Hurrah: we win an award.

November 27, 2015 § 9 Comments

When I was in art college studying woven textiles, I won the Lillias Mitchell award for hand-spinning. I got a nice letter and a small cheque. That was decades ago, and I never won anything after that except for two raffle prizes.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, my book, The Irish Garden, won the Inspirational Book of the Year award at the Garden Media Guild Awards in London. You could say (and I have, a bit) that they are the BAFTAs (or the Oscars) of the gardening world. My husband, Jonathan Hession, took the photographs, so it is very much our book, not just mine. We worked on it for over four years. It was so all-pervasive that it was almost like having a small person living with us, with all the attendant joys and difficulties.

The Irish Garden book jacket lo-res

During this period, our publisher, Frances Lincoln, showed a fair amount of forbearance, especially my editor, Jo Christian, who now runs her own independent publishing house, Pimpernel Press. The book designer Anne Wilson created a thoughtful and beautiful design. If you ever need a garden book designer — she’s the best.

We didn’t go to the awards ceremony, so we learned by email that we’d won. We had a couple of glasses of Prosecco to celebrate. The dog vomited. We went to bed at 2am. It was a grand night.



Here is what the judges said: 

“A superbly researched book that reads as wonderfully as it looks. Sumptuous, illustrative photography illustrates copy that takes you by the hand to enjoy a journey through the history, styles, variety, atmosphere and characters of a huge range of valuable Irish Gardens. There is much to admire and inspire in the pages of the book, and its relevance is so important to any gardener’s library. Congratulations to the husband and wife writer/photographer team Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession, their passion for the gardens in the area they live is alive and obvious in every page.”


Victoria Clarke The Gardener’s Garden

Heidi Howcroft & Marianne Majerus Garden Design: A Book of Ideas

Carol Klein Making a Garden: Successful gardening by nature’s rules

James Wong Grow For Flavour

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.

Walled Garden at Inish Beg © Jane Powers

Walled Garden at Inish Beg
© Jane Powers

  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. 

Tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) at Malahide Castle © Jonathan Hession

Tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) at Malahide Castle
© Jonathan Hession

  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.

The Kitchen Garden at Glenveagh Castle © Jonathan Hession

The Kitchen Garden at Glenveagh Castle
© Jonathan Hession

  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 Peach House at Malahide Castle © Jonathan Hession

The Peach House at Malahide Castle
© Jonathan Hession

  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.

Well behaved wheelbarrows at Inish Beg © Jane Powers

Well behaved wheelbarrows at Inish Beg
© Jane Powers

♣  ♣  ♣

A version of this blog post appeared in The Sunday Times (Irish edition)

Here’s the Plot: Balbriggan Community Allotments

June 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

It’s May when I visit the new Balbriggan Community Allotments, but it’s cold, with a wicked northwest wind blasting across the six acre site. Exposure is often a problem with new allotment schemes, and this one, which opened in February, is no exception. On former agricultural land with little shelter, and half a kilometre from the sea, it gets weather from all sides. The new plot holders are resourceful types, though, and most have erected windbreaks of polypropylene netting around their domains. When the sun shines, the green mesh catches and multiplies the light, sending a shimmering zig zag of iridescence across the plots.

Today, however, the sky above north county Dublin is in an operatic mood, building up angry, inky clouds and furiously tossing down cascades of icy water. I seek refuge in the polytunnel of Caítríona and John Redmond, but the rain battering on the plastic skin is so loud we can barely hear our voices.

Their tunnel, newly erected on their ten by twenty metre plot, is one of a growing number at the site. Every week another one pops up, like a giant mushroom on the landscape. In these early days, while the hedges and trees that will eventually diffuse the wind are still in their infancy, the protection that the polyethylene-covered hoop-houses afford is very welcome. “I sold all the baby gear to get this!” explains Caítríona. “I said: ‘no more kids: let’s get a polytunnel instead.’ ” So they did.

