After a well-deserved night’s sleep at the Seven Horse Shoes Hotel in Belturbet, Declan brought me to Drumlane community centre to visit the garden. Drumlane is primarily a rural parish which includes a small part of Belturbet town. The community centre was built five years ago and has been paid for mainly by community fund-raising. It now provides a childcare service and a myriad of sports and community facilities, as well as being home to the Drumlane Sons of O’Connell GAA club. A patch of unused GAA club land adjacent to a children’s play area and the football pitch has been developed in to a thriving community garden. November is not a great time to visit but this video gives a flavour of the garden in full bloom.
Member numbers have increased every year since the first gardening course was run by my host, Declan Fitzpatrick, in 2008. That year 14 people took part in the course at the garden. Numbers grew in 2009 and again this year with 20 students participating. Many people who have attended the courses have stayed on and become full-time members; Declan estimates that there are approximately 17 core members of the garden group currently.
Initially, funding was sourced from the County Council to buy tools and a shed and the local Leader Partnership, Breffni Integrated, provided a grant for the gardening courses. Declan is involved with other community projects and has a lot of experience of community organising generally. Indeed, he is also the driving force behind a co-op of local farmers set-up in order to bargain collectively for better deals with their suppliers and service providers.
His involvement with so many community groups and committees is inspirational and no doubt stood him in good stead when planning and implementing the garden project. Declan is also a firm believer in traditional farming practice. He has seen the effects of industrial scale agriculture on quality and environmental standards as well as on farmer’s clout and income, and is one of the only farmers in the locality to run a traditional mixed farm.
Declan avoids using the term organic, for him the techniques used at the garden are examples of traditional, natural agriculture. He feels that the garden is a great demonstration area to show people what can be grown in a small space with little expense and very few inputs. Declan has learned a thing or two himself from the garden group. One example of this is the comfrey that was shown in the video. Comfrey is a plant which gives of a liquid which can be used
as natural fertilizer when it decomposes. Declan had never seen the technique before and was amazed at how effective it was. Veg grown this year included 7 varieties!! of potato, broadbeans, lettuce, cabbage, onions, peas, pumpkins, squash, sprouts, leaks, garlic and a variety of herbs.
Being a rural area, many of the garden members also have food-growing gardens at home. And some of those who didn’t grow any of their own food previously are now beginning to do so using their new-found knowledge and skills.
From the video above and my visit, it’s clear that the garden in Drumlane has become a vibrant social space for the group as much as a food-growing project. Friendships have flourished and the garden is another great example of the potential of community gardens to bring people together and integrate different members of the community.
A Dutch couple and a German retiree living in the area are among the most active members of the group. None of them knew each other beforehand. As part of the sharing in the garden, signs were made in four languages: Dutch, English, Irish and German so that everybody learns a bit of each other’s language. There was even talk of mini-language classes being organised during garden meetings next year.
When I arrived the garden had wound down for the winter; many of the beds were covered and green manure was planted. For the 8-9 months of the year that they meet, the group gathers on Wednesday and Saturday mornings with larger Meitheal-type gatherings organised when there is a lot of work to be done.
Efforts are being made to open the garden more to the community. The children’s group from the childcare centre had a plot in the garden this year -I’m told they were bowled over by the ‘magic’ of a potato growing in the ground-. And an empty space at one end of the garden is going to be planted with decorative flowers and a communal seating area as part of this effort.
I asked Declan about the potential of extending the garden and maybe growing enough produce to be able to sell the excess locally.
He was against the idea and felt that once you start that you become a business and end up growing what the shopkeeper or supermarket wants you to grow. I also mentioned that some of the other larger gardens I’d visited had CE (Communiy Employment) Scheme workers. He felt that having somebody to come and do the weeding and maintenance for you would take away from the sense of ownership that the members have over the garden. Apparently there’s always plenty to be done and the group enjoys planning and working together.
Thanks a million to Declan for his help and hospitality in Belturbet/Drumlane. Thanks to the Seven Horse Shoes Hotel in Belturbet for putting me up. And congratulations to all of the group members on the excellent community garden project!