Bloom Fringe taking fun to the streets

The annual gardening festival returns to the Phoenix Park next week, and this year the younger, edgier Bloom Fringe will take the fun to the streets


What is Bloom Fringe? It’s the younger, edgier cousin of Bloom, an energetic, social-media-driven, not-for-profit, environmentally minded upstart inspired by the success of the Chelsea Fringe Festival and fuelled by a desire for change in our capital city. It’s Dublin shopfronts draped with fresh flowers, pop-up gardens on the city’s streets, tours of Dublin’s secret gardens, an interview with a giant ‘‘bee’’, impromptu willow sculptures, pot-hole gardens, tours, talks, trails and a ‘‘flower’’ on stilts. It’s taking place in Dublin next Saturday, and not only is it going to be interesting and informative but it’s also going to be a lot of fun. Organisers Marion Keogh and Esther Gerrard It was serendipity and a shared interest in reinventing, revitalising and regreening the city’s ‘‘impoverished’’ spaces that led to the friendship between Bloom Fringe organisers Marion Keogh and Esther Gerrard. The two women met on Camden Street, where both were taking part in Parking Day, the annual worldwide event where people take over metered parking spaces for a day to transform them into pop-up gardens.

They bumped into each other again during a series of meetings held by Dublin City Council last autumn to discuss its Vacant Spaces initiative, a recently introduced scheme where owners of vacant city spaces permit those spaces to be temporarily put to creative and cultural use by artists or members of the local community.

And then, this spring, Keogh attended the annual Garden & Landscape Designers Association conference where Tim Richardson, the British author, garden historian and founder of the popular Chelsea Fringe Festival (now in its third year), was giving a talk.

She found herself inspired by his suggestion that other cities could replicate the success of Chelsea Fringe, which styles itself as ‘‘the alternative garden festival’’ with an emphasis on collaboration, participation and pushing the boundaries. It coincides with the Chelsea Flower Show but is completely independent of it.

“I had a chat with Tim, who was very supportive, and I thought, It’s so obvious that this should be happening in Dublin.’’ It’s about bringing the ethos of Bloom out on to the city’s streets,” says Keogh, an award-winning garden designer with a background in fine art. Gerrard, a landscape architect with a background in project management, was equally enthusiastic, as were Bord Bia, the organisers of Bloom.

Very quickly Bloom Fringe took on a life of its own, inspiring a host of quirky, clever, often community-based projects that aim, with time, to radically recalibrate the way we use our urban spaces. For the two women it has been an exhilarating couple of months. “What’s blown us away is the amount of hugely talented creative young people who’ve come on board – artists, designers, illustrators, gardeners – almost entirely on a voluntary basis. Bloom Fringe has really captured people’s imagination.”

Mud Island Community Garden If you’ve ever actually managed to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, then you might remember how ‘‘the very reverend’’ Father Conmee preferred to take the tram rather than ‘‘traverse on foot the dingy way past Mud Island’’.

How times have changed; if he took a stroll there now he’d surely be delighted to come across Mud Island Community Garden, one of a clutch of community-based projects that have sprung up around the capital in recent years. Built on the site of a demolished sheltered-housing complex (subsequently used as a dump for many years), it’s now a productive, flower-filled space that’s firm testimony to the power of the people.

“In 2009 we began negotiations with Dublin City Council, asking for permission to build a community garden on part of the derelict site, finally signing a licence agreement in 2011,” says Maeve Foreman, a resident of North Strand and one of the people instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

Foreman is enormously proud of what the community has created at Mud Island. “It’s such a great example of what can be achieved, not just in terms of growing food in a city but in terms of growing a sense of community. We have over 90 members but many local people also pop by regularly for a chat and to see how the garden is doing.”

As part of Bloom Fringe, she and the other gardeners of Mud Island will be sharing that life-enriching experience through an on-site photographic exhibition that charts its evolution from a wasteground to a productive garden.

Orlaith Ross of Making Space Having lived and worked as a gardener in Dublin for many years, I flattered myself that I knew its leafy spaces pretty well, but after talking to Orlaith Ross, I’ve discovered that there are many more left to explore. Ross is the brains behind Making Space, a new Dublin-based initiative which describes itself as “an independent, innovative approach to the curation of events, where creative solutions are found, creating links between creators, innovators, businesses and the city itself”.

As part of that initiative, she’ll be leading Bloom Fringe’s Secret Dublin Garden Tour, a walk that will take the form of a leisurely meander through Dublin’s back streets and laneways, where participants will be shown some of the capital’s hidden gardens while learning something of their history.

“I want to showcase the capital city to people by taking a look at some of its hidden green spaces,’’ says Ross, herself a keen gardener (and the partner of a garden designer). “It’s about getting Dubliners reconnected to their city through a shared love of nature and through a shared appreciation of Dublin’s sometimes hidden beauty.”

As regards the exact itinerary, she prefers to stay shtum. “I want it to be something of an adventure, a sort of process of discovery, so let’s just say that it will kick off in Arbour Hill and then cross the Liffey before eventually ending up somewhere in Temple Bar, with a pitstop for coffee along the way.” I am allowed to tell you, however, that the tour will take in at least one historic cemetery as well as a visit to a city-centre herb patch and a working wormery. Michelle Magill of Melt It was as a young girl growing up on the family farm in Co Down that Michelle Magill became interested in the health-giving powers of plants. “My great-uncle Dan, an organic farmer and a man with a great interest in nature, taught me about the different traditional herbal remedies that could be made from plants growing wild in the fields and hedgerows. Very quickly I became fascinated by the lore of traditional herbalism, by its spiritual aspect as well as its long history of use.” Magill went on to study Chinese herbalism (she’s a member of the Association of Chinese Herbalists in Ireland) and to establish Melt, a natural healing centre in Temple Bar. It was here that she met the naturopath and herbalist Jan de Vries, who ran his practice from the centre for some years. “Working alongside Jan was a revelation. I learned so much about the healing powers of plants just from being around him.”

With Bloom Fringe, she’ll be sharing some of her considerable plant lore through a series of foraging walks (one exclusively for children) that will take place in Brighton Square, Dublin.

“I’ll be showing people how to correctly identify plants, as well as talking about their many different uses in traditional herbalism, whether that’s making dandelion tea to purify the blood or using a tasty nettle soup as a health tonic. In other words, how to make the very most of nature’s medicine cabinet.” Andrew Douglas As the name behind the Urban Farm Project, last year Andrew Douglas used crowd-funding to build a full-sized kitchen garden (including a hen-house) on the roof of a Dublin city-centre building, installed a mini-aquaponics lab in one of the rooms below it, and explored, through his Mushroom City project, the possibilities of recycling Dublin restaurants’ discarded coffee grinds as a growing medium for mushrooms. But this year he is obsessed with all things potato.

As part of Bloom Fringe, he’ll be mounting a street-based exhibition of ‘‘potato pods’’ on Essex Street, each pod containing a heritage variety of potato, along with the story of its cultural, historical and economic significance.

The same pods will form part of the Thank Potato exhibition later this summer (, a celebration of “the contribution that the potato makes to art, global agriculture, economies and world food security”. So forget all those headlines about this tasty tuber being out of fashion. The humble spud, it seems, has made one hell of a comeback. Places on some of the talks and walks mentioned are limited; please book via

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