They’ve had it less than a month, but already there are crops luxuriating in its cocoon of warmth and stillness: cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, tomatoes, herbs. There are more edibles planted outside in the heavy clay soil that they have amended with compost and manure. Growing food is a serious undertaking for them. Only John, who works as a bus driver, has paid employment, and there are five mouths to feed. Caítríona was made redundant after the birth of her first child, four years ago — despite the fact that just a couple of years previously she had won an award for “Irish PA of the Year”.

© Jane Powers

She has since put her organisational and diplomatic skills to good use, volunteering with local community projects, and working as the chair of the allotments committee. She is one of many people here who has invested much time and energy into the plots, which are rented from Fingal County Council. Fingal Leader Partnership organised contractors to do the structural work on condition that this was matched by input from the new allotmenteers. Accordingly, the lining out of the plots, and the erecting of the post-and-wire fencing was all carried out by volunteers. There are 211 plots, in three sizes: 50, 100 and 200 square metres (with a rent of €1 per square metre per year). The community orchard of plums, cherries and heirloom Irish apples was likewise planted by plot-holders.

The spirit of communal endeavour pervades the place. Tools and knowledge are freely shared. “Nobody here is a food expert, or a growing expert,” says Caítríona, “but we’re learning from one another.”

An educational area — with polytunnel, raised beds, and compost bins — will be the venue for training courses offered by local horticulturists. Some of the plot-holders will also receive training as master composters through the EPA’s Stop Food Waste initiative, while others have already been to a pig-rearing course at Oldfarm in Tipperary.

The herd of five Tamworths arrived a few hours before my visit, and the sleek rusty-brown bonhams are bouncing around in one half of their two-acre paddock beyond the allotments. They are owned by a ten-strong syndicate: in late August, when the pigs are slaughtered, each of the members will receive their half share.

There is much industry evident in the rectangular lots: in one corner, John Dervan from east Galway is instructing his son in the precise art of digging traditional vegetable ridges, while Mark Mooney, who works in the zoo, is making a fascinating shed from 16 reclaimed palettes and a pair of salvaged windows.

© Jane Powers

Beginner gardener Aoife McGee, a primary school teacher, has made all her own raised beds from scaffolding planks, and is working in her polytunnel among dozens of healthy seedlings. She whispers that she hasn’t a clue what she is doing, but she is a natural and intelligent gardener. I envy her and her fellow plot-holders the years of growing ahead of them in this fertile field of fruit, vegetables and goodwill.

© Jane Powers

To enquire about a plot at Balbriggan Community Allotments, click on and search for “allotments”, or telephone the Parks Division at: 01 8905600.

An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times

A Snoop Too Far

June 24, 2011 § 20 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a garden that is rarely open to the public. For a few days each year the owners gamely allow people the run of the place, and they give the takings to charity. It is a beautiful piece of Ireland, with water and woodland, and the daintiest walled garden I’ve ever seen.

Small and perfect walled garden

There was much to see in the extensive acreage: a polytunnel crammed with vegetables, more vegetables in the walled garden, congenially intermingled with perennials; a gravelly courtyard, where plantings of the pinky-grey-spired toadflax ‘Canon Went’ swayed in the breeze in a most agreeable manner; an avenue of chalky-barked birch; a boathouse overlooking a tidal river; a compost area with dark and crumbly vintage humus. A display of newly planted nasturtiums, in twenty-four pots, was just one of many pieces of evidence that this space was continually and carefully gardened.

Nasturtium altar

There was, as I said, so much to see. My fellow visitor and I dodged and darted from tableau to vista, oohing and aahing with delight. We ran into another couple several times, sharing with them our cries of appreciation (as you do when you’re visiting a private property and are feeling a little awkward). “Isn’t it lovely!” we gushed, and “Oh! Look at that!”

How lovely!

Despite our moments of mutual enthusiasm, I wasn’t paying much attention to them, until this interchange: “Is there anything up there?”, I asked one of them, as we passed on a narrow corner. “Oh, yes! You can see right in the window!”, she exclaimed. And indeed you could: there, for all the world to see (or those who had paid their contribution at the gate, and were bent on pressing their noses against the glass), was a view of the owners’ private space. I remembered the words of a friend who opens her garden, and who is fed up with the nose-marks on her kitchen window: “Sometimes I feel like leaving a sheep’s head on the table.”

