Culture Near You is an online map of culture in Dublin. We’re constantly adding to this cultural map so we get to meet lots of the great people featured, and we thought you might like to meet them too!
For this blog series, we’re meeting the makers, the movers and shakers, the partakers, and the doers of the map - to find out more about what they do in the city. You can find out more about Culture Near You and how to get involved here.
We spoke with Connor Howlett, gardener at the Stillgarden Distillery. In this blog, he shares with us how the Social Botanist Project came to be, how he got his start in gardening and what he likes about the smell of fresh soil.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and what you do as the Stillgarden gardener?
I’m Connor and have lived in Dublin for just over 5 years. I grew up in England and despite my name, I don’t have any substantial Irish heritage (I was named after the Terminator movies instead). I moved to Dublin to study English Literature and Film at Trinity College, and made the natural progression from art student into horticulture. I did grow up in the countryside though, and spent most of my earliest memories climbing trees, getting lost in the woods, surrounded by the screeches of red kites and the lively texture of leaves.
As gardener at Stillgarden, I manage the community space that we established back in March 2020 on neglected wasteland, transforming it into a wildlife-friendly, botanical garden. Whilst I oversee the garden, it is very much a community effort to look after the space, as our Social Botanists (community gardeners) are the main reason it looks the way it does. This is thanks to their hard work in tending to it.
I also work in community outreach, engaging with local residents and businesses in the spirit of collaboration and sustainability; for example, on my walk into work, I collect some of the local cafés’ coffee grinds for use in the distillery or as a soil improver in the garden. We’ve also expanded our area of activity beyond the garden by working with Pocket Forests to establish a mini native forest elsewhere in the Goldenbridge Industrial Estate where we reside, and even put a little pond there.
As the seasons change, I forage a range of different wild foods for use in the distillery. Our head distiller Luke O’Meara or venue manager Jake Chaney then play around with my findings, and make something exciting for the bar, or for a special small-batch treat for the Social Botanists, or use these unique local flavours as research for a new product.
On top of the gardening responsibilities, I also bartend, give tours of the garden and distillery, and represent the brand with some advocacy work.
Sure, plants don’t solve everything, but ... we fostered a sense of community in a time when we’d all never before been so isolated
How did the Social Botanist Project come about, and how long has it been running?
We can thank COVID for that. Having a garden and establishing a community space were always part of the plan for the distillery from Stillgarden’s Boss Lady, Viki Baird, and her husband, Pat. However, the opening was planned for the week of lockdown back in March 2020, which inevitably fell through as soon as the country began to feel unwell. The resources that would have gone into establishing the indoor distilling experience for the public instead went into the garden and developing a sense of community.
Bars and bartenders in Dublin were hit particularly hard by the lockdowns, forced to close for longer than a year in some cases. We distributed hydroponic grow kits to our bartender friends so that they’d have something to do in the face of the terrifying prospect of no work for the foreseeable future, and the general horrors of the pandemic. And it worked! Sure, plants don’t solve everything, but through this little initiative, we fostered a sense of community in a time when we’d all never before been so isolated. The grow kits then came back to the distillery, and established the botanical side of the garden.
Two such botanicals that grew well and were planted by our first Social Botanists were mint and lavender, and these ingredients were selected to experiment with in the distillery lab. Distillates with different levels of mint and lavender were produced and then given to the Social Botanists (since expanded from just bartenders to anyone in the community who wanted to get involved) who selected their favourite. That then became our flagship gin: Social Gin.
Could you describe the project for anyone who might be unfamiliar with it?
The Social Botanist Project is an initiative run by Stillgarden Distillery to build and maintain a sustainable community resource with the garden, offer education on sustainable and wildlife gardening, provide resources to grow botanicals and plants, forage responsibly, increase the biodiversity and wildlife of the area, and maintain a pollinator corridor in support of the All Ireland Pollinator Plan. Whilst these are the goals of the project, in turn, they can help us to collaborate on and share our sustainable practices with a broader community, such as the distribution of seeds harvested from the garden. It’s one of the ways in which we can give back to the area that is our home.
How often does the group meet?
