Glossed over Irish gardening books to tempt your green fingers

Irish gardening books are too often overlooked, says Fíann Ó Nualláin.          

Iknow — because the elves have told me — that many of you have written to Santa for books this year.

There’s always an interest in home-grown or Irish-authored books about gardening, nature, and natural approaches to health and well-being at this time of the year. Yet, one would not deduce this from the window displays or ‘recommended’ tables in bookshops. It is sad that not every Irish bookstore (and, surprisingly, hardly any Irish garden centres), supports Irish gardening books at any time of the year — let alone stock up for Christmas.

So this piece is as much a salvo across their boughs, (ahem), to say there is more going on than Monty Don, whoever from Top Gear, and Jamie Oliver. Forgive me if I have sacrileged your holy trinity, but I say this as a consumer, not just as an author.

We are the land of saints and scholars; we taught Europe to read and write. We, too, can knock out a good book. I want to be able to find them, buy them and read them.

All of which has me thinking about what might fill gardeners’ Christmas stockings in a few weeks’ time. So, here are my five favourite books about Irish gardening or Irish nature, which have been published or reissued in the last year.

And, my fellow gardeners, if you are stuck for a gift idea for another fellow gardener, or fancy a treat for yourself, then these books come highly recommended.

The Irish Garden, by Jane Powers, with photography by Jonathan Hession (Frances Lincoln Publishers), RRP €63.20

A weighty book. Earlier in the year, at Bloom, I bumped into a man carrying two copies, looking for Jane to get her to sign them. I showed him how to get to the media tent, where better help might have been at hand.

“Good man...” he said as he tracked on “..they’re givin’ me good muscles”, referring to the heft of the books. Now, if ever there was a recommendation — you might have to double-bag the stocking above the fireplace, but this 6.2 pounder is worth its weight in gold.

It is a worthy book, because of its topic, but it is also a worthwhile book, because of its fascinating and perfectly written content.

It is vital that we document and celebrate the stunning gardens of Ireland — and this does that with gusto. Covering 50 of the most stunningly beautiful gardens across the 32 counties of Ireland, and providing insight into their creation and unique charms, Powers provides a backstage pass for the visitor.

And it’s all the more valuable for her horticultural knowledge and journalistic skills. Far from a dry record, this book brings places, and the plants within them, to life — turns out it’s not just a backstage pass; you end up feeling like you are on stage with the band.

And when it comes to rock and roll, you can’t beat the sumptuous photography of Jonathan Hession. I mean, if ever a sense of place was delivered — I got this book when it came out and I am still eating and drinking it. This book is a thorough treat. And one that delights the biggest muscle of all, the brain.

Kilmacurragh: Sourced In The Wild — The Moulding of a Heritage Arboretum, by Megan O’Beirne (Systems publishing) RRP, €57.00.

The National Botanic Gardens’ sister site, Kilmacurragh, in Wicklow, is important to students of horticulture and those interested in specimens gathered by plant hunters of old. The higher rainfall, and deeper, more acidic soils, allow plants from the Himalayas and the Southern Hemisphere to thrive.

While a prized arboretum, it is also home to the lilies of Augustine Henry, to specimen orchids gathered by William Lobb, and plants collected by Joseph Hooker. It is a true Aladdin’s cave of botanical treasures and well-illustrated in this lovely book. Open to the public and so worth a visit — go experience, for yourself, just what inspired the author to dedicate five years of her life to producing this work and telling its tale.

It’s a tale enhanced by O’Beirne’s enchanting and informative storytelling capabilities — thanks to this book, we get to witness a little of what those longstanding trees witnessed.

We can follow the fortunes and misfortunes of the Acton family (who created the gardens) as we might a Downton Abbey-type drama, or we can sink our teeth into the behind-the-scenes stories of how these old demesnes really operated. A fascinating read about a fascinating place.

Clondeglass — Creating a Garden Paradise, by Dermot O’Neill (Kyle books) RRP €39.50.

Bias declared — I had the pleasure of spending a year at Clondeglass, working on some garden projects there and filming the RTÉ series, Dermot’s Secret Garden, with the man himself. Dermot’s enthusiasm for plants is infectious and his horticultural brain is encyclopaedic.

