The business of gardens
November 13, 2015 § 20 Comments
A couple of weekends ago, about forty garden people travelled from all over Ireland to Baltimore in west Cork. Some, such as Gerry Daly from the Irish Garden magazine, and myself, were members of the garden media, but most were those who open their gardens to the public. We had come to the 97-acre estate at Inish Beg for the first Open Gardens Conference. We also came to witness the sowing of a seed which, if nurtured, will grow into an all-Ireland organisation devoted to promoting gardens as a tourist attraction.
Irish gardens have one of the most favourable climates in the world for plants (if not for people). The range of vegetation, from the subtropical to the subarctic, is greater than that of almost any other similarly-sized area. The North Atlantic Drift (the tail of the Gulf Stream) ensures that in many parts of the island frost is rare or non-existent. Tree ferns from Australasia; primulas and magnolias from the Himalayas; crinum lilies and crocosmias from South Africa: all have made themselves at home here, at the same northerly latitude as Siberia. Our landscape — variously majestic, romantic and pastoral — is splendid in all its modes, our heritage is rich, and our position on the edge of Europe holds an appealing mystery for visitors.
Yet, many of our gardens are woefully under-visited. This can be a bonus for the garden lover who wishes to wander lonesomely, but for garden owners it presents a problem. Low visitor numbers mean low income. Gardens are expensive to run: nature never stands still, especially in Ireland where there can be growth all year round, so horticulture and maintenance must be constant.
Paul Keane, of Inish Beg — which has a charming walled garden and a pretty woodland — presented research at the conference collated from figures he had garnered from the Central Statistics Office and Fáilte Ireland. Of the 6,668,000 overseas visitors who landed on these shores in 2013, 24 per cent visited gardens. He compared these with figures he had acquired from Visit Britain (the British tourism agency). In the UK, 36 per cent of all overseas visitors included a garden in their itinerary.
My own recent poking around on the Fáilte Ireland website revealed that of the top 44 fee-charging attractions in 2014, less than ten included gardens, and in nearly all these, the main crowd-pleaser was something other than the garden. For example, Blarney, Glenveagh and Malahide Castle all have remarkable gardens, but lamentably, tourists generally visit these for a reason other than communing with the planted space. For number 17 on the list, Powerscourt (with 232,605 visitors), the garden landscape is paramount, but it is a notable exception. I suspect also that Powerscourt sucks up a huge number of the visitors in the statistical pot, leaving many of Ireland’s other hundred or so good gardens hungry.
Pardon this big bouquet of statistics, but I’m using them to illustrate a serious deficit that we have here. For some reason, Ireland’s gardens — most of which are crying out for visitors — are not tempting enough people inside their gates.
Fáilte Ireland no longer has a product manager for Irish gardens, so those who have their gardens open have had to fend for themselves in recent years. It was this situation that led Skibbereen woman Miriam Cotton to organise (along with her husband, Bev) the Open Gardens Conference. Cotton, who describes herself as a media activist and disability rights campaigner, has a background in product management and marketing. For the last three years she has been the voluntary coordinator for the West Cork Garden Trail (WCGT), a group of 15 gardens spread along the southwest tip of Ireland. She says: “I was trying to raise funds for the WCGT… [but] the tourism bodies didn’t seem to be listening to us.” She came to realise that “the story was the same all over the country, and that we lacked a national voice.”
It had taken Cotton seven months “of pleading and begging at the highest level of the organisation” to make contact with someone who would discuss marketing gardens. When the meeting finally happened, she found Fáilte Ireland “very interested and supportive”. A salient fact emerged, however, that the tourism agency will meet only with representatives of national organisations, not with local groups. And so, an urgent need arose for a single island-wide body for open gardens, a need that prompted Cotton to organise the Inish Beg gathering. By the end of the conference, accordingly, a committee of seven volunteers was appointed to help establish the body. When the organisation is launched, Fáilte Ireland will then offer mentoring, workshops and training to its senior representatives.
The business of promoting open gardens has always been a difficult one in this country. Most of the regional garden groups (of which there are about twenty) are run by volunteers, and while some receive backing from local businesses or rural development funds, many are fuelled by goodwill. Breandan O’Scanaill, for example, who runs the Connemara Garden Trail, printed and delivered the brochures himself when the sponsorship ceased; and Kerrie O’Connor, who runs the Lough Derg Garden Trail, got some funding from LEADER, and then matched it out of her own pocket.
It is worth giving you a final, rather depressing statistic that might help explain the plight of Irish gardens. Fáilte Ireland’s 2014 figures showed that in the domestic tourism market a mere 16 per cent of trips taken by Irish residents included gardens. If the people actually living here are reluctant to mosey around amongst plants, then we’re hardly the best ambassadors for our horticultural attractions.
Gardens, as I am constantly saying, are an important part of our heritage. They are living and breathing things. If we don’t visit them and show some interest, they die.
