Tour of Airfield Kitchen Garden


During the week I joined the organic college on a tour of the 2 year old kitchen garden at Airfield Dundrum led by garden manager Kitty Scully. The location for the kitchen garden is on what was formerly an overflow car with some of the topsoil having been scraped off and piled into one of the fields elsewhere on the 38 acre site. This and the former building site nature of airfield in recent years have led to soil compaction and large amounts of construction materials being uncovered as this new garden is being establised.

The site is very exposed to wind and from the fairy mound one looks out across an open field with livestock and views up toward the Dublin mountains. You could almost imagine there are no roads or apartment blocks to stop you going for a hike up into the Dublin hills but for the hum of the traffic. As a consequence of this exposure the soil tends to be quite drying. A native hedge is being established at some distance from the kitchen garden but its function is more one of field boundary than wind protection for the garden.

One of the design Ideas was to visually connect the kitchen garden with the field giving the sense of a country garden in a rural setting. Below in the image are some hazel wigwams made locally with beans.These have been undersown with nasturtiams which tend to grow a bit wild. Beyond this a walkway with young damson trees and In the middle distance a field and the hills beyond up to the Dublin Hills. This gives some idea for the level of exposure currently. Hopefully as the damsons mature this will help a little.


Site exposure

The design for the new airfield was done by Arabella Lennox-Boyd an english designer at a cost of over 1 Million euro.Two of the more ambitious features of the kitchen garden include a small vinyard on a south facing slope and an apple maze. Unfortunately I didn’t find out the varieties of vines being trialled but it will be interesting to find out and follow their progress in this location. I,m told only down the road at the allotments in Goatstown is an establised small vineyard so I will have to look into this also. The vines should benefit from the dryness of the soil but the exposure wont help the grapes.


Vines on south facing slope

The apple maze was planted up with 1 year old maiden whips supplied by seedsavers. Unfortunately with the public having access to the area the buds are getting knocked off. This is making it very difficult to train the young plants. A similar apple maze in France used 6 year old trees from the start. The difficulty here is in allowing access while doing what is best for the plants. It’s a question of priority I suppose but the current solutions proposed are to prevent access for a few years or start over with older trees. Paula suggested making a maze from a cereal crop somewhere else on site in the meantime.


Struggling Maiden whip apple maze

Kitty has a great knoledge of vegetables and in this garden they are combined with ornamentals. Old cds dangling above brassicas are used to deter birds.


Mixed planting

A motif of alliums is used throughout. In this garden how a plant looks when it dies is very important and potato die really bad. There is a constant supply of new plants being propagate ready for replanting and in some areas rotations are not strictly used.


Alliums for dramatic effect

Allium heads are dried on racks in the tunnel for seed saving. Allium schubertii was particularly recommeded


The drying rack

Kitty recommends growing musselbourg leeks from brown envelope seeds which can take a wet autumn. .Nearby the leeks a drill of flax which drops its flowers every night and linseed was growing. Callendula “Indian Prince” came highly recommended  especially along borders where it should attract aphid eating hoverflys. This seed can be bought from Sarah Raven seed company.

The red lettuce “ear of the devil ”  brought up an interesting conversation about how it seemed to be looking untouched by herbivores while neighbouring plants were nibbled. I looked into it after Paula mentioned something about the pigment and it’s probably because of the anthocyanin molecules which cause the redness in plants. Found in red berries it helps with seed dispersal attracting animals, while in leaves it protects against uv radiation by reflecting the red part of the spectrum. Anthocyanin found in red leaves is believed to act as a visual mask to edibility when compared with the green of other plants which act as a visual cue for edibility. Very interesting stuff indeed with more on this in the link below.


Ear of the devil red lettuce

Kitty tends to plant small amounts of any one plant together. One of the benefits of this is the idea of “false landing” .The theory goes that because butterflys taste a host plant for laying eggs with their feet they decide on a good location by tasting or landing on a variety of plants in the area. The theory is that they get a bit confused with all the variety of tastes and move off. The name Martin Finch was mentioned in connection to this theory.

The large rhubarb forcer below costs 250 euro as compared with a black bin for a few euro. They are nice though. The variety of rhubarb here is Livingstone and the winter dormancy has been bred out.


Livingstone Rhubarb

One of the things Kittys wants more of are border plants such as herbs or perhaps even garlic and onions to define  the boundary with the paths more clearly. The beds are wide requiring one to step onto the soil for access. In some areas timber boards have been layed down to define paths and reduce compaction and this will develop into steping stones through the larger beds in time.

The wildflower mix for the meadow came from and leads down to the “Permaculture garden” where herbs grow in close proximity to the kitchen. As you move towards this you past a crop of oats, barley and wheat great for explaining where porridge,beer and bread come from. More linear planting is used down here in raised beds with brassica crops such as Brocolli variety Atlantis.

The kitchen gardens are not certified organic but no harsh chemicals are used.  . Considering it’s only 2 years old there is a lot of work gone into this.

The natural hazel fencing around the meadow and cereals looks fantastic and is a very clever way to limit access.


Crop protection

More unusual edible plants such as oca, red orache, strawberry sticks, and tree spinach are grown here too.


More unusual edibles

Other interesting plants grown around the garden are elephant garlic , sea kale and hibiscus and a variety of pumpkins  called ” Crown Prince”. A very duck like duck courgette was growing also which I didn’t get a pic of but it looks exactly like a duck. Last year they grew enormous Conneticut field pumpkins but this year the pumpkin crop is not so great.

