Growing For Your Menu

By Noel Keane posted 14-04-2020 10:15

Noel Keane of Croí Restaurant in Tralee embarked on his ‘grow your own’ journey in 2018. Two years later his garden supplies most the salads and herbs for his restaurant as well as a large variety of vegetables and berries. In this blog, Noel talks about some of the ups and downs of growing your own, how it has changed his cooking and increased his focus on sustainability, and his ambitions to soon be fully supplying his restaurant from his garden.

It all started quite simply. The herbs I was getting were either imported or the varieties I wanted were hard to source, so I was only meant to have a small herb garden starting off. That was the original idea, but of course, that is not what happened. 
I started the garden 5 months after opening Croí restaurant but didn't get very far after putting in two tunnels at the end of September 2017.  The weather turned for the worse. The idea was to put none 10 x 4-foot beds outside as well, but the rain through October and November meant nothing got done at the time. So in earnest, I set out to plant the tunnels up. I laid them out differently. One tunnel has two raised beds, 3 foot wide and 30 foot long. The other has no beds in it and is used as a nursery and for container growing. The tunnels are not plastic tunnel. They are polycarbonate with a light steel structure which means no tearing or having to buy more plastic, plus they run hotter, way hotter, than the plastic ones. They are great for where I live as I’m up high and it gets windy.

Noel Keane 1 | Chef Network

Noel Keane 2 | Chef Network
The idea was to produce as much as we could, if not all, of the herbs and salads for the restaurant as well as edible flowers, micro herbs, and some of the vegetables like cabbage and kale, and some berries. In February of 2018, I started planting and seeding like a mad man to have crops for spring and summer. Then March came and so did the snow. The white line you can see across the door is the snow yet the tunnels were fine. Outside was destroyed, but I was able to keep planting in the tunnels to have a very nice bounty in my first summer of salads and herbs….and a good few lessons. You need to be very aware for example of how hot the tunnels can get. It doesn’t need to be hot outside, just a bit of sunlight and think grow way quicker than you expect. Pots dry out quickly. Watering is best done early or late away from the strongest sunlight.

Noel Keane 3 | Chef Network

My advice if you have never grown anything (and I hadn't before this) start with easy ones: lettuce, radish, hardy herbs like rosemary, thyme and mint. They are very forgiving and can take a battering. Use the mushroom tubs. They are very handy. You can grow quite a bit in them; lettuce, radish, and a lot of herbs. They cost nothing and it is a great way to start. I still use them to this day for loads. Make sure you put a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill them up as they are quite deep, and grow away.

Noel Keane 4 | Chef Network

If you are planting outside don’t overwater. In my first year, I drowned some and others died of lack of water. Every plant is different. In 2019 I grew my first tomatoes. I grew nine varieties as well as 6 types of chillies. I got great harvests from them but they require work.

Noel Keane 5 | Chef Network
Noel Keane 6 | Chef Network
Noel Keane 7 | Chef Network

I have planted herbs like burnet, king Henry, rosemary to name but a few. Thirty different flavoured mints, five types of thyme, eighteen types of lettuce, six types of radish from the normal to sparkler white and black and so on.

Noel Keane 8 | Chef Network

The impact that growing all of this has had over the past 18 months is that it brings a lot of very fresh flavours to my dishes, or brings in new flavours, or replaces other ingredients, or even allows us to create our own. I grow curry plant which tastes, well…like curry and I now use it instead of the powder. I grew enough chillies to make my own paprika and chilli powders for a year. Anything that there is too much of is pickled, or flavours oils and vinegars, which again is adding flavour to dishes and salads now. I also run a vegetarian menu which changes with the garden now every couple of weeks. The garden-inspired a dish that is never the same and has been on for 16 months now – ‘Insalade 28’; a 28 different leaf and herb salad with locally made cheese and brined artichokes.

Noel Keane 9 | Chef Network

Growing our own has also encouraged a very much zero-waste approach. We look to use from our vegetables, salads etc and any parts we don’t use go back to the garden to make my own compos. I grow nettle and comfrey to make liquid feeds and use seaweed to fertilise. Zero chemicals have been used in the garden. Most of the raised beds are made from up-cycling of materials like stone, old tree trunks, old scaffolding for climbing frames and pallets for the compost bin and as raised beds for herbs. It has massively raised awareness of being more environmentally friendly in the restaurant which has led to us looking at everything, including eradicating plastic in the restaurant, recycling everything we can, and talking to our suppliers to help us achieve our sustainability goals (including delivering everything to us in our own re-usable crates).

