Past a discount store and car dealership on Airton Road in Tallaght is a big boxy Cycle Superstore.

Out front, a thick hedge of fragrant rosemary bushes make an unlikely border between the grey car park and the footpath.

“I think it’s a lovely addition,” said Dave O’Donovan recently. He lives in Tallaght and passes by here, he says.

“You’d often hear someone saying, ‘Oh there’s a nice smell in the air. I can’t put my finger on it’,” says O’Donovan. “And then they discover it.”

A keen cook, he is always on the lookout for herbs and spices, he says. His own garden hosts wild garlic and mint, he says.

And when Dublin City Council put out a survey recently to get ideas for a city food strategy, he put forward the idea of edible pocket gardens, inspired by these bushes.

“It could be as small as a herb garden on a lamppost, on the base of a tree, or on the corner of housing estates, so space wouldn’t be at a premium,” he wrote.

Dublin City Council didn’t respond to queries about whether it plans to roll out herb gardens as a way to reconnect people in the city with nature, and their food, and each other.

But in a few pockets across the city, it has already been happening.

Across the city

In Drumcondra, a third of the way along Ferguson Road, which rises and falls as it runs between Home Farm Road and Griffith Park, a rosemary bush grows around the base of a callery pear tree.

On a Tuesday in early July, Sophie and Fergal Dowling stood on their doorstep in the golden evening light, looking through the lush trees and flowers of their own garden, past the railings and pavement to the bush.

After some reflection on time passed, they agreed that they planted it 10 years ago. The bush is now thick, and its fragrant bristles spill over the path and road.

“It seems to like it here, it’s thriving” said Fergal.

They often see people stooping to pluck from it, says Sophie. “Sitting in our front room, we see a steady stream of people come to cut some rosemary for their lamb or roast spuds.”

In supermarkets, a sprig of rosemary, wrapped in plastic, costs about a euro. But there’s plenty for all on the bush, and it’s free – and convenient, says Sophie. “A trip to the bush down the road is better than a trip to the supermarket.”

Planting the bush was a small gesture of goodwill, they say, to share an interest in gardening with their community.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Cycle Superstore said their border of rosemary bushes helps them to stand out from the crowd. “It’s also low maintenance and very hardy.”

It is drought resistant too, they said. “So it doesn’t need much watering during hot spells of weather like we saw in June.”

And, its blue and purple flowers attract a variety of pollinators, said the Cycle Superstore spokesperson. “Which helps the environment, coupled with the lovely aroma it gives makes it a winner.”

Who uses them?

The rosemary bush on Ferguson Road in Drumcondra has served as a community resource for some, but not everybody living along the street has noticed that it is there – or even knew what rosemary is.

On Airton Road last Thursday, passersby said they had spotted that it was rosemary, but had never snuck a few springs for later.

“I thought it was unusual alright, when I saw it,” said Aine Buckley. She plucked the tip from a bristle and breathed deep as she held it to her nose.

She has rosemary at home though, she says. As does Paul Masterson, who works nearby and was out on a lunchtime walk.

Buckley says she wonders whether those who would know what it is, would already have rosemary at home – and vice versa, for those who wouldn’t have it at home. “I’d say they wouldn’t really know what it is.”

Maybe a sign or a recipe posters would help? Buckley laughs. “A few legs of lamb there beside it,” she says.

It’s a nice idea to have more public herb gardens, say both Buckley and Masterson.

Masterson, who lives in Kildare, says he feels people are pretty connected to nature there. “Maybe not so much in the city.”

Outside the Cycle Superstore on Airton Road. Credit: Lois Kapila

There’s definitely an opportunity through these kinds of public herb bushes to get people to engage more with local ecology, says Conor Howlett, who manages a public garden for Stillgarden Distillery in Inchicore.

The garden began as a place to grow botanicals for the distillery, but it was always going to be a community garden, he said recently, sat among the oregano, thyme, chives, lavender, sage, all flowering and covered with bees and butterflies.

Planted around him there are raspberry canes, apple, pear and plum trees, some still growing and ripening in the sun, while some have been picked clean. Flowers fill the gaps between the edible plants: yarrow, nasturtiums, honeysuckle.

“We gave grow kits to people to grow herbs at home. The mint and lavender did really well and they brought them back to the garden, and that’s how it started,” he said.

The garden is packed with dozens of species of plants in a small space in the corner of an industrial estate off busy Tyrconnell Road, where traffic can back up at busy times of day.

But air pollution isn’t a concern for the edibles, says Howlett. “The trees on the road, they’re London plane, they do a lot of absorbing of fumes. When foraging in urban areas, I’d be more concerned with people spraying chemicals.”

Other challenges facing public food gardens include overpicking. “We had a lot of stuff picked picked before it’s ripe, which is frustrating, because you know they won’t enjoy them, a lot of apples and plums,” said Howlett.

But that, as he sees it, is a reason to grow more, not less. As is the lack of awareness among some neighbours about the rosemary bush on their doorsteps on Ferguson Road.

“This calls for more gardens, to provide more opportunity for engagement and education,” he says. It’s how people learn, he says.

“The seasonality is important, because we’re so used to having everything available year-round in the supermarket,” he says. “Until you experience the plants themselves and the seasonality, you won’t understand it.”

“It’s definitely a scheme that could be rolled out, people would use it. And it’s only going to get more engagement with our diets, where food actually comes from, and create a reconnection with nature,” he said.

O’Donovan, who lives in Tallaght, said small changes like these could spread wider ripples. Like “getting people on the start of their journey to healthier eating”, he says.

“The reality is that for a lot of people, their social circumstances don’t allow them to make the healthiest or the greenest decisions,” says O’Donovan. It can be seen as costly, or time-consuming to garden for example.

“But there’s essentially no cost to these projects, and there’s an increase in community value and community spirit,” says O’Donovan.

On his doorstep in Drumcondra, metres away from the decade-old rosemary bush, Fergal Dowling says the landscape used to be different – and so did how people lived within it.

He grew up in the area. “Every one of the kids knew the apple trees and the herbs in the area,” he says.

“I’d take a bit of lavender, rub it on as natural perfume before heading into town,” he said. “You can’t beat it.”

Cillian Byrne writes about foodways. In other words, how food arrives on our plates, and how it can be done differently to meet the challenges of our changing world. Get in touch with ideas for stories...

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