We got to taste radish seed called “munching beer” which were very nice. Other planting combinations used are carrot and crocosmia and kale with rudbeckia. The tastiest tomatos in the tunnel were sungold and while golden sunrise crop well they taste a little bland.

The tunnel cucumber varieties included marketmore, crystal lemon, casino and a cucumber melon cross. The melon variety sweetheart was also being grown. Below is a vietnamese corriander plant


vietnamese corriander

The kitchen garden is well worth a visit and there are plans to develop a cookery course. The most impressive thing I saw was the series of composting bays by the tunnels. These are unfortunately down on a concrete base instead of soil which would be better but they do allow access by skid steer to turn it. To some composting may not be the most glamorous of gardening activities but for me I always want to know what is happening in this regard. Green material generated on site is being taken seriously and recycled back into the land.

I was thinking it would also make a lot of sense to develop a horticultural course or perhaps even a permaculture design course here. The true potential of this site, its location and what it could showcase is very exciting into the future and it’s easy to see the direction Kitty is heading with her enthusiasm.  As a space for education it’s great to get a tour which includes things that didn’t work, this is so much a part of the learning and shouldn’t have to be hidden.

Dublin Mountain garden: Analysis, Design and Implementation



After doing the survey I realised there will be a number of challenges in building this little raised bed garden system.

  1. I would like to use the materials and resourses that are to hand. These include roundwood logs (Larch and Pine), fertile soil/compost from a ditch, nettles, leaves and mycelia, cardboard and newsprint, manure and sterile compost.
  2. The soil is lacking in depth and Organic matter
  3. It must look reasonably well
  4. It must be cheap to make
  5. It should be in place and covered before the winter to allow it to settle for next year
  6. It must reduce the amount spent on shoping each week

Design idea.

While we were traveling I had seen how fallen or felled logs were placed against tree stumps on hilly ground to reduce erosion and stabilise the slope. Soil and organic matter collects behind these creating a terrace and these become places where fertility is captured. I had also noticed how ditches below sloping ground also collected soil and organic matter and this material could be collected and used to fill a raised bed. Looking nearby I quickly found suitable materials and began implementing the design.


I began by gathering logs using a rope to drag them into position and laying these out to get an idea for the shape and size of the bed. I then drove stakes into the ground to hold the logs in position on the slope

laying out logs

I leveled the timbers using some flat stones

leveling timbers

Next I leveled the base of the bed so the fill materials will be consistent across the slope. This involved draging some material from the back to the front of the slope, removing larger stones and woody roots of the Bergenias. Once setup the system will be no dig but some digging was unavoidable in creating the terrace. I also widened the bed to 1400 mm.

A drainage ditch needed clearing out so this yielded about 20 barrows of rich compost/soil. There is some scutch grass in this which I have not removed.The benefits of the material trump my reluctance to use it. This will only form one of the base layers in the buildup of materials and will be sheet mulched repeatly before the bed is fully filled.


The difference in colour between this and the soil below is amazing its rich brown and full of worms and soil life.

compost added

To the top of this I cut and added a  generous layer of nettles. These needed clearing to give access to the hedge for cutting.


Over the nettles I am spreading leaves containing mycelium. This will provide good habitat for worms. The rains today will help to moisten everything up before the cardboard goes down and the building process continues. to be continued ..


Volunteering on farms: the real story

By Laura Cleary and Patrick Hunt

Garden in the French countryside we spotted out walking. Fab veggies!!

