A week in my . . . kitchen garden: Head kitchen gardener at Airfield Farm, Kitty Scully

Kitty Scully, head kitchen gardener at Airfield Farm in Dundrum, talks about growing food for Overends cafe, educating children and working the polytunnels

 

I can truthfully say I never dread coming to work, even when it’s lashing rain. After all, that’s what the polytunnels are for. I am the head kitchen gardener at Airfield Farm, a 38-acre farm just a stone’s throw from Dundrum shopping centre in south Dublin.

About 64 people work here, between the farm, gardens, house, cafe and shop. We have seven acres of gardens, of which three acres are used for growing food.

There is a lot for children to see in Airfield so realistically a head of cabbage is always going to find it hard to compete with a baby lamb. But I overhear grannies or parents talking to their children and pointing out something like rhubarb, and I can tell they are enjoying the discovery.

Sometimes children run up screaming: “Oh my God, it’s Brussels sprouts!” because it’s an unusual crop to see growing. I enjoy these sporadic outbursts.

We run foodie camps and the children get to pull their own carrots and carry them up to the chef. They love that.

The younger ones are more adventurous when it comes to nibbling things like nasturtium flowers, while the teenagers are more coy.

Hippocrates said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, and that definitely would be my mantra.

Paying for higher quality produce saves you in the long run because if you don’t spend money on good food, you’ll spend it on medicine and doctors’ visits. But eating healthily is a lot more expensive than eating trash. It’s easy to buy a load of frozen chicken nuggets and it can be expensive to buy fresh herbs and fresh greens.

 

Grow your food

We want to encourage people to think about growing their own food. Salad greens are super-easy to grow and you can grow them all year round on the window sill if you like. Yet you go to the supermarket and they cost €20 a kilo. I’m a very lucky gardener as I don’t start until 9am but we open late and the days are long. During the summer I start much earlier because of the heat, believe it or not.

We grow our tender crops and salads in polytunnels and when you’re harvesting during the summer the heat is scorching by 9am.

It’s best to get in before direct sunlight so harvesting at 6am or 7am would be normal, or late in the evening when it’s cooler.

I’m really lucky to get a lot of physical exercise in my job. But bad backs also go with gardening and there is a lot of wear and tear on the body. My body is my livelihood so if I have an injury I can’t work.

So five mornings a week I get up at 6.30am and do 20 minutes of yoga and then I cycle to the gym at UCD where I swim 400-500 metres, have a sauna and cycle back. The combination of all that builds up your core and chills out your mind.

When I start work I always walk through the gardens to see if there’s any damage done. Visitors start coming to the gardens from 9.30am so if anything is blown over or obstructing a pathway, it needs to be sorted. And then it’s straight down to the polytunnels to open the doors.

This is where we start the seeds. Seedlings are like babies and need full-time attention. All the winter salads and herbs for our cafe, Overends, are grown here.

We grow tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, French beans, all the tender heat-loving plants that won’t do well outside. We have four tunnels and they work very hard for us. They produce three crops a year. Outdoor crop soils might produce just one crop. Last year we grew cucamelons, little grape-sized melons, a type of cross between cucumber and melons.

This is a really busy time in the food gardens as lots of plants raised in the tunnels are gradually being hardened off to be planted outdoors. We have a great range of crops in our gardens.

This year we have an asparagus bed, artichokes, lots of carrots, onions, potatoes, carrots, leeks. Our scarecrow, Mrs Campbell, keeps an eye on things although she’s looking a bit shabby these days. I think we need to take her over to Dundrum for a new outfit.

 

Ready to harvest

Our main reason for being here is to provide food for the cafe. Every day I send up trays of cress and white mustard to the kitchen and twice a week I send a list to the kitchen of what’s ready to harvest in the garden.

It’s impossible for us to supply the restaurant full-time during the year but during the summer a high percentage of the meat, eggs and vegetables on the evening menu will come from Airfield.

Our new pasteurisation unit will allow us to have our own milk, cheese and ice cream. That’s pretty unique for a city farm.

Our chef, José Simón, pictured right, is very enthusiastic and is always looking for foraged foods. We forage in the woodlands for nettles, elderflowers, hazelnuts and blackberries. Most of our waste is composted but if spinach or salad isn’t kitchen-friendly I would feed it to some of our 40 hens. The pigs eat everything in sight, of course. And the goats too.

 

Education programme

About one-third of the kitchen garden is in grain, oats, wheat and barley. That’s very much tied to our education programme. Airfield attracted more than 2,000 students last year, ranging from preschoolers to university students.

We want to tell them the story of their food and let them see where it comes from. A lot of people eat porridge for breakfast, but how many people have seen oats growing? We all eat bread, but do people know it’s from a wheat crop?

When the grain is ready to harvest, someone will come in with a hand scythe to cut it and it’s a beautiful sight. To be honest, the birds got a lot of it last year – that’s the problem with urban gardens – but the chefs did use some of it in soups. We didn’t complete the process by making flour, but with luck we’ll get a better harvest this year.

This job is not for everybody because you’re always in the public eye. You need to be comfortable talking to people when they stop and ask you what you’re doing. Nor would it suit a gardener who is extremely precious and hypersensitive because damage can be done to plants in a public garden. You learn the tricks of the trade; sow more, grow more, and signage is vital.

You try to educate people that walking on beds is not acceptable but we don’t want to curb children’s natural enthusiasm.

People would not expect to hear that I spend quite a lot of time at the desk. I have to order inputs, source plants and interesting cultivars, and do seed plans, crop plans and soil fertility plans. And obviously we have to budget and look ahead to next year.

So I’m always chasing my tail trying to get it done. If I’m not in the polytunnels on those very rainy days, you’ll find me in the office.

 

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