Be Part of GROW Observatory and Make a Difference

Citizen Science: GROW Observatory Free Online CourseWhen we first heard about the GROW Observatory citizen science project we immediately pledged to help find growers in Ireland who would like to learn more about making their growing spaces even better. We are therefore excited to let you know about a FREE online course that begins on Monday, 19th February 2018 that will help you learn more about your soil and enable you to become a citizen scientist with GROW Observatory.

Being part of GROW Observatory offers more than just taking part in an online course; it’s about becoming part of a community of European growers, scientists and others equally passionate about soil who want to help regenerate this vital resource for future generations, while also helping with vital environmental scientific monitoring.

This is your chance to make a difference – not just to your own growing space, but also by contributing to wider research about how understanding our soil better can help us adapt to a changing climate.

Moisture levels in soil can help predict severe floods and droughts. GROW Observatory data will feed into European Space Agency missions, monitoring environmental changes across the globe.

Citizen Science: GROW Observatory Free Online CourseWe know that soil loss and degradation are serious issues across the globe. Finding answers to more sustainable and regenerative food growing practices is literally right under our feet and is critical to solving many local and global environmental challenges.

That’s why the GROW Observatory are bringing together people who love soil with people who love data across Europe in this groundbreaking project to connect and learn from each other.

You’ll gather and analyse data to help understand your particular soil and what works for you, as well as contributing to a European-wide knowledge base. By also exploring regenerative practices such as polycultures, mulching and attracting pollinators, you’ll be able to grow better food while improving the soil for years to come.

Citizen Science: GROW Observatory Free Online CourseThe GROW Observatory is a supportive environment where you don’t need to have extensive experience of growing to take part – we welcome anyone with an interest in food production – from allotment holders to small-scale farmers. It is especially relevant for people with an interest in soil, food growing, agriculture, ecosystems and the environment.

Through the series of free courses, growers will learn about everything from soil health and growing techniques to how they can contribute to vital scientific environmental monitoring – all in a friendly and supportive online environment.

But they’re not asking you to sit at a computer for the whole time: you’ll be outside getting your hands dirty in your own growing space, collecting data and observations to help us create a clearer picture of what’s going on beneath our feet and how we can best protect this vital resource for the future.

In 2018, they have some big plans around changing climate and on living soils. Within this there are four GROW Observatory courses running, from basic soil analysis and monitoring to using sensors and testing different regenerative growing practices. The final course will consist of a massive collective experiment in growing spaces across Europe. You don’t have to complete all of the courses, but we hope you will be inspired to take part in as many as possible.

We’re coming together to address science challenges and gaps in our current knowledge, from creating detailed soil data to enhancing climate prediction models and earth observation from satellites.

Together we will gather evidence to support policy change towards more sustainable land practices. Wherever you are in Europe and whatever scale you grow at, you have something worthwhile to share with us.

We’ll help you build healthier soils, grow food more sustainably and better adapt to climate change. This is your chance to be part of a vibrant, inclusive community of growers across Europe learning with and from each other.

Sign up now for the GROW Observatory free course that starts on 19th February ‘From Soil to Sky’ and find our more information on the GROW Observatory website.

Convergence 2016 ~ Highlights from CG Ireland

Creating Sustainable Communities

Organised by Cultivate, last month Convergence events took place around the country with sustainable living topics being discussed from Kerry to Galway, Limerick to Tipperary that covered everything from food to education, art to the economy.

The Donegal Community Garden Network began the conversation about Food in the north of the country with Food on the Fringe. You can view snippets of that very inspiring and successful day below:

Creating Sustainable Cities and Communities

In Dublin various speakers representing cyclists, planning, energy and the environment talked about how Sustainable Cities and Communities could be created. With her community gardening hat firmly in place, Dee Sewell of Greenside Up talked about some key areas in relation to Food. Dee gave examples and outlined barriers to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 11, some of which were identified at a social enterprise event held in Waterford the previous week.

By request the transcript of Dee’s speech is below:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Guests and Speakers:

Food. Without food, we wouldn’t survive, yet food is more than something that sustains us, it’s wrapped up in the very essence of our cultural fabric. In many societies finding, preparing, and eating food is what drives people out of bed yet for others, food has become secondary, something just to grab and go.

Most of us here know that the current way we produce food isn’t sustainable. It harms the planet and in many cases, isn’t fair or ethical but there are other problems too.

In our society, where time has become so valuable, saving money, and speeding up how quickly we do things appears to have become more important than our health and wellbeing, something that food plays a significant part in. Communities are fragmented as people have moved away from the land. Life is supposed to be easier with technology and mechanisation, yet mental health problems and social isolation are real causes for concern, possibly due to our disconnection with nature.

