It makes for a very different kind of water cooler conversation.
Rows of former water cooler canisters, stacked in pairs, have been re-purposed as potato planters, the lower canisters acting as individual water reservoirs for the ones above, each of which houses a different variety of potato plant. There are 160 varieties in all – sourced from Dave Langford’s heritage potato collection – and which now peep, to varying degrees, above their funky plastic parapets. Stand around these water-vessels-turned-potato-pots for any length of time, especially with Andrew Douglas in the vicinity, and your conversation is likely to be punctuated with words like recycling, upcycling, community, education, employment and urban renewal.
It’s all part of the Dublin Urban Farm, a project which has seen founders Andrew Douglas and Paddy O’Kearney – along with much volunteer help and support from local cafés and restaurants – turn the roof and uppermost floor of an old sweet factory into a productive and inspiring green space.
The site is the old Williams & Woods building on King’s Inns Street in Dublin’s north inner city, where, at one time and among other things, the distinctively triangular Toblerone was produced. The factory dates from the beginning of the 20th century, but had fallen into disrepair after production moved elsewhere around 1975. It’s more recently become a focus of urban rejuvenation: re-christened The Chocolate Factory, it’s home to a developing creative community of which the Urban Farm is a very visible part.
Cast your gaze across the roof and you’ll see waste materials being put to productive use – wooden frames turned into chicken coops; tea chests as large planters; barrels which play host to an explosion of growing slots. Food waste from participating cafés and restaurants is composted here and these establishments will, in time, have roof-grown produce to put on their menus. The potatoes, which are being grown at the instigation of Pádraic Óg Gallagher, will eventually find a home in the kitchens of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Temple Bar.
In a corner of the building’s top floor below, these urban farmers are also experimenting, among other things, with aquaponics, which refers to a system of growing which combines aquaculture (raising fish or aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) to the mutual benefit of both. Effluents from the fish are channelled to a hydroponic system, where they are broken down by nitrogen fixing bacteria, filtered out by plants as nutrients and the cleaned water is recirculated to the tanks.
It’s an inspiring project and has generated much interest, particularly since being featured on the RTÉ series, Local Heroes, at the end of May. Though they have yet to experience their first full growing season, and are undoubtedly learning much as they go, the OPW (Office of Public Works) have been in touch about the possibility of replicating the idea on other city rooftops. Pádraig Óg Gallagher, meanwhile, has replaced the hanging baskets in front of The Boxty House with some of the Urban Farm potato planters, bringing potatoes, and the Urban Farm concept, even closer to the heart of the city, where both should properly be.
See It Yourself
For those of you in Ireland – and just for the next 10 days or so – it’s well worth catching the Local Heroes documentary on the Urban Farm on the RTÉ player.
For those who’d like to see the Urban Farm for themselves – and who wouldn’t – guided tours will run until the end of September, on Wednesdays at 1pm and 6.15pm and on Saturdays at 1pm. Each tour lasts about 45 minutes, costs €5 and should be booked in advance. Details here or contact [email protected] to book or to arrange private or group tours.
Finally, for those interested in hearing more about the development of urban farming systems, it’s well worth listening to Ella McSweeney’s recent BBC Radio 4 documentary on vertical farming.