Bees, spuds and peas: fresh ideas for sustainable urban living

Andrew Douglas's Urban Farm project demonstrates just how much can be achieved in small spaces in the city

Andrew Douglas in the farm he runs on the roof of Belvedere College, Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

There are lime trees somewhere in Dublin that inner city bees are having the times of their lives with. Andrew Douglas, of Urban Farm, knows this because the honey the bees make in hives on a rooftop in Dublin 1 tastes citrusy.

"At full summertime, it's like Heathrow Airport here, a lovely line of direct flight, they fly back in and fly out," Douglas said, standing atop the roof of Belvedere College as the bees buzz around their hives in the sunshine.

"They've a nice view of Croke Park. We were kind of curious as to what the honey would taste of. Because we're here in Dublin 1, is it going to taste of burger wrappers and buses? But it's very limey."

Urban Farm is Douglas’s startup that establishes agriculture projects in the capital.


His mother, grandmother and other relatives worked as florists and ran plant nurseries. “It’s in the blood, but I like doing things a bit different.”

Andrew Douglas is an urban farmer who grows vegetables and keeps bees on the roof of Belvedere College, Dublin. He shares his four top tips for people who want to grow and harvest their own produce in the city. Video: Bryan O'Brien

There’s an experimental bent to Douglas, who gravitates towards innovation.

He has a propensity for using “yo” as a universal salutation, but his laid-back vibe belies an encyclopaedic knowledge of innovations in growing, gardening, and the science behind what can generally be classified as cool stuff to do with plants.

The key in many of Douglas’s projects is sustainability, using what others might see as waste as a way to reimagine how things can grow.

The farm on Belvedere College’s top-floor science lab is populated with his successful experiments. On other parts of the school’s roof, there are beehives, which co-exist happily with the students and some rather territorial seagulls.

There are also potatoes. Urban Farm’s rooftop potato project has amassed a collection of 160 heritage potato varieties, some dating back to 1768.

One side of the lab is where the aquaponics system is situated, with calf-high IBC containers, opaque heavy duty tanks that formerly housed Baileys essence.

Aquaponics is a system that combines aquaculture (raising fish and co in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants in water).

The tanks each contain a few fish. The fish waste is full of ammonia, which converted into nitrates feeds the plants above in a soil-free system, with plants growing in super-porous rocks and river pebbles.

The plants include parsley, different kinds of lettuce (including one strain which has also been grown on the International Space Station), sugar beet and linseed.

The system looks elaborate, but “nothing costs a million dollars”, Douglas said, attributing its success to trial and error.

The fish used are tilapia. A peko fish eats the algae, and there’s red-claw crayfish too.

Aquaponics and beekeeping might be a bit advanced for someone starting to grow their own food, but there are a few other ideas at the farm that could be directly transferred to a yard or small garden in an urban area.

One of Douglas’s projects that typifies his simple and ingenious approach to sustainability is Urban Oyster, involving growing mushrooms in used coffee grounds in a Pot Noodle carton-like pod.

“Basically you get the pod with two holes drilled in it,” Douglas explained.

“It comes with the spray bottle, a small such of oyster mushroom spawn.

“You use your coffee waste at home and compost it into the pot, and after three weeks it fills up, and two weeks after that you have a flush of mushrooms coming out.”

He examined one which has mushrooms growing in all different directions out of it.

“Mushrooms are quite funny, when you leave them for a while they just start doing their own thing,” he said.

Douglas’s real goal for sustainable mushroom growing involves turning 40ft shipping containers into mushroom farms, where coffee waste from nearby cafes and restaurants could be recycled.

“You have to persist with these things,” he said.

“People are like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’m in year three of talking about coffee and mushrooms!

“People are kind of coming around to it now, but if you go into an office and are like, ‘Yo, I want to grow mushrooms from coffee waste in 40ft containers and I want it stuck in the middle of a fruit and veg market’, they’re like ‘What?’”


Also in the studio, Douglas has grown microgreens; radish, broccoli, sunflower and wheatgrass. These can also be grown almost anywhere.

In relation to three trays of pea shoots, he discussed how the students who planted them, Austrians, Americans and French, differed in their approaches, and I joked that that could possibly offer some insights into national characteristics.

As it happened, the American tray was overflowing, the French one had seeds scattered haphazardly and the Austrian one was sown perfectly.

Another upstart plant startup for urban gardeners involves hops.

The Social Hops project involves ordering a starter pack, at which point you’ll be part of a group growing hops collectively.

You then harvest what you’ve grown for a local wet hopped beer, brewed within 24 hours, before enjoying the spoils.

“Hop plants take three years to mature,” the Social Hops website says, “so if you keep donating cones, you’ll keep getting beer.”

Douglas is practical about transferring this kind of innovation to small urban spaces like yards or city gardens.

He recommends that urban gardeners focus on growing what they actually like.

“People have a small space, and they want to grow in a small space, but they’ve gone to Woodies and come out with stuff they won’t necessarily want to grow, and then they lose interest halfway through because they don’t want to eat these roses.

“Always be specific about what you grow, that it’s something you’re going to eat at the end of it.”

So a key tip is to have an emotional investment on what you’re growing.

“Keep it simple,” Douglas said. “If people have never grown before and they try something adventurous and they fail, it’s worse then if they never tried at all.”

Simple things to grow at home
Mushrooms: The Urban Oyster kit is a good place to start, and there are also other coffee ground-based kits on the market.
Flower sprouts: For a new vegetable, Douglas recommends this "nutty flavoured" cross between kale and brussels sprouts.
Hops: A Social Hops starter pack costs €25.
How you grow: Douglas says it's not just about what you grow but how you grow it. If you're short on space, explore vertical growing systems.
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