What Dubliners can learn from Hamburgers

When you are somewhere for a short time, and you explore, you come away with a few distinct impressions.

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They may not be representative, or even accurate. In any case, we were in Hamburg for two days at a trade event and had a day to look around. As gardeners and plant lovers, here are the impressions that we came away with; bearing in mind that these thoughts are seen through the lense of 'if only' when it comes to Ireland or, more specifically, Dublin.

People are not afraid to 'live with plants'. Compared to Irish people, the Hamburgers seem to understand that they can have plants adjacent to, on top of or below them without disastrous results. There is a general fear in Ireland about plants getting 'too big' (ie reaching their natural size), as well as some illogical fear that plants need to be kept a healthy distance from the house. It's almost as if we have a fear of them expressing themselves naturally, a bizarre throwback to Catholic stilting of exuberance. "The tree is growing up too fast, it's waving its arms about, it's sowing its seed and just doing whatever is in its nature to do. Cut it back, strip the limbs, those branches are taking our light, our water, our view." That's the Irish way. 

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Entrances to car parks under apartment buildings. Could we ever achieve anything like this in Ireland? The skill and effort that went into the planning, the construction, the cobble-laying, the plant choices and the maintenance is something that would find almost impossible to muster.

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Hamburgers are better gardeners. Is that too brutal a thing to say? Of course, we have amazing gardeners here in Ireland and amazing gardens too. But if you were too average it out and throw everyone into the mix, I would say that they would come out on top. Maybe a better way to say it is that their general level of horticultural skill is higher than our general level. That is because we have many people in Ireland who are so deracinated (to use a horticultural term) that they haven't the faintest idea how to care for a plant. The basic skill-set for many Irish people in relation to horticulture is NIL. Or, for some, there is a sense that you need to pour weedkiller over your outdoor area a couple of times per year. When I lived in Germany in my twenties, my two flatmates, who were students, grew their own herbs and tomatoes on the balcony. In our shops we frequently get asked questions such as: 'Should I take it out of the pot when I plant it?" or 'Oh. I didn't realise it was going to get bigger", or " I didn't know it needed to be watered. All my plants just die on me." From what we saw of Hamburg, the end result is an urban and suburban landscape which displays skilled, knowledgeable handiwork, the likes of which is rare in Ireland. Apartment blocks, balconies, street planting and parks all display an understanding of horticulture which weon;y have in very short supply.

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Great cacti collection in a shop window.

Despite having many things wrong with its attitude to the environment, including a love affair with luxury cars, giant motorways and way too many foreign holidays, Germans know that gardens - or the outdoors in general - is 'the nature' and needs to be treated with respect. There's no evidence of chemical sprays. Grass in median strips is allowed to be long and shaggy. There is a certain tolerance of 'mess': ie unhindered growth where it doesn't get in anyone's way. When was the last time you saw someone out with a flame weeder in a public space in Dublin? In our Monkstown shop, which we take great pride in maintaining, we were asked by the local tidy town people if we could please spray weedkiller on any cracks in the pavement outside our shop! How can it be 'tidy' to spray poison onto the brave bits of greenery that soften the edges between concrete pavemets and concrete wall? This is exactly the attitude that we really need to loose in Ireland when it comes to the perception of 'tidiness'.

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Two people involved in different methods of weed removal. The default method in Ireland is poisonous glyphosate-based herbicides.

Hamburg is a wonderfully green city. I am sure that if we had been there in February we would have felt differently. But green or not, it has veins of wildness running right through it, with canals, small rivers and lakes. Balconies are full of plants. Trees and shrubs grow up and around apartment buildings so that the residents can look into the branches. So waht can Dubliners learn from Hamburgers? 

  • Don't be afraid of trees and shrubs getting to close to you: they don't bite.
  • Don't use herbicides / plantkillers, but learn to tolerate growth or to remove it manually.
  • Choose trees carefully that can can grow to their natural size.
  • Even if you love your car and your car parkind space, allow as much greenery as you can fit all around it.
  • Put as much time as you can into gardening your own little patch: it's pleasurable to do this, not a chore.
  • Whether you have a balcony, a windowsill, a patch of pavement or a big garden stretching down to the river, allow 'nature' to find a foothold in the form of plants.
  • Learn that 'messiness' is, to a degree, a natural state, and practice tolerance for 'weeds' (we're not advocating messy, unkempt gardens here).
  • Dare to plant a tree if you have even a couple of square metres. The more of them there are around the nicer everything looks. And don't hack them when they get 'too big'.

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A beautiful front garden with magnolia, roses, pond and box hedging.