'We Irish are Mediterranean when it comes to gardening, we like our planting free and easy'

GARDENING
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The Independent Travel
In May of this year, I brought 40 tons of stone and three truck- loads of plants from Kerry to London to build an Irish garden at the Chelsea Flower show. Funds were very low compared with most. (Cartier had spent pounds 50,000 on six 100-year-old olive trees. We had pounds 14,000 in total!)

With 24 hours to go, our place was still a heap of stones and soil, while a burst water main did its best to destroy our sanity. But all came right in the end and the garden turned out to be the only one sold at the show, and will be resurrected at a private home in St Albans over the coming months.

To my mind the best part of the show was hearing the reaction of the British gardener to our efforts. There was a general fascination about the use of tree ferns and other exotic sub-tropical plants. People wanted to know where they came from, how well they grew, and what other delights would await a visitor to Ireland. It got me thinking about the different attitudes to gardens in both countries.

Recently, I tried to explain on Irish television how relaxed as a nation we are in our gardens. The Irish, I declared, do not rush out to mow the lawn and clip the hedges at dawn on a Saturday morning. Our attitude about gardens is not about neatness and order.

When my dad heard this, I received a clip round the ear for insolence. It is exactly what he does (as his sleep-starved neighbours will tell you). Anyway, I put this down to his Scottish ancestry. But, come to think of it, there is another poor soul who has been known to cut his lawn with nail scissors and even blow-dries it after a rain shower.

But these are the exceptions that do not prove the rule. According to Angela Jupe of the Society of Irish Garden Designers, people over here are much more Mediterranean in their attitudes. The lack of formal box hedging and topiary is an example of this, she says. We like our planting free and easy, and prefer to enjoy what we have rather than take on the hard work associated with a formal garden.

Helen Dillon, Ireland's foremost plantswoman, reckons that one of the main differences is the huge range of New Zealand, Himalayan and even South American plants that can be grown here because of the Gulf Stream which laps against part of our coastline. This, combined with the moist air, tricks plants such as Tasmanian tree ferns into believing that they have never left the Antipodes. Recently, I even came across a banana tree that has been growing in the shelter of a fuchsia hedge at Kells Bay on the famous Ring of Kerry.

A few weeks ago, I got married (to a psychologist who thinks she has taken on her biggest project to date. Is there anyone else whose pre- nuptial agreement states that they can never again enter a garden in the Chelsea Flower Show?). Anyway, we decided on a busman's honeymoon and armed with a gem of a book - Marianne Heron's The Hidden Gardens of Ireland - we set about discovering a great range of gardens.

Just outside Galway city, on the west coast, we visited Ardcarraig, a garden created by Lorna McMahon. Since 1972, out of a boggy hill and an unpromising hazel coppice, she has carved a remarkable series of interlocking gardens. Each area meets effortlessly with the next, my favourite being the wonderful Japanese garden. Its slope has been used to great effect, with steps bordered by clouds of azaleas which in May really do give you the impression of being in a horticultural utopia.

Our next destination was Kerry. The landscape here is second to none. This is where we had chosen to marry, and the small country church at Tahilla was filled with wild rhododendron, montbretia, fuchsia and heather for the occasion, all gathered from the surrounding roadsides. The road along "the ring" goes through Killarney National Park. Nothing will prepare you for such breathtaking beauty, but try and travel early or late in the season to avoid getting stuck behind buses of Americans.

Derreen gardens enjoy the effect of the Gulf Stream and are filled with rare rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and camellias as well as a wonderful woodland. The combination of plants and setting is utterly bewitching. Like many of the gardens mentioned, Derreen is not widely known, so it may be your private playground during the visit.

On Valencia Island, an enigmatic German lady, Meta Kreissig, has undertaken to restore the gardens of the former knight of Kerry to their former glory. Glanleam gardens are again sub-tropical and also rich in history. In the woods, you will be shown an ancient stone cross - but wear wellingtons. Meta's gardener, Seamus, will have you climbing mountains to show you the treasures to which he is guardian.

And so to Dublin, where the parks department does a magnificent job providing many oases for visitors to relax in. My favourite is Merrion Square, which is surrounded by the most elegant Georgian houses. I worked here for a while as a student and heard a stream of visitors express their admiration for the wonderful bedding displays and mini arboretum.

Helen Dillon's garden, in the centre of Dublin, has been described by Roy Strong as the best of town gardens. Again, a visit is a must. A mistress of the art of plant combinations, she also has the great ability to entertain while teaching. I remember once arriving here with a group of students, really feeling that I could not face sunlight, never mind a lecture on how to use colour: the party the evening before had ended at 6am. Helen, true to form, enthralled the pupils while I recovered in the shade under the old apple tree. Plants from Australia, South Africa and Ireland flourish side by side and the Cornus controversa 'Variegata' is, as they say, absolutely fab.

On to Beechpark at Clonsilla in Co Dublin, which boasts one of the most spectacular herbaceous borders in these islands. The collection of plants, from alpines to Himalayan poppies, is superb but, unfortunately, its future as a garden is in doubt due to its recent sale to an as yet anonymous buyer. The present gardeners, Jonathan and Daphne Shackleton, have been moved at the number of people outraged when it was not bought by the state. It may be that the gardens continue to open to the public. But, as Jonathan says, it seems to him that the body will be there but the spirit will be gone.

Our garden tour ended in Co Kilkenny. Many of you will already be familiar with the wonderful paintings of Elizabeth Cope. Well, just as enchanting are the artist's gardens at Shankill Castle. For a vision of what the gardens of great old houses in Ireland looked like, you cannot do better: delapidated potting sheds, two old walled gardens, a moated rose garden, ruined medieval chapel and woodland walks. One of the highlights is an archway of old apple trees which in the spring make a dramatic picture, underplanted with red tulips. So, three weeks later and we are still married. But I reckon I have shot myself in the foot, because every day I see Justine eyeing our little patch of weeds.

So, to answer a few more of the questions from our Chelsea visit:

No, there are no leprechauns.

Yes, St Patrick did banish the snakes.

And for the best pint of Guinness, it is a toss-up between Mulligans of Poolbeg Street and the Gravedigger in Glasnevin.

Diarmuid Gavin is a writer and gardener, and runs the Dublin School of Garden Design.

Anna Pavord is away.

Where they are

Ardcarraig, Bushey Park, Oranswell, Co Galway (00 353 9124 336)

Derreen, Lauragh, Nr Kenmare, Co Kerry (00 353 6483 103)

Glanleam, Valencia Island, Co Kerry (00 353 6676 176)

Helen Dillon, 45 Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 (00 353 1497 1308)

Beechpark, Clonsilla, Co Dublin (00 353 1821 2216)

Shankill Castle, Paulstown, Co Kilkenny (00 353 503 26145)

Further information: The Hidden Gardens of Ireland by Marianne Heron is published by Mooreland. As it is rather difficult to get hold of in this country, Diarmuid Gavin will send Independent readers a copy of the book if they send a cheque for pounds 10 to 43 Mount Pleasant Square, Ranelagh, Dublin 6, Republic of Ireland. Mr Gavin also highly recommends Helen Dillon's Garden Artistry, to be published by Macmillan in October.

The Irish Tourist Board (0171-493 3201) supplies a useful free leaflet on Irish gardens.

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