I recently received a heartfelt email from a reader who shall remain nameless, wondering whether someone could implore “the TidyTowns people to be more untidy-minded, to think of wild flowers [and other] great things that would flourish in hedges and on grassy banks and which would look lovely and not too cultivated and suburban/urban” instead of what she described as “the mania to have these boring little red and green and brown-earth patches.”
I felt her pain. A couple of years ago, I witnessed a wonderful stretch of wild orchids in full flower on the verges of an approach road to a rural town being unwittingly mown down in the pursuit of ‘tidiness’ in the shape of a roughly-mown stretch of grass. In another town, I saw similar, once-grassy verges that had been sprayed with herbicide, turning them a violent shade of orange.
So is the ethos of the TidyTowns annual competition out-of- step with the Irish public’s increasingly environmentally minded approach to the maintenance of its shared landscapes? With the deadline for submissions to this year’s competition just over a week away (May 20th), this was the question I posed to its organisers, and in particular to one of its most seasoned judges, Padraic Fogarty. The answer, I’m happy to say, is that it is certainly not.
“The competition has changed enormously over the past decade, to the point where it’s now much more of an environmental award,” says Fogarty. Its aim is to encourage communities to appreciate, nurture and protect the intrinsic beauty and distinctive character of their local landscape.
Cheeringly, the judges like to see wildlife-friendly areas of uncut grass along verges, while the use of weedkillers and other environmentally harmful chemicals is actively discouraged. “Where we see it being used, we’d make a point of suggesting that it’s not beneficial. It’s about encouraging people to revisit their ideas about what is or isn’t a weed and instead see these plants as important parts of a range of wild habitats.”
What about the colourful tubs, pots and hanging baskets that have been such a distinctive feature of those towns taking part in Tidy Towns in the past? “It’s nice to see colourful displays, but again, we’d emphasise the importance of their sustainability. So we’d much prefer to see a mix of trees, shrubs and hard-working perennials rather than short-lived annuals which require a lot of watering and labour to maintain.”
Homemade compost and mulches, and plant pots and containers made from recycled materials, are also encouraged.
The conservation of native flora and fauna also comes high on the TidyTowns agenda. “There are many sites around the country earmarked as special areas of conservation, so we’d always emphasise the importance of volunteers consulting their local county council’s heritage officer before carrying out any work. These sites could be home to a variety of habitats and different species, some of them rare. For the same reason, we encourage volunteers to make a special note of any areas of wildlife interest in their initial survey of their local area before beginning any kind of work on an overgrown or neglected site.”
Which bring us to the question of how and where TidyTown’s hundreds of volunteers – the people who give so many, many hours of hard work for the betterment of their local communities – can find advice and information on everything from identifying species of wildflowers to more complex issues such as, for example, the recording, mapping and conservation of mature trees significant to their local landscape.
Top of Padraic Fogarty’s list is the website of the National Parks & Wildlife Service (npws.ie), an amazing online resource that lists all of the country’s protected sites, nature reserves and special areas of conservation (as well as the publications relevant to them) by county as well as by feature of interest.
It also contains a map viewer, searchable by townland – very useful when it comes to filling out the application form, and marking out areas of special interest in the local landscape. So, for example, if you’re part of a TidyTowns group that wants to know more about the other living creatures and plants that share your local landscape, click on the grid and it will give you information relating to the species of flora and fauna to be found there, whether that’s rare orchids or hen harriers.
Fogarty also highly recommends the website of the Heritage Council of Ireland (heritagecouncil.ie), where you'll find information on everything from the various grants available to TidyTowns groups to a myriad of fantastic environmental initiatives such as the newly-launched National Woodland Scheme or the Pilgrim Paths Project. Others that I'd add to the list are the websites of Irish author and wildflower expert Zoe Devlin (wildflowersofireland.net), The Tree Council of Ireland (treecouncil.ie), BirdWatch Ireland (birdwatch.ie), Notice Nature (noticenature.ie), Enfo (enfo.ie) and of course the Tidy Towns website itself (tidytowns.ie), which contains a PDF of the Tidy Towns handbook. A detailed 65-page document, the booklet's firm emphasis on environmentalism is proof that this competition is very much a creature of the 21st century.
Things to do this week
“If (like me), you’ve got hordes of young, seed- raised plants cluttering up your window sills/ glasshouse/polytunnel, then it’s important to resist the urge to plant them outdoors before hardening them off.
‘Hardening off’ means exactly that: young plants need time (8-10 days) and your help to gradually acclimatise to the tougher growing conditions of outdoors.
Start the process by throwing open windows/ glasshouse/ polytunnel doors during the day, then begin to leave plants outside during the daytime before bringing them in at night.
“To ensure a good display of flowers, prune shrubs such as forsythia, ribes, calluna, kerria, potentilla, romneya and perovskia as well as some varieties of early-flowering clematis.
"May is the month to plant lavender, not just for its intensely perfumed, pollinator-friendly, purple flower-spikes but also for its scented, evergreen silver foliage. The hardiest species for an Irish garden is English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia.
Like all lavenders, it needs a very well-drained alkaline soil in full sun, well away from frost pockets, and should be pruned every year (ideally every August), to keep it bushy and healthy.
Dates for your diary
Saturday, May 14th (11am-6pm): Tullynally Castle plant fair, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Admission to plant fair is free, with reduced entry charge to gardens, see tullynallycastle.ie.
Also Saturday May 14th (10.30am-1.30pm): Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland spring plant sale . ‘Laurelmere’, Marlay Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Admission free, see rhsi.ie or call 01-4937154 for details.
Until the end of May every Wednesday-Sunday (11.30-5.30pm), Tulip Time in June Blake’s garden, Tinode, Blessington, Co Wicklow. New courtyard tea room now open.