Gardening and growing plants from seed though sometimes with its challenges, is quite a pleasurable experience. Meet Gerard Slevin, an allotmenteer based in Dublin with a passion for sustainability.
He has a small plot (50sqm) on a working farm in Lusk and where possible he tries to grow everything organically from seed and refrains from using pesticides or any harmful chemicals. Gerard took the plot on 18 months ago which was, in his opinion, a step towards living a more sustainable life.
Growing up in Lucan, Gerard was drawn to nature, arts and crafts and music. A creative individual, from an early age he would spend countless hours in the back garden helping is mom plant flowers in her rockery and collect insects in empty ice cream tubs.
‘My mum really encouraged me in the garden and gave me a small corner where I started to grow my own flowers and vegetables like radishes and peas, these were some of my grandads favourite vegetables,’ Gerard tells me.
‘I always found it fascinating how towering plants came from one tiny pea, but the most rewarding part was picking the deliciously sweet pods at the end of the summer,’ he explains.
But it was Gerard’s creative side that continued to stay with him in the early days and into his career.
‘I spent a lot of time drawing, entering local art competitions and watching shows like Art Attack and Don Conroy on the Den. I was fortunate to have a family who encouraged me in areas that I was interested in and that enjoyment developed into a passion which later became my career,’ he says.
After school, Gerard went on to study Visual Communications in TUD and it was during his four years in college that he opened his eyes to design thinking and indeed the skillset to launch his career in graphic design; something he has been working in for over 10 years for clients like Jameson, Absolut and Ballygowan.
‘One area of design that I am really passionate about is typography, and when I’m not activity designing, I like to read design journals and attend design talks’ he adds.
Gerard recently got back into gardening and started his allotment back in October 2018. The Dublin-native had initially been looking for something closer to his apartment but after contacting the local council he was told that the demand for allotments in Dublin 8 was high and the waiting list was almost two years.
‘So, with this in mind I looked slightly further afield and found the place where I am now in Lusk, Co Dublin,’ he says.
‘Although further from home than I wanted this really turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Being situated on a working farm I am surrounded by an abundance of wildlife with regular sightings of foxes, badgers, kestrels, hawks, pheasants, peacocks and rabbits along with over four different bee species – that I am aware of – from the apiary just over the fence. The cows are also constant source of entertainment and generally stick their curious noses over the fence to watch me work.’
Gerard says that growing his own vegetables has something that he had been thinking about for a while, but the decision was spurred on by a desire to live a more sustainable life.
‘I had become more aware of the amount of single use plastics that I had been purchasing and the impact this was having on the environment. In order to tackle this problem, I decided to start the allotment to see if I could change my habits and reduce the amount of plastic I was using,’ he explains.
During Gerard’s first year he admits that there was plenty of trial and error and he quickly learned that going from small-scale gardening to taking on an allotment was quite the step up. In general, he says, most of the crops in the first year were a great success despite the challenges. Below are just some of these issues he faced and how he planned to solve them.
My carrots forked (this is when they grow two or three thick roots and form a knot opposed to one long uniform root). This was due to the addition of manure to the carrot bed along with the soil texture being slightly too compact. This year I had planned to build a raised bed with fine compost for the carrots to solve this problem.
Carrot Root Fly
Along with forking the carrots also got hit with carrot root fly. This small fly is attracted to the sweet scent of the carrots and lays it larvae at the base of the plant which then feed on the carrot root itself. Working without pesticides and having known about this pest already I had planted my carrots in between the leeks and onions which should mask the smell of the carrots but unfortunately last year that hadn’t been enough. This year I will place a light cloche over the raised bed to prevent the flies from landing on the soil.
As with all my plants they generally start off from seed, (organic when possible) and are sown in my apartment which are gradually hardened off on the balcony before planting out. The spinach germinated quickly and were nice healthy plants however when I planted them out they quickly bolted and became inedible. Bolting is generally how a plant reacts to a change in temperature which causes it to go into survival mode. In this case the spinach stops producing soft round leaves and starts to flower and go to seed. During this process it produces hard spear shaped leaves which are bitter and are not suitable for picking.
But Gerard also had many wins which he has also shared.
Out of all the plants last year the chillies were probably what I was most excited about. I decided to grow two varieties, Lemon Drop Chilli – a long hot bright yellow fruit with a hint of citrus and Love Apple Chillies a mild more rounded fruit which look quite like a small red bell pepper.
As these were being started off indoors for the first few months, they required manual pollination which involved using a cotton swab and rubbing the pollen from the flower onto the stamen. This emulates a busy bee travelling from flower to flower and wind agitation – something the plants are deprived of indoors. After a long growing season, towards the end of the summer, I had a fantastic yield of delicious chillies which perfect for stir-fries or drying for paprika.
Chard was something I discovered on a neighbouring allotment which immediately caught my eye due its bright array of colours. The plants were a foot tall and consisted of bright pinks, yellows, and ruby red stems. The pant itself is very hardy and has a great yield of delicious leaves perfect for salads when picked young or sautéed or added to soups when they are slightly larger.
Gerard says that growing his own produce is incredibly rewarding and would highly recommend an allotment if you’re in an urban setting like he is.
‘For anyone looking to start an allotment the first thing I would suggest is to make a plan,’ he advises. ‘There is a great book ‘Allotment Month by Month’which helps you plan out the jobs for each month looking at preparation, sowing, planting, and harvesting.’
‘If possible, find out what was grown in each bed by the previous owner. It is often recommended to rotate crops so for example if you know potatoes and carrots have been grown in one bed, grow yours in a different bed this year. This helps prevent disease and ensures the soil has the right minerals that your plants need,’ he explains.
‘The second thing I would suggest is to think about what you want to grow and ask yourself will you actually use it? This will help cut down on waste and will ensure you only grow what you need. Finally have fun, choose varieties that you can’t get in the shops like rainbow carrots, watermelon radishes, glass corn or purple peas. This adds to the excitement and wonder of it all.’
Gerard gets his seeds from a few suppliers and all of them are based in Ireland.
Brown Envelope Seeds are based on an organic family farm in West Cork.
Seedaholic is based in Galway and have an amazing variety of seeds and provide great information packs with every packet purchased.
And QuickCrop also has an excellent catalogue and are particularly great for seed potatoes and onions.
This year Gerard is focussing on purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn and some new pea varieties in his allotment.
‘I’m also growing some loofahs which I am really excited about as they make great dish and shower sponges when dried so this will further reduce the amount of plastic that I use,’ he says.
Clearly one with a creative mind, it comes as no surprise that Gerard has come up with smart ways to store fruit and vegetables to make the most of them. He’s currently drying chillies from last year’s crop and planning to grind them into flakes.
‘Last year I pickled a lot too; pickled beets were a great success,’ he says. ‘I would simply make the pickling brine out of apple cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt. These would then keep for a couple of months and were a great addition to any salad.’
But what else can we do to live more sustainably? Well, Gerard says, it all depends on the choices we make.
‘There is a lot we can do to reduce our environmental footprint to leave more room for wild animals and plants,’ he says.
‘I feel more than ever people are becoming more aware of the impact that we all have and if we all make small changes, we can make the world a safer, cleaner place. Simple changes like growing your own veg, using eco-friendly household cleaners, reducing plastics in the home, or opting for a green energy provider are just some simple ideas that can help make a difference.’