Dig in with the neighbours


A once-derelict patch of earth in Dublin has been transformed into a community garden where, alongside the peas, herbs and passion fruit, the neighbourhood spirit has been blossoming, writes GRACE WYNNE-JONES.

KAETHE BURT-O’DEA is glad she doesn’t have her own garden. Digging, planting and weeding with her neighbours in a community garden is much more fun, she says. Originally from New York she founded the Sitric Compost Community Garden in Stoneybatter in Dublin four years ago, turning a once derelict patch of land into an urban oasis.

Burt-O’Dea says cultivating this tiny patch of ground has made a huge impact and has helped create a sense of community. Locals gather at the garden on the first Sunday of each month for convivial cultivation, and they also share tea and cake.

“It gets you out meeting people and initiates all sorts of exchanges that wouldn’t happen any other way,” she says.

Many houses in the Stoneybatter area have small concrete yards, making the garden even more cherished. Two parties are held in the neighbourhood every year, attracting more than 200 people. Young, old and babies attend, and there is even a fancy dress parade for dogs. Sofas and chairs are brought outside and sometimes films are projected onto a wall. Locals bring along food and the garden itself provides some of the fare.

“At the summer parties we serve Sitric Salad and at the autumn parties we have Sitric Soup,” Burt-O’Dea says. “There is a DJ, live music, backgammon and chess, chalk drawing, face-painting and hula-hoop contests for the kids. This year we hope to add a flea market.”

Burt-O’Dea describes herself as a “born ecologist” and says the garden has allowed her physically to demonstrate what she believes in. She’s firmly convinced that our cities need more sociable “common ground” where locals can gather and “reconnect”.

A youthful 59 years old, she married an Irish man and has lived in Ireland since 1976, and in Stoneybatter for the past 20 years. Her home contains a table made out of recycled bicycles and she and her 15-year-old daughter throw out only a handful of waste a week. The compost they produce goes to the garden.

THE PROJECT STARTED OFF very simply in early 2005 when Burt-O’Dea and some neighbours began to compost their kitchen waste. None of them had gardens and they wanted to put their compost to good use. So they started to grow vegetables on a strip of derelict land at the end of Sitric Road. They also added two large compost bins to the site and put up a sign that said “Compost Here”.

A small conservation grant from Vodafone helped them to transform what had been an eyesore into an intriguing amenity. “People walking by asked ‘Who is paying you to do this?’ and I’d say I am doing it for pleasure and it is not my garden it is our garden,” Burt-O’Dea recalls.

In 2008 the garden won second prize for waste management from Dublin City Council in the Dublin City Neighbourhoods Competition. Burt-O’Dea says that now the garden is established passers-by ask: “How do you divide up what you grow?” She tells them: “Anybody can help themselves. We try to grow things that as many people as possible can use.”

This includes “an exotic selection of salad greens”, tomatoes, cucumber, broccoli and kale, strawberries, passion fruit and 60 types of herbs. The garden was recently extended when a neighbour offered an adjoining piece of land. Burt-O’Dea wonders how she and her fellow gardeners can share what they have learned with other communities. “There are lots of people on the dole who would love to do what I am doing,” she says.

Burt-O’Dea was one of the founders of the Dublin Food Growing Network (www.dublinfoodgrowing.org), which is developing a map of Dublin-based food-growing projects. Many community gardens are now springing up around the country. “It’s a mushrooming area,” she smiles.

Burt-O’Dea’s interest in the social side of sustainability is professional as well as personal. She has a master’s in advanced environmental and energy studies and currently works as an independent consultant in health care design research. “The really important benefits that come from the garden are social. Being a member of a group is as important to your health as proper nutrition, and both can be satisfied by the garden,” she says, adding that local people should have a greater involvement in urban design. She hopes there will be more Government support for local initiatives and that five per cent of Dublin will be “re-greened”.

BURT-O’DEA AND HER neighbours recently created another amenity called the Benchmark. Located in a recess in a wall on Sitric Road it contains two iron-mesh cages made by local craftsmen. These “vertical gardens” contain climbing fruit plants and herbs and hold up a bench. She and some other green-fingered locals now hope to create “a small park where Sitric Road connects with Arbour Hill”. A feasibility study for this is already under way.

“I challenge myself to live my beliefs. I have always done what I do out of sheer pleasure,” Burt-O’Dea explains. She wears second-hand clothes, shares a car with a friend and buys her food at local shops.

A separated mother of four, she has also worked as an organic farmer, cook, market gardener, and design consultant. When she lived in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, she bred and trained hunting horses and made “wearable art” which she sold from her workshop and to galleries in New York.

Her mother is an 85-year-old photographer and her father, in his early 90s, is a sculptor. He recently completed a commission for Stansted Airport in Essex. Burt-O’Dea says that deep down she, too, is still an artist. “Essentially, we are adaptable creatures who must be engaged in a process of constructive interaction with our environment to remain healthy and feel alive,” she concludes. And she certainly practises what she preaches.

Convivial cultivation: Sowing the seeds of a new community project

Community gardens are springing up around the country. If you want to start one, here are some tips from expert Andy Hallewell of the Organic Centre in Leitrim.

- Find a location for your garden. The grounds of your local community centre, school, HSE facility or parish buildings may contain a suitable patch. Your local council may be able to identify derelict land. And sites are sometimes provided in private gardens.

- Don’t let lack of soil put you off. At Sligo Folk Park a community garden was established on top of an old car park using raised wooden beds and imported topsoil.

- Consider the potential for vandalism and possible solutions: installing a security fence is expensive; getting local young people involved is more sustainable.

- All gardens need to be covered by public liability insurance.

- Consider hiring a professional gardener to help get the garden

established and to train in gardening novices. A self-taught local expert could provide the same advice.

- Collect hand tools from among fellow gardeners to save money.

- Find some form of added fertility, preferably well-rotted farmyard manure.

- Buy a small polytunnel for growing salads and tomatoes.

- The Organic Centre in Leitrim has developed a how-to guide to setting up a community garden. The guide can be downloaded for free from: www.theorganiccentre. ie/files/growing_in_ confidence.pdf.

The centre also runs a course entitled How to Become a Community Gardener.

See the Irish Community Gardening website at www.irishcommunitygardening.org.

Kaethe Burt-O’Dea can be contacted at compost@desireland.ie