Have you heard reports of the studies that show that getting our hands into the soil boosts serotonin levels – one of our happy hormones? Research also indicates that bacteria in soil may help to trigger immune cells that can help to lift depression.

There’s been a recent emphasis on tackling obesity and in 2015 a Healthy Ireland Survey was published that found 74% of adults in Ireland eat less than 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. An American study found that growing food changes the way people eat, encouraging them to eat more vegetables and seek healthier food choices.

Some might argue that we don’t need to know about real food any longer, that’s what progression is, but physically and mentally moving away from the land, disconnecting with it and the food that grows within it, I feel is possibly one of the most damaging things we’ve allowed to happen in our modern world.

Yet, ladies and gentlemen, there is something we can do and we have the capacity to make things right, but we need to make changes to our food culture using a bottom up approach.

To give you an example, for the past seven years, I have been teaching adults the basics of how to grow their own food, but with an emphasis on creating and working in social community gardens. During that time, we’ve identified many benefits to the communities and the people working in them and have come across one inspiring story after another.

For those of you who don’t know, a community garden is a space where people come together, often in unused, overgrown pieces of land, to transform it, to grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers. The people involved share all the work and they share the produce. The key there is in the sharing of work and food and the reconnection to community.

To prepare for today, I asked a group how they thought the community garden helped in creating a safe, inclusive, sustainable place to live. Their responses were many and varied, though one comment encapsulated them all from a lady in her forties, who lives in a town centre and is a young grandmother:

“I didn’t know anything at all about gardening and had never seen food growing in the ground or tasted most of it until I came here, this garden is the only place I meet people other than online or in my family circle”…

The problems we face

Community Gardens Ireland are aware of over 160 social growing places dotted around the country, I know there are more; their popularity is rising but they are lacking support, both financially and professionally. Community gardens could be in every unloved and overgrown scrap of land everywhere!

There’s work potential within them and they could become places of outdoor environmental education too. That said, I appreciate that not everyone wants to get into a garden, it doesn’t appeal to all and like it or not, many of us do struggle to find time.

There are several alternatives to accessing food that are socially and locally orientated, bringing us closer to food in its natural state – local food co-ops and box schemes, community supported agriculture, farmers and country markets, community cafes and farm gate shops.

Funding is a considerable barrier but so too is the lack of awareness. Community and Social enterprises working towards societal change need support.  Community and social entrepreneurs are barely recognised as such and there isn’t even a category for us in Revenue. If you’re a sole trader in the social or education sphere, then forget it. “Drop the word social and you might get somewhere” we’re told. We’re on a constant uphill battle. It’s difficult to support an enterprise that’s not immediately measurable.

A recent international survey found that of 45 European countries, Ireland were placed 43rd in environments that support social enterprises and in Europe, where 10% of all businesses are listed as social, in Ireland that’s just 1%.

Social enterprises need to be understood for our differences – that we’re not about making shareholders wealthy, we’re about making the world a better place for every being that lives in it. We need the Business world and Schools at all levels to learn about us and work with us.

Importantly, essentially, food needs to be put back on the education curriculum, for young people in all levels of education and for adults in their local communities. How to grow food, how to cook food, how to share food and how to respect food and the soil it grows within.

 I feel community gardens have a big role to play in that.

 Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your time.

Do you agree with Dee’s thoughts? It’s difficult to capture all the challenges we face in relation to food in just five minutes. Do you feel as passionately about the importance food makes to community like the Donegal speakers? Can we really make a difference? We’d love to hear your comments below.

5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators


5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators

The National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford have been working hard to build a framework of  guidelines for local communities, gardens, farmers, local councils, business and transport networks that will help us all make best practice decisions, benefiting pollinators in Ireland and helping to restore declining numbers. As a result, they have begun publishing Action Plans aimed at the different sectors.

In July, they released a colourful and informative set of actions for Gardens and Community Gardens that you can read in full here.

While there are many things we can do to encourage and protect pollinators in our gardens, some action points will be easier to adopt than others and some community gardens will follow the guidelines faster than others. There’s no doubt that ingrained mind sets will be challenged and there will be resistance to some of the suggestions. We might find it easy to add the recommended plants to community gardens or build bug hotels for pollinators but when it comes to chemical use:

“We don’t have the time or the manpower to weed without spraying”, “we like tidy gardens without weeds”, “what else can we do to get rid of the greenfly or spider mite if we don’t spray?” or “I’ve always sprayed my tomatoes to prevent fungus and fertilised my lawn, why would I stop now?”