After that, I kept an eye on Mr and Mrs Nosey Parker, watching them move around the exterior of the house and clinging to the panes like those sucker-toed toys that you see stuck to the windows of cars.

Mr and Mrs Parker: enthusiastic visitors

Their curiosity was undisguised and unending. It reminded me of the need for a Garden Visitors’ Code of Behaviour (there’s a parallel code required for certain garden owners, but that’s for another day). It is something I’ve written about on occasion in my Irish Times column, and which I’m wheeling out again here.

Many of the gardens that open in the summer are private spaces, just like the private spaces around your house and my house — only more assiduously tended. Some open for charity, some for vanity, and some to help defray the cost of garden upkeep. All deserve the same respect that we would accord to the most beautiful corner of our own garden. Therefore, a few words of advice:
— Go with an open mind: although you may not like all of what you see, there’s bound to be something that offers food for thought, or even inspiration. You won’t find it unless you look for it.
— Bring your camera and notebook: take pictures of plant combinations that you like, and note their names. But don’t take snaps of the garden owner without their permission. Chances are that if they’re in the garden they are gardening, and may not wish to be immortalised with aphids in their hair and rips in their clothes.
— Keep your criticisms to yourself, and don’t offer the owner unlooked-for advice on pruning, planting or anything else horticultural. And don’t mention the weeds.
— Ask questions, but be reasonable, it’s a garden visit, not a consultation. And try to resist telling anecdotes about your own plants and garden. The garden owner has heard it all before.
— Do keep children on a tight rein. Encourage them not to pick flowers, handle plants, run through borders, throw handfuls of gravel, splash in ponds or rearrange plant labels. Unfortunately, some children are just too lively to bring on garden visits, and their need to blow off steam cannot be accommodated in a carefully-kept space.
— Be honest. If there is an “honesty box” for you to pay the admission charge, do put the money in. Don’t steal plants, flowers, cuttings, or labels. Some gardens have plants for sale, so you may be able to buy the coveted plant. Often the owner will actually give you a cutting. Test the water with an investigative “is it easy from cuttings?”.
— Respect the owner’s privacy. Do observe the signs asking you not to pass certain points, and don’t look in windows, or wander into houses uninvited. Don’t turn up outside opening hours unless you have an appointment.
— Do praise the garden. If there’s something you like, say it. The owner has worked hard to present their precious space to people like you and me.

Was Doffed, now Donned again

December 9, 2010 § 11 Comments

Today, I am going to hop across the Irish Sea to Britain, where a surprise announcement sent the TV-watching gardening community into a state of high agitation. Monty Don is to return to BBC 2 television’s Gardeners’ World show next spring. He replaces Toby Buckland, who had replaced him in 2008, after the older presenter suffered a minor stroke. Some viewers are delighted at Monty’s reinstatement to the programme, whereas others are less happy. In another backward-looking move, Rachel de Thame will be rejoining, and Alys Fowler will be leaving.

The excellent Arabella Sock’s take on the news is here [turn up the volume for the full effect]:

By the way, Miss Sock’s agreeably insane blog, The Sea of Immeasurable Gravy is here.

If you’re not a gardener in Ireland or Britain, none of this will be of any concern to you (and — equally — if you are, it may not be either). I don’t watch a lot of gardening television these days, so it won’t make or break my Friday evenings.

So why am I writing this? Well, because it gives me an opportunity to wheel out an interview — a cover story — that I did for the Irish Times with Monty Don in 2003. It was during his first season on his previous stint on the show. I liked the article that I wrote, but after publication it disappeared forever, as the magazine section of the Irish Times was not archived on the internet at that time. So, I thought I might revive it here. Why not? If Monty can come back to haunt us years later, then why not my much-slaved-over interview?

