by Caitriona Devery
In spite of detailed directions via WhatsApp, we almost get lost on the way to Singing Frog Gardens in West Cork. Probably because I’m a terrible passenger-navigator. I get distracted looking out the windows.
It would have been easier if we had the Eircode, but Alex, the mysterious owner of the Gardens, hadn’t volunteered this information. He’s a little wary of revealing its exact location, because he fears someone might try to pilfer the valuable and exotic crops he grows there.
In case your imagination is running away, he’s not growing cannabis or coca plants. His profitable produce is primarily wasabi, which I wrote about last week in another post. However, Alex also experiments with a range of non-native herbs and vegetables rarely if ever grown in Ireland.
The fruits of his labour are highly sought after by top chefs across the country.
Ireland’s Mild Temperatures and Abundant Rainfall make it possible to grow some surprising things.
I came across Singing Frog Gardens on Instagram where Alex posts pictures of the many unusual vegetables and herbs he grows. When I was on my holidays in West Cork last month, Alex suggested I pop in for tea. My brother Michael was driving and is himself a keen grower, so we stopped off en-route to my glamping stay in beautiful Ballingeary, near Gougane Barra.
The gardens are a chemical free micro farm, filled with an abundance of culinary curiosities. The wasabi is what Alex is most known for, but the farm is filled with novelty and wonder, a kind of Willy Wonka factory for herbs and vegetables. Yet growing and selling produce wasn’t always the plan. Alex initially moved to West Cork with his partner in the late 90’s, driven by an interest in living off the land.
Growing up, Alex was inspired by the self-sufficiency guru John Seymour, calling Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency his ‘bible’. This classic tome of 1970’s sustainability inspired a whole way of life centred around living simply close to nature, independently of industrial life. Seymour’s ideas gained currency in popular culture through the British sitcom, The Good Life, where Tom and Barbara Good try to escape the rat race.
With Seymour in mind, Alex and his partner travelled from the UK to Ireland in the late ’90s, hoping to scout out somewhere they could try their hand at self-sufficiency. Like many, they were charmed by West Cork and decided to rent in the area for a year.
After the year, they decided to commit to Ireland and have been here ever since. The land around their rented house was an ex-quarry which included a wooded area with its own spring. Alex spotted its potential and they negotiated a good deal with the landowner.
True to his DIY values, Alex built their timber framed house from scratch. The damp wooded area became the site of the initial wasabi experiments and over time he has gradually reclaimed the rest of the quarried site for polytunnels and beds.
He balks slightly when I call Singing Frog Gardens a farm, suggesting that the neighboring West Cork farmers might scoff, particularly at his tiny tractor. He prefers the concept of a ‘market garden’ which was popularised by Seymour.
The market garden approach Seymour advocates is inspired by the intensive nineteenth century urban market gardens which grew food to feed the city of Paris. The soil was highly cultivated with the addition of lots of horse manure (since there were lots of horses). Seymour popularized similar techniques as his deep bed method which he said was key to growing a lot in a small space.
Alex also learned a lot from working for West Cork farmer Jonathan Doig at his legendary organic farm Narmada in Rosscarbery. From Jon, Alex says, he learnt about gardening for a living. For instance, in Singing Frog Gardens he utilities a “pragmatic deep bed” technique rather than exactly following Seymour’s method, which can be labour intensive if growing at scale. He also learned to rationlise his weeding, although he says you can never escape the labour of weeding entirely.
The initial success he had growing and selling the uncommon, high-value wasabi was an eye opener for Alex. With such a small site and his willingness to experiment, growing specialty produce for the restaurant market was the ideal plan. He says his USP is “weird stuff”, or as his Instagram puts it “rare and unusual produce”.
For growing inspiration, Alex says he keeps his ear attuned to what chefs want and what will sell. He watches Japanese satellite channel NHK and its Trails to Tsukiji programme. It features ingredients sold in Tokyo’s iconic fresh food Tsukiji market. South America is another reference point when he introduced us to some of the other experiments in his polytunnel.
For instance, he is growing delicately narrow-leaved pipiche (or pipicha) from Mexico. Pipiche tastes like a gentler coriander with similar flavours and lime overtones. Pipiche was supplanted by coriander when it was introduced into Mexico by Chinese immigrants as the latter is much easier to grow.
He’s also trialing Colombian guascas and has supplied some to the Colombian embassy in Dublin. It’s a key ingredient for the traditional Colombian chicken and herb soup, Ajiaco. He also showed us a big and furry Mexican mint plant (also called Cuban oregano) and a small yet elegant and fragrant curry leaf bush.
Perhaps the most unusual item under trial in the polytunnel is konjac, or elephant yam. It’s a difficult crop and very sensitive to frost. Alex tells me it’s grown in sheds in Japan, kept warm by constantly tended fires. The fruit grows into balls size of a football, although Alex’s yam hasn’t quite reached that size. The raw plant requires care in handling as it can be toxic. Konjac can be processed into gelatinous konnyaku or yam cake, or made into shirataki noodles. It’s valued as nutritious and very low-calorie.
Finally, he tells me he is growing a few beds of sea kale. This is a biennial cabbage-like leafy crop which he covers from the light to produce white, forced shoots. It requires a lot of attention but he says it suits the soil and chefs love it.
As you might imagine, growing unconventional plants is a risky business. Every year there is a disaster, Alex says. This year he tried to grow ‘Three Sisters’, the traditional native American formulation where squash, beans and corn are planted alongside each other. The squash took over, dragged everything down and the yield was low. Last year, he attempted tomatillos, the tomato-like fruit with papery husks. The whole crop collapsed into a pile of foliage.
Failure is of course part of any experimental enterprise. The size of the gardens is also challenging. As Alex says, “I’m either worrying over whether I won’t sell enough or if I’ve overpromised the chefs”. Nonetheless, he seems undeterred. Singing Frog Gardens is a sustainable and pioneering operation boldly growing where few have gone before with Irish fine dining ingredients. The Good Life indeed.
Caitríona Devery is a writer and radio broadcaster from Offaly but currently based in Dublin, with interests in food, culture, politics and environmentalism. Follow her on instagram: @everytreecat