We have a massive challenge ahead of us. Pollinators are declining at an alarming rate and whilst many people are aware that the bees are in trouble, asking gardeners to give up their pesticides in favour of organic methods is another matter. Often it’s a simple case of people not knowing how to make the changes or what the alternatives are, in which case we’ve suggestions below on how to address that.

In the meantime, if you’d like to help pollinators survive and see their numbers grow once more, here’s a non-exhaustive list of 5 things you can begin to do now in your community garden or allotment that will help. All of the recommendations from the National Biodiversity Data Centre are as a result of solid research. We hope that between us we can help to save the bees!

5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators
Credit: National Biodiversity Data Centre

No 1. Become a ‘community garden of excellence’

We don’t mean become a ‘perfect’ garden, more a place that people can go to for advice on how to garden for pollinators. The National Biodiversity Data Centre have published LOTS of tips and advice in their best practice guide. Become familiar with it and help promote it to gardeners everywhere. Offer workshops (see below), print out materials, put up signage, become a GOLDEN garden. Basically do anything you can think of that will help to educate yourselves and others about pollinators.

To achieve GOLD garden status community gardens will have to meet certain criteria which include the following criteria:

Provide Food

Have at least five different types of pollinator friendly plants for EACH SEASON. Planting suggestions can be found on the RHS website or in the table below.

5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators
Credit: National Biodiversity Data Centre

Pollinators need flowers that produce lots of nectar and pollen to survive for energy and protein and just like we experience ‘hunger gaps’ in our vegetable gardens, pollinators suffer the same in the wild. Planting flowers for them out of season will help but actively choosing pollinator friendly plants over those that aren’t will make a difference too.

Bulbs are a great way of introducing pollinator friendly spring flowers. In the autumn plant Snowdrops, Crocus, Allium, Grape Hyacinth and the Bishop series of single flowered Dahlia.

Choose single instead of double variety plants which don’t contain any nectar or pollen.

5 Things Community Gardens Can Do Now to Help Pollinators
Bumblebee on Inula Flower

Perennial plants are generally better sources of pollen and nectar than annuals. Traditional bedding plants like Geraniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzy and Petunias have virtually no pollen and nectar. Try planting other annuals such as Poached Egg Plant, Cosmos, Alyssum, Floss Flower and Night Scented Stocks instead. Trailing Verbena, Bellflowers, Wallflowers and Aubrietia will grow in window boxes year after year as will herbs such as Chives, Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Marjoram and Thyme.

Still not sure? Keep an eye out in ornamental flower gardens and garden centres for the plants that the bees are visiting and choose those.

Allow some of your Brassica plants to flower and plant green manures after you harvest crops. These are fantastic not only for the garden soil but are a great source of food for pollinators. Buckwheat and Phacelia are particular favourites.

Provide Shelter:

5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators

Create nesting habitats for solitary bees – for both cavity nesting AND mining bees.

Solitary mining bees need areas of bare ground to be able to burrow into the soil and create nests. Scrape away some grass in flat, sunny spots to create these areas. Scrape back vegetation that grows on south or east facing slopes for mining bees that prefer to nest in those conditions.

Take a look here for information on how to creating wild pollinator nesting habitats.

A small number of Irish solitary bees like to nest in cavities. If you’re growing raspberries, leave some of the old canes unpruned for them, buy or make a solitary bee hotel or drill south or east facing holes 10mm deep, 4-8mm in diameter at least 1.5-2m high for them.

Bumblebees often nest in the long grass at the base of flowering hedgerows. If you’ve space, consider planting Hazel, Willow, Blackthorn and Hawthorn. Once they’re growing, cut on a three-year rotation (outside of the bird breeding season), avoid cutting all the hedges in the same year so that some are always flowering and let the grass grow long at the base of the hedges – don’t spray with herbicides. If the area needs to be cut, do so between September and March to avoid disturbing nests.

Protect existing sources of food and shelter for pollinators

When there are lots of people working in a community garden, particularly if it’s a small garden, it can be tempting to tidy it up to perfection but we are being encouraged to think differently. Leave patches of weedy plants and if you’ve space, plant wildflower areas, flowering hedgerows and add small dry stone walls that will provide shelter for pollinators. Brambles, clover, thistles, ivy, nettles and dandelions are important food sources for all types of pollinators.

Offer Safety:

Biodiversity Ireland recommend that we completely eliminate the use of ALL pesticides in our gardens

5 Things Community Gardens Can Do Now to Help PollinatorsPesticides include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. ALL of these can be harmful to pollinators, either directly or by damaging the plants and habitats they depend on.