But what he has created at his Clondeglass walled garden, (below the Slieve Bloom mountains, in County Laois), rivals the ambitions and realities of England’s jewel at Great Dixter, Sussex (of Edwin Lutyens and Christopher Lloyd fame) — or our Irish prize pearl, at no 45 Sandford Terrace, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 (of Helen Dillion fame).

The garden is indeed a paradise, and, in this wonderful book, Dermot imparts not just his passion, but the precision ‘how to’ information of bringing your own paradise to life.

What I love about this book is that while it is a story of how Dermot made a derelict walled garden into a living tapestry of perfect plant combinations, it is also a book about how to garden in the Irish climate, and through the Irish seasons, with artistry and passion and an inspiration we can all assimilate.

For all those who ask me when he is going to open it to the public, this is a real peek over the wall. Discover what Carol Klein calls “a blissful creation”.

GROW, COOK, EAT - A GIY Guide to Growing and Cooking Your Own Food, by Micheal Kelly (GIY Ireland ltd) RRP €25

If you have been reading my column regularly, or have ever heard one of my talks, then you will know it’s hard to disguise how proud I am of my Irish heritage, and how I rail against small-nation syndrome and post-colonial complexes.

Expressing the ‘Is féidir linn’ view instead, is more my style. In that context, as well as a gardening context, I am a huge fan of the GIY movement — they prove my point that Irish people can kick ass at a global level.

GIY began as a local support group for a handful of new allotmenteers and home-growers in Waterford to become, in a few short years, a global community with 50,000 members and 800 community food groups, spearheading school and workplace growing projects. How cool is that? Makes me proud to be Irish and to be an Irish grow-it-yourselfer.

This book is part of a fund drive to build GROW HQ — a GIY Hub in Waterford — where people can visit and immerse themselves in the GIY lifestyle and upskill in growing, cooking and self-sufficiency.

Buying this book will support a grow school, cookery school, café, farm shop and food gardens. But if altruism is on the blink this week, then buy it for selfish reasons — it’s a brilliant collection of drool-inducing recipes from over 35 Irish and international chefs, cooks and growers, including Kevin Dundon, Dylan McGrath, Donal Skehan, Darina Allen, Rachel Allen, Neven Maguire, Clodagh McKenna, Catherine Fulvio, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Alys Fowler, Mark Diacono and Joy Larkcom.

And it helps us grow the ingredients, with brilliant advice, and tips that novices and experts can borrow to improve their crop yields and growing success. A must-have.

IRELANDOPEDIA - A Compendium of Maps, Facts and Knowledge, by Fatti and John Burke (Gill & Macmillan) RRP €24.99.

Last, but not least — I love this one. It’s exactly the sort of book I used to get in my childhood stocking.

Ok, it’s aimed at kids, but I am a big kid. The nostalgia hit is potent and, in a harsh world, this one makes me smile and recollect a time when all I had to worry about was if the chain on my bike would stay on, or if my champion conker would last a few days longer.

I’ve already bought this for all my nieces and nephews and, if I had kids or grandkids, I’d have the Christmas shopping well wrapped up with this one.

It is such an antidote to the indoor world of apps and downloads and virtual games — it might inspire a generation to get outside and look around.

It is based on all 32 counties and what makes them unique — so you can compare and contrast, but I would say go explore and make a safari checklist of what’s in your own neck of the woods. You know — of what you have to be proud off.

If I was still teaching young kids, I would be using this to engender civic pride and avert littering and anti-social actions.

It’s a wholesome book — and that’s a good thing. By a father-and-daughter duo (with Dad a retired primary school teacher and the daughter illustrating), it’s a true family experience, from start to finish.

I love the section at the back, which groups together all that’s in the air, on the land or in the water. It gives a real appreciation of our biodiversity — something we need to pass on to the next regeneration.

Love that Ryanair and Aer lingus are included in ‘what’s in the air’? There’s humour and learning in it — just my cup of tea.

Oh and don’t forget my book: The Holistic Gardener — Beauty Treatments from the Garden (Mercier press RRP €12.99)


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