A green piece of paradise in heart of Cork city

St Stephen’s Sustainable Food Lab in Cork city is a self-funded, member-led urban agriculture project that has sprung up on a once derelict site, explains ANDREW DESMOND
A green piece of paradise in heart of Cork city

SHARED SPACE: St Stephen’s Sustainable Food Lab (SSFL) in Cork city.

A FEW months ago, we started using our brown bin for all our organic kitchen waste, but instead of putting it out for street collection every fortnight, we take it around to our local community garden where there is a compost heap.

We love this holistic mini-circular economy of growing, nourishing, composting and growing, called St Stephen’s Sustainable Food Lab (SSFL), a not for profit urban agriculture project in Cork city

Yes, we are very fortunate to have the community garden nearby, off Tower Street/Evergreen Street/Barrack Street, but only a few years ago this space was a derelict basketball court, and would still be in a sad state but for an active group of neighbours.

These people, when given permission from Cork City Council, rolled up their sleeves and turned a grey concrete yard into a verdant, colourful vegetable and herb garden with a wild flower pollinator bed to attract butterflies and bees. Every neighbourhood has some neglected space waiting to be magically transformed like this.

SFL took charge of the space in 2017 and we use recycled materials in all our projects, and with no water supply we collect rainwater for watering plants.

We have a score of active members and take no funding commercial or public. This now vibrant communal space is designed to encourage and support innovative, creative and sustainable projects with healthy food at its core.

We have a ‘one harvest for all’ policy where the produce is shared by all the members.

We grow the usual fruits; strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb, apples, pears, plums and vegetables; potatoes, carrots, courgettes, squash, peas, beans, pumpkins and this year sweetcorn.

And in the polytunnel, bought second hand and constructed by SFL members in 2019, we are now growing cucumbers, melons, tomatoes and chillies.

There is a profound and lasting satisfaction in eating a crop you have sown, tended and harvested yourself. To add something to the family dinner table that was not bought is a powerful act; to be part of this ancient cycle of natural sustenance and to break away from the heavy chains of consumerism and commercial food supply.

Andrew Desmond
Andrew Desmond

As we all know, a change is gonna come sooner rather than later, and this is one small but profound response to climate change. Local is global and what we do in the community together can change the world for the better in the long run.

Whatever about the global impact, the personal impact is immense Often on my way home I pop in to pick a courgette or thin out the lettuce patch. If it is a sunny evening I will sit on the little bench (saved from a skip) under the pear tree and listen to the bees buzzing about in the wild flowers in the pollinator beds. I’ll have a quiet meditation and just breathe it all in.

I also love to sit under the shelter, among the gardening tools, and listen to the heavy rain fall on myriads of green leaves, which happened quite a lot this summer, but this sound is just as healing as that of bees humming in sunshine bright flowers.

On other occasions, all the SFL members gather in the garden to enjoy the harvest and bake pizzas in the Cobb Oven that we built in 2018, again from recycled materials, under the guidance of the Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability. These occasions are great to catch up, exchange tips and to socialise and maybe sing a few songs around the fire as the evening sun sets over the steeple of St Finbarres Cathedral, until SFL members and their families make their way home through the inner city streets with the scent of campfire smoke in their hair and clothes.

The SFL membership is eclectic in age and nationality and from all walks of life, but in the garden we are all equal. Like all groups, there is an ebb and flow to enthusiasm levels but with a bit of encouragement and working together it all comes together in the end and the reward of home cooked pizza from ingredients grown in the garden always rallies the troops. The collective is unfunded so we each pay an annual subscription of €50 to cover any goods or services we cannot barter or recycle. A very small price to pay for a 365-day pass to this wonderland for the senses.

SFL host a few public events throughout the year including a Plant & Seed Swap during the early part of the lockdown when people were finding it hard to get seeds. We also share worms from our wormery for anyone setting up their own. Ah yes, the noble, lowly worm, the architect of underground airways for healthy roots and plants. Our Street Feast & Cork Harvest Festival is also open to the public and always great fun and outside our garden wall we have built a little library book swap — so we also cater for book-worms too.

In these times of great uncertainty, it is important to stay connected, connected to Community and connected to Nature. (Pun alert) A community garden does this ‘in spades’ in a productive and nourishing way.

It nourishes the soul and the social, it feeds and sustains, it sets you in time with the seasons, it reduces waste and food bills, it educates, it soothes and empowers and is great fun. So connect with your local garden allotment or community garden, there should be one within cycling distance. If there is not then create one!

If you want to say hello, we are on facebook, where you will also find some tips and delicious fun recipes too. www.facebook.com/sustainablefoodlabcork

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