Books that belong on the gardener's bookshelf

Peter Dowdall on two books that are well worth their place on any gardener’s bookshelf this season

Zoe Devlin getting a shot of Heath Milkwort.

YOU know what it’s like. You meet a friend who tells you all about this place where they enjoyed a wonderful meal or night out and they say

you must make a point of visiting whenever you are in that part of the country.

For me it’s like that with gardens, I always hear about great gardens to visit in different parts of Ireland and do you think I can remember them when I am there? Not on your nelly.

For example, I was in Sligo talking gardening during the summer and I had a Sunday morning to myself. I intended finding a nice garden to visit, but I couldn’t think of any apart from the wonderful Lissadell.

However, I had been there relatively recently and was looking for somewhere a bit different and new to me. What a pity I didn’t have Shirley Lanigan’s latest book The Open Gardens of Ireland with me at the time.

It says on the cover that this is: “The most comprehensive guide ever to the gardens of Ireland” and it doesn’t disappoint. If I had had it with me that Sunday morning I would have seen at a glance that there were eleven gardens nearby which I could have walked around.

Shirley does more in this book than simply list the opening times and addresses — though this too is an invaluable help to the prospective visitor, as many of these gardens are run by the owners and may need an advance phone call to check that they are open.

Rather, she writes about each garden as if she is talking to you as you accompany her on a walk-through. Quite some amount of research has gone into this publication, for each garden needed to be visited and experienced by Shirley to be able to describe the spaces.

She narrates the story, not just of the gardens, but also at times, of the gardeners and even their pets. The Old Rectory in Sligo, for instance, is described as meeting her expectations of a house and garden from a Jane Austen novel and as she finishes her walk around, she says:

“From here we took an arch into the orchard. A mix of old and new apple trees share the very Austenesque garden room.

“An apricot tree that managed to find its way into the mix, is doing fine although the fruits of course, never ripen. Hens, cats and two friendly lurchers accompanied us on our walk. I did not want to leave.”

This book is concise, it’s not awash with words, but she manages to convey the style and feeling of each garden clearly and quickly, exactly as a reference guide should do.

I found myself flicking through this book to open it at a random page and read about a garden I hadn’t heard of — a nice surprise.

It’s addictive. Shirley’s knowledge, enthusiasm and skilful and descriptive use of language make it so.

The book is conveniently broken down into geographical sections, the four provinces and further broken down within each province by county — a total of 427 gardens are listed and described.

As I have said, a lot of research and time was needed to compile this invaluable guide but I cannot think of a more enjoyable project. The result is a book that must be guaranteed its place in the car at all times, for you know not when you may have that spare hour or two or when you may be near an unadvertised gem.

Equally, it makes for good bedtime reading — a comfortable place from where you can plan your next tour of Ireland — garden by garden.

Nowadays we are all photographers — we have more technology in our pockets than the professional photographers of yesteryear could have dreamed of and so, we should all be able to collate information on wildflowers and biodiversity in our own areas.

Of course, that presupposes a certain knowledge and sense of purpose and one person with those attributes is Zoe Devlin. Describing herself as an “unofficial ambassador for weeds, wasps and wagtails”, Zoe combined her interests in botany, (which began as a childhood delight in wildflowers), and photography when she retired and it lead to her developing the popular and important www.wildflowersofireland.net.

And it’s also led to her new book — Blooming Marvellous — A Wildflower Hunter’s Year.

Learning names of wild flowers thanks to a brilliant guide #100happydays #herbrobert #wildflowersofireland #zoedevlin

A post shared by Deirdre Tinney (@tinniamajor) on

In it, Zoe aims to share her passion for plants and biodiversity and each chapter is illustrated with Devlin’s own photographs.

She celebrates a particular month, advising on what to keep an eye out for, and helping us to appreciate that immense beauty which is all about us every day. However, to describe the book as just an augmented calendar would be to do it a disservice, for I have failed to mention the storytelling aspect here too, such as when Zoe describes first seeing cowslips on her high Nellie with her pal in Sandyford in the mid 1950s. Her description encapsulates the fear of a small child when accosted by the unfriendly local shopkeeper who also owned the field from where she and her friend had picked the cowslips.

It goes on to describe a scene with her singing coach, Sister Cecilia, who dismissed her gift of a posy of cowslips as not worthy, as they were wild flowers. The author’s “bruised heart” ensured that Maria Callas was safe after Zoe’s performance in the Feis on the following day. This is a hugely important and informative book written by someone who brings her subject matter to life with the stories that she tells.


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