This was the second thing on my 'Weekend to-do list'......a visit to the National Ecology Centre in Laytown Co Louth. I'll admit it I too had never heard of this place before I went either. The trip came about as a result of an invite from Peter Donegan of Donegal Landscapes ltd, Peter oganises non-gardener garden tours....and I was interested in this concept...plus I was told Trevor Sargeant would be the tour guide (I've been a fan of Trevors for years....ever since his days as 'Minister of Turnips' as the press dubbed him or Minister for Horticulture as he was correctly known....
Sonairtre is an unusual, interesting place. Kinda a cross between a technical college, a hippy commune, an organic farm and a museum. Their website www.sonairte.ie will tell you all you need to know about the place. In an overview - its an old historic farm complex restored and renovated to offer educational facilities along the lines of sustainability, they have a number of displays on sustainable energy, an extensive walled garden, an eco-shop, an organic cafe....they grow and sell fruit and veg and offer courses, classes and the likes on site...see the outdoor cooking dish, and the bikes which generate power when you peddle...
Trevor described the walled garden as a 'fruit garden with veg in it'...and this gives a true portray of the garden, there is fruit everywhere, and many of the apple trees are ancient fellows, indeed UCD have been down gathering cuttings from some of the older varieties which are not available today. The shapes and contortions on these older apples trees and spectacular, and the walls are lined with plum trees which are heavy in fruit....a far cry from mines in the back garden here. The non-gardener point of the tour is to dispel with all the latin names and to tell the story of the garden, indeed there was only a few in the group with were avid gardeners, some were photographers, families, farmers, and people who appreciate the outdoors...
The walled garden area itself is a smidge above 2acres in size, so far bigger than your typical gaden!!, but well worked. Trevor was saying their main business is selling fruits and veg in the local farmers markets and to facilitate this they have both outdoor and extensive polytunnel growing space. This pic shows 4 outdoor beds laid out as an example of good crop rotation. The strips of mypex between rows makes it cleaner for walking to pic, and for weed control on a bigger scale
The outdoor Rhubarb beds were particularly impressive, a staggering amount of plants, must be over 50 were in glorious growth, all fed with garden compost and organic fertiliser, trevor was saying its one of the best sellers in the farmers markets
The soft fruit was exceptional, loads of blackcurrents, red currents, whitecurrents, gooseberries and raspberries all in big quantities to meet the demands of quantitiy selling. The whole garden area is on a South facing slope so benefits from any available sunshine. As everything is done by Volunteers they pick and pack as much as possible on a Friday (volunteers are thin on the ground on a saturday we were told)
There is a number of polytunnels on site, offering year-round growing potential to any garden, the tunnels were being used to produce crops such as Basil, Tomatoes, Beans, Fennel, Salads with lots of companion planting (you can see the Nasturtiums in the pictures). The whole show is run by volunteers so any 'wrongs' can be easily excused.
Now after a tour of the 2acre plus walledgarden and the first few courtyards I was impessed....and then a gate opened and this view appeared. Right at the bottom of the garden there is a tidal salt marsh heaving with bird life and wild flowers, the guys have developed a wild trail, about a mile long taking in the bank and offering some great spots for bird watching....a family were in the bird hide doing a bit of buzzard spotting as we walked around...
The garden is a treasure trove of things....wee windows, doors, buildings....it gets your mind racing'what was this' 'what was that for'.......I love this kind of place....like a big jigsaw that the guys have been working on since 1988 when it opened..
and like everything....it all comes down to tae and buns....and the spread offered by the Sunflower Cafe was mighty....a chocolate bakewell tart with garden fruit and cream made for great fuel for a debate between educators, organic gardeners, conventional armers.....all set in the big courtyard outside the cafe (in the background there was a farmers market running on the sunday....so there were wee stalls everywhere selling cakes, fruit, hand cream, massages etc etc....
and thanks to Trevor for signing the copy of his book for me, Trevors Kitchen Garden. Its a good tale of him and his back garden in Balbriggan and his exploits over the years growing organic fruit and vegetables. It's handily broken down into month by month sections with a splattering of Irish thrown in...and some nifty wee hand-drawings..
was it worth the trip, for me yes. it was about 2.5 hours from Newtowncunningham (left at 8am got there at 10.30), if your passing defo call in (its all free to visit the site, you just make a donation if you can) (www.sonairtre.ie) . If you have an interest in organic fruit and vegetables then please try and visit John O'Reilllys farm 'Greenhill Farm' in Culdaff closer to home (you'll get them on Facebook)....and remember we have a City & Guilds Level 2 in Organic Gardening starting in September in North West Regional College Derry.
Gardening on Radio Foyle
A summary of each weeks gardening on Mark Patterson Show and beyond