As part of our trip campervanning in Europe we were keen to volunteer on organic/sustainable and/or permaculture farms, small holdings and projects. We believed there were many good reasons to volunteer such as, learning a new self sufficiency skill, seeing how others live off the land, how they juggle between their alternative way of life and how they earn money, meeting like minded people, contributing to worthwhile projects, saving a bit of money whilst travelling to name but a few. We didn’t really know how much time we would spend volunteering versus how much we would spend travel but we got the books, signed up to the memberships and booked a small holding for the second week of our trip. Having done much volunteering before and worked in a variety of places we both had mainly very positive experiences here in Ireland. Patrick had volunteered and given his time to eco-projects, farms and worked teaching horticulture in the National Learning Network while I had volunteered in multiple charities for many years mainly in counselling and in the disability sector also. Our experiences were both in professional environments and more informal situations and we found we both enjoyed and learned much from them. We felt respected and in most cases people greatly appreciated us for giving our time and helping out.
However, our experiences volunteering abroad through Wwoof and Helpx were on the whole quite disappointing. Altogether we visited 8 farms but only stayed at 4 . We stayed only one night at 3 others before leaving and the last one was purely organised as a visit just to see the place. We were also in contact with many others and for one reason or another didn’t end up going as it didn’t suit either us or the host but these interactions also gave us a good flavour for what is on offer. Out of all those 8 I can honestly say that only 2 or 3 were really enjoyable and we learned a little. The others definitely had good points but overall were disappointing.
I won’t be naming names as it’s unfair in this forum but I just want to give a flavour to those who might read this and are thinking of volunteering to carefully consider where they go and to find out as much as possible before arriving at a farm. It might also be useful for hosts as it raises common concerns that volunteers might have.
Of the 8 places we visited only 4-5 farms treated us with respect. Others left us feeling quite exploited worked hard with very little to eat. We are not afraid of hard work. We normally were asked to work 4-6 hours which is fine but we did expect, as the deal stated, to be fed properly. We were already providing our own accommodation so all we expected was three meals a day for a fairs days work. Overall this feeling of being exploited for free labour and being made to feel like a third class citizen were the biggest issues we had. We’ve both had a range of jobs over the years from working in shops and abattoirs to working in all sort of organisations and even in our least favourite jobs where you might have an intimidating boss, bully or rude person we were never treated like a third class citizen, certainly not by other staff or employers (maybe customers!).
To explain further I’ll describe each farm:
1.  Small-holding run by an English ex-pat couple:
From the minute we arrived we were made to feel beneath them. When we arrived the man pretended that he was French and we were at the wrong farm, funny a first, but not after listening to a good few Irish jokes (as in jokes about the Irish). There was very little clarity about what we would be doing and it was awkward because we had arrived on a Sunday which was a day off (they could have told us it wasn’t convenient, we could have arrived any day). It’s very difficult to explain this one, but basically there was a lot of verbal and non-verbal signs that came across as very rude. At one stage I asked if I could help with something, the quick reply was “why? are you bored?”.
Another issue was that they claimed to be organic but none of the animal feed was organic and they claimed to be having a home reared chicken for dinner but we spotted it in the fridge and it was wrapped in plastic from the supermarket! Patrick helped the man collect some wood from a neighbour and they had a little joke, “oh yes…organic haha”. If it wasn’t for the put downs we would have stayed happily but after sleeping on it we decided to leave. They had no passion for what they were doing anymore with the man wanting on his mother in law to die (who was cared for onsite) so they could sell up and go travelling themselves. Why would we bother? So we moved on.
Lesson number 1: Make sure to pick a farm where people are genuinely interested in sustainability. Little information at the email stage can be a bad sign.
2.       3 acre organic homestay/garden run by a couple
Overall this was a very positive experience but there were a few major issues. While we had a dog with us we made sure to explain and clarify about the dog’s nature and that he would need to be accepted and he’s well behaved etc. However, in this case when we arrived we were soon to learn that he wasn’t allowed off the lead outside in the garden in case he would chase the cats…surely they could run up a tree and anyway we rarely saw them as they were never around. The welfare of the cats was prioritised, of course I have no issue with that, but they failed to consider the dog’s welfare who was often locked in the van for long periods and then tied up outside. We didn’t want to leave as they seemed so nice (I guess they just weren’t doggie people) so we made great efforts to walk the dog early in the morning and late at night, sometimes a struggle to get away to do this. On the positive side, the place was truly self-sufficient and they made great time for us always, chatting, teaching and working with us which was really nice. Sometimes, as a couple we found it a bit intense as we found it hard to get time alone and another volunteer said she didn’t get much free time either. I think some hosts get a lot out of having volunteers on a social level but they do need to realise it’s important to allow volunteers to have space to themselves. Living and working in someone’s home is stressful at first as you’ve got to learn their specific house rules, and you spend a lot of time getting to know each other which can be draining when it’s all day long.
However, the main problem with this place was the lack of food. While meals were always extremely well prepared, tasty and we learned a lot from their way of cooking, there was nowhere near enough food for people who were working physically most of the day. There was no carbs, no eggs, no cheese, no meat and no dairy. Meal times were varied every day so you never knew when you would next eat. I found myself getting very hungry on the first day or two of every farm and I realised it was a psychological effect because of the higher stress levels when starting on a new farm, feeling drained and also the fact that you didn’t really know when you’d next eat which made you more hungry and food aware. Having lived independently for many years we were used to feeding ourselves when we wanted. I think hosts should consider that it isn’t always easy starting off on a new farm for many reasons and each person’s experience will vary but volunteers should be reassured when it comes to food. Older volunteers don’t need to be treated like 18 year olds who’ve never left home.