The day of that interview was scorchingly hot. I had flown from Dublin to Birmingham and then made my way to the Don family house, at Ivington, a small hamlet surrounded by flat farmland, a few miles outside Leominster. What seemed like a heroic journey to the normally stay-at-home me, with all its important train-bus-plane-and-taxi connections, was made all the more epic by the heat. It was so warm that I asked the taxi driver to stop for ice-creams before we reached the finish line at the Don home. When I finally arrived, I was suffused with a burned-out euphoria, as if I had completed a marathon. Now read on:

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


The door to the very old timber-framed house in Herefordshire is wide open and welcoming. It’s a good start to my interview with Britain’s chief man of the soil, Monty Don. I send a questing “Hello?” along the flagged passage. A figure appears in the hall, engagingly casual in torn shorts and tee shirt: “You’re half an hour early”.

Well, maybe not such a great start after all. I feel a little put out, as I have been travelling since the crack of dawn and have arrived just two (well-judged) minutes after the hour appointed by his publisher. But professionalism reasserts itself and I pack away my feelings.

And, a while later — after telling him that I didn’t really like his fourth last book — I feel just grand. But it’s his latest book, The Complete Gardener (which I do like), that brings me here. And I want to see his garden, and I’m hoping to hear about his first season as the main presenter of BBC television’s Gardeners’ World — and anything else I can winkle out of him in two short hours. Because Monty is pressed for time. It’s the last hectic two days before his holidays, and he has already written an article that morning, and must write a script for an hour-long television programme when I leave (“you can stay as long as you like” he offers, “as long as you’re gone by 4.30”).

His time off will be spent at home: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to garden.” Monty doesn’t like leaving home for holidays: “I went to France for 3 days a few weeks ago. And two years ago I went to Turkey, which was horrible.” In fact, he doesn’t like leaving home at all: “I was filming up in Manchester a week or two back, and they couldn’t understand why I insisted on going home every night. It was simply to check the greenhouses. So I got home at half past nine at night, and checked everything and watered, and then at five in the morning did it again.”

It’s more than the greenhouses, though. Monty Don’s life is regulated, given meaning and made real by the rhythms and rigours of gardening. “I’m not interested abstractedly in plants. I mean I am, but only up to a point. I’m interested in places, and home, and it’s completely egocentric and self-centred and selfish and introverted. Everything I write about, or talk about on television is either personal, or based on personal experience. I do not garden for the nation, I garden for me.”

And while the occasional slot on Gardeners’ World comes from Monty’s garden, the two acre plot has a strong air of privacy, and contains no concessions to the medium of television — unlike the garden of the previous frontman, Alan Titchmarsh, where projects were continually developed for the programme. (In the current era, the series has a tenure on a place in Warwickshire, known by the fictitious name of “Berryfields”.)

Monty’s Herefordshire garden has been created solely to fulfil his and — just as importantly — his wife Sarah’s visions and needs. Her input is “fifty per cent, although obviously not physically. But I wouldn’t dream of doing anything in this garden without talking about it with her, and nor would she.”

Ten years ago, when the Dons first made their mark on this land, it was a shaggy field, filled with looping, snagging brambles  and builders’ flotsam and jetsam. Now “it is starting to get a permanent structure. It is starting to look as I imagined it would.”

Its development is chronicled in The Complete Gardener, which starts out with a compelling treatise on being organic. Organic gardening, as those who practice it soon discover, is not just doing without chemicals, it is making your place and taking your turn in the greater scheme of things. It is guiding a garden to be in tune with the soil, location, weather, and with the rhythm of the seasons. Of course, there are strategies to improve your lot (and Monty tells most of them), but you can never forget that nature is calling the shots.

The practicalities and aesthetics of planning and making the structural parts of the garden are dealt with in the book, but always with reference to Monty’s own patch (no pergolas or ponds here). Favourite fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and herbs are also covered. It is an entirely personal primer, but informative and thought-provoking.

After meeting the garden in the book, as it were, I am curious to see the real thing. It is an intensively cultivated area, and a monument to hard and sustained work. A pair of gardeners (a retired judge and his wife) come a couple of days a week, but Monty and Sarah work in it every available hour.  “I try not to pay people to do what I like doing” — such as planting and pruning, and trimming the topiary (16 yew cones, and 64 box balls).