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A version of this blog post appeared in The Sunday Times (Irish edition)
What has happened in Ireland regarding Garden visiting,a number of years ago when a group of us started. ‘Gardens of Ireland’ we got great
Help from Bord Failte,a group of us then started the Dublin Garden Group and when I left to come to the UK numbers of garden visitors were constantly rising
I think there are lots of factors that have come together to make garden visiting less popular in Ireland. One is definitely that Irish gardens are not being marketed efficiently or effectively, by Fáilte Ireland or anyone. The initiative I write about above aims to take over that role, with the blessing of Fáilte Ireland. But, I sincerely believe that standards in Irish gardens are another issue that really, really needs to be addressed. There are great comments below on that matter by Kathryn and Paddy. Also, many Irish people are just not interested in gardens, in the same way that people in the UK are, for instance. So, not only are Irish gardens not receiving enough “native” visitors, we are also not the best ambassadors for our gardens.
You are right Jane – there is a lack of background in terms of gardening and garden visiting here. History meant that the cottage garden tradition which is an important part of the background to the English delight in looking over each other’s fences never had a chance to develop here. But events like Bloom demonstrate that there is an appetite for gardening and garden visiting that can be built on. But there are many hurdles – tradition and education being the main two, but the small number of really good nurseries is also a problem. We have a few brilliant ones, but because of the lack of education many people have developed their ideas of garden design around old fashioned municipal planting and really find it hard to think beyond that. I’ve spent considerable time at Bloom lurking and listening and the main public praise tends to go for supermarket style easy maintenance shrubs and big blocks of bedding plants. Which have their place in most gardens, including mine, but it is sad when that is all there is in a garden.
By the way, did anyone else beside me wonder how the gravel path in the winning Super Garden would function after a few months of wheelchair use? Wheelchair users have always told me how much gravel limits their mobility
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I agree with all you say Jane,and let us not forget the UK have been more serious gardeners for far longer than us Irish have been
I wonder if, along with the recession and the amount of money committed to the current major developments such as the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East a good deal of the problem in raising public finance is the singular failure of the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme many years ago. An awful lot of money got spent on that occasion on not very many gardens, not many of which are open very often these days, and of those that are open many have never been well maintained. Of course there are some stellar exceptions but they are exceptions. Just out of interest I checked just now on the ones nearest me that were funded under the scheme. One is now under a housing estate, another says on its website (it is advertising itself as a wedding and corporate venue) “the gardens are closed to the public”. One is one the market at the moment, it’s gardens still maintained but sadly closed to the public for many years, one still open but very poorly maintained. Great work has been done by many more local groups in developing local garden trails but one can’t help but wish that they would be more picky about including people in their brochures – the photogenic corner of a hotel garden that is kept in good nick for wedding photos is not what I want to travel to see, nor is the garden whose owner hasn’t weeded for years. And even if no charge is made for visiting a garden, if you have a garden open you need a reasonable level of maintenance before you list it as a tourist attraction. If people spend their time and money visiting gardens and are disappointed or exploited they will not only not come back, but they will drop the brochure in the bin and not visit the rest of the gardens in it. My own garden is a giant jungle at the moment, I’m ashamed to say. A complete mess. But I have been charged considerably sums of money this year to visit gardens that were much more disappointing. Ireland has many new gardens that are really well designed and planted but only open occasionally to those in the know. It is these gardens that we need to encourage visitors to, as well as the truly great gardens. Some of the latter suffer because they are quite hard to find and aren’t en route between major tourist attractions. They aren’t near Dublin, near the Cliffs of Moher etc. For these only a major push for the international garden market will do, with organised tours. The development of gardening as a past time in Ireland took a big hit with the recession, but I suspect that we will see a turn around in that shortly, as we are seeing a turnaround and expansion in crafts such as knitting and sewing. A Yellow Book, with serious standards, would help people to begin to learn how to build gardens that reflect their own personalities rather than instant tv gardens, and I think that would really help to develop the market for the bigger commercial markets, and would also help our struggling nurseries and garden centres, because the malaise is affecting all sectors. Unless the sector is prepared to do some real policing of standards I don’t think I’d want to commit public money. Not when I have to work to provide that public money when I could be in my garden.
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Hear, hear, Kathryn! I agree with all you say. Also, I believe that (for the most part) the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme was a wonderful, hopeful idea, and some excellent work was done in reviving gardens. But, so many of those projects fell asunder in one way or another. Its lack of continuing success would make an excellent study for a research paper.
One study was done on one of the gardens a couple of years after the scheme finished and it was very positive and hopeful – that’s the one that is “not open to the public”. I agree that it was a wonderful idea and it should have succeeded – owners signed substantial agreements that they didn’t honour in some cases, but there weren’t any penalty clauses. A shame – if it had worked better I think there would have been continuing state support
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Kathryn, above, has expressed my opinions so very well that I feel it might be superfluous to repeat it all again but perhaps some repetition is necessary to people will see that there are other views of Irish gardens.
The inclusion of sub-standard gardens in various garden trails takes seriously from the good reputation of these trails and it is commonplace. Garden trails need a certain number of gardens to be viable and it seems to me that some are added simply to make up these numbers. The lack of good standards of design, planting and maintenance in gardens is experienced regularly and is something I find hugely irritating and disappointing.
