Inch by inch, row by row: Peter Dowdall explores Voxpro's new green space

Peter Dowdall on an exciting Cork-based innovation that has seen Voxpro enthusiastically open up some green space to be used by employees who might want grow their own food and ornamental plants

The garden at Voxpro, Mahon, Cork. It has grown now to encompass over half an acre, with plans for further expansion. Picture: David Keane

Can a garden change the world? In the 21st century it seems everybody has heard the terms corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship and responsible business to name a few of the current buzz terms.

Many people will have seen a biodome appear on the landscape in the business district of Mahon, Cork over the last few years and while it may look a bit like it just landed from outer space, it is actually the result of Cork company Voxpro’s Innovation Programme.

In 2015, David Humber was sitting at his desk fielding calls on the Google helpdesk. If you had an internet problem, it’s very possible you may have ended up on the phone to David or one of his colleagues at the call centre in Mahon. David felt that it would be a great idea if Voxpro could open up some of its green space to be used by employees who might want to grow their own food.

He submitted his idea to the company top brass through its Innovation Programme and sure enough, his idea was successful and Voxpro really got behind his project. David came to the table as someone with a keen interest, but no background or training in gardening.

“I see the whole area of gardening and the green environment as important issues of our time. I love the fact that a tech company has come behind this project.

“I grew up watching River Cottage, I loved it and always thought that I’d like to replicate something like that when I got older. But I like city living too much to move, and this for me, is the perfect marriage.”

First came the biodome, and this has since been joined by a giant outdoor pizza oven, outdoor bar, (called pleasure dome complete with giant disco ball), and a chicken coop. It’s easy to see the merit in David’s idea, I think everyone would agree that outdoor space should be made available for initiatives like this.

Hands-on help, mixed with a healthy measure of enthusiasm and excitement, will get a garden and allotment project off the ground but gardens tend to grow. It’s not just enough to create one during the sunny spring, it needs to be tended to, needs maintenance, and seeds which are sown need to be pricked out, hardened off and planted, beds need to be designed, crop rotation needs to be planned, weeds need to be pulled, the chicken coop cleaned and the fowl minded.

Peter Dowdall and horticulturalist Kitty Scully, at Voxpro, Mahon, Cork. Picture: David Keane

Realistically, voluntary effort can’t be relied upon to sustain a project on this scale. Budgets are needed, people need to be employed and this is where Voxpro has stepped up to the mark. The Voxgro garden has grown over the last two years, and I can’t help but be impressed by the passion for the enterprise. The original idea may have been David’s but he was smart enough to know that expert help was needed to bring it to the next level.

Landscape designer Paul O’Flynn was brought in to give an overall design for the concept, Tim Farley and Jack Thorne of Bespoke Structures created the geodome and paving, and Hendrik Lapel, Bakehus, built the pleasure dome and pizza oven.

This is where big business comes into its own. A community-based voluntary initiative would find it nigh on impossible to achieve such progress. However, the heads in Voxpro and in particular Dan and Linda Kiely, (who recently sold the company for c€150m), were smitten with the idea and so the company purse was available to enable this garden to develop.

It has now grown to encompass over half an acre, with plans for further expansion. My good friend Kitty Scully has been employed as the full-time horticulturist to manage the garden and it is going from strength to strength. Other innovative ideas have fed off this garden, like the juicing of fresh produce, which is done in the on-site restaurant and it is hoped that before too long all the produce for this — which has become known as Voxdetox — will all come from the Voxgro garden, (geddit?).

Before joining the crew, Kitty had been working in Airfield in Co Dublin. “I came across the job spec for the position of Voxgro horticulturist in January. It looked fun, challenging and cutting-edge, and I had the required skill set (plumbing and chameleon-keeping aside).

“Also, having grown very concerned with how rapidly we are losing green spaces in our planet’s urban areas, I was really impressed that Voxpro were even considering a ‘grow’ project, particularly one in an industrial area. I was also very happy in my role in Airfield, so I had to give a huge amount of thought to leaving.

“I was also really excited to work with an innovative technology company such as Voxpro, gardening, food and farming are generally the passions of an older generation, so the thoughts of being part of a project conceived by and aimed at engaging a younger generation had big appeal.”

Roger Clancy, Voxpro director of operations, David Humber Voxpro technical support specialist, Kitty Scully and Tony Foy, Voxpro compliance director, at the launch of Voxpro’s VOXGRO project in August. Picture: Roger Clancy

They’re not letting the grass grow beneath their feet as Voxpro are also working with another Cork success story, Rising Sons Brewery, in developing their own beer. At the official opening of this garden earlier this year, I found it hard to believe just how much Kitty had achieved with the space. Not all the work is done by her, but voluntary effort all needs to be managed, to ensure that everyone is working to the same plan while still allowing individuality and creativity to flourish.

Yes, everyone sees the benefits of growing our own food and everyone would agree that any business which helps to facilitate this should be commended. However, this garden has become more than a source of fresh food, it has developed to include ornamental plantings, an amphitheatre and it is hoped to become an outdoor meeting room.

For me, one of the most important benefits of allotment or community gardening is that much-used term ‘social capital’. Neighbours actually out and about taking part in a common interest. It only struck me, listening to one of the speeches on the opening day that this concept is taken to a new level of importance here.

Voxpro has employees from 30 countries representing over 20 companies. Imagine landing in Cork in your early 20s from a foreign country knowing nobody? You go to work in a call centre which, I imagine is not a great environment for social interaction as everyone is on their headsets answering customer queries.

This Voxgro garden offers the opportunity for all employees to muck in and get dirty so to speak. One speaker on the day was telling a tale of a new employee who arrived from abroad and on her first weekend in Ireland was helping out with her new friends in the garden. Kitty has her own
vision for the space, she wants to see it develop into “a quirky sustainable outdoor space, lush with plants, animals and nature whilst interspersed with funky alternative meeting and events spaces that are used year round by Voxpronians.”

As for David Humber, he remains passionate about what is happening here. “I would love to see this Voxgro garden expand to take over the entire site and perhaps be replicated on Voxpro campuses worldwide.”

Can a garden change the world? Perhaps it can. It can certainly change the way we look at our places of work. Will it be only a matter of time before other companies follow suit? I hope so. To use corporate speak, employee engagement and inclusion should be high up on the list of priorities in the workplace . I can’t think of a better way than to have them sowing seeds and working the soil.


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