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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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.

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