I might add that those who write about gardens are generally reluctant to give an honest appraisal of their subjects, preferring to avoid comment on any negative aspects and heaping praise on anything positive. Yes, Jane, I acknowledge that you made several critical comments on the gardens you included in “The Irish Garden” but criticism is normally avoided by most gardening writers.
Colourful and pretty photographs and kind-hearted writing, so common in many gardening magazines and gardening columns in newspapers, not only paint an inaccurate picture of gardens but give good reputation and seem to build an aura of wonderfulness around what are often very mediocre gardens and then who will dare to comment on the emperor’s clothing.
A national gardening group might be of advantage to Irish gardens in attracting visitors but it would be well to have a product worth visiting first.
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Gardens open to the public should have regular inspections by a member of the group to which they belong in order to maintain required standards
To be honest I’m not sure that even that is good enough John, unless people are prepared to be brave and risk the wrath of those who are deemed not to meet the standard. As Paddy says, one regularly reads glowing tributes to gardens that when visited are, frankly, shoddy in both design and planting, not to mention maintenance. In so many areas here in Ireland we are afraid to admit we need to go back to basics and address problems there: instead we pick out the good bits and try to cover up the things that need fixing. I’ve seen gardens appear on tv where this has been taken to a laughable degree because the owners are members of that magic circle of self congratulators with friends in the media. Yes, Jane is an honourable exception, but there aren’t many like her.
I received the wrath of a number of people when I told them that their garden 🏡 was not up to the required standard,it can be done diplomaticly by asking for a bit more work to be done and and to apply
Again in a year or so
It can indeed, and friends who have been rejected for the Yellow Book tell me that it has been done very sensitively and that the advice they received has resulted in a much better garden being opened eventually. But you do have to have the guts in the first place to say that a garden isn’t up to standard, and it isn’t being done at the moment.
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Please don’t believe this is a special Irish problem. I have had no end of abuse for criticising UK gardens (see http://veddw.com/general/opening-for-the-ngs/) but people regularly tell me how right I am.
Poor gardens, however, don’t seem to put people off garden visiting. Perhaps because they go to buy plants, drink tea, eat cake – and come away reassured about their own patch?
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Anne, that’s a brilliant piece. What a horrible experience for you. My sympathies. There are dead hands aplenty not just in the NGS but the NT as well, and I thought they were out in force at Chelsea this year. But it does take a brave hand to rip up a long established garden to revitalise it. Many years ago I dearly loved Harlow Carr (Geoffrey Smith was a friend of my parents) but it got fossilised. I was delighted to see how much has changed there when I visited two years ago. The lovely bones have a different cladding and all is fresh and new. Serious kudos. Now I’m wondering if the RHS will have the courage to make changes at Wisley which is a lovely but tired ghost these days. But oh, I wish either was within visiting distance. Mind you, despite my criticism of the NT Mount Stewart is being brought back to life wonderfully of late, with homage paid to history and to the present day. And here in the Republic Altamont is gradually wakening from its sleep, a classic garden with the finest of structure.
Just wanted to add my tuppence to this topic close to my heart. I love visiting gardens and am willing to travel great distances if required. That’s why I purchased Janes great bible ‘The Irish Garden’. However the garden offering in Ireland are not what I feel they need to be. The traditional post colonial stately gardens are a thing of the past. Long borders of repetitive lanky perennials now bore me. I am more inclined to book a flight foreign to a modern naturalistic German/Dutch garden. I’m a Piet Oudoulf fanboy I suppose.
We need to lobby our governments north and south to invest in our great gardens. Not to maintain but to recreate our gardens. If I visit a town/village/tourist attraction it needs to have done something new if I was to return to them.
I better stop or I’ll keep ranting but I hope you can grasp my basic ideas. We can rest on our laurels and keep reinventing our gardens! I for one however will continue to support them regardless.
Hi Eoin — I am a fellow Oudolf fan, and of the various plant designers whose styles fall under the “naturalistic” and “plant community” umbrella. But, I do think that there is a place for the formal or traditional garden too, in all its iterations. I feel that a good garden can be of any style. A garden that thrills me is one that is comfortable in its skin, it responds to its surroundings, and the best possible plants are being used for the soil and location.
Absolutely – though maybe not quite all its iterations. I’ve been known to scream and refuse to set foot in yet another National Trust perennial border. Which doesn’t stop me planting my own perennial border – tailored to its site, soil and surroundings I hope 🙂
It’s a chicken and egg situation, if you have visitor numbers you have income and clout for funding, and you can improve design and maintenance, and plan for investment…
But we are back to the sheer cheek of charging for a poorly designed and maintained garden and the likelihood that this will put people off rather than help to build a healthy garden network.
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That’s it, Kathryn, there is a huge amount of neck among some who open to the public. It is vexing to see poorly designed gardens, poorly maintained gardens not only opening but charging as much as much bigger and better gardens.