Use alternative barriers for pests such as netting or physically remove them. Choose pest resistant varieties of seeds and plant in the correct season for the plants to avoid attracting pests.

Don’t use treated plants or seeds (read the small print). Some will have been treated with systemic insecticides call neonicotinoids that research suggests is harmful to pollinators.

Don’t use herbicides on laws or on verges as these often contain plants or areas that are important for pollinators to feed and nest in.

Plant to encourage pollinators that feed on garden pests. Hoverflies feed on aphids so plant flowers that will attract hoverflies close to others that attract aphids.

No. 2 Pass on the information

Share this article with your fellow community gardeners or allotment holders. Mention the pollinator plan at committee meetings or during the tea break and have a conversation about it. Create and publish guidelines for your community garden that encourage an ethos of chemical free gardening around the entire space and not just in the growing beds. Start questioning the use of chemicals outside of your community garden at playgrounds, sports pitches, in your own gardens and balconies as well as garden verges.

No. 3 Arrange Workshops

If you’re not sure how to garden organically, ask a horticulturist to visit and deliver a workshop about it. Your local Education Training Board will have a list of tutors and may be able to fund someone, or ask everyone to contribute a small fee towards the cost of a tutor. Contact CG Ireland if you’re not sure where to find someone in your area and we’ll do our best to help you.

5 Ways Community Gardens Can Help Pollinators
Bumblebee on phacelia flower

No. 4 Learn to identify pollinators in your garden and help to monitor them

Once you’re growing plants in your gardens that attract pollinators, learn to identify them. The Pollinator Plan website has lots of resources that will help with identification and you can get even more involved by becoming part of the All-Ireland Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, a citizen science initiative managed by the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

No. 5 Sign Up for Our Newsletter

We recently published our core values that include “encouraging all member community gardens to follow organic principles and protect biodiversity, promoting good environmental practice and awareness”. Over the coming months we hope to help you do that by offering advice, links to best practices, workshop opportunities and more. Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with our activities.

Let us know how you’re getting on, if you have any difficulties or successes and we’ll share them where we can on social media.

With thanks to Dee Sewell of Greenside Up for writing this article. Dee is a qualified organic horticulture tutor based in Carlow/Kilkenny and Chair of CG Ireland.


Press Release – CGN Announces Name Change

The Community Garden Network becomes Community Gardens Ireland

Dee Sewell, Chairperson of the Community Garden Network announced at a recent garden party in the Arus na Uachtaráinna that was held to acknowledge individuals and organisations working to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that the organisation would officially be undergoing a name change to Community Gardens Ireland, abbreviated to CG Ireland with effect from 1st July 2016.

Dee explained that the new name better reflects the evolving focus of the organisation and its future direction and the chosen name was the most popular of several suggested, publicly shared for consideration and agreed among the team members.

“We are very excited about the name change and the direction our voluntary organisation is now heading. It has helped us focus on our national identity and the growing popularity of social community gardens in Ireland and Northern Ireland. As a result the coordinating team has spent the last few months working on our strategic framework which we are also happy to unveil on the Welcome page of our website.

Our vision is that social community garden spaces are created in every village, town and city in Ireland and Northern Ireland, creating opportunities to empower local communities and provide outdoor environmental places of education where people of all ages, genders, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds can learn about gardening, food growing and sovereignty, the environment, biodiversity, climate change, sustainability, community resilience, as well as about the positive mental implications and physical health benefits of being outside in nature and being sociable around food.

Our mission is to work with all other government and non-government agencies across the island supporting and establishing community gardens, individually and jointly promoting nature and the environment, sustainability, food education and food health as well as the social benefits of community gardening to encourage positive social change and inclusion in all its forms.

We recognise that community gardens have a valuable part to play in helping communities across Ireland learn about food, nature and the environment. CG Ireland will therefore:

  • actively collaborate with other organisations to encourage positive social change;
  • advocate inclusion in all its forms as well as environmental, food, health and dietary awareness;
  • encourage all members of community gardens to follow organic principles and protect biodiversity, promoting good environmental practice and awareness.”

About Community Gardens Ireland

CG Ireland was created in the Autumn of 2010 as community gardens began to grow in popularity and it became apparent that there was a need for an independent national organisation that links and shares knowledge and information collected by all individuals, groups and agencies across the island.

Apart from the online support offered connecting gardens via a forum and website, newsletters and social media, get together and workshops are held in different towns and village two or three times a year where all community gardeners from across the island are invited and welcome. Community Gardeners have so far met in thirteen locations, from as far afield as Derry and Belfast, Galway, Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Leitrim and apart from the benefits of community gardeners meeting and networking, community gardeners and facilitators have learnt about topics from conflict management to seeds and seed saving.

CG Ireland have identified and begun mapping over 140 public community gardens in Ireland and are encouraging the creation of county community garden networks that will link in to CG Ireland, allowing them to offer a lot more support to them as funding allows.

CG Ireland have presented two postcard gardens at Bloom Garden and Food Festival and coordinated a pop-up community garden in Global Green at 2015 Electric Picnic. They are currently coordinating and designing another pop up garden for this year’s music and arts festival.

CG Ireland will be holding an AGM at Carraig Dulra in Wicklow on Sunday, 2nd October 2016 and workshops on Saturday, 1st October 2016. Sign up for the newsletter for more information.

Creating County Community Garden Networks Across Ireland

Creating community garden networks in Ireland
Community gardeners networking in Ballymun

Two or three times a year people involved with social community gardens from around the country meet up to network, chat and learn from one another. The get-togethers are free, anyone interested in social community gardening is welcome and we often share a potluck lunch; no better way to relax and form friendships than sharing food.

Following a survey of community garden needs a couple of years ago, we now include a workshop element which so far has covered topics ranging from seed saving, plant division and conflict management. Last year in County Kilkenny the topic was Funding and it became apparent that creating County community garden networks that feed into the national one ( would not only help local volunteers by spreading the workload, they would also be of great benefit to local communities, attracting funds, giving them access to local environmental and social inclusion groups, as well as offering more opportunities for education and support.

Creating Local Community Garden Networks

Connecting communities across Ireland
Sharing food and tea in An Gairdin Beo, County Carlow

A few weeks ago Suzie Cahn of Carriag Dulra organised a very popular informal get together of Wicklow social food growers and the following week, Dee Sewell of Greenside Up organised another workshop when she invited community gardens in Carlow to meet for a few days; the day was more successful than she envisaged and Dee shares below the outcome. 

The Carlow Community Garden Network

Thanks to Local Agenda 21 funding, on a cool Saturday in April several volunteers from community gardens in the county came together in the two acre community garden being created in Carlow Town, An Gairdin Beo and met one another for the first time. They heard about each others projects, listened to three speakers who talked about social inclusion and social farming, food sovereignty, food co-ops and community supported agriculture schemes, as well as the network of Dublin Community Growers and the service An Taisce offers to community gardens. After sharing food the representatives sat and brainstormed several topics ranging from funding, marketing, events and volunteers.

The outcome of the Carlow event  was that each community garden agreed to talk to their respective groups with the idea of planning and hosting an event each during the coming year. They would then invite all the other county community gardeners to it, as well as invite local schools, tidy towns groups and anyone else in their areas they think might benefit.

To ensure a wide range of topics that include outdoor environmental education as well as growing food and flowers, some of the suggested events included organising a biodiversity walk, BBQ, horticultural training, film nights, harvest festival, cookery demonstration, food waste and composting talk and demonstration, pallet seat making, meitheals, food preserving talks, bird and bat talks, bug hotel building, integration and social inclusion events, outdoor shelter building and plastic greenhouse builds.

A Facebook group was set up and an email list created with a coordinator from each garden agreeing to pass information both to the gardens and to the national network of community gardens (CGN).

Creating communities around Ireland
Carlow Community Garden Network, Image Courtesy Robert Moss, An Taisce Green Communities

If this ‘bottom up’ approach works, the impact that the County networks could have on local communities could be tremendous. Instead of a local event attracting just a handful of people, they will have the potential to include many more, with members of all the gardens helping to publicise one another’s events and visit one another.

As the activities become more popular, by default they will attract new people into the community gardens as locals become curious. Funding and tutoring opportunities will grow as the numbers begin to swell and interest peaks, with more people becoming interested in local food, wildlife and environmental projects making public and community participation more meaningful.

Going Forward

Joanne Lindsay Butler from OURganic Gardens will be hosting a similar event in Donegal on Thursday, 19th May from 2.30pm to 4pm thanks to funding from Changemakers which will hopefully result in another network being created.

Creating County Community Garden Networks in Ireland

If you would like to get involved and create a County social community garden networking event, please contact Dee for a workshop template and a list of the steps she took, as well as pick up some tips and ideas about running your event.

The next networking get-together and workshop will be taking place in Belfast on 14th May and the emphasis is around Peace and Diversity in community gardens. If you’re interested you can register for free here.

Dee Sewell is a community garden tutor as well as a voluntary coordinator of the CGN. Dee has worked with 14 community gardening projects in Carlow, Kilkenny and Laois, talked at music and garden festivals and events and published several articles about community gardening in Ireland.