By Julie Costello
When gardeners from all over the county gather in East Donegal this month the event will be only the latest bloom of a thriving new initiative known as the Donegal Community Garden Network.
Begun in Spring 2016, the Network presently consists of 26 communally-run gardens – the latest addition being on Tory Island – which share ideas, information, tips, seeds, clippings, and more through a Facebook page, a newsletter, special events, and meetings at member gardens.
“The aim of the Donegal Community Garden Network is to enlist and support all community gardens, green spaces, and garden clubs in Donegal,” said Joanne Butler, who is the current chairperson of the Network. “We are a large, spread-out, and diverse county, and the Network feels its strength is as a whole – connecting those in the North, South, East, and West.”
The Network’s “Big Day Out” event on Saturday, 19th August, will foster connections through providing tours of Lifford Community Garden plus Ros Ban Garden and Oakfield Park in Raphoe, and includes a lunch at the latter.
“This a great opportunity for gardeners, including new gardeners, to visit some gardens, meet other community gardeners, and have a great day out,” said Joanne, an award-winning gardener and horticultural tutor with Donegal ETB who runs OURganic Garden in Gortahork.
The community garden network in Donegal is only the second in the country after Carlow, with more counties being actively encouraged to follow their lead by Community Gardens Ireland. Administrative and financial support for Donegal Community Garden Network have been provided through the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP) administered by Donegal Local Development CLG, which has also provided support to individual community gardens through the Tús Programme, the Regional Social Scheme, and the Job Club.
“We’ve come on leaps and bounds with the help of DLDC,” Joanne said. “Throughout the start-up process they’ve been available to provide a valuable guiding hand.”
Evidence of the productive links between community gardens that the Network has already encouraged includes a newly-built shed at Dunfanaghy Family Resource Centre Community Garden, where seed beds and boxes are currently bursting with colourful flowers and vegetables.
“We visited the Twin Towns Community Garden on one of the Network trips, and while sitting in their shed surrounded by beautiful flowers we got the idea to build one here,” said Dunfanaghy Family Resource Centre Community Garden member Séamus Mac Gabhann, who volunteered to take on the shed-building project along with fellow member Rob Wasson.
“It was a challenge, but the shed’s here now for gardening meetings, storage, and drying out seeds,” Rob said.
News that they had been such a source of inspiration in Dunfanaghy in turn gave a boost to Twin Towns Community Garden, which makes approximately 100 boxed seed beds available to community members, groups, and schools on land behind the HSE’s Isaac Butt Building (formerly the Community Services Building) in downtown Ballybofey. “It’s just unreal to have feedback like that,” said Twin Towns Community Garden member Michael Rowan. “It gives us incentive to do better and better. We love what we’re doing and we love to see people coming in from other gardens.”
Additional Donegal Community Garden Network projects include mapping the locations of community gardens throughout the county and organising a panel discussion on building sustainable food communities that was attended by more than 60 people. In June the Network facilitated participation by nine Donegal community gardens in the nationwide Street Feast, an annual event offering a festive family day out and fresh food to local communities.
“For Street Feast this year we invited people to come look at the garden and bring a dish to share,” said Paula Harvey, a local archaeologist and member of Ardara Community Garden, which is located behind the Ardara Health Centre. “We found it brought in some of the locals who weren’t even aware that there was a community garden in Ardara.”
The access that free membership in Donegal Community Garden Network provides to both administrative assistance and gardening support was remarked upon by representatives for a number of gardens in the Network.
“The shared information is big,” said Helena McClafferty of Dungloe Community Garden, which is located at Ionad Teampaill Chróine. “There’s always somebody there if you want to ask a question. It gives you security to know that the answer to any query you have is just an email or a phone call away.”
“The Network would be my first point of contact to get our people to visit other gardens, as well as a way for others to learn about our garden,” said Martina Doyle of The Forge Family Resource Centre, home to the Pettigo and Tullyhommon Community Garden.
“It’s a challenge because Donegal is a big county and people are so spaced out,” said Kevin Montgomery of St. Conal’s Community Garden in Letterkenny, who is a member of the Network’s Co-ordinating Committee. “In each garden you’ll find a few people who are interested in making links, while others just want to come do their own thing and go home. That’s fine. We’re trying to address issues around education, information, and accessing grants from various bodies. Everybody can benefit from that.”
Beyond even its value as a practical support for local gardens, Donegal Community Garden Network has a special role to play in developing a county-wide sense of community, according to Larry Masterson of Blissberry Social Farm in Mountcharles, who is another member of the Co-ordinating Committee.
“We’ve had a number of Network meetings in five or six gardens throughout the county,” Larry said. “At each garden people are talking about what they’re doing, showing their garden, and sharing seeds and plants. Through building a Network of community gardens in Donegal, as well as promoting healthy lifestyles we are planting the seeds of community spirit, growing together and reaping the benefits.”