earl Street, according to a council spokesperson.
There are 45 people waiting on one of the 48 plots at Grattan Crescent Park, a short walk from Small Changes in Inchicore, the spokesperson said.
And in St Anne’s Park, there are 86 people on a waiting list for plots in the walled garden, which was opened by the council in 2010, they said.
Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon says there will always be a difficulty in providing enough new allotments, because of limited space.
“[Allotments] necessarily compete with parks, which is a more public version of green space, or they’re competing with housing. And those are things that we also really need, there’s always going to be that tension,” he says.
Pidgeon, who chairs the council’s environment committee, says that other infrastructure is often prioritised over allotments, especially in the inner-city.
“[It’s] not that people don’t see their value, it’s just that maybe the need for a public park is more acute,” he says.
At the moment, Dublin City Council is going through the process of drawing up a new city development plan – this one for 2022–2028.
As part of that, Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan has recommended “policy support for community gardens, allotments and food and plant cultivation initiatives”.
“A Powerful Feeling”
Moss, of An Taisce, who also sits on the council’s environment committee, says he’d like to see the council provide more financial support to establish community gardens if there is a drive within an area to set one up.
“What is required for community gardens is – the clue’s in the name – the community needs to be given the oxygen, enough room to manoeuvre, to create their own garden, their own landscape within their own community,” he says.
Community gardens – and other forms of “soft” infrastructure – are important, Moss says, especially when so many people in the city live without their own garden.
“They make the difference between somewhere you want to live and you don’t want to live,” he says.
The more people who can grow their own produce, the better, says Byrne, curator of the Small Changes garden in Inchicore, and it gives a sense of security and sufficiency.
“It’s a bit of a powerful feeling, being able to grow your own food, and occasionally, for a few weeks, maybe fill your belly, just from the garden,” he says.