Trinity biodiversity start-up wants to change the way we garden

Students aim to transform lawn spaces into eco “food forests”

If you’re looking for an idea on how to creatively use garden space to help our changing climate, three Trinity students have it. The project is aptly named “No Mow Gardens” and strives to move away from a culture of manicured lawns to diverse natural landscapes that can benefit us and our wildlife. 

Freya Bartels, a recent earth sciences graduate; Meabh Hughes, an MSc researcher in geology; and Linda Robinson, a third-year engineering student, have started a garden developing business with hopes to improve biodiversity. They are trying to spread the idea of productive “food forests” and to enable people to move towards growing their own food. Their aim is to use native trees and fruit shrubs and in this way to allow our natural Irish vegetation to flourish. 

No Mow Gardens” is a Trinity start-up that stands out from the crowd.”

“No Mow Gardens” is a Trinity start-up that stands out from the crowd. The business began as a one-woman project in September 2019. Bartels says the idea came to her very organically: “I’ve always wanted to plant hundreds of thousands of trees everywhere, but you can’t just plant them anywhere, where they will be cut down.” She certainly had the relevant skills for this type of project. In her gap year before starting third level, Bartels worked in permaculture farming in both Ireland and Austria. She has continued working on similar projects during breaks from college. It was this experience that was a major driving force behind the set-up of “No Mow”. Bartels was inspired by the permaculture she saw being carried out: “There are a lot of incredible people out there who sort of copy nature’s design exactly. It’s a minimum effort on the person’s part and incredible output of food. Biodiversity is flourishing, you’re living in places where bees and birds are going crazy and next-door neighbours don’t have anything. They just allow nature to take over.”

It was difficult for Bartels to return from an environment where nature was allowed to really flourish to our typical Irish lawn-scape. “It was frustrating going back to Ireland then. It’s so destructive. We just chop it down all the time, we are always fighting it [nature].” She set to work in her parents’ garden, where they grow kale, broccoli, aubergine, tomatoes, cabbages, lettuces, leek and spinach.  The garden includes an acre of native woodland and around 1,100 trees. The mini forest is in the early stages, with most of the trees currently less than a metre tall. “We know what the initial stages feel like. For instance, your trees are going to be a lot shorter than you for the first few years!” The garden and food forest concept gained attention and admiration from friends, but they all insisted that they wouldn’t have the time, skillset or resources to replicate something similar of their own. And so the idea was formed at this point, “at least halfway.”

Bartels began advertising the start-up and was encouraged by friends to apply for Trinity’s Launch Box program. She says applying for the program provided motivation to really progress with the business. At this point, her two friends, Hughes and Robinson, had a keen interest in the project and the business became a collaborative effort between the three. Robinson is a keen gardener and environmentalist herself and keeps chickens and bees along with several varieties of berry bushes, potatoes, carrots, spinach and beetroots. “They were super excited and we started really manifesting, like when there were more people involved it was really fun. You have more motivation to keep your thoughts on the right track.”

The idea is that whether you have substantial garden space or a few metres squared, you can create something beneficial for yourself and the environment. “They can diversify their food forest from being a very minimal effort thing to a higher effort thing. It can literally be one metre squared of ground with three different types of bushes. Also, we would love to do bigger projects, if someone says “I have an acre and I want to have a whole massive forest” that would be great.” The team think the stereotype that gardening is a tedious or boring hobby is founded on the culture of gardening and lawn maintenance in Ireland. “There isn’t a right type of garden, gardening doesn’t have to be your hobby, if you just enjoy eating food that is the first step. People not enjoying pruning their roses, I understand that is a kind of useless activity. There’s no good karma to it. Whereas planting your potatoes is the first step of dinner in ten months’ time. It’s a hugely satisfying thing to do. The joy that everyone who does gardening says that happens to them when they spend time in their garden I think is universal.”

It seems so counterintuitive to completely separate humans from nature.” 

Aside from the enjoyable element, the food forests could provide radical change for biodiversity. “For pollinators specifically, it provides a huge amount of habitat. A single fully grown horse chestnut tree can feed an entire hive of bees. People think that planting a few crocuses and daffodils is going to help, but that’s one meal, whereas a tree gives an entire bounty for pollinators.” The compact nature of lawns and the small depth of root for grass does not provide the right environment. “When you plant trees they can aerate the soil and invite a whole underground community to exist as well, so you get mushrooms, you get worms, you get all sorts of underground animals and that’s where the carbon is really sequestered.” Robinson remarks “It seems so counterintuitive to completely separate humans from nature too. We are such a part of nature that it makes sense to be more connected to it than we as a society currently are.”

The team believes in using native species of trees and bushes, to reduce importation emissions and to preserve our natural biodiversity. “We go for species like hazel, yew, aspen, oak, birch, elder. There’s wild strawberries bushes, blackberries, mulberries, currents, all sorts of bushes and shrubs. There’s a great group named Irish Seed Savers and they provide hundreds of species of native Irish trees, shrubs, and berry bushes.” On the importance of having a wide variety of plant life, Robinson says: “Soil degradation from modern agriculture methods has a huge impact globally – and it gets worse because no one seems to change their ways. Mono agriculture takes nutrients from the soil and we have to fertilise to get it back. Whereas if you grow a variety of plants, you don’t get this problem.”

The ethical and environmental impacts of importing foodstuffs are some of the main reasons to opt for creating our own food forests. “Our food comes from countries where there are no standards for the workers. If you are buying your strawberries from Morocco, there’s no way the workers were getting even minimum wage, or that they were in any way looked after or that the strawberries weren’t sprayed or that the land wasn’t taken from indigenous people. There are so many layers. There’s so much karma with everything you eat. If you want to change something, the best thing to do is change it yourself because then you know every step of your plant’s life. Emissions are a very small part of the actual carbon footprint of foodstuffs. In comparison, the cutting down of rainforest for a banana plantation has a much larger impact.”

In turns of future plans for the business: “We’re thinking Coca Cola, that sort of thing, a workforce of thousands of gardeners!” Bartels jokes. “Our aim would be to have as much lawn space tuned into forest as possible. If people got involved and there was some sort of community that grew out of it that would be ideal. We would like to have a mobile app or maybe a website where you could design the garden yourself, and maybe ask us for tips and tricks. That would be the real eventual thing that people can create more biodiverse spaces for low cost and low effort.”

The start-up seems like a novel way to revive biodiversity whilst creating a community of passionate individuals. There is much talk at the moment of what we as individuals can do to help our declining environment and this is a fantastic step to giving communities this power. 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.