How many gardens would you say are open to the public on the island of Ireland? One hundred, two hundred? Even inveterate garden visitors may be surprised to learn that there are more than 400. In Shirley Lanigan’s new book, The Open Gardens of Ireland (The Butter Slip Press, €22.50), the author visits and describes 427 Irish gardens. She was surprised to find so many. “In the month before I set out visiting, I was having my doubts about the whole project,” she says. “People were still scraping along after the recession, and it was all a bit ‘doom and gloom’. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a disaster’. ”

What she found, however, was that more gardens than ever were opening to visitors. “Loads of people were beavering away, doing their thing. I got happier and happier as I went on,” Lanigan says.

One area that has provided an unexpected treasury of gardens newly open to the public is the west, particularly counties Mayo, Sligo and Donegal. “That’s where all the action is taking place now.” Take Co Donegal, for instance: in 2001, when Lanigan published her first gardens guide, the O’Brien Guide to Irish Gardens, she found just four gardens to visit there. Sixteen years later, she has identified 25. “When I meet a gardener who is particularly engaging, or a garden that surprises me, they are often in Donegal.” She loves Dorothy Jervis’s patch at Sea View, in Mountcharles. “It’s a real country garden and is utterly charming. She’s the fourth generation to live there; her granny got it going with a couple of rose bushes, and everything is grown from cuttings. Dorothy opens it for charity,” she says. 

Knockrose, Tom and Patricia Farrell’s garden
Knockrose, Tom and Patricia Farrell’s garden

The Jervis garden is one of 22 on the Donegal Garden Trail, an organisation that is run by a dynamic group of gardeners. Each year more gardens are added to the trail, and members meet and encourage each other in their efforts. It’s a brilliant example of a community effort. Lanigan laments that Irish gardens are not more celebrated: “I really feel they need more exposure. I could get angry if I really got going. In many cases I see these great people and they seem to get no encouragement, and quite a lot of barriers put in their way.”

There are prohibitive charges for official road signage, and not enough recognition from Failte Ireland, Lanigan says. “If they cannot prove ‘bed nights generated’, a visitor attraction does not seem to count for much.” She would like to see the same energy going into promoting gardens as that used for publicising the Wild Atlantic Way. “It is a great resource being ignored.”

Lanigan, who lives in Kilkenny, was born and reared in Drumcondra, near the National Botanic Gardens. Her love of matters horticultural was spawned thanks to a college friend, an aspiring musician who was the son of the director of the Glasnevin gardens. “The band used to practise after hours in the potting sheds. I had to go and watch. They were awful,” she says. In order to pass the time, she began sneaking into the gardens, where she discovered a new interest.

That was in the early 1980s. She has been a dedicated garden visitor since. Her recent venture has been gratifyingly successful: the book became an instant Irish bestseller, after at least 1,000 copies were sold in the first weeks.

Lanigan wrote the text in about six months, but took two years to do the research, driving around Ireland in search of gardens. She clocked up 7,240km on her car, but has no idea how many days she spent on the road.

She has favourite gardens. In Skibbereen, in Co Cork, she loves Janet and Robin Stonard’s Lassanaroe. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere. You’re up one lane and down another, and you eventually arrive at a little Japanese gate in a native hedge,” Lanigan says. Hidden in deep west Cork is a slightly overgrown and throughly delightful creation with Japanese maples and lanterns, and even a traditional teahouse.

On the Beara Peninsula, near Kenmare, in Co Kerry, she admires jewellery designer Charlotte Verbeek’s Dawros gallery and garden with its “really cool style, Scandinavian minimalism and a wild garden that blends into the wilds like smoke”. In Kilternan, in Co Dublin, she is keen on Knockrose, the garden of Tom and Patricia Farrell, an informal, peaceful sprawl that reminds her of a Beatrix Potter story.

Janet and Robin Stonard’s Lassanaroe, in Co Cork
Janet and Robin Stonard’s Lassanaroe, in Co Cork

Lanigan’s guide, which covers Ireland county by county, is a personal and vivaciously written 400-page volume. Her love of the haphazard, free-wheeling nature of Irish gardens and gardeners is obvious on every page. As she says: “We are not always very structured. Not always expert, but plants like our climate, which forgives a lot, and the enthusiasm I come across is like rocket fuel to me.”

Get out and meet the gardeners, she urges. “They are people who make you fall in love with their gardens.”