The Dublin chef who grows crops in rooftop pots

Stephen’s McAllister’s city ‘garden’ is no more than a cheerful clutter of pots and recycled wooden wine crates on a crowded, shady balcony overlooking the capital’s dusty yards and sun-bleached rooftops. But that’s enough for an ongoing supply of fresh, delicious ingredients

 

I’m constantly surprised by how few of Ireland’s urban chefs attempt to grow even a little of their own ingredients. Yes, yes, I appreciate that the working day of any professional chef is a long and fiercely pressurised one, while growing space is always at a premium in any city, but still…surely there’s nothing like a handful of truly fresh ingredients to transform the most ordinary of dishes, while even the smallest garden is a place of peaceful retreat when emotions run high in the kitchen.

Which is why it was such a treat to pay a visit to the tiny restaurant garden of Stephen McAllister, head chef and proprietor of The Pig’s Ear, the eatery on Dublin’s Nassau Street that’s earned a reputation for what one food critic describes as ‘ wonderful cooking using world-class ingredients’, or what McAllister himself describes as ‘modern Irish’.

When I say ‘tiny, I really do mean it: this city ‘garden’ is no more than a cheerful clutter of pots and recycled wooden wine crates competing for space on a crowded, shady balcony, two high storeys above ground level, overlooking the capital city’s dusty yards and sun-bleached rooftops.  

On a hot summer’s day, temperatures here can easily hit the mid-30s, while the plants also have to cope with drying winds and low light levels, so they certainly don’t have it easy. All of which makes the sight of its starry, sky-blue borage flowers, pea shoots, lettuce leaves and nasturtiums such an endearing one.

It was a former colleague of McAllister’s, who’d previously worked with the Michelin-starred British chef and passionate gardener/grower Simon Rogan in his Cumbrian restaurant L’Enclume, who suggested that the staff of ‘The Pig’s Ear’ should try their hand at growing food.

“Soon we were experimenting with everything from potatoes to cabbages, radishes, carrots, chard and lots of different herbs including wood sorrel and rosemary. I was immediately struck by how much tastier home-grown plants are in comparison to their shop-bought equivalents. Everything has a better, more intense flavour.” 

So then why don’t more urban Irish chefs have a go at growing a little of their own ingredients?

“If I’m being honest, probably because it takes time and effort. And if you don’t have green fingers, then it can be difficult to know how to go about it.” 

So with McAllister’s words ringing in my ears, I’ve compiled a list of handy tips and useful resources that should help even the least green-fingered urban chef to grow a few delicious ingredients.

Similarly, if you live in a city apartment or a townhouse without a garden but long to grow just a little of your own food, then this is for you. The golden rule when it comes to growing food in any teeny-tiny urban space is to focus on the crops that (a) grow quickly, (b) that you can’t buy easily/cheaply, or (c) that taste so much better when eaten as fresh as possible. Examples include most herbs, salad leaves, chard, peas, beans, radish, beetroot, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and some of the smaller-growing edible flowers such as pot marigolds, chives or pansies. Don’t bother growing space-hogging plants (for example, cabbage, sweet corn, squash) unless they’re the kind that obligingly hog vertical space- for example, climbing beans, peas, or trailing nasturtiums.

As crops are harvested, try to have replacements plants waiting in the wings to maximise use of the growing space.  It’s now nearly August, so along with lettuce, baby turnips, radishes and scallions, it’s time to sow winter salad crops including claytonia, rocket, mizuna, pak choi, corn salad, mustards and tatsoi. Recommended Irish seed suppliers include brownenvelopeseeds.com, greenvegetableseeds.com and mrmiddleton.com

When space is at an absolute premium, the temptation is to grow things in lots of small pots, but resist, as the inevitable result will be malnourished, stunted plants, with root systems exposed to extreme variations in temperature. Small containers also dry out more easily, leading them to easily blow over, while nutrient levels quickly become depleted. Instead, invest in a few decent–sized, well-secured, deep pots  (a minimum of 30cm) or even just one large, purpose-built wooden container. See Sligo-based suppliers, quickcrop.ie

To grow delicious, healthy plants in containers, you need a great growing medium. Don’t be tempted by cheap, peat-based garden compost that dries out quickly, leaving plants stressed or even dead. Instead, go for a good quality, soil-based John Innes compost, which will also add ballast, making containers far less likely to blow over. It’s also vital to keep plants well watered, and well fed. Add a handful of organic chicken pellets and a sprinkle of seaweed powder at the beginning of the growing season, followed by regular potash-rich liquid feeds as the summer progresses.

Learn from the hard-earned experience of others; British gardener Mark Ridsill Smith gives excellent advice on how to grow food in tiny urban spaces via his website, verticalveg.co.uk , while recommended books include Window Box Allotment by Penelope Bennett

 

 

This week in the garden…

Now that many plants, including sweet pea, dahlias and tomatoes, are in their fruiting/ flowering phase, it’s well worth giving them a weekly potash-rich liquid feed to keep them hale and hearty. You can easily make your own for free, using home-grown comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale) that have been steeped in water (use a plastic bin with a sealable lid), although this will take 3-4 weeks to get to the point where it’s usable.  Otherwise, use one of the better-quality, organic liquid tomato feeds that are available in most good garden centres.

Speaking of sweet pea, it’s crucial to keep picking those deliciously scented blooms if you want these short-lived annual plants to produce their flowers for as long as possible. Left unpicked, the plants will instead pour their energies into producing seed.

One of the stars of the late summer garden is montbretia (Crocosmia), a bulbous plant that’s excellent for adding some fizz and fiery colour to the flower border at this time of year. The bright red-flowering ‘Lucifer, which reaches an average height and spread of 1-metre, is probably one of the best-known varieties but there are many others well worth growing, including the flame-orange ‘Emily McKenzie’,  ‘Babylon’ (burnt-range flowers on dark stems), and the compact, gold-flowering ‘Honey Angels’. All enjoy full sun and a fertile, moist but well-drained soil.

Dates For Your Diary: Today (Saturday 30thJuly), 12 noon, Author and tree-expert Thomas Pakenham will give a tour of the tree collection of Newtownbarry Gardens, Bunclody, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, admission €5: Tomorrow, Sunday 31st July, Burtown House & Gardens, Seamus O’ Brien, author, plant-hunter and head gardener of Kilmacurragh, will give an illustrated talk on the subject of his recent expedition to South Africa to study the flora of the Cape region (starts 12 noon) while later the same day (3pm), John Grimshaw, director of the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, will also give a talk based on  his long career as a professional horticulturist (admission €10 for two talks). Monday, August 1st, the well-known Irish gardener, author and broadcaster Dermot O’ Neill will be discussing some of his favourite garden plants (Rathwood Garden Centre, Tullow, County Carlow, at 11.30am and again at 2pm), and the very best plants for an herbaceous border (Rathvilly Garden Centre, Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, 3.30pm), admission free for all three talks. All events listed form  part of this year’s Carlow Garden festival, see carlowgardentrail.com

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