Part ten of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
The Suffolk Community Garden is found in a Protestant housing estate within greater nationalist Belfast. Health is poor and unemployment high; hope can be in short supply. Yet this estate also boasts views of the Belfast hills, has a river running through it and there’s a resident rooster, which all combine to give this urban area an incongruously lush edge. The garden itself stands in over an acre of green space, sandwiched between the waterway and a community centre.
The focus here is on food, with a wide range of produce growing in raised beds and a 60ft polytunnel. There’s broccoli, cabbage, carrots, leeks and onions, plus tomatoes, courgettes and chillies. As well as raspberry, white currant and blueberry bushes – and cherry, fig, peach and plum trees – there’s also exotic loquat, orange and lemon. The produce is distributed at a community market, where residents can get hold of it for a small donation. An area with few food options – other than the junk kind – now has a steady supply of fresh fruit and veg.
“The garden was built by a group of young unemployed men, who continue to help tend the site” explains Caroline Murphy who coordinates the project. “They’ve also built one across the divide on the Lenadoon Estate. It was absolutely unknown for young men to venture into that estate before. People don’t care whether something’s a Catholic or a Protestant vegetable. The gardens give people a shared interest and a little bit of hope for the future. We’re tackling social injustice through urban gardening.”
The growing and harvesting have expanded beyond the garden boundary, with foraging trips for wild garlic and rowan berries down the river path and tyres distributed throughout the community so people can grow potatoes at home. “People are mad for potatoes – we wouldn’t be Northern Ireland if they weren’t” says Caroline. They’re even raising 25 turkeys this year for Christmas.
Growing has become a tool for promoting peace in Belfast. The Grow Waterworks Community Garden is built on a contested piece of ground that was once a no-man’s land between the loyalist Westland estate and Catholic communities on the other side. The garden was funded through the Peace III programme, which focuses on peace building and promoting good relations.
“Here, among the peas, beans, potatoes and herbs, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago petrol bombs were being thrown over the 20ft high metal peace wall that directly adjoins our plot” says Justin Nicholl from Grow, a small charity working with communities to create gardens.
Visit Waterworks and you’ll find salads, spuds, swede, sprouts, red cabbage, artichokes, pumpkins, peppers, aubergine and lots more growing. The produce is divvied up among regular gardeners, with surplus shared with locals and park users. They also cook at the garden in a ‘camp kitchen’, often using foraged as well as homegrown ingredients.
“All of what Grow does has community building and eco-therapy at its heart” explains Justin. “Whether that’s working with a community to reclaim some land and create an edible organic garden; working with older people in a residential setting; or developing projects to tackle food poverty.”
15 minutes drive out of town is Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens, apparently in an area where Northern Ireland’s rich and famous live. Despite being on the main commuting route between Bangor and Belfast, the space is a tranquil one. “We’re on the doorstep of the city but it doesn’t feel like it because we’re also on the shore of Belfast loch and surrounded by big old trees” says Ben Craig from Root and Branch Organic, the organisation that runs the gardens.
The site consists of several polytunnels, two big fields and two packing sheds – there’s no electricity. They grow things like broad beans, chard, spring onions, basil and edible flowers, which are packed into veg boxes or sold at farmers’ markets. Those boxes could be picked up by customers from collection points as diverse as hairdressers, newsagents and community centres.
“We’re connecting people with the seasons and encouraging them to cook by ingredient rather than recipe” says Ben. “From the business point of view, this is the best deal for the farmer. We know a local farmer that supplies a big supermarket who gets less for his produce today than he did 15 years ago. We’re also connecting rural and urban environments. We’re able to say ‘this was grown for you, by John’. Supermarket food is more anonymous.”
Ben’s background is in youth work and he’s developing an educational side to Root and Branch. He’s currently running an intergenerational peace building project in north Belfast, linking a Catholic area – New Lodge – with a Protestant area across the street called Tiger Bay. “We’re working towards a joint festival event at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, as well as designing gardens for both communities. At New Lodge, we’ve done some vertical gardening using palettes. Traditionally these were burned in bonfires during the conflict, so we’re reclaiming them and turning them into planters.”
Also just outside Belfast, in the seaside town of Bangor, Growing Connections is pioneering the concept of ‘care’ or ‘social farming’ in Northern Ireland. This type of project involves a partnership between a farmer, health and social care providers, and participants – particularly those who have mental health concerns or feel socially isolated. Their recent public health authority projects have focused on suicide prevention and how to stop smoking.
“We create a safe and stimulating environment where people can connect with nature and others to promote their physical health and mental well-being” explains Joan Woods from the project. “We’re developing a smallholding demonstration site and running workshops on woodland management, building out of sustainable materials, growing vegetables and herbs, and farm animal management.”
They have 14 acres of mature and newly planted woodland, and four acres of community socialising and growing space. They grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers as a group, which they harvest and eat together. Group members can also take produce home. “Our project is a means for people to rediscover that the best things in life are free – fresh air, water, the natural environment, laughing with others and sharing a common purpose” says Joan.