You’ll do a gardening article for us.”
It was more of a command than a request or suggestion, but Paddy O’Keeffe, the legendary editor of the Irish Farmers Journal, was like that. He didn’t stand on ceremony, but liked to get on with the business at hand. And he loved his garden.
So, in a matter of moments, I had become a regular weekly contributor. I told him that I had received a similar request from the editor of the Sunday Independent newspaper, from the equally legendary Aengus Fanning. That there might be a conflict of interest did not deter Paddy, nor did it deter Aengus when he was consulted later in the same week.
Not that either man had suddenly experienced a burning interest in gardening. It had more to do with the idea of the wild natural garden.
When I started on television, there had been no regular gardening programmes for three years. Barney Johnston, the first TV gardener on RTÉ, had died tragically. I had been working in RTÉ radio for five years when the prospect of a new programme arose. During those years, I realised that gardening and horticulture were not the holy grail of human activity, but I felt, at the same time, they could be made more interesting.
For instance, the programme brought in some new ideas – a garden visit every week and the challenge of a budget of just £10 (in those days) for fertiliser, seeds and so on. There was a focus on the small garden, ideally just 5 metres x 5 metres, which is about one-quarter of the smaller suburban garden space made available when modern houses are purchased.
It seemed to me then that there was a very considerable need for a simple, scientifically and horticulturally accurate show. Garden visits were made in a single day. These visits were either to see excellent gardens, trials or to see problems that had arisen in these gardens and to give advice about their solution.
These ideas and others I brought to Joe Murray, who was head of agricultural programmes in RTÉ radio and television. Joe was very excited by the prospect of a garden programme on television with wide levels of interest. Some of the old style programme makers were a bit sceptical about the ideas and I was told by a member of the crew that the programme would be pulled off air if it didn’t deliver the numbers of audience figures within six weeks.
As it happened, the very first programme of a 26-programme series hit the spot, reaching number six in the ratings and moving to number four, on occasion. It was our intention to promote gardening in Ireland and we resisted - for many years - the blandishments of Chelsea, Holland and even Japan, all of which we visited at some stage later on (but only when the burgeoning interest in gardening in Ireland had been well established). Gardening, at least on television, had by then reached its popular public.
So, this was the media environment that surrounded gardening at the time when I was asked to do a regular piece for the Irish Farmers Journal. It looked like gardening had found its place. The early 80s was a time of recession and immigration and people left the country in droves, but still, there were many new homes built and to facilitate new garden owners, garden centres had sprung up all over the country. Most of these early establishments were developed by owners who had some background and training in horticulture. More than a few started in their own back gardens selling plants and basic equipment. Some of these are still among the biggest and most successful in the country, notably Arboretum, Newlands Garden Centre and The Orchard.
Some were established by people in early retirement, such as army officer John Clark and family. At one point in the 1990s, it seemed as though there was a garden centre at every crossroads. There were, it is estimated, about 350 garden centres, both large and small, and not a coffee shop to be seen in any of them – that phenomenon came a few years later. Even those owners who were initially against the idea of a coffee shop began to see the business value of such an outlet.
Gardening was once termed ‘the sex of the 90s’, much as cooking is today. Once off and running, many centres began to sell garden furniture, household items and gifts. Indeed, the more successful ones are those with a strong café offering. This transition to a more general store than a plant-selling one is generally felt to have been due to the availability and large-scale car parking - usually free.
The second-generation - and even the third-generation, in some cases - continue very successfully. Some smaller businesses have closed, especially since COVID-19. However, the successes have been far more plentiful than the failures.
While factors affecting retail garden centres and the wholesale nurseries (who are their suppliers) were, and are, part of the coverage in the Irish Farmers Journal, it was writing about plants and gardening that formed most of the content.
For me personally, these 40 years have offered a wonderful opportunity to share with this readership the great pleasure of plants.
My oldest plant memory is assisting my mother’s mother in the planting of St Bridget anemones, her name being Bridget. I still remember clearly the excitement of seeing the new shoots emerge and that has never waned.