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

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

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