Notes for a Slow Food Garden

Judy Friel is an urban beekeeper and supplies a small number of Dublin businesses with her organically grown herbs and flowers. Today she shares some inspiration for Spring gardening.

If you are part of the Slow Food movement, chances are you have thought about growing your own food. It makes sense in many ways. You may be concerned about the natural environment and the quality of commercial food. You may want to learn about a new food related subject—organic horticulture, for instance. Or you may just like the idea of growing food you want to eat—maybe the simplest of salads or less common, seasonal ingredients you cannot buy like lemon verbena, edible flowers, lovage, sorrel.

When Richard Mabey wrote his seminal book on wild food and foraging Food for Free , he singled out its 'attraction of having to be found. I think I would rate this as perhaps the most attractive single feature of wild food use.' While Mabey singles out the attraction of wild food having to be found, I feel the great pleasure of home grown food is the attraction of having grown it yourself. Once you have grown something, particularly from seed, you  may well find yourself with a green addiction. Charlotte Mendelson writes in Rhapsody on Green:

Gardening is not a hobby but a passion: a mess of excitement and compulsion and urgency and compassion. Those who practice it are botanists, evangelists, freedom fighters, midwives and saboteurs: we kill; we bleed. No, I can't drop everything to come in for dinner; it's a matter of life and death out here. Just give me an hour, or two.

But in a small city like Dublin, you may not have a garden of your own. Like a country and western song, you may be a no garden gardener. Irish urban food gardening is on the rise; however, and if you have a notion to grow your own food there are considerable opportunities out there. The largest area of food growing space available in Dublin is an allotment. The four Dublin City Councils provide allotments from around 50 to 400 square meters at nominal rents, as do a number of private landowners and organisations. There are also numerous Dublin community gardens: check out Dublin Community Growers and the Grow Your Own movement. Guerilla Gardening—cheeky, opportunistic planting in empty public spaces like disused railway tracks—is another movement that has yet to develop in Dublin.

The great advantage of an allotment is that it suits food crops that are perennial; also larger and slower growing crops like potatoes, onions and turnips that store well. These shared communal food growing spaces have a social and educational aspect too. You will be in the company of experienced food growers and see, first hand, what can be achieved through the seasons.

Allotments are a commitment. Keep in mind the time required to care for one, even to travel there, and the reality of carrying gardening tools—perhaps on public transport!

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There are many other urban spaces available to the no garden gardener for food growing: yard, rooftop, patio, balcony, even windowsill. Instead of land and ground, all these sterile spaces can be transformed for bounteous food growing with the use of containers. Containers are the perfect solution in which to create micro food gardens and, again, the choice out there is great. Budget and personal taste are the only factors which influence what containers food can be grown in. Garden centres stock all the ordinary pots, tubs and troughs. A beautiful terracotta planter is an expensive investment but pound shops, charity shops and recycling websites also offer attractive container choices. Olive oil tins, wine crates, old boots, grow bags concealed in wicker baskets, half beer barrels, a doll's pram—the list goes on. Containers have to work much harder for plants than a natural piece of land. They need to be free draining yet retain moisture, well watered and fed regularly.

The no garden gardener also needs to consider how to grow vertically. Look up! Vertical gardening is now mainstream in urban planning with the creation of 'green' or 'living' walls. In a domestic urban context, consider how you can grow not only horizontally but vertically. Plants will trail and tumble from containers hung from above. They will climb and scramble up a trellis or on wires fixed to a wall. They will quickly cover a step ladder covered with row on row of pots.  In Creative Vegetable Gardening, Joy Larkcom suggests hanging an unopened plastic growing bag over a strong balcony rail or fence, cuts slits, then plants it with a cascade of 'Tumbler' tomatoes.

Finally, observe the orientation of where you are. 'The right plant in the right place' is another fundamental tip. If for instance, your location is north or east facing with little sunlight, it may not suit sun loving, mediterranean herbs like rosemary and thyme, but may be perfect for shade happy chives and mint. Nor may it suit heat loving vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers but, instead, spinach, salads, peas.

I assume Slow Food members will want to grow food organically. (I only appreciated how stringent official organic standards are when I applied to the Irish Organic Farmers and Food Growers Association for organic certification for my own garden.) There is now a thriving and informed Irish organic food growing movement that refuses the use of chemicals to feed or treat crops. This involves using natural alternatives—seaweed, garlic, manure, chicken pellets, comfrey, nettles, even milk. It avoids the use of genetically modified plants and seeds and non-renewable resources like peat. Natural resources, like rainwater, are cherished and saved. Nothing is wasted. Domestic waste, for instance, is composted to make 'black gold.' And there are more specialised ethical ways than the organic way: if you get into biodynamics for instance, you will be gardening by the moon!

You can grow edible flowers and herbs to add colour and zing to your favourite dishes.

You can grow edible flowers and herbs to add colour and zing to your favourite dishes.


Vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers are all choices for the urban food grower. The simplest tip for a beginner is probably: grow what you love to eat. There is no point in producing a perfect harvest of Black Cuban chilli peppers or a glut of Brussels sprouts if you never really liked them in the first place! Klaus Laitenberger, pioneer of the Irish organic food growing movement, also asks 'How much to grow?' In relation to radishes, he solemnly answers, 'You will get about 100 radishes in one square metre. This shows that you should sow often and little.'

The popularity of urban food growing is reflected in the sale of edible plants for small places, with labels such as these:

  • dwarf, compact habit, no waste

  • perfect for overflowing hanging baskets and patio containers

  • alpine variety, absolutely perfect for pots and the smallest of gardens

Again, it is a question of personal taste and time as to what you choose to grow and how intensively. For instance, you may enjoy quick growing, successionally sown salad mixes, fast maturing micro greens, and tender edible seedlings that will provide multiple harvests (i.e., CCA or cut and come again crops). Or you may prefer a classic collection of potently flavoured perennial herbs like rosemary, myrtle, sage, thyme and bay. Clip them into decorative topiary shapes in terracotta pots to echo a great potager like that at Chateau Villandry. Maybe the most surprising growing choice I saw was in a Goatstown allotment where the grower had one crop only: grapes. Yes, an outdoor Dublin grapevine.

Right now is the ideal time of year to start food gardening and become an outsider. Enjoy!