The Examiner ran a detailed article on allotments today, including a number of comments I made in an interview with them during the week. The article demonstrates that the sharp rise in interest on the Northside is matched across the city and the country.
Reap what you sow
Irish Examiner, 19th February 2008, page 17
Author: Pol O Conghaile
Pol O Conghaile
PICTURE an allotment holder. Does an older man come to mind, planting carrots and potatoes in the grim years of rationing? Or do you conjure up the peaty slap of a younger shovel – a budding family, perhaps, a modern apartment dweller, or a female professional?
In recent years, the latter have become a lot more common. In fact, a revival of interest in Ireland’s suburban allotments has seen a marked change in the type of person growing vegetables and fruit for the kitchen table.
"The age profile is younger," says Michael Fox, chairman of the South Dublin Allotments Association (SDAA). "Most of the enquiries we have are from people in their 30s and 40s as opposed to older, retired people. We also get more enquiries from women than men."
South Dublin County Council, which sees allotments as "a valuable recreational asset to people without back gardens or who would like to extend the use of their existing garden", provides 241 plots on four sites at Tallaght, Clondalkin and Palmerstown. Its waiting list stands at 217, and it plans to open a further 30 plots in Lucan in 2009. Until recently, though, things didn’t look so positive. In the early 2000s, allotments, which became popular during World War II when local authorities made land available to city dwellers for food production, even seemed close to extinction.
"We’ve been buying land at such a premium over the years that they had to be let go," an employee at Dublin City Council told me. The council’s 1999 development plan sought to investigate the provision of 200 new allotments within 5km of the city centre, but the 2005-2011 plan struck off mention of them entirely.
In their day, Dublin’s plots were scattered from Donabate to Dalkey. As well as providing a sort of therapy, a restful recreation, the tenth of an acre plots served a practical purpose in yielding fruit and vegetables during lean years.
"It’s something that gets into the blood," Tony Wheeler, an allotment-holder in Cappogue, told me before that site was closed for industrial use last year. "If I’m in someone else’s garden, I’ll be down on my knees weeding or telling them what to do."
Over the years, however, enthusiasm waned. As the city and its lifestyles developed, a wide range of vegetables hit supermarket shelves, and many plots were integrated into council parks, open spaces or paved over for development.
"Every council in the country needs to rethink their policy on allotments," says Labour Party TD Joan Burton. "We’re constantly hearing about increasing levels of obesity, but the interest in increasing land for allotments just doesn’t seem to be there."
By 2004 there were four surviving allotment sites in Dublin. By comparison, according to the SDAA, Britain, which has a strong allotments tradition, has 15 plots per 1,000 households.
Since then, however, interest has blossomed. "We have a situation where a lot of people would like to grow their own vegetables," says the Green Party’s David Healy. In 1999, he points out, Fingal County Council had no waiting list for allotments. Today, the list has doubled from 200 in 2006 to 400 in 2008.
"In Ireland, we’re particularly badly served, in terms of people having access to locally grown food," Healy says. "It’s a bit unusual here that vegetable growing isn’t more common in people’s gardens." Fingal closed its allotments in Cappogue in 2007, but plans to develop a further 15 acres of land in Turvey, Donabate (doubling the number of allotments there), and is also looking at other sites, including one between Portmarnock and Malahide.
Like Michael Fox, Healy notices a broader spectrum of users, and attributes this to a growing awareness of environmental and sustainability issues, and the increasing number of people living in apartments or houses with miniscule gardens.
Asked whether such land would not be put to better use for housing, he suggests we look "a bit more cleverly and intelligently at how we use open space". Mixed use of suburban land is a central tenet of Green Party policy, and allotments fit that perfectly.
"Growing vegetables is a great use of open space," Healy says. "People have the visual amenity, the break between the buildings and so on. We should take this naturally as what goes into a park, just like sports facilities and walking areas and woodlands."
Demand is growing elsewhere, too. Galway City Council has established three community gardens in recent years, and a campaign to provide individual allotments is ongoing (and includes a waiting list), despite being thwarted by a shortage of land. In Cork, neither the City nor County Council offers allotments, though a growing number of plots are available for rent on private land.
"A lot of them are living in apartments or houses with no gardens," says Liam Murphy of the clients renting his 30 plots at Ladysbridge, east Cork.
Most come from Cork, he says; others from Dungarvan and Carrigaline.
"One thing I see is that a lot of them remember their fathers doing the garden, but that’s as far as it goes. They don’t understand that you shouldn’t grow potatoes in the same plot year after year, you should rotate; they remember bits and pieces about gardening. There’s a generation nearly gone that has never known gardening."
On a similar note, David Healy warns potential holders not to bite off more than they can chew (abandoned plots have been the bane of councils). "It is a commitment. Any kind of serious gardening is a commitment," he says.
The typical council plot in Dublin rings in at one-tenth of an acre and costs EUR40 to EUR100. Murphy’s range in size and are slightly more expensive; though the price does include a freshly ploughed site and a stinky pile of manure.
For those willing to put in the work, needless to say, allotments can reap more than one kind of harvest. Users say they benefit from fresh air, a pottering social scene, the reduction of food miles and a hands-on contribution to agricultural sustainability.
"It’s no harm for people to know how to grow vegetables and do the kind of work which, in modern times,, people don’t have time for," one senior executive officer in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council told me. "You walk into Superquinn or whatever and it’s all there on the shelf in front of you."
"I think I’d be gardening anyway, but food miles have become hugely important to us," says Michael Fox. "Certainly, importing winter vegetables seems an awful waste and an awful carbon footprint to leave, and an unnecessary one."
Allotments can pay social dividends too. In Donabate, an allotment is kept by the National Association of Housing for the Visually Impaired (NAHVI). After six years, the association hopes soon to divide it into sections with braille markings, giving clients more control.
"Working the allotment gives our young visually impaired clients a sense of pride in growing their own produce," says the NAHVI’s Margaret McGovern. "It has given them a good understanding of team work, plant life, and the importance of eating fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables."
And signs are there could be further rethinks ahead. At a Dublin City Council meeting last year, it was agreed to look into the development of allotment sites in the city.
Among those mentioned was none other than Herbert Park, in the thick of Dublin 4.