Dublin rooftop Urban Farm showcases a growing movement

Ireland’s Grow it Yourself network now has some 50,000 members

The hens cluck contentedly and peck at the ground in their enclosure. Nothing unusual there, apart from one thing. Their hen house is on the roof of a four-storey building in Dublin city centre.

They live on the Urban Farm, a not-for-profit showcase set up to encourage people to consider growing their own food in small spaces.

Sound engineer Andrew Douglas had been looking for a space for an urban garden for several years when he came across the old Williams & Woods confectionery factory on King's Inns Street, off Parnell Street, last year.

Now the rooftop is a hive of activity. Some 160 varieties of potatoes are being grown in repurposed water cooler bottles. They come from David Langford’s collection of heirloom potatoes in Sligo and some date back to 1776.


The Boxty House in Temple Bar is supporting this project and will use the potatoes in the restaurant when they are harvested in the autumn.

Recycled containers
Courgettes, runner beans, spring onions and turnips are growing in raised beds made from scaffold boards while berries and cherries are flourishing in recycled containers. Paddy O'Kearney is collecting organic waste from local restaurants for composting and this will take off in earnest when a cafe planned for downstairs opens.

Inside the building, Mr Douglas is experimenting with aquaponics, a system whereby fish waste is used as fertiliser for the plants and vegetables above the tank and offcuts of plants are fed to the fish.

Vegetables being grown include lemon cucumber, black cherry tomatoes and pineapple sage.

He is also hoping to start growing oyster mushrooms from coffee waste and is seeking funds from Arthur Guinness Projects to support this.

More controversially, he has plans for an insect farm. “Insects are high in protein but the big problem is people’s attitudes. There are parts of the world where insects are a major factor in the diet of indigenous people,” he says.

Cricket burgers
He plans to start with crickets and hopes to collaborate with a burger bar which would be willing to serve cricket burgers.

“We want people to start thinking about these things. Spain has a big insect farm and France is starting up a huge insect farm.”

The Urban Farm is not working alone in encouraging people to grow their own food. The Grow it Yourself (GIY) movement now has some 50,000 members, four years after it was started by Michael Kelly in Waterford.

He began growing his own food after he realised the garlic he was about to buy in a Waterford supermarket had been imported from China. When he ran into problems growing garlic, he looked for help from a food growers’ group but couldn’t find one.

800 community food groups
Today there are more than 800 community food groups and projects involved in the GIY movement.

Mr Kelly is launching the group in Britain this weekend and aims to create a network of more than one million ‘GIYers’ in 20 countries in the next five years.

He said there were several reasons why more people were now growing their own food.

“We have almost a perfect storm where you have people worried about where their food comes from, the general healthy eating trend, and worries about the security and sustainability of the food chain,” he said.

“Add to that the recession, which means a general interest in thrift and saving money, and people with more time, plus a more nuanced sense of wanting to get back to basics and things that are real after the triviality of the Celtic Tiger era.”

GIY runs its “Sow and Grow” programme in schools and he believes he will have 100,000 children growing their own vegetables in schools by 2015.

“On the face of it, it’s a small thing to get a child sowing a seed in a little planting cup. But to help them get an understanding of how food is produced, it’s the whole ball game,” he said.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times