Plants grow at a prodigious rate — owing in part to good husbandry, but also to the rich clay loam: “think soil on steroids”. It’s a gift when it comes to the hedges (nearly four metres’ growth in 8 years), and the two prolific vegetable gardens of 24 and 8 beds each, but it’s a mixed blessing for herbaceous plants. “Sometimes you don’t want all that leafy growth. We have to hack things back constantly.”

The garden is arranged in many, orderly compartments, divided by hedge-walled corridors of grass and paving. Although the growth within the angular spaces is luxuriant and — in some cases — fecundly overblown, the atmosphere is one of controlled restraint and cloistered seclusion. The tall Tudor house, monastic in its beautiful, rough simplicity, adds to the ambiance of a place of retreat. I feel as if I have penetrated a religious enclosure: even the dogs have taken a vow of silence — or perhaps they’re just too hot to talk to me.

And Monty is curiously removed, like a monk disturbed on his way to evensong, his daily rhythmic rituals interrupted. I follow him awkwardly around the garden, my notebook of unasked questions burning in my hand.

Buried away at the end of my list, but uppermost in my mind, is that I must ask him about the depression that he is widely known to suffer from. It seems an intrusion to pry, but later when I ask will he talk about it, he takes it graciously: “I’m fine about it. It is not a taboo subject. To me having depression is like having eczema or measles.”

And although he is fed up talking about it — “Nothing is so boring as one’s own depression. It has no glamour, no saving grace whatsoever” — he realises that by doing so he may help other sufferers. “There are lots and lots of people out there who get encouragement if someone who is holding their life together — more or less — says, ‘well, actually I too have to cope with this thing’.”

His depression is triggered by falling light levels: “I could set a clock by it. It’s almost on June the 25th. I think that the body senses that the light is going. It’s this sense of profound loss.” His worst periods are for a few weeks after the summer equinox, and again, in varying degrees, from late autumn until February. “Physically I start to fall apart. Mentally I’m either completely fragile or in pieces. And useless, useless. You are a third alive.”

Cognitive therapy and Prozac helped him cope in the past, but now he uses only lightboxes. Wisely, he never took to the drink, “I had hepatitis when I was 14, and my liver is fucked.” In his darkest moments, “I can’t garden, I can hardly write”. Yet he forces himself to grind out his weekly column for the Observer. “I’m highly disciplined, if I didn’t do it, I’d be in trouble.”

And Monty knows about trouble. He lost both home and livelihood when a jewellery business he ran with Sarah went bust in the early nineties. “Ten years ago, I was on the dole for a year and had no work. I will never, never forget that.”

Now he is grateful for whatever work comes his way. And this year that has included the top job in the gardening media in these islands. Gardeners’ World, now in its 36th year, is watched by around 3 million, and Monty’s appointment as its main man puts him firmly in the position of being the peoples’ Head Gardener.

With his introverted personality, and slightly aloof and soldierly demeanour on television, he is a complete change from the perky everybody’s-best-friend Alan Titchmarsh. But his devotion to the process and craft of gardening, his honesty and high principles (not to mention his strong-bodied good looks), make him an interesting and brave choice. The programme, — which pre-Monty had regressed into a laddish, bantering party-in-the-garden — may be coming out of its thirty-something crisis.

“I would like Gardeners’ World to be grown up — you can be funny and serious together, but you don’t have to be facile,” says Monty. And although television is full of compromises, he strives to adhere to certain standards. “I will never endorse anything I haven’t used, or don’t like. I will never promote any non-organic gardening in any way, shape or form, and I’ll never say or do anything that I don’t believe in.”

And garden makeovers, although “fantastically entertaining television, are bad gardening. I’ve done them. I can’t be too sanctimonious as I’ve taken my shilling. But I didn’t feel good about doing them, because I was doing things that I would never, never have done in a garden.”

Makeovers have also led to the development of a television vernacular, says Monty, using out-of-context devices such as decking and paint. “Decking is really easy to do on television: you can do it any weather, you don’t have to dig anything and you can put it on top of things. It’s the same with paint, but it’s really hard to use so that it looks great in November on a grey day. Yet on television, especially if you heat it up with a bit of light, it looks great. It looks great for ten, fifteen minutes. That’s all it has to look good for.”

