"I remember a guy stopped at the gate last year, who grew up in those blocks. He was crying. Because he couldn’t believe that this was here, after the hell it was before."
Situated in a forgotten corner of Rialto, Flanagan’s Fields community garden is a small but influential green spot. With a lot of improvisation and perseverance, the site has grown from a wasteland into a garden housing some 40 gardeners, social projects, and a geodesic dome. Dougal Hazel is one of the initiators, and tells me the story of the garden.
Between 2003 and 2006, the Fatima Mansions in Rialto were knocked down. The edifice of several flat blocks had been notorious for decades as being among the most violence- and drugs-ridden neighbourhoods of Dublin. “They were pretty horrendous and hard times,” Dougal tells. “I remember a guy stopped at the gate last year, who grew up in those blocks. He was crying. Because he couldn’t believe that this was here, after the hell it was before.”
Even though it is October, the garden is teeming with greens and flowers. Dougal opens the gate and lets me in. “The garden used to be open all the time. But things, tools, just disappeared sometimes – it didn’t work. Now we try to make as many people as possible have a key, so that the garden will be open more often.”
Flanagan’s Fields community garden is run by a core group of about five volunteers living close by. In addition, some 40 people are now gardening here. After paying ‘a fiver for a key’, you can get your own patch, besides which you are asked to help with general gardening. “We invite anybody who wants to get in. We have several community groups like health food initiatives and after-schools, and even eco-unesco (a youth-environment organisation) has a patch in the garden.”
There was no soil when the gardeners started, only tarmac and demolishing rubble. They organised the makeover of the surface themselves. To improve the soil, the gardeners are now also working on creating compost out of the waste from the garden. The whole place is managed organically. Instead of using pesticides, the gardeners try to learn about companion gardening: managing pests by planting strategic plants next to each other. “Something is only a pest if there is too much of it,” Dougal says. “If you have enough of something in the right place, it is an asset.” Dougal himself has no ecological background at all – he learned gardening on the way. “We are in the phase where you just stick something into the ground, water it, and see if it grows, and if it doesn’t you stick another one in. Every year we learn a little bit extra.”
The real eyecatcher of the garden is the geodesic dome. It is a large sphere-shaped greenhouse that stands in the middle of the garden like a huge upside down fishbowl. An initiative called the Grow Dome Project built it here as a prototype to experiment with urban farming methods. “They have donated the dome to the garden as a way of digging out how to do this in other areas in a more commercial way.” The volunteers of the garden will be gardening the dome.
The structure itself is built up of triangular wooden frames covered with plastic. “It went up in a weekend,” Dougal says. “We dug out a trench around the dome to put in water harvesting containers. They want to put solar onto it as well.” Inside, the skeleton of a hydroponics system has been installed, with eight growing beds that should give a continuous rotation of produce. However, various parts of the dome are still waiting for funding to get finished and running.
In the first year, the gardeners were practically squatting. “In the second year, 2012, Dublin City Council gave us a ‘letter of comfort’. It was no license or lease, but they recognised officially that we were here. We got our first license in 2013. However, from that point we had to pay for the license and a public liability insurance, which is about 350 euros a year. So far we have been successful in trying for grants. This year, for example, we got a four thousand bank grant.” However, grants are not a very reliable income stream. “We learned recently that we can also sell stuff here, as long as the money goes back into the garden. We could sell young plants or vegetables, anything, as a revenue stream so we will be more independent.”
Like the garden itself, the organisation of the place is still evolving. “The garden has been an invention of many people’s hopes, wishes, dreams. That is its strength and its weakness. When somebody’s idea is railroaded through it can create friction, but if nobody is railroading anything through…” Another problem is to keep all the patches maintained. “Our model is good, but the reality is not as clear-cut. A group may be here for, say, six months regularly and then all of a sudden – pouf. Their funding has run dry, or a different committee with a different agenda has come in. We are of the frame of mind that if you don’t use it, you lose it. So if you come back after seven months of not gardening you might find your space is actually taken over by somebody else.”
The next phase in organising the garden would be to do more things collectively, Dougal thinks. “We have to get more organised, keeping people in the loop, get a facebook page running so that people know what is happening. The core group of volunteers are only four or five people. We really need to start involving everybody who has a key, and get everybody’s ideas and inventiveness.” Also, not everyone who wants to be involved in the garden actually wants to garden. “We need to channel the people who want to be involved in the organisation of the garden into doing what they are good at, and the people who want to do the gardening into doing what they are good at.”
A couple passes by and looks in curiously. “You wanna come in?” Dougal shouts. By the time I leave, a patch in the garden is arranged for the girl. The welcoming atmosphere of the place must be one of the reasons why it is so successful in bringing people together.
“That is one thing the garden has been amazing for,” Dougal says. “There are people sitting around here that I would never have known, and they would never have known me, because I live around the corner, and that means we are of a different socio-economic group, a different cultural group. Also, you have new people moving in next to the older community that lived here for forty, fifty years. The whole area has gone through this recycling and not being connected. Something like this breaks down the social boundaries, and suddenly you have a cohesiveness that wasn’t there before.”
The Flanagan’s Fields community garden is working together with many other groups and projects. For example, unemployed people help out in the garden as part of the Tús programme, that is aimed at getting people back into work. “We hope that we will eventually be able to run courses,” Dougal says. “For example, in seed harvesting or understanding how to compost. That would be something that they could actually take away and use on a cv.”
The garden may also get involved with the linear park that is being built close by. “They are short on funds, so we offered to grow the flowers here and be their nursery.” The gardeners are now also taking over some flower boxes in the surrounding streets. “We are becoming a hub in greening the neighbourhood,” Dougal says. “We are growing the garden out of the garden.”
“In early 2014 this site went back into the portfolio of the Housing department, so we are never sure if this will stay. We never started it to be sure.” Despite their insecure situation, Dougal thinks the city council is doing well in supporting small-scale initiatives. “They are tremendously supportive of any initiatives that people are willing to put their shoulder to, especially since their funding is quite cut to the quick. So the more we involve the community, the more our place will be seen as having social value, not only an economic value as housing space.” The garden has already won several community and environmental awards. “All these things add up. Hopefully it will be weight enough to make this a sustainable space.”