One day as a treat we had chips in the afternoon for “dinner” but there was nothing other than apple tart at 8pm. The chips were what I’d called a 1-2 person portion divided between 5 people so that night we had to cook in the van. All of the meal times involved a huge amount of preparing because of the nature of the diet so there was always a lot of washing up to do which we did of course but it took quite a while before we’d be let out to bring the dog out walking. One day it was suggested we stay working after the 6 hours but we had to say no. We were also told about the idea of breatharianism, “the belief that it is possible for a person to live without consuming food. Breatharians claim that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival and that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the vital life force in Hinduism” (Wikipedia definition). Coming from a background in psychology this sounded like a handy excuse for either anorexia or food issues or getting away with feeding very little to volunteers who are vulnerable to alternative ideas. If I was to be a host myself I would not impose my own diet on another. I could only imagine what it was like for big strong fellas who have high metabolisms. We felt hungry all week, yes an interesting experience, but it’s not fair when the deal is that you get fed for your work. And when I say fed, fed sufficiently. Patrick claims he didn’t go to the toilet for 5 days!!! Also the other volunteer was sleeping in a cabin and asked if the stove could be lit as she found it very cold at night but she was told no. When asked if I could use the internet I was told “no, not tonight” even though no one was using it. When the hosts went to the shop they asked if anyone needed anything, the other French volunteer said “pain au chocolat” to which they firmly replied “oh no”.
Lesson number 2: Don’t go to vegan farms and clarify further about dog rules and free time.
3. Large farm run by a family aiming to raise organic beef and practice regenerative agriculture and holistic animal management.
No complaints here. Very warmly welcomed, given time to be shown around, fed well, given independence in our jobs which were discussed creatively and negotiated fairly, a sense of fairness and autonomy around free time and cooking was done by everyone taking in turns with washing up. While being given a lot of time in the beginning you were then trusted to be left by yourself to work and also contribute as part of the team. A fantastic experience! Wine was allowed on a Saturday and we were treated to a wild boar in red wine sauce which was brought to us by a local hunter. Having a larger group of volunteers there too made it more social and fun for us also. Everyone else there had said they chose this place because it wasn’t vegetarian!
4.One night at a homestay/organic garden
This place was nice in many ways and I think we would have been fed well and treated nicely but for us it wasn’t going to be enough in regards to learning something new. Having already grown our own vegetables very successfully we were disappointed to see the veg plot which was referred to as our “permaculture garden” covered in weeds with no vegetables growing. In all the places we stayed I never saw vegetables as good as the ones Patrick grew in our garden except for some French houses we walked past. Patrick spent most of the evening giving a consultation to them which I learned lots more from compared to anywhere we’d been! They were very interested and grateful for the advice and also very understanding that it didn’t suit us as Patrick was at a more advanced level. They also had no animals and the house was already built so there wasn’t a whole pile going on. After being shown around we were left with the home schooled boy of 12 not knowing when we were supposed to stop working or when we’d be fed and there were no materials to do the work which was very disorganised. When you come to these places you’re time to the host is valuable but sometimes hosts don’t organise themselves and so it’s just wasted. It’s frustrating when you could get a lot of work done and be productive. Also when a friend came around we were ignored and stood around feeling like spare wheels as we couldn’t partake in the conversation in French. I don’t believe this was done in a malicious way or anyway intended but hosts should be aware of how they’re behaviour can impact on volunteers especially on the first day. After all they are getting free help from very willing, enthusiastic and often more experienced volunteers.
Lesson number 3: Make sure you know what you want to learn, be specific, ask questions and don’t bother if you don’t think you will learn.
5. Herbal and aromatic farm run by a young family
Overall this was also very positive. We learned something new and interesting and were well fed. On our free day we went walking and brought our own packed lunch and so missed the dinner which wasn’t saved for us as the lunch sized meal was then had at dinner time. The French do it differently!
6.A visit to the rudest person I’ve ever met in my life-175 hectares
This farm is belonging to an academic animal behaviourist long involved in ecological farming and volunteering. We made an enquiry only to find out they had enough volunteers but their website, which showed a research centre said they accepted visitors and provided meals and allowed camping. The email response was very superior with a “have you read my book?” attitude and a lecture on how permaculture doesn’t cover animal welfare and basically only works in cities. Ok… so we thought we’d learn something being a research centre and finally delighted to visit a place that actually relied on science/critical thinking with people who didn’t believe in unfounded woowoo and quasi religions. Patrick read up on some scientific journals that she’d written which made some big claims. Having done research and having quite a lot of training in statistics and research methods I was surprised to see the figures. She explained in great detail how much food they grew and the methods used, but then multiplied it up to claim it was possible to feed 20 families as if she’d proved it. She didn’t even grow enough to cover herself and the family. I’m sure it was possible but it was all a bit jumping in its conclusions. We also read some highly critical reviews of her work. Anyway we went along as she said if we brought a bottle of wine we could stay for dinner to have a chat but she would not be available to see us before this so we were to look around ourselves and read the posters. We read them and learned about some previous projects. We bumped into some helpers and the man who also lived there. We understood they were busy and let them get on with their jobs while we looked around the site. After having a look we came back to the house for dinner as agreed. We couldn’t find anyone and didn’t know where to go so I wandered up a stairs to find someone. I found the woman sitting watching the TV so said hello…no reply…I said hello again…still no reply. On the third attempt she heard me and I introduced myself. She didn’t seem too happy that’d I walked in. I asked if she needed help with the dinner and she said “no” very firmly. So advised me to go down to the girls (her two volunteers) and help them. Luckily we got chatting with them and they were very nice. Eventually she and he came in and Patrick on first meeting her was asked to get another plate. No hello. When we sat down to boiled parsley (as it was the hungry gap) and white beans she enquired about Patrick’s background. When he said he taught gardening she shouted “what do you know about gardening? You need to be doing it forty years! What you should be doing as an architect is vertical gardening in cities”. She didn’t give any time to