Urban micro-farm growing vegetables in heart of community

Three market gardeners have turned a disused garden into a highly productive plot

Green light for greens. The Gnomes company operates a subscription model that delivers whatever is ready for harvesting to customers once a week

Green light for greens. The Gnomes company operates a subscription model that delivers whatever is ready for harvesting to customers once a week

 

The Gnomes are a trio of market gardeners whose innovation lies in how and where they grow rather than in what they produce. In short, they are one of Ireland’s first micro urban farms and since 2019 they have been farming organically and bio-intensively on a small site beside the busy DCU campus in north Dublin. From there, they supply their locality with salad crops, herbs and vegetables and over the last year have turned part of what was a disused community garden into a highly productive plot. 

All three are in their 20s and interested in health, nutrition, cooking, growing their own food and leading a holistic lifestyle. Martin and Shane Matthews are brothers and they met Jason Maguire while working on a CE gardening scheme. When they decided to see if they could make a community-based market garden work as a social enterprise, DCU (which owns the land) gave them access to the abandoned 1.6-acre site and, with little more than a spade and a wheelbarrow, the trio began the tough job of clearing a growing space.

“It was like Jurassic Park in there, completely overgrown with very invasive weeds. It was back-breaking work but eventually we got a quarter of an acre into good enough shape to start growing,” Martin Matthews says. “We had seen people in other countries making a good living from working a very small piece of land where they had prioritised the soil, but there was no one in Ireland doing it, as far as we could see. We applied for the back-to-work enterprise allowance to help us get going and we now supply several local businesses and five Avoca stores. Pre-Covid we were at the Honest2Goodness farmers’ market in Glasnevin but, since the lockdown, we’ve been doing deliveries in the north Dublin area.”

 Weekly delivery

The company operates a subscription model that gives customers a weekly delivery of whatever is ready for harvesting. “Currently we specialise in quick-growing, high-value crops as we are dictated to by the amount of land we have,” Matthews says. Their growing techniques ensure the soil structure and health are maintained, managed and improved. “We feed the soil with organic compost, extracts and feeds and this results in a very healthy living soil as opposed to over rotovated soils which lose their structure and in turn their ability to produce healthy crops.”

Like many start-ups, The Gnomes was established on a small budget. Matthews estimates the investment so far at about €10,000 with profits ploughed back into the business to buy essentials such as seeds, tools and a small van. “Our investment was mostly hard work but we also spent money on some special, Swedish-made tools that help us to be more efficient,” he says. “We have been operating on a shoe string for now, but taking it to the next stage will require a decent level of investment for land, equipment and processing facilities. We’re only starting to think about scaling up and we have lots of ideas for things we could add, such as a farm shop.

“Our business is about self-sustainability. We believe the small farm still has its place in the community and we want to re-establish that principle and provide our customers with fresh, chemical free, locally and sustainably grown produce,” Matthews adds. “Our main job is getting people to sample our produce and getting them to understand the huge difference between what we grow and the imported alternatives. Once someone tries our produce they become a regular customer because of the quality, the superior taste and the freshness. There is no comparison. Buying from us is a bit more expensive but what customers are seeing and paying for is the upfront cost of better tasting food and truly sustainable agriculture.” 

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