I found perfect fruit and veg in Donegal - Anne Hailes

Barrie Quinn and the quest for perfection at Portnoo Market Garden

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Passion, hard work and perseverance by Barrie Quinn and his team have seen Portnoo Market Garden flourish
Passion, hard work and perseverance by Barrie Quinn and his team have seen Portnoo Market Garden flourish. The garden grows fruits and vegetables using only natural, sustainable and chemical free methods

A gardener or a gigger? Or both? For Barrie Quinn they go hand-in-hand but whereas gardening is his passion and his pleasure, gigging is mainly to support charities and make music.

In Co Donegal, halfway between Ardara and Portnoo, a family farm has been reconfigured into a thriving market garden, a wonder of fruit and vegetables and one giant Mongolian sunflower on the way to becoming 14 feet tall with a head measuring almost 18 inches. There are poly tunnels filled with growth: cucumbers, French beans, garlic, courgettes, onion sets and more.

Barrie is full of information that is relevant to all of us. Take apples, for instance: “Apples can be up to a year old by the time they reach the shop. When picked they are treated with a chemical and sometimes with a synthetic wax and stored in a cooler.

“It’s important that before eating these are washed in a mixture of water and baking soda - bicarbonate of soda.” Chemicals are not tolerated in this man’s life...

Talking to Barrie is an education for any gardener. The importance of removing side shoots on tomatoes to promote growth, basil between the plants as they complement each other with nutrients and the specific aroma deters white fly, planting sage, mint, marigolds or lavender to dissuade ticks and talk of his most sought-after product, the lettuce. You could almost set this to music and Barrie might well do so at some time.

At Portnoo Market Garden one thing is for sure - nature rules, whether in the orchard, around thousands of tender plants or in the lily pond which is cultivated to produce frogs to eat the slugs, to feed the wildlife so evident around the area. A large hare lopes by to prove the point. Foxes and rabbits are lurking and nettles grow tall for butterflies and to use as a vegetable; all thrive on a feed of molasses and concentrated seaweed.

“Three years ago we had a fungal growth with the first crop of tomatoes and it seemed there was nothing that could be done except a commercial fungicide,” recalls Barrie.

“But I watched the crop wither and die rather than use chemicals. I was determined to build the perfect garden and grow perfect fruit and vegetables.”

And with JR, his devoted dad, and five-year-old Ryu he has achieved this, with two-year-old Emika already taking an interest.

I showed Barrie a book I was reading by Edwin Oxlade and illustrated by his wife Diana. Simply called 50 Weeds, it’s a fascinating account of our most common weeds - or, as Barrie says, flowers in the wrong place.

One of his constant challenges is chickweed which just keeps growing and threatening to smother tender outdoor plants. According to Edwin Oxlade, chickweed comes from an illustrious family: “Even the carnation in your button hole is close kin.”

50 Weeds by Oxlade Edwin
50 Weeds by Oxlade Edwin

He mentions weedkiller but recommends “just grab and pull”. Another ‘weed’ featured in the book is the dandelion, a misunderstood plant giving more than it gets: “Excellent addition to salads, make wine with the flowers and grind the baked roots into a coffee substitute.” Certainly this book encourages you to look into the fields and hedgerows and your own garden with new eyes.

Where did Barrie learn all this? “The university of Google, though it really began when I went to Australia in 2009 and worked on a large farm harvesting fruit and vegetables for Woolworths, cutting, picking and packing in large bags. But they weren’t chemical-free and that set me thinking.”

There he met Yuka, now his wife, originally from Tokyo, and together they decided to come home to the north west of Ireland to do it right. But it took time and effort.

I watched the crop wither and die rather than use chemicals. I was determined to build the perfect garden and grow perfect fruit and vegetables

—  Barrie Quinn

In 2020 with his dad, Barrie cut down hundreds of sally trees, filling 2,000 bags of firewood. He realised there was no water source so consulted old maps showing the area in the mid-1800s and discovered three spring wells, began digging and laying a water course to the poly tunnels... and the rest is history in the making.

Barrie is also a well known ‘duck’ and famous the length and breadth of Donegal; he’s one of The Duck Street Jam Band and, playing guitar and vocals, he and his fellow musicians raised £10,000 last year for charity.

“The day after our wedding in Australia we went to a Hawaiian party and it was great craic so we decided we’d run one here every year to raise money for Glenties charity shop for orphans in Haiti and Ethiopia and for the Pashto orphanage in Belarus,” explains Barrie.

“It’s one of our main events, held this year on July 20 in The Tavern, Portnoo - all welcome.”

Proof positive that gigs and gardening do indeed go hand-in-hand.

Find out more about Barrie’s work on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube by searching for ‘Portnoo Market Garden’