listen and made assumption after assumption. She was blatantly rude, very angry and bitter. Here we were young people who actually care about these issues she’s been striving to publicise for decades, eager to learn, willing to help and all she could do is put us down and make it all a competition a sort of but don’t you know who I am. The invite for dinner was really because she wanted an argument because of Patrick’s reply through email which politely enquired about her research and showed and interest. She believes most people should live in cities in urbanised, stressful environments while people like her who are landed from birth and know what they’re doing should do the real farming. She did have a good point when she observed the amount of holiday homes, second homes and people wanting to be self sufficient in the countryside actually waste a huge amount of fuel driving back and forth to work. But as we hiked up a hill above her valley that she owned all to herself we noticed her using the tractor instead of the horses…and that doesn’t use fuel? Nobody is perfect. This way of life is highly challenging and near impossible but you can only try your best. I’ve no doubt she has tried her best and met many a critic but she transferred her anger and resentment onto us and thought we were no different to anyone else who comes volunteering with “very little practical experience”. We tried to understand it from her eyes but it’s disappointing that people are hypocritical and assuming, turning young enthusiastic people off with bitterness and anger probably because she feels unheard and criticised. Anyway I’ll rant no more. The worst part was her rudeness and vicious attacks. Her volunteers are up at 6am and work all day. They get fed boiled parsley and are left to do the washing up as “the older people don’t wash up”. I wonder in her claims that she can farm ecologically on mass scale does she mention that most of the work is done by volunteers.
Lesson number 4: If you get bad vibes through first contact in email or just don’t feel enthusiastic don’t go!! This could definitely be said for all the experiences…your gut really does say a lot before you even meet them.   
7.  Organic sheep farm and Chateau
In some ways this was a terrible experience. Keen to work with animals we decided on this place run by a family with a B&B chateau. Through emails she offered certain dates. I responded that we couldn’t come then and offered an alternative. She agreed. When we arrived we were met by the husband who quickly delegated us to the volunteer who’d been there a month to show us around. The lambs were gorgeous and the place seemed ok. The owners didn’t make much effort to welcome us or chat. While being shown around by the other volunteer he told us that as of from today the host had decided there’d be no food for dinner provided and we’d need to go to the shops for dinner because there would be two more volunteers arriving so there’d be six volunteers in total. We were very disappointed as at this stage we were starting to see a trend, feed the volunteers barely anything, use them as much as possible and treat them like third class citizens. The vibe here was very exploitative. We had just watched the films “The Help” and “The Butler” and honestly I felt like I was living in those movies without the violence of course! There was an older volunteer there for two years and he told us “you’re in France, you speak French”. Fair enough but that was not was agreed with the owner when I first emailed. We always explained we don’t have much French and only enquired to farms that stated they spoke English. He also proceeded to show Patrick how to wash up…he may not be great with housework but most men of 34 know how to wash up!! This was how it was going to be, getting bossed about by the second in command, a Kapo! The younger volunteer didn’t seem to have a clear idea of the hours of work after being there a month and he said he was just on call at all times. We decided to ask the lady, when she was free to speak to us, about the dinner situation. We’d just spent a week at a vegetarian farm and were feeling a little tired so we weren’t prepared to not get fed properly. She said she’d provide lunch but we’d have to manage on leftovers and buy our own extras. The kitchen was also filthy and she instructed us to organise the farm having only just arrived with no idea of how things are run. She explained she had 6 children and couldn’t afford food. Then why agree to have us? She then said we arrived too early and also that I had insisted we come on the dates I mentioned in the email. There is such a word as NO. Why can’t people use it? We suggested a date, it didn’t mean she had to say yes! She was acting like she was doing us a favour by squeezing us in. After trying to negotiate the meals, she said “you know what? I think it’s best you just leave, it doesn’t feel very nice anymore”. She then back-peddled and said “oh but stay the weekend or the night if you have nowhere else to go”. I think she must be used to having younger travellers with little money and no transport.
Having seen what it’s like to be a host I must say we feel much more reluctant to hosts ourselves in the future. She said she had to show one volunteer how to boil pasta! And we have met all sorts of lost and wayward souls volunteering. If having volunteers is more troublesome than it’s worth and costs you more than you receive then don’t do it! She made her problems feel like our problems. How were we to know she felt like this before even meeting her? A simple email saying “you know what? I’m too busy” would have been fine. We could have gone elsewhere quite easily. In fact we drove a big distance out of our way to get there.
Lesson number 5: Clarify you’re going to get fed for your work?
8. Small site owned by a person we met on another farm
This was an enjoyable week spent with good food, being well looked after and given plenty of time but also space to ourselves. Reconnecting with two people we’d met on another farm was fun and we joked and laughed a lot about our shared experiences of being under-fed as they also had these experiences in many places.
In conclusion, it seems there’s definitely exploitation of free labour going on. And we heard through one host that it’s being suggested that contracts are agreed on before starting work so as to manage expectations, as clearly there have been a lot of complaints to the organisations involved. We were surprised to be so consistently disappointed and we felt the worst aspect of all (only on some farms) was the lack of respect for another human and their time. The host always has an advantage as it’s their place, their rules and they can potentially get a lot more than the volunteer gets or potentially take advantage. We’ve also experienced hosts sneakily eating at other times while making out as though they eat the same as the volunteers. Also, worryingly is the amount of so called “organic farms” which either don’t practice organics, or try to, but with a lot of mis-information. Obviously we don’t expect organic certification as many are just people’s homes of course. But they should have an interest and certain level of knowledge or be open to listening to someone with skills in a particular area otherwise things are not designed well and won’t work. Another volunteer will come in and there’ll be no continuity.  Sometimes your skills and what you can offer are undervalued for fear that the host is shown up for knowing less.- This is just silly because everyone has something to share and offer. It should be an exchange. It’s not a competition.

