Leytown by the sea. And nearby, Sonairte, an organic garden which is like a glimpse of another world. A world of ancient apple trees, vibrant rows of organic vegetables, birdsong and the river Nanny flowing slowly by. Sonairte is an “interactive visitor centre promoting ecological awareness and sustainable living”. This 10 acre project was set up in 1986 by members of the local community. The walled garden has rows of organic (certified) fruit trees and vegetables beds. The woodland walk follows the river along a Salt Marsh and leads to a bird hide with a view of local wildlife and Ballygarth Castle. Volunteering at Fota makes us curious about other gardens and this curiosity led us to Sonairte in “The Ninch”.
Sonairte sits in an ancient landscape. Leytown was originally called “An Inse” in Irish and this became known as Ninch. The area is believed to have been settled over 1500 years ago. Sites wxcavated nearby have been dated to the 6th century AD.
The Sonairte website tells us that in the 17th century, there was a watermill on the river but no trace of this remains. In the 18th century, the walled garden was developed as a model of self-sufficiency providing enough fruit and vegetables and honey for the family and their servants.
Ballygarth Castle, visible from the bird hide, was a Medieval tower-house. It was modernised in the 19th century with the addition of battlements. The Pepper (Peppard) family lived there for more than 300 years, until 1979.
A legend associated with the castle states that when the family had their land confiscated after the Battle of the Boyne, a white horse was instrumental in their getting back this land. As a result, a white horse was kept at the castle until recently. (You can read more about the fascinating history of this area at http://sonairte.ie/visitor-attractions/hill-top)
Sonairte puts a strong emphasis on Education, offering tours and courses to all ages and abilities. On the day this blog visited, Deirdre was working on a willow structure, which children love to play in. She also had a container of reeds cut in preparation for her visit to a school to build a willow structure with the children. In this way the next generation are encouraged to learn about nature, natural skills and the environment.
Deirdre building the willow structure
With our own orchard being restored in Fota, the Heritage Fruit Trees at Sonairte are of particular interest. Among the varieties there is Lady Sudeley, a “well-known and attractive English apple from the late Victorian era” (Irishseedsavers.ie). The trees still produce many apples which are sold at markets and in Dublin.
Apple trees and fruit bushes at Sonairte
Along with fruit, Sonairte grows vegetables under strict organic conditions and sells this produce at the Dublin Food Co-Op and they supply several restaurants. This includes leeks, kale, courgettes, tomatoes, beans, potatoes and much more. Their website states that their “cropping system runs on a 4 year rotational basis ensuring no one vegetable crop is grown in the same piece of ground for at least 4 years. This fundamental rule of organic production helps to combat pest and disease build up, depletion of nutrients in the soil and soil degradation”.
Some of the fruit and vegetables in the beds and cloches
Sonairte is well organised and carefully tended, yet it still feels natural in the sense of allowing nature to flourish. Even while people are walking around – working or visiting – blackbirds, goldfinches, robins and blue tits flit around the trees, singing, calling and feeding. Wild garlic and bulrushes grow around the walled garden. Beside the river in the salt marshes, shell-ducks, waders and herons feed.
Some of the birds in the tidal salt marsh
Birds in the walled garden and on the nature trail.
The small Bee Museum explains how straw skeps were used in Winter to move the bees indoors for Winter. Made of straw, these skeps provided a warm and dry environment for the bees. The red-brick arched alcoves at Ninch House (Sonairte) date from the mid 17 hundreds and were built specifically to house the bees. Saint Modomnóc and our own Saint Gobnait get a mention in this small exhibition.
The name SONAIRTE comes from their guiding principles – Sustainable development, Organic growing, Nature conservation, Appropriate technology, Inner peace, Reduce reuse recycle, Trading fairly, Education. It’s free to visit. But you can leave a donation or support them by visiting their Eco shop which sells gardening tools, seed potatoes, seeds, Irish Eco cleaning products, organic food and beauty products. You can sample some of the organic produce at the Sunflower Cafe (see their Menu online at http://sonairte.ie/eco-shop-cafe/sunflower-cafe/menu). Or you can simply walk around to take in the beauty of this place, where deep respect is shown to the environment and nature, allowing you to get an equal sense of both history and a sustainable future.
Read more about Sonairte – www.sonairte.ie
Read more about bee skeps –