Why are some Irish gardens bleak and empty?

Why are some Irish gardens bleak and empty?

There's no denying that Ireland is a beautiful country. You just need to come back from abroad, from almost anywhere, to apprecaite the fresh air and the natural beauty of the landscape. But take a look at how many houses are set in bleak, and unplanted environments and it's quite sad. Putting aside planting in the public realm (streets, pavements etc), some gardens have few or no plants in them, and trees in particular are in short supply.

bleak empty bare ugly garden


Car park front garden Dublin

Bleak empty garden Dublin

Some bleak and empty Dublin gardens

Saying something is ugly can be contentious. Who are we to say what is ugly and what isn't? There is consensus about what constitutes beauty in gardening terms. Open a garden magazine or go onto Pinterest or Instagram: 'beautiful' gardens will be lush, plant-filled, magical places. They will have dappled light, areas of brightness and shadow, flowers, seed-heads, wildlife. They may be city oases or country retreats, but they will have these same things in common.

First of all, bleak and empty gardens makes the world uglier, because plants make the world more beautiful. Our world - the world of the city, suburbs and countryside - is made up of innumerable small plots, each with different ownership.  You could argue that beauty is a luxury that many of us cannot afford, but a tree can be grown from a seed or pip (excluding the fact that in order to own a house or garden in ireland you need to have a lot of money). Beauty adds value in all regards: in monetary terms, a house with a well-planted garden will make the house more valuable. In human terms, the person seeing the beautiful garden will feel happier. In practical terms, a well-planted garden will benefit the living world, will absorb carbon, reduce flooding, feed and shelter wildlife and so on.

You could wonder if some Irish people have a fear of trees. They will take light. Leaves will fall in gutters. They can get 'out of control'. They could damage the wall, the pavement, the pipes. They could harbour burglars and criminals. They could fall over in a storm. All of which, in some cases, is true. On the other hand, to be governed by these thoughts means that we might as well live in a barren wasteland. The end result - at least in many parts of Dublin and the rest of Ireland - is that there are gardens almost devoid of greenery, neighbourhoods devoid of trees. It can't be blamed on lack of money: some of these garden hold hundreds of thousands of euros worth of luxury cars. Could people have priorities wrong, or misinformed about plants?

Sometimes you can see gardens expressing emptiness and 'neatness' in Ireland that is far from considered minimalism. It's an oppressive form of dislike for the natural world. Kill the ants when they appear. Spray the weeds when they appear. Get rid of the moss when it appears. Put tarmac here, concrete there and weed-barrier fabric over that. This bush is messy, so let's trim it into a ball. This poor little tree is out of control, so let's chop back all the limbs. Anything that tries to be what it wants to be or do what it wants to do needs to be knocked back hard and often. Hacked trees never recover: they just live as a constant reminder of the owner's desire to repress. We have been known to do the same things to humans in this country over the decades.

If you travel a lot, you get to see how what gardens and outdoor areas are like in other places. If you go to Hamburg, for example, you see tall trees growing adjacent to apartment buildings and within their small courtyards. You see ritzy suburban houses with green roofs, shaggy lawns and small forests between them and their neighbours. If you go to Detroit you see vegetables growing on front lawns, houses shrouded in climbers, overgrown gardens with 'bee-friendly' signs saying that the garden is there for nature, where the grass is only cut a few times per year. If you go to rural Spain or Italy you see people of all ages cultivating allotment plots around their homes and villages. In Ireland, of course there are some beautiful gardens and well-planted neighbourhoods. But there's a disproportionate amount of bleak, empty gardens, devoted to car paking, empty paved surfaces and bin storage, with 'low maintenance' or even 'no maintenance' as the defining credo.

In having a garden we have one of the few opportunities to do something positive for the world. Of course, we can consider our diets, how we shop and 'consume', how we travel and move about, our treatment of others and so on. We can also try to manage our tiny little bit of earth - be it windowsill, balcony, patio, garden or entire country estate - in a way that is plant-filled and beautiful. We don't need to get bogged down in arguments about what plants are 'good' and what plants are 'bad'. We don't need to get concerned about rewilding. Pants are good. It's that simple.

Gardens should have plants in them. They should have a minimum of hard surfaces  Every garden more than a couple of square metres should have at least one tree in it. Every garden should have one, two or even three trees in it. The notional 'damage' caused by a tree is outweighed ten-fold by the benefits  to you and the wider world. Shelter from wind, homes and food for birds and insects. beautiful flowers, peaceful spaces, somewhere to potter and relax. People whose gardens are bleak and empty are perhaps refecting how they feel themsleves? Or maybe they just don't know where to begin? Or could it be that they see the outside as an extension of the house, with the same cleaning and tidying regime as the indoors? Whatever it is, we hope that everyone who has the space will get just one tree or shrub for their garden. Visit you local garden centre and get advice on what will work for your gardem.

We have compiled a list of trees that grow well in and around Dublin. If this encourages even one person to plant a tree, we'll be happy!

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