Overall we wouldn’t recommend volunteering if you want to learn about Organic Gardening/Permaculture as there’s a lack of quality hosts and you’d be better off paying for a decent course or just learning from books and having a go yourself.

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

Dohyle Lough Rathkeale


It was getting late into the evening after the dinner when dad and I decided to head down to Dohyle Lough with its abandoned public swimming pool and boating canal. Once upon a time people used to come here for fishing but the place is long since abandoned. Many times I have passed the entrance wall with its locked gates but never made it around back to the lake.
I was to be shown two rare plants the Marsh helleborine Orchid (Epipactis palustris) and Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris). There really is no access so we crossed fields under electric fences until we came to the man made canal that links the old public pool and boat storage area to the lake. The ground is dryer here than the lake edge. Along this access way we saw Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) a secondary food plant for 18 species of butterfly including the migrant comma, Painted lady and Clouded Yellow butterfly . Also here we saw Square Stalked St John’s wort (Hypericum tetrapterum) among the meadow grasses. By the canal edge the tall March Figwort (Scropularia auriculata)was growing with its blunt toothed leaves and square winged stem. Other plants spotted along the canal were Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) the primary food plant for the March Fritillary butterfly. Other plants on the canal edge include Wild carrot ( Daucus Carota ), Angelica (Angelica Sylvestris), yarrow ( Achillea millefolium), Agrimony Hemp (Eupatorium cannabinum) loved by butterflys, Oxe-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), Stinging nettle ( Urtica dioica), Silverweed (Potentilla anserinea), Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare),Meadow Sweet ( Filipendula ulmaria), Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus- The inspiration for the invention of Velcro by the swiss inventor George de Mistral) .On the canal White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba). Trees included Sycamore, Willows, Ash, and Hawthorn


Marsh Pennywort

As we moved closer to the lake edge the ground became much softer and it was here that we saw Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) which is edible, Yellow Rattle ( Rhinanthus minor). This plant is semi parasitic using root like organs called Haustoria to take water and minerals from neighbouring plants. It’s an excellent plant to grow if you are trying to establish a wildflower meadow as it suppresses grasses. We did eventually find Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) with a beautiful single white flower on its stem. We found it growing in large groups many are just about to flower.


Grass of Parnassus

The Marsh helleborine Orchid (Epipactis palustris ) was also eventually found but it’s flowering period is finishing. We heard the call of the Water Rail in the reeds and as night fell we listen for the call of barn owls in the paupers graveyard nearby. A fantastic evening was had.

Permaculture gathering and other visits

It’s been a busy few weeks and it feels like I haven’t stopped traveling, visiting friends in Clifden then up to the Permaculture Gathering in Northern Ireland, making a start on the survey phase of a garden project in Dublin and down to Limerick for exams with the Organic College. I’m nearly finished the 2 year distance cert in Organic Horticulture. I would highly recommend the course and the staff involved and have really enjoyed all the research that goes with it. It does take quite a bit of time but I loved it. I’m getting ready to start my own business teaching Permaculture Design and Organic Gardening in Schools in Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford this September.

On the way to Clifden we spent the night at Aughnanure castle near Loch Corrib; it’s a 16th century tower house with 2 bawns. The setting along the river Drimneen is magical and a great place to visit near Oughterard.


The section below is through a typical 16th century towerhouse giving an idea of how it was lived in and defended. I especially liked the clockwise staircase designed to give sword weilding advantage to those inside and the long drop toilets.


Along the Drimneen river bank Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris) and Meadow Sweet (Filipendula ulmaria) are now in flower. I also spotted Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) with its square shaped winged stem.


On our wandering around Clifden we visited the ruins of Clifden Castle built in 1818 in the Neo Georgian style. Cattle, sheep and horses graze the surrounding land and the former stables are now used as cow sheds. In the hedges and along the road edges hazel, Gunnera, Fuchsia, and Montbretia grow. Down in the harbour area we nibbled on sea beet and spotted sea lettuce, serrated wrack and bladder wrack that had been washed up.


I’ve never made it along to the annual all Ireland permaculture gathering before so didn’t quite know what to expect. This year it was held up north near Hillsbourough, Co.Down at Tubby’s farm. We had a very enjoyable weekend with some lovely people. There were interesting talks and workshops on all manner of subjects from upcycling old batteries to growing vines for winemaking in Ireland. Below is an image from the garden that had been made to provide some food for the event. A large rock is being used to provide a heat sink and create a microclimate. It’s a great use for what might be otherwise considered an obstruction. This is what I like about Permaculture. Turning the problem on its head.

I was also very impressed with how the shower water for the event was heated. A pile of woodchips generates a lot of heat as it breaks down. Water from an I.B.C. tank was pumped to a 100 metre coil of water pipe buried on and under a metre of woodchips. When not in use 5 litres of water sitting in the pipes heats by the woodchips to over 70 degrees in about 15 minutes.This is then mixed with a little cold water to shower in. The design is brilliant as each person gets about 5 litres of warm water before it gets cold. That’s more than enough to wash in. By the time they have dressed it’s ready for the next person. The pile will stay warm for 6 weeks before it needs turning.


All the cooking for the event was done in a pit fire by a lady named sue making it an off grid event.

A little survey work

Dublin mountain garden: Survey

Back in the mountains I’ve started a little garden by setting up a compost pile and sowed some seeds in trays for veg into the autumn and winter. The objective is to grow as much as we can instead of buying it in the shops. I’ve managed to negotiate the sunniest spot available to make a little garden. Conditions are far from ideal as its on a North facing slope on thin soil that sits over granite. To have any chance with vegetables up here I will have to create a microclimate and use a raised bed style approach to increase soil depth. It’s also on a slope so that’s a consideration. From our discussions we identified this spot and a number of other areas within the half acre site as possibilities.


veg bed location

In permaculture design we approach any project with a survey.

