Back to the future - growing your own in 1910 and 2010


URBAN FARMER:Far from being a new fangled fad, allotments have a proud history

ALMOST EXACTLY one hundred years ago, on July 16th, 1910, this newspaper carried a small, black-and-white photograph of the 16 members of a charitable organisation called the Vacant Land Cultivation Society (VLCS). Posed in a formal group outside Dublin’s Mansion House on Dawson Street, and dressed in their best bib-and-

tucker (stiff, three-piece suits and walrus moustaches for the men, full-length dress and high turtle-neck lace blouse for the one woman of the group), they stare sternly and unsmilingly at the camera.

Looking at the photograph now, its strange to think that, that very same year, this little band of 15 men and one woman were to make a small but significant piece of GYO history by establishing the very first allotment sites in Dublin city. Using derelict or uncultivated land that it begged and borrowed from both private individuals and Dublin Corporation, the VLCS carved it up into 23 plots that were allocated to families living in Dublin city. The plan, as Michael Cullen writes in his fascinating thesis, Uncovering the plot: Investigating Urban Agriculture in Dublin, was to “help supplement the diets and incomes” of the city’s poorest, some of whom were living in tenement conditions with 4-5 families to a house.

As Cullen’s thesis soon makes clear, the VLCS allotment scheme was an unqualified success. By 1916, The Irish Timeswas reporting that, “practical proof of the success of the Vacant Land Cultivation Society was strikingly given on Saturday afternoon, when the first exhibition of produce was opened at the Leo Hall, Inchicore, by the Right Hon TW Russell.

“ It was representative of all the plot-holders. Massive cabbages from the allotments at the Pigeon House road, huge onions from the Inchicore plot, burly potatoes from the Society’s ground at Broadstone and other magnificent products from fields that were not long ago derelict in various parts of Dublin.

“Made up of a collection of garden produce which was a revelation to those not familiar with the activities of the Society, it was a twofold tribute to their success and to the industry and application of the plotholders, many of them struggling working men.”

Re-reading Cullen’s thesis recently (it was written in 2008 as part of his M Sc studies at DIT), it struck me that the recent revival of the allotment culture has, perhaps, come just in time, as new austerity measures make GYO as much a necessity as a pleasure for many struggling working men and women. Because, food ethics, food additives and food miles aside, it seems that food costs may, in the end, be the single biggest reason why we return en-masse to GYO. It’s particularly interesting to note, for example, that by the advent of the second World War, the number of Dublin allotments stood at 3496, but that by 1941 (roundabout the same time that rationing of bread, sugar and tea was introduced) that number had climbed to a peak of over 6,000.

Author, Sunday Timescolumnist and allotmenteer Mark Keenan, makes a similar point in his new book, Plot 34: Blood , Sweat and Allotmenteers, which tells the humorous story of his induction into the world of GYO, from when he first took on his allotment in Bohernabreena, Co Dublin back in 2006. “While we’ve a long way to go before we match the poverty levels of the 1950s, its not surprising that it was only when the recession hit with a vengeance that interest in urban food growing exploded”, writes Keenan, as he argues that the return of large-scale unemployment, slashed wages, cut hours and forced early retirement all mean that saving money has become much more important. But, as Keenan points out, there’s also a hidden benefit to this harsh recession . . .

“Where are they all coming from?” he wonders aloud to a fellow allotmenteer, on a particularly busy day at the Bohernabreena allotment site.

“I’d say it has something to do with people having a lot more . . . em, time on their hands, wouldn’t you?”, replies his friend politely.

As well as being an honest and engaging, warts-and-all account of the life of an allotmenteer, Keenan’s book also gives much practical advice and information on matters as varied as food security, gardening websites and

blogs, processing and storing produce, and allotment etiquette. As regards the latter, for example, you should keep the weeds down, share surpluses with neighbours, and never, ever enter another allotment unless you’re either (a) invited or (b) a very good friend. However, surreptitious snooping and any form of light competition are, according to Keenan, utterly acceptable.

On Keenan’s allotment site, its owners, South Dublin County Council, leave it up to the individual allotment-holders as to whether or not they garden exclusively organically (Keenan, for the record, does his best, with the glaring exception of slug pellets).

That’s not the case for some other allotment sites around the country, such as the privately-run Hydro Farm allotment scheme outside Blarney in Co Cork, which is owned and managed by Zwena McCullough.

Here, a strict organic-only rule applies and is studiously observed by all Zwena’s allotmenteers, including grandmother and well-known blogger Peggy Murray and her extended family (organicgrowingpains.

Believed to be the first private allotment scheme of its kind in the country, the Hydro-Farm scheme is a glorious example of how land (in this case an uncultivated Victorian walled garden used as a horse paddock) can be transformed, with the help of one woman’s determination, hard work and vision, into a wonderfully productive series of plots. Likewise, Peggy Murray’s blog is a vivid, life-affirming record of the pleasures and rewards of a family allotment.

Part gardener’s diary, part family cookbook and full of good-humoured, practical advice based on hard-earned experience, Peggy’s blog tells the story of the family-worked allotment since Peggy, her daughter and her grandchildren first took on the plot (now two plots) back in 2007. I should add at this point that while the Murray allotment is a democratically-run, family affair, Peggy is, without question, its elected head gardener. And a very, very good head gardener she is. So much so, in fact, that this October she was given the Experienced Gardener Award 2010 at the inaugural RDS allotment awards in Dublin. Having seen her and her family’s beautifully-tended allotment for myself earlier this year, I can say that it was, without question, very well-deserved.

* For more information and advice on allotments (including waiting lists, costs and size, see and southdublin

* Zwena McCullough of the Hydro-Farm Allotments scheme can be contacted on 087-2333183 or at

* Plot 34: Blood, Sweat and Allotmenteers, by Mark Keenan, is published by Brandon Books and costs €15.99

* The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4.00pm

* Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer