Get to the root of the matter, who says that you cannot grow food in the city?

From backyard gardens to urban growing in the most unlikely of places, Ellie O’Donovan has set down roots in Ireland’s food capital to get people thinking differently about how and where we grow our food, writes KATE RYAN
Get to the root of the matter, who says that you cannot grow food in the city?
Ellie Donovan of GreenSpace and Conrad Howard of The Market Lane Group.

TALKING to Ellie Donovan of GreenSpace, based in Ballyvolane, is like listening back to someone retelling my own childhood memories of growing food and flowers; observing how our mothers could take a seed and just a few weeks later be able to harvest something delicious to eat.

“I grew up on a housing estate in Kilkenny, but we had a decent sized garden with a large area given over to growing vegetables,” recalls Ellie.

“I just remember spending so much time out in that space with my mum, watching and learning how to grow, how to weed and of course the joy of harvesting, cooking and eating what we had spent our time and energy growing.

“So I’ve always been used to the idea that growing food in an urban setting is possible.”

Ten years ago, while Ellie was working at Ardkeen Grocers, she came across a completely new method of growing without using soil. Her initial reaction was to reject that such a thing was even possible, let alone that growing in this way could be successful in yield, taste, aroma and texture.

Surely, soil was the beginning an end to growing food?

“Initially, I rejected this way of growing,” admits Ellie, “but then I started to experiment with the equipment. What I found was that produce would grow much quicker than in soil, was as tasty and the yield was high. I couldn’t deny the results from growing in this way!”

So, what are we talking about? There are many different methods of growing in a soil-free way, but for ease they are usually referred to collectively as ‘Hydroponic Growing Systems’.

As Ellie explains: “Instead of using soil, we use an inert material made from cocoa-fibres and plants are fed with a soluble solution that is a mix of water and essential minerals for plants to thrive.”

So why is this so revolutionary? Well, it allows for growing in places where soil is either not present or is of poor quality, and reduces water waste by regulating the precise amount of solution the plants need to grow — nothing more, nothing less.

This enables abundant growing of food where previously it would have been impossible: where soil has been contaminated; where water is in short supply, and of course in ever expanding urban centres that are frequently becoming ‘Food Deserts’ because of the rapid decline in access to green spaces to grow food, meaning supermarkets end up being the only access to fresh fruit and vegetables for city-dwellers.

Ellie Donovan of GreenSpace and Conrad Howard, of The Market Lane Group.
Ellie Donovan of GreenSpace and Conrad Howard, of The Market Lane Group.

“Urban agriculture is all about making the best use of the maximum space available, so combining horticultural methods such as modern Hydroponic systems with traditional growing methods allows us to create green growing spaces in all kinds of places.

“It means we can look at a space, its micro-climate and things like how much sunlight gets in and decide what kind of approaches we can use for producing good and consistent yield that also delivers on qualities such as taste and flavour.”

This adaptable approach, along with Ellie’s personal missions to encourage growing food locally and reduce food waste, has caught the eye of progressive restaurants in the city — most notably The Market Lane Group which owns Market Lane Restaurant, Orso Café, The Castle Café, Elbow Lane Brew and Smokehouse and Elbow Lane nano-brewery in the city, which is well known for its strong eco ethos and commitment to low food miles, sourcing as much of its meat, fish and vegetables from the English Market, and a range of local artisan food producers from across Cork County.

This new commercial partnership is worth €150,000 to GreenSpace and will be vital as Ellie continues to grow her business.

“I supply all four restaurants with a variety of salads and microgreens and will soon be able to supply hops to the Elbow Lane nano-brewery,” she said.

“At the Castle Café at Blackrock, we created a greenhouse and garden that keeps the restaurant self-sufficient in micro-greens all year long. For the sake of quality and consistency of supply, we grow seven different types of 

microgreens all year round: peas, sunflower, nasturtium, amaranth, two type of mustard and two types of radish.

“Because we are committed to recycling as much waste as possible, I help the restaurants to find ways to do the same. From the quantity of produce supplied, composting and utilising food banks — there are so many ways that restaurants can do their bit to reduce food waste, but sometimes it’s just being able to show how it can be done easily.”

This leads me on to ask Ellie about her other projects.

We share a dismay that within two generations many have lost the knowledge about how to grow our own food, knowledge that was often passed down generation to generation: just like Ellie and her mum; just like me and mine. In Ellie’s eyes, to be able to grow your own food is to be empowered; and to grow food communally is as empowering too.

“I believe that community gardens or creating growing spaces where the local community are free to grow and harvest food for their families is so important.

“We need to keep the knowledge of how to grow our own food and how to feed ourselves alive. That can be as simple as starting with a herb box; an allotment; a community garden or creating community feasts at harvest time.”

I couldn’t agree more: we’re starting to rediscover how enriching it is to eat together; so why shouldn’t the same logic apply with growing food together?

Ellie has also recently become a member of the progressive Cork Food Policy Council and is busying herself with projects such as the “Greening Cork’s Historical Spine” growing edible plants from Barrack Street to the Quays.

For Ellie, it’s all about joining up the dots: growing your own food, community focused food initiatives, recycling as much as possible, reducing food waste and utilising food redistribution initiatives such as Bia Food Cloud and local food banks; greening urban spaces and moving towards a collective ethos of self-sufficiency. And if she can encourage our City’s restaurants to do the same, GreenSpace will become yet another jewel in Cork’s already polished food crown.

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