Get your weekly dose of Daly
I was surprised to learn recently that Gerry Daly - that popular personification of Irish gardening - is only 45 years old. It's not that he looks particularly old: it's just that he seems to have been around forever. And he certainly pops up everywhere: as radio and television presenter, as co-editor of the Irish Garden magazine, as columnist in the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald and the Farmers' Journal. He's even on the Internet now, his bearded countenance beaming out of the Irish Garden's new Website. And when Gerry Daly speaks, it is with the authoritative voice of a wise old man of the soil.
But that's as it should be: he was raised with the fertile earth of Enniscorthy under his fingernails, and his family background is securely rooted in the twin disciplines of horticulture and agriculture. Both his parents were ardent gardeners - as the beautiful garden at the family home in Bohreen Hill testifies - and his father, now retired, but "still an active gardener" was a horticultural adviser and commercial fruit grower. "And my grandparents are all farmers, you know. We know what we're talking about when it comes to the soil," he declares sagely.
And it is to hear his wise Wexford voice - with its characteristic, slightly over-solemn delivery - that thousands of Irish listeners will be tuning in to Ask About Gardening on RTE Radio 1 this afternoon. The programme starts its 20th season today, and the format - a panel of three experts counselling the troubled gardeners of the nation - has not changed since Daly thought it up in 1980.
"It has a kind of conversational quality that people like. It's real, live radio. It's spontaneous. We do not have any advance knowledge of what's coming in . . . unlike our counterparts in Gardeners' Question Time where they get six weeks' notice of the questions."
Spontaneous or not, the questions haven't changed much in nearly two decades, with "moss in lawns" and "why do plants die?" two of the stalwarts. "But it is always different people asking them, and in different circumstances. It's not like a pets' programme where a dog has fleas," he explains. "A dog having fleas doesn't matter if it's a 1,000 feet above sea level, or whether it's on the coast, or whether the soil is heavy in the garden."
What has changed over the years, he says thankfully, is the quality of telephone technology: no more calls from heavy black Bakelite instruments whistling and crackling with a mind of their own. "When we started it wasn't unusual for a call to be routed through operators from some part of rural Ireland. We would lose calls, and we'd have fried eggs on the line. Every week we'd have problems - it was almost borderline whether the programme was technically possible or not."
Gardening itself has changed too: "Twenty years ago it was really a niche kind of activity, a specialist interest," he remembers. "It had the image of being exclusive, of being linked with an Anglo-Irish past. In some parts of the country it was almost an un-Irish activity! But that feeling has largely evaporated."
Gerry's own large garden in Ashford, Co Wicklow has a relaxed, country atmosphere where swathes of silver birch under-planted with daffodils soothe the eye. The soil is "a good acid-brown earth, pH 5.5, a silty, freely-drained loam over glacial-outwashed deposits of gravel."
It sounds like the garden from heaven. "Well I did pick it!" says the man who knows his soil. "It's not entirely accidental!"
Among his favourite plants are rhododendrons, magnolias, pieris and sorbus. And, "I use watsonias a lot, and dieramas, and a lot of Euphorbia mellifera as set-piece plants. I have a wide range of plants," he says, "but I'm not - what would you call it?" Pause. "I'm not one of these people that collect plants for the sake of having them; I like to give plants their space."
And actually, he says, space is one of the most important things for a healthy plant. "When I talk about conditions, people think of soil and weather and so on, but in fact one of the most important conditions is adequate space for a plant to develop."
"People ask me what the secret of gardening is. As far as I'm concerned, the secret of gardening is basically to know the requirements of plants and then to provide them."
Garden reading: Although some people may think that gardening in Ireland started with Gerry Daly, in fact, we have been gardening an awful lot longer. You can read about our early horticultural efforts in a scholarly little volume by archaeologist and architectural historian Terence Reeves-Smyth, Irish Gardens and Gardening before Cromwell. Recently published as part of the ongoing Barryscourt Lectures series, it makes interesting reading for all students of Irish garden history, and includes many gems. I was intrigued to learn that the abominable weed ground elder was originally introduced to Britain by the Romans as a vegetable, and it probably arrived here during early Christian times. Not surprisingly, by 1380, it was known as the "devil of the garden".
Irish Gardens and Gardening before Cromwell is available from 021 770830, price £4.95