The inlaws: We are living with my wife’s family for the moment and not sure for how long. They are very keen gardeners themselves, mainly growing ornamentals and have 40 years experience of what will and wont grow up here. They laughed when I said I recon I could get some vegetables to grow but I’m gonna try anyway. They are happy for me to try something but have concerns over how it might look and what will happen to it when we move on. The garden maintenance up here is ongoing and if they have less work to do then that would be very positive. They are also really keen on getting a share of the produce if there is any.

For a number of weeks now I have been slowly enquiring about different parts of the garden, what areas need the most work and helping out with maintenance. We identified there are simply too many beds in the front garden to look after and I could use some of those. The dogs in the back garden make it very difficult to work without being disturbed and they often dig up plants. One dog in particular is totally mad. It is common to get snowed in up here during the winter which is also a concern.

Surveying the Site: The site is divided into two distinct gardens with the house in the middle. The back garden is built completely of raised beds in rockeries directly down onto granite. The southern boundary is at the top of the sloped site and beyond the fence is a Coillte forest leading up onto Cruagh mountain.


Only in the summer does the sun get above the treeline here but it is quite shelted from strong winds. There is a small fenced vegetable and fruit garden to the rear of the house but it has always been a struggle with germination and growing of vegetables and has almost been abandoned due to the dogs and soil conditions. Fruit on the other hand does quite well.

The front garden is more exposed to the Northern winds but does receive more light being further away from the treeline. When the foundations for the house were excavated the soil was moved down the sloped lawn in front of the house and the soil depth here is about 12 inches before you hit rock. I’m waiting on a soil test at the moment.


Surveying the neighbours veg patch: I called into the neighbours veg patch down the road to take a look at what they were managing to grow. This would be the closest vegetable patch to the garden but I am sure the soil conditions here are completely different. As you cross the road in front of the house and look down hill you see fields of cattle and horses grazing on much more fertile land with deeper soils. Cruagh road marks a boundary between this and the much poorer acid soils up the hill. On this better soil they are able to grow peas, broadbeans,potatoes, beetroot, lettuce etc. They buy transplants from a garden centre. Fruit like raspberries do best here and are rampant.


Rainfall and water collection: water is currently collected from the roof of the garage and stored in a 220 litre drum. There is a second barrel beside the composters. Both are above the proposed area for veg growing and could be linked by a hose connection. The bed adjacent to the proposed veg area is prone to becoming waterlogged especially in winter. Iris grow here.

Plants growing in and near the veg area:  On the sloped lawn above the veg bed Selfheal, mosses and  lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) grow in the grass. the upper slope is supposed to be a meadow but the lady’s mantle is causing problems. The bed I have been given to work with is approximately 20 x 4 feet  and curretly growing are hebes, geraniums more ladys mantle and Bergenias among grasses. The soil is thiner here than on the slope as it has been cut away to make it level.


The neighbouring bed to the west has a large Newzeland flax plant which can be harvested for making ties for support frames etc. To the north across the drive way a leyland cypress hedge provides some shelter from the north winds.


Resouces available: Locally there are horse stables that can supply fresh manure. They are happy to give this away but it would need to be composted or used in creating a hot bed. Granite Rock and fallen timber is in abundance and both could be used to make raised beds. There is a lot of woody compost available in the existing composters onsite as a result of years of rabbits and guineas pigs being kept as pets. The material is not suitable for vegetable growing but could be considered as a surface mulch. Green materials for composting such as nettles, leaves cleavers and woody material are in abundance.

Pest: Slugs have never been a problem up here, the main pests are rabbits and birds (blackbird) . All fruit needs to be netted if you want a harvest. By far one of the biggest pest is midges and working outdoors with them. In the evening if the weather is calm as the temperatures drop they come out of disturbed grass. I have been eaten alive over the past few weeks especially at the backs of my legs and lowerback and have been forced into wearing a head net and covering all skin.


rabbit dropings on lawn

Wildlife: There are a number of ponds in the garden which support frogs, perhaps why slugs have never been an issue even on plants like hostas. The garden location by a forest attracts red squirrels, jays , Redpoll, greenfinch, chafinch, great tit, among others observed daily from the kitchen window. Bird feed is regularly put out.



Plants and trees growing locally: Species include beech, rowan, elder, hawthorn, bilberry, marsh thistle, soft rush, foxglove, lesser bur dock, wood sorrel, sheeps sorrel, bramble, honeysuckle, crab apple, ash, willow, bracken, gorse, heather, meadow grasses, sitka spruce, norway spruce

Propagation area: There is little space indoors for propagating plants. Window ledges and a small back porch are already crammed with pots.

Time constrains: no rush

Chemical use on site: Glyphosate based herbicides are being used on the driveways and stone paths to the rear of the site.

What we don’t have and would like to grow: salads, leafy green vegetables, potato, tomato, courgette, garlic, onion, carrots more herbs and some edible flowers.

What we forage or have: range of muchrooms including ceps, chanterelle, birch bolete, brown deceivers, amathist deceivers, pedistal  puff balls, wild strawberry, sorrels, variety of berry including hawthorn, rowan, elder, blackberry for jams etc. Nettles, dandelions, plantains, rose hips and petals.

Who will do the work: I,m working on my own with this project but 3 others will be happy to help me eat what grows. I want to use available resources and come up with something which can be maintained into the future.

Composting:  while there is an abundance of suitable materials available this needs to be started immediately to build soil fertility. The organic matter content of the soil sample looks to be very low. A couple of straw bales could be used to capture and store nitrogen if you get my drift.

Other general survey observations: There is far less insect activity in the front garden,it’s much more exposed to the wind and these is much less diversity of plants and animals seen here. The close proximity of the veg bed to the camper will help to deter rabbits. Finding soil to increase soil depth without resorting to buying it in will be difficult.

Southern Portugal into Spain

A much belated travel blog for Feburary 2015. Heading south to where we would soon meet a friend from home we came across some wonderful places. The beautiful beach of Carrapateira with its sand dunes, totally unspoiled, just miles of coast to walk and enjoy. This is campervan heaven and there is no hassle in staying here. All sort of folk were here from retired Germans, French and Dutch in Modern vans to converted army trucks.


Laura being a keen knitter wasloving this crochet art



As you round the south western tip of Portugal at Sagres everything begins to change. The Atlantic winds begin to ease and it becomes much warmer with sheltered bays and high cliffs above pristine beaches. We barely knew the day of the week nor the time of day spending most of our time outdoors.


On to Faro where we met our mate Ruth



We headed inland to the border with Spain at Alcoutim  and walked in the surrounding countryside to a small village called Corte pereiro. We enjoyed a beer with some locals while trying our best to communicate. Portugal is such a genuine place, locals coming and going from the fields for a drink and a chat. The Almond trees were in flower at the time.


On to Seville and the Real Alcazar palace where these Swiss cheese plants Monstera deliciosa caught by attention. These are shade loving house plants back home which gives some indication of the climatic difference here. It was strange to see this.


An example of Aerial roots giving the tree better support. Amazing


Hard pruning of plane trees to restrict size is common in France , Spain and Portugal. You can see where Dali got his ideas for those elephants with long spindly legs.


From seville we moved out into the moutains passing through El Bosque and hiking a gorge to Beamahoma. Looking through my diary are excited entries regarding Grazalema. On the 19th of Feb I wrote:


Up in the mountains near Grazalema today we saw Holm Oak and down by the van black Iberian pigs are feeding on the acorns. The ground up here is limestone rock a climbers paradise. Our walk today took us up into a plateau before returning via the valley. The views were amazing no matter where you looked. The lives of the people here are so different from the lives we know. We have been watching this shepard grazing his flock along the road edge and leaning on his crook down in the valley. He seems so happy chating with passers by. We exchanged a hearty hello or Ola. I could see myself living somewhere like this. The smell of cooking wafting onto the streets in the afternoon and hoping against hope that you might be invited in to eat. It’s gonna be good, I recon is’t always good.This has to be the most outstanding place we have traveled to on the trip.


Cattle were traditionally grazed and secured in enclosures up the valleys. Beans are widely grown in this area.The spanish fir tree Abies pinsapo grows here in the Sierra de Grazalema one of only 3 places it is found in Spain.

Back in an Irish garden

It’s good to be back and getting out into the garden again. Some of my plants found a home up in the Dublin hills and are doing quite well. This is a Whinhams Industry Gooseberry in a bucket which is now almost ready for harvest. It’s got deep red fruit and seems to have escaped the attention of the birds so far. The growing conditions up here are 3 to 4 degrees cooler on average, on thin acidic soil directly onto solid granite. It’s going to be a challenge but the blueberries will thrive. It’s a far cry from the light sandy soils and micro climate of Dundrum.


I’ve a 5 year old grape vine which lives in a pot and is now in its 3rd residence. I  ruthlessly  pruned it about a month ago leaving 6 or 7 bunches on. It had gone a bit mad while I was away and the mother in-law was afraid to touch it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, it’s behind a bit for August. The strawberries planted around it in the large pot are now producing well provided I can get to them before the birds. Netting for birds is necessary up here.

At 350 metres altitude fruit does best. Tayberries, blackberries, and blueberries all do well. Vegetables are going to be a challenge.


We’ve been out picking bilberries which are now in season. The South Dublin mountains are covered in them. The best bushes seem to be younger low growing specimens with red tipped foliage. The deer and the jays like them too. The high rainfall recently has meant there is a huge crop this year.

Photo0039  Photo0042

There have been some big winds over the winter and a natural coupe has been gouged out running West to East nearby. The sitka spruce trees have become too tall for the thin soil to support them leaving a dramatic landscape of toppled trees. Shelters are being built in the base of these trees which have been known to right themselves suddenly.


Below the scene of devastation is a forest track with a bank on the lower side of the slope. More open to the sky this has provided conditions for meadow grasses, soft rush, wood sorrel and the odd thistle to find a toe hold where the soils are deeper and not covered in pine needles.


At the edge of the plantation a stream flows through a more open clearing of bracken, gorse and the odd rowan. It’s a peaceful place with the sound of the stream in the dip.


I’m giving an elderly gardener a hand in Dundrum. We started by making 2 compost heaps. There is lots to compost. Should be cooking in a few days.


Up on the hill there is a patch which has been won!