Noel Keane 10 | Chef Network

In 2019 I added a berry section to the garden to grow strawberries, blueberries, loganberries, tayberries and jostaberry as well as a wild berry hedgerow, blackberry, sloe, damsons. I feel we need nature in the garden so we created a bee hotel and wildflower area too. I’ve added more vegetables as I progressed; like courgette, cucumbers, melon, pea, beans, horseradish, asparagus, leek, celery, celeriac, onions, chard….this list goes on a bit. This year I want to push on again with a larger variety of heritage and old-world herbs and vegetables. I will hopefully add two more tunnels this year and hire a gardener to help me to push towards fully supplying the restaurant.

So would I recommend to other chefs to go on the ‘grow your own’ journey? I can certainly say that growing my own produce has brought me on a journey and in directions that I never would have gone in otherwise.

Noel Keane 11 | Chef Network

Growing my own herbs has given me a newfound love of using them and pushing myself to know about the different ones and bring that freshness to my food. Having my own garden has massively expanded my knowledge of seasons and made me aware that there are so many more flavours available to me, and a huge variety of different flavour profiles between varieties of herb. I gained a newfound love of vegetables, which led me to starting ‘Vegtopia’ a festival and more celebrating vegetables. Customers wanted to know more about our garden and produce so I started a Facebook page about the garden called ‘Gangster Plants’. Alongside foraging and a ‘nothing but local’ approach to food, growing our own gives the restaurant a USP others don’t have.

There is nothing better than planting a seed, seeing it grow, through to harvesting the plant and seeing it on the plate. It is a satisfaction that is beyond words. I also find being in the garden gives me ideas for dishes and uses, and drives me on to create total new dishes. Our vegetarian menu is growing all the time, with very seasonal dishes and with me trying more to create entire dishes from produce grown in our own garden.

I bring the team members out to the garden for a few hours when possible, sometimes including their college classmates. This gets them thinking much more about seasonality. For Vegetopia they all get to create a dish for the 8-course vegan tasting menu based on what is in the garden. It gets them out of the kitchen into a new environment and thinking differently. Some have started growing edible flowers and herbs themselves.

I guess for me, I found a new respect for the vegetable and how much flavour we can get from it. A steak is a steak, but a herb can be anything.



Noel Keane 12 | Chef Network 

Noel’s top tips:

  • To start with go with things like easy things that grow relatively fast like lettuce and radish, and things that don’t require too much care like hardy herbs (rosemary, thyme, mint)

  • You don’t need much in terms of equipment or set up to get started - keep it simple: mushroom tubs filled with some good compost will do.

  • Start small, don’t try to do too much. If you start too big it will kill you. I went too big too fast and then didn’t have enough time to do it all. It takes a while to get a handle on it - grow into it!

  • People who grow are always willing to help and advise, so just ask 

  • For me, the hardest thing about growing my own was patience when it came to the menu, waiting for things to be ready. It only goes on the menu in season when I grow it.



14-05-2020 07:56

Excellent article very inspirational 😊
Mary Jo

13-05-2020 11:39

to answer some of the questions , the tunnels i bough from ksb greenhouses couldn't speak highly enough of both the company and the tunnels to be honest 
as for the seeds muliy places seed savers is one grow hq and garden shows i also set up tralee seed and plant share this year , where people can swap seeds etc
 @Patsy Rogers​  @josef zammit

14-04-2020 14:02

Have been growing for last 6 years now. Two large polytunnels and al acre of land, every year is a challenge as none are the same, but it is very satisfying and rewarding, as for seeds Josef they are a few great places around and then you can save your own seeds, I buy in UK and France mainly but got seeds from US and Italy too and Ireland of course.

14-04-2020 13:35

What a great post Noel Well done 
Im currently trying to grow stuff myself too but where are you sourcing 'exotic' seeds like you mentioned, Curry leaves. Seems that the usual stuff is widely available but where do you get all those mint varieties or the not so common vegetable or salad seeds?

14-04-2020 12:47

Great inspiration. I too grow to serve and supply our business with herbs, salads, tomatoes, courgettes etc, there is nothing more gratifying that serving what you grow, also the waste and composting becomes almost fanatical.  I would love to know who supplies the tunnels as we too live in a windy site by the sea..I would encourage everyone to give it a go..its food for the soul and good for the mental health.

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