AN outbreak of weeding, planting and watering got underway on Monday as allotment-holders in the northside and to the west of the city made their eagerly anticipated return to their vegetable beds.
Local Authority allotments nationwide were closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, with Cork City Council following the lead of other councils, closing 150 allotments in Churchfield and Ballincollig from April 17.
In Churchfield, plot-holder Emma Woodhouse returned to find her beds over-grown and frost damage to her potatoes, but she was otherwise relieved to be reunited with her patch, where she has grown fruit and vegetables for her family since Churchfield allotments opened eight years ago.
“It’s a case of getting back stuck into it now,” she said with a smile. “We had some bad frosts, and I can see that some of the potatoes got affected by that, and my onions are nearly totally hidden.
“I’m lucky I’ve a bit of space out the back of my house, so I knew I had to change things up and have a container garden. I’ve focused on that. I missed the allotment, but there was nothing I could do to change it, so rather than get really upset and beat myself up, I focused on doing what I could with what I had.”
Allotment closures drew controversy in some quarters, with allotment holders in several local authorities pointing out that tending to their plots was entirely possible while observing social distancing.
In April, the Green Party called for a lifting of restrictions on allotments and farmer’s markets, saying that it was easy to implement social distancing in such settings and that allotments were essential to many, both in terms of food supply and wellbeing.
Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, responding to a question in the Dáil, said allotments “do not fall under the food production exemption and they do not have a specific exemption as it is not possible to manage or control access to allotments and there is no way to enforce social distancing once people are on site.”
However, allotments and farmers’ markets were both included in the first phase of measures to ease lockdown.
While Churchfield plot-holders were clearly practicing social distancing with ease, Emma, who lives nearby and is an asthma-sufferer, said she would voluntarily choose to avoid using the communal tool storage area and bathrooms for the time being, but that otherwise she was fully confident she was safe on the allotments.
Andrew Brady, in a neighbouring allotment, is one of those who criticized the government’s decision to shut the allotments.
“I was very aggravated, to be honest,” he said. “Our allotments are 10 metres apart. If I’m in here and Emma’s in her allotment, we’re over the required two metres, and more often than not, 20 or 30 metres apart. It didn’t seem right, especially when the amenity park right beside us was open. This is an outlet for me to get rid of tensions and stresses.”
Andrew has had an allotment in Churchfield for the past two years and has built all his own garden furniture and raised beds on his plot. The warm weather was the biggest worry in the months he couldn’t tend to his vegetables, he said: “I was praying for rain and now my leeks are looking a bit upset, but otherwise it’s all doing ok.
“I eat a lot of my own produce, but it’s also bringing my grandchildren up and giving them the education on what our food sources are and that’s more important to me than anything else.”
Andrew, who lives just 500 meters from the allotments, says the Northside has a tradition of food cultivation that stretches back to WWII.
“The area up by Eircom was always known as The Plots,” he says. “During the... war there was rationing in Ireland as well as in England, and allotments were given out to people up at The Plots. My father had an allotment there and he grew his own veg for the family, to supplement our food sources.”
An allotment in one of Cork City Council’s two sites, 50 in Churchfield or 100 in Ballincollig Regional Park, costs just €100 per year for a 10 metre by 10 metre plot, but there is very high demand, and usually a waiting list, Stephen Scully from Cork City Council parks department said.
“The value you get out of it is amazing,” Stephen said. “There’s a constant waiting list and the list is full now for people who may want to relinquish their plot at the end of this year.”
He said the upsurge in interest in gardening brought about by the Covid-19 restrictions was noticeable, with an increase in enquiries about allotments to his office.
Stephen said the allotment closure was “necessary; it wasn’t covered by exemptions in terms of food production,” but that he’s “delighted” the allotments are back open again.
“We realise that they closed in the most important time of the year in terms of growing season, so it’s great that people get a chance to start again,” he said.
“The produce varies from plot holder to plot holder, but the range of what they’re growing is fantastic.”
Out to the west of the city, Louis Kelleher, chairman of the Ballincollig Allotments committee, was on hand to see plot-holders get back to work.
Ballincollig’s allotments have been a popular asset to the community since they opened in 2013, he said.
“They’re a great asset to the community,” he said. “The allotments closed on April 17 and there’s been a bit of weed growing since, but it’s good to be back and hopefully we can harvest some veg. At the moment, there’s things like asparagus and perpetual spinach ready for picking; strawberries won’t be out yet, but very soon.”
Louis said the allotment closure had been met with a “mixed reaction” amongst Ballincollig plot-holders.
“Some people felt it was unnecessary, and some felt we should be toeing the line because of the seriousness of the virus,” he said. “Allotments are often an older person’s pursuit and they are high risk individuals, so for that reason the committee found it appropriate to follow the guidelines. We raised the points made by plot-holders but the council had to act appropriately and do their job.”
Like many others, Louis said the experience of the lockdown’s impact on allotments raised serious questions about what we deem essential and non-essential in society; questions that could rear their head again if we should ever face another pandemic in the future.
“Farmers were allowed to work under lockdown, and essentially we are producing food here,” he said. “It might seem like more of a hobby, and it might not be essential for the public at large, but some people are virtually self-sufficient here.
“I do think it’s a valid discussion in case of future outbreaks.”