I host a Social Botanist event for most of the year every Sunday, ranging from community gardening hours, community clean-ups, workshops and foraging walks. One of the best parts of the Project is that the garden is always open for anybody to enjoy, so you don’t even need to attend the meet-ups to enjoy the space. Over the winter, we meet less often, but I still arrange clean-ups and wildlife walks so that the social element of the project persists all year round.
Do you have any stand out or favourite moments from your time with the Social Botanist Project?
Probably seeing a frog move into the pond that we put into our Pocket Forest. As we were clearing the area of litter (we collected more than 20 bags with that first big clean-up), we found frogs and toads taking shelter under an abandoned pallet, covered in styrofoam balls. I had a profound sense of achievement seeing a creature once covered in rubbish able to enjoy something I had built with the help of my community. Dragonflies and damselflies absolutely love it, and throughout the heatwaves there were lots of bees, hoverflies and wasps drinking from the water too.
What’s your favourite thing about gardening?
This may be a bit of an odd response (what’s new), but probably the smell. I absolutely love the fresh aroma of soil and vegetation: it brings me back to my childhood of greenery and rural wilderness. That’s something I really found myself missing when I first moved to Dublin, which is when gardening began to first properly take hold of me. In between lectures at college, I found myself searching for remote, bucolic tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I’d frequent parks like Iveagh Gardens and Merrion Square instead of Stephen’s Green, not because I disliked the latter, but because I needed to reconnect with the sensory surroundings of nature to feel settled.
Another thing I love about gardening is the sense of satisfaction over helping to bring life into the world. There is little else as rewarding as growing a lemon tree from seed and years later taking him for walks in the park on sunny days.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Dublin?
As a film graduate, I adore the cinema, so the IFI and the Light House are definitely two of my regular haunts. For coffee, Unfiltered in Inchicore is my second home, and is always a welcoming spot for humans and dogs alike, unless you’re looking for brunch… I’d be lying if I pretended not to often be a patron in Bar 1661 and Three Storey for delicious, creative cocktails, and Rascals and The Saint for pints a little closer to home in Inchicore. All of these spots are full of character, excellent hospitality, and well worth your time. It’s highly likely you’d find me in one of these places on my days off, or sat feeding the robins amongst the roses at the National War Memorial Gardens.
What are you most looking forward to at the Social Botanist Project in the coming weeks and months?
Autumn is my favourite season (again, I love the smell), and is a high-point for foraging nuts, fruit, and berries. It’s also the time of year that is best to harvest roots, so we’ll be harvesting dandelion and burdock root in the garden soon to make something delicious.
I’m also greatly looking forward to doing more wildlife walks along to Phoenix Park, which is something we don’t have as much time for in the warmer months, but a chilly day is perfect for a brisk walk to go and see the deer from a responsible distance. On the last one, I even saw a sparrowhawk fly overhead too!
Another thing I’m looking forward to is next year’s fruit harvest as our trees edge towards maturity. It’s a goal of mine to have a little orchard in the area, so that people can take as much fruit as they like, and there be more than enough for humans, the birds, and the soil to enjoy.
I had a profound sense of achievement seeing a creature once covered in rubbish able to enjoy something I had built with the help of my community
If someone would like to get involved with the Social Botanist Project, how can they do that?
The easiest and quickest way to see what we’re up to that week is to follow us on our Instagram @stillgarden_socialbotanists. I appreciate not everyone likes social media, so we also have a sign-up form on our website for the Social Botanist-specific mailing list (https://stillgardendistillery.com/social-botanist-sign-up/), or you can email me directly firstname.lastname@example.org. As a warm welcome to the Social Botanist community, we can offer seeds packs and grow kits for you to grow something at home. Feel free to email me if you’d like some, and I can prepare that for you to collect at the distillery.
Lastly, what has been your favourite or most surprising discovery on the Culture Near You map so far?
I’m really impressed by the range of different cultural experiences and offerings around the city that I never would have encountered otherwise. Wild Awake, based in Phoenix Park, certainly caught my attention with its focus on ethnobotany, the relationship between us and plants, which is something I’m very engaged with in my own work and wider experience. Reconnecting with nature is something that I needed to do when I moved to Dublin, and I’m very pleased to see that there are more opportunities being provided for others to do the same beyond our Social Botanist Project.