Peter Dowdall reflects on the seasons and pays tribute to a garden centre stalwart

Atkins Garden World are celebrating the contribution of Mary Cronin, above, who has worked for them for 50 years — in three locations, under three generations of the Wolfe family and through three currencies

There are some Americanisms that bug me — like the use of the word ‘already’ out of context or the hijacking of the term ‘awesome’ to refer to anything from agreement to a nice sandwich.

It means that the language has to come up with a word to replace ‘awesome’ for something that does indeed deserve the descriptive adjective.

The Americans refer to this time of year as Fall and in this I think they have got it right. It’s a very descriptive term for what’s happening in the natural environment all around us.

We are certainly in the fall of the year, leaves are beginning to drop, though some trees would want to be reminded, as with the good weather, they are still holding onto to their leaves which are refusing to lose their green colour, hanging on, like us, to the last of the fine weather.

Herbaceous beds have given of their best for another year and are now heading underground for their annual period of hibernation. Darkness fills the sky earlier each evening and sunsets, though dramatic at the moment, don’t last long as the sun is already quite low in the sky.

In many ways, the sun is our God, we wake when it is above us, we sleep when it is nowhere to be seen, shining on other far off parts of the planet. In spring, when the sun is fresh and the hours of daylight are getting longer, we too feel refreshed and anxious to get out into the garden and the great outdoors. Equally, at this time of the year, when there is less sunlight, we are inclined to be indoors more, nearly taking refuge for the winter.

For many, the passing of time is measured in minutes and hours on the clock and by such annual things as Easter, birthdays and Christmas. Not so for those of us in the garden. The passage of time is measured by sunlight and the passing of the years is measured in seasons, another spring heralds the start of another gardening season and another autumn marks the downing of tools for one more year.

With advancing years, of course, this passage of time seems to get quicker and quicker to the point of becoming a blur. I often think that what must seem like an eternity now to my beautiful little three-year-old girl is but a blink of an eye to me and I suspect maybe not even that to those who are more mature.

I grew up gardening, pottering along after my mother, mixing soil and leaves in a wheelbarrow ready for planting out, starting cuttings or sowing seeds. I still to this day remember the feeling of opening a fresh packet of seeds and the wonder of what was to come.

My first official job in the world of horticulture was on school holidays in 1989 and now 25 years later I am still gardening away and designing gardens. I bet if I think hard enough I would be able to remember something about each spring and every autumn that has passed in the intervening years.

Mary Cronin has doubled me. She celebrates 50 years in the industry this year pointing out that she has worked for the same company, Atkins, in three locations under three generations of the Wolfe family and through three currencies.

Starting off straight after her Inter Cert in 1964, Mary first worked in Winthrop Street when Cork also had Munster Seeds around the corner on Maylor Street, McLysaght and Healy on Pembroke Street and one more store on Academy Street.

This was in a time before you could buy plants 52 weeks of the year in pots. If you wanted garden plants back then you had to wait until the bare root season, between November and March. Whilst many of Mary’s contemporaries would have gone on to employment in Roches Stores, The Munster Arcade and Cash’s, Mary was weighing seed into bags in Atkins.

Flower and lawn seed wasn’t available like it is now in nicely packaged prepacks —you needed to know what you wanted and then it would be spooned out into envelopes and sealed. Different-sized copper spoons were used depending on the value of the seed.

Weedkillers such as DDT and sodium chlorate long since banned for safety reasons, were sold loosely and freely at the time. Many of Mary’s contemporaries would have left the workplace after they married but Mary returned to work and as the city centre became more about fashion and coffee and less accessible for customers, Atkins moved over to Camden Quay which is where I first remember them. This was a much bigger premises with off-street parking, which, during the late 70s and 80s saw the change from a largely rural specialist industry to the competitive, consumer-driven industry that it is now.

I still remember going in there on my way home from school some days and being blown away by wall after wall of flower bulbs available in every shape and size all with big bright pictures of how they would turn out.

After working her way up, Mary landed in the new store on Carrigrohane Road in 1997 as manager. She now runs a top-class garden centre where water features and ponds are the speciality, along with everything else that you would expect — from plants, furniture and all garden sundries — as well as a coffee shop.

She says the favourite part of her job is going to trade shows and spotting new products, getting them to the Cork store and watching the reaction. I suspect, however, that what she enjoys most about her job is the chat — advising people on their gardens, explaining the workings of ponds and water features and just being helpful. With that in mind, Atkins are celebrating Mary’s contribution next weekend on October 11 and 12 by inviting young and old to the Carrigrohane road for complimentary tea, coffee and cake. All are welcome to drop in, reminisce, take a trip down memory lane with old pictures on display and if you’re lucky, Mary will be available to share some of her stories of the last 50 years.


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