Scaring sparrows with stuffed cats and other antideluvian gardening advice

Gardening magazines have had to move with the times when dispensing advice

If we could step back in time to flick through the pages of popular garden magazines from bygone eras, it’s safe to say that we’d find few if any features on rewilding, sustainability, environmentally conscious garden design or the rich biodiversity of brownfield sites. Instead, those popular publications typically dispensed traditional gardening advice on how to cultivate a range of choice plants and protect them from common pests and diseases. Some of it, unsurprisingly, hasn’t aged all that well.

Few of us, for example, would contemplate installing a stuffed cat among our flower beds to scare off destructive sparrows, as suggested in an early edition of Curtis’s the Botanical Magazine. Or dousing our rose plants with a solution of water and turpentine to kill off “mischievous grubs”. Their kind advice to use poisonous chemicals such as arsenic, sodium chlorate, simazine, paraquat, DDT, drins and neonicotinoids to control weeds, pests and diseases feels a million miles away from the planet we inhabit today. The same goes for well-meaning suggestions on how, for example, to achieve the perfect weed-free lawn, colourful carpet bedding displays, or heated glasshouses heaving with tropical fruit, all of them elements of a garden that we now know require intense maintenance and come at an unaffordable environmental cost. As we contemplate ways to combat climate change and grieve for the escalating loss of biodiversity, the world has moved on and gardeners with it.

So have those magazines’ modern counterparts including Gardens Illustrated, the well-known international gardening magazine often described as the horticultural equivalent of Vogue, whose Irish-born editor is Stephanie Mahon, the award-winning author and gardening journalist. Known for its progressive, often pioneering take on the art and craft of gardening, it’s at the forefront of a sea change taking place in the world of horticulture, one driven by deep-bedded respect for nature as well as a fast-growing recognition of its increasing fragility.

Mahon’s love of nature was nurtured in childhood, fed by an appreciation of the rolling rural Kildare landscape surrounding her family home. Her love of the well-crafted written word also started very early in life (in fact some of her first published writing appeared in this paper, for whom Mahon regularly contributed features in her late teens as its Youth Correspondent).


But her passion for gardening came much later, in early adulthood, sparked by the three years she spent living in a romantically dilapidated 14th century castle near Bologna in northern Italy cared for by her American friend, Clark Lawrence. Home to the not-for-profit cultural association known as Reading Retreats in Rural Italy, she helped to take on the challenging task of reviving its badly overgrown gardens, a task as exhausting as it was exciting.

“It was this very beautiful, very atmospheric, very old building where people came to stay. We held concerts, staged art exhibitions — including one of the works of the Irish artist Elizabeth Cope — and started making a garden. Very quickly I was hooked.”

A move to the UK in 2008 brought Mahon to the English Garden magazine, where she studied for the RHS Level 2 in Horticulture at night, and steadily rose through its ranks to become editor. Subsequent roles as editor of the UK’s Society of Garden Designers’ monthly Garden Design Journal and Inside Horticulture, the magazine of the Horticultural Trades Association, combined with her work as an award-winning freelance garden journalist and her authorship of several gardening books (her latest, Wild Gardens, won the Garden Media Guild’s Garden Book of the Year Award), meant that she was ideally placed to take on the job of editor of Gardens Illustrated when it became vacant in 2021. It’s a unique and impressive career arc that’s given Mahon a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the world of gardening, as well as an exceptional insight into how much and how quickly it’s changing.

“Working for a magazine like Gardens Illustrated as well as launching its new podcast Talking Gardens, where you have the opportunity to communicate these exciting changes in a way that brings your readers and listeners along on the journey, is where it all comes together for me as a writer and editor. Most of us know that change is necessary, but we also know that it will only come about as part of a conversation. And our readers have been brilliant, perhaps because more than anyone, gardeners are very quick to spot the results of climate change and biodiversity loss in their own plots. I’m not saying that we don’t get the very occasional email from a reader who isn’t quite on board yet, but the vast majority are already hungry for change, including the need for greater diversity and different voices. By giving a voice to the gardeners and designers around the world who are developing innovative, creative ways to meet the environmental challenges that we’re facing, we’re a part of that important conversation.”