Such transformations “foster this belief of gardening as magic, not something that you have to have patience for, not something that grows. I would much rather see gardens that are slow. The drama’s there anyway, the drama is stupendous. Anyone who gardens knows that.”

Britain’s Head Gardener never even filled out an application for the post: “I never applied for a television job in my life. It would be disingenuous to say I won’t mind when it goes, because no-one appears on television unless they want to, but it’s not everything in my life.”

Far more important is his writing, although “I never wanted to write about gardening. I see myself as a writer who happens to write about gardening. I’ve written lots of other things, but they have never had any success. It just so happens that people want to publish what I write about gardening. When I was 23 that would have depressed me hugely, by 33 I was glad to take the money for anything, and by 43 I just thought, well this is the way it is. As I near 53, I think, well, you play the cards that you are dealt, and that is just the way it is. There’s time to do other things.”

And because Monty Don’s time is precious and rigorously ordered, I leave shortly afterwards — at 4.32 p.m. — carefully closing the gate behind me.

Other People’s Gardens

September 27, 2010 § 6 Comments

In my last (and first) post here, I mentioned that I gardened, not for other people, but for myself and the various creatures that live outside the front and back doors. In just a few hundred words I managed to sound holier-than-thou in a lonesome communing-with-nature way, while also giving the impression that I am dismissive of those who garden for other people. What a great start to a blog.

The truth is that I am constantly and hugely grateful to gardeners who welcome other people onto their plots. They are benign and brave souls. It takes courage to open your garden to scrutiny — and to the inevitable criticism that pours merrily out of visitors’ mouths. Or is that just Irish visitors? Are garden visitors in other countries less bent on picking holes, and more interested in immersing themselves in the experience, and in trying to understand what the gardener is doing? (Having said that, there are a few owners who open their properties with the sole intention of securing tax relief, which is a little mean-spirited. But more on that another time.)

In the main, people who open their gardens are generous humans, giving freely of information, and often of plants or cuttings. Some of my favourite plants were gifts from other gardeners, or were purchases at their sales tables. These are often varieties that are not seen at garden centres, because they might be difficult to transport, or tricky to propagate on a commercial scale, or they may be ugly ducklings while in the pot (turning into beauteous swans only when they get into the ground). Or — best of all — they might be strains that are local to that particular garden or locale, carrying a unique and historic set of genes in their green fabric.

The Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford: a lovely place to visit

For me, life would be flat without other people’s gardens. They are a place to meet other gardeners, to talk about plants and growing, to unwind, to be amazed, and to learn something new. I’m perennially curious, as are most gardeners. You can ask ten gardeners how they propagate penstemons, or whether they put dandelion roots in their compost, and you’ll get ten, opinionated answers. I find this exhilarating — which probably seems a bit sad to non-gardeners.

Ornamental potager at Ballymaloe Cookery School

At the end of August I visited Ballymaloe Cookery School gardens in east Cork, and Tanguy de Toulgoët’s Dunmore Country School garden in Durrow, Co Laois on the same day. Both gardens are doing the same thing: growing good food, using organic systems. But the methods are quite different. At Ballymaloe, for instance, seedlings are started in modules, under artificial lights; and in Tanguy’s Laois garden, seeds are germinated in seed beds in the polytunnel. At Ballymaloe there is an acre of greenhouses (lucky them!), and in Laois, an acre is the size of the entire garden. The greatest difference I noticed, however, was the climate. The two places are only 130km (80 miles) apart as the crow flies, yet it was like stepping from early autumn in Ballymaloe to mid-summer in Durrow. The first has a coastal temperate climate, whereas the second is much more continental.

Good things to eat in Tanguy de Toulgoët's garden

Our small island of Ireland has hundreds of gardens that are open to the public — where an overwhelming amount of growing goes on. When I’m not being lonely and mawkish in my own garden, I’m usually snooping around someone else’s.


The garden photographer's job demands a certain amount of versatility

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