Next week Mahon returns to Ireland at the invitation of the Garden & Landscape Designers Association to chair their 2024 seminar, Space to Grow, where a panel of guest speakers will “explore the crucial role that our gardens and open spaces play in creating a sustainable and liveable future for our communities”. It’s a theme very dear to Mahon’s heart.

Unsurprisingly, the seminar’s impressive line-up of contributors is already familiar to her. “I’m a great fan of Stefano Marinaz, whose work features regularly in the magazine. He’s such a gifted designer, someone with a light touch who always succeeds in combining beauty with environmentalism”. Gardens Illustrated’s upcoming March issue also showcases the work of another of the seminar’s speakers, the New Zealand gardener and designer Jo Wakelin, whose own garden is her thoughtful response to the challenges of drought. Also included in the line-up is the British gardener John Little, known for his experimental approach to the use of unconventional growing mediums including recycled crushed porcelain. “I love John’s work and how it challenges preconceptions about how to nurture biodiversity.”

Other speakers include the award-winning British landscaper and designer Mark Gregory of Landform Consultants (”no one knows more than Mark about how garden design has had to change to meet the challenges of sustainability”); and the Italian landscape architect Giacomo Guzzon and the Dutch landscape and planting designer Ton Muller, whose work on public gardens Mahon greatly admires. “They’ve both succeeded in designing these beautiful, long-lasting, habitat-rich public spaces which can naturally evolve over time without the need for intense intervention in terms of labour or the use of chemicals. It’s sustainable design at its highest level, which is just wonderful to see.” Is she looking forward to her role as moderator of the conversation that will ensue next week at the seminar in Dublin? “Without a doubt. I think it’s going to be fascinating.”

Irish Times readers can get 30 per cent off a subscription to Gardens Illustrated at this link:

This week in the garden

As long as the soil isn’t frozen hard or sodden, this is a great time of year to plant bare root, root-ball, and container-grown trees, shrubs, climbers, fruit trees, cane fruit, roses and perennials. Along with all good garden centres, you can source these online from specialist suppliers including members of the Irish Specialist Nursery Association, see

Container-grown trees, shrubs, perennials and herbs can quickly run out of space and nutrients. Late February is a good time to either repot them into larger containers using a good quality multipurpose compost, plus a little slow-release organic fertiliser or to refresh the growing medium with a generous top-dressing of fresh compost and a scattering of slow-release fertiliser (scratch away and discard the existing 3cm top layer and put it on the compost heap).

Dates for your diary

The following Irish gardens are opening to the public in the coming weeks to celebrate the snowdrop season, with some offering guided tours. Please check individual websites/social media channels for details: RHSI Bellefield, Shinrone, Co Offaly (; Altamont, Co Carlow ( and; Shankill Castle, Co Kilkenny (; Coosheen, Co Cork (; Blarney Castle, Co Cork (; Hunting Brook Gardens, west Wicklow (; Burtown House, Co Kildare (; Primrose Hill, Co Dublin (@primrosehillgarden_ireland ); Woodville Walled Garden, Go Galway (; Ballyrobert Gardens, Co Antrim (

Today, Saturday 17th and tomorrow, Sunday 18th February (10am-5pm), Mount Venus Nursery, The Walled Garden Tibradden, Mutton Lane, Dublin 16, Helleborus Weekend 2024 with a wide selection of new varieties on display and for sale.

Saturday, February 24th, Crowne Plaza Dublin Airport Hotel Conference Centre, Northwood Park, Santry, Dublin D09 X9X2, Space to Grow, the Garden & Landscape Designer Association’s 2024 seminar with a host of international expert speakers. Tickets from €60-€140, see

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Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening