Most of my treasured childhood memories are of carefree days spent in the countryside where I lived. We enjoyed idyllic summer days playing outside until dark with hills, a disused railway line and a river as our playground.
Memories of the different activities involved the making of mud pies, song contests and setting up cubbies but the one game that stands out for me was “my favourite spot” which should have been called “my favourite wildflower” as its premise was to locate your own particular favourite wildflower. The hills were so steep that the land could not have chemical fertiliser spread mechanically which meant we enjoyed many of the native flora including cuckoo flower, cowslip, primrose, vetch, furze, clover, herb robin, trefoil, cranesbill, dog-violet, loosestrife, greater willow.
I was very young when I first sowed my first flower seeds, my heart skips a beat when I recall the beautiful colourful seed packets, the excitement and anticipation however were to be short-lived as my first batch of wonderful seedlings was found by our hens and the dream of beautiful flowers promised in the seed packet was no more. My first success came with direct-sown love in a mist, blue pink and white, they are to this day one of my favourite annuals.
Other happy memories are of days spent at Nan’s, my grandmother who lived nearby in an old cottage. I loved her garden which on reflection was fairly small but very well planned, an apple tree and rose bush either side of the door, a lilac coloured phlox grew happily under the apple tree and wall flowers with their autumnal colours were another favoured flower grown close to the wall as the name suggested. Low whitewashed walls lead you to an always opened door for a cup of tea and some of Nan’s homemade bread. The garden hedges that framed the little plot included holly, privet, elder and gooseberry bushes.
Visits to my Dad’s parents who lived in Listowel town also saw wonderful use of a tiny garden space, cabbage, potatoes and onions were grown every year, my grandfather being the one to enjoy the horticultural therapy here.
As I grew older I began to spend my days a little more productively on local farms, keeping busy thinning turnips (I have photographic evidence if anyone doubts the child labour!), picking spuds, fencing, standing bales, dosing and de-horning animals, milking cows, its only now when I think about it that it seems a little unusual a hobby for a girl to have had but I loved every minute of it.
So growing up my grandparents instilled an appreciation, respect and stewardship of the land, it’s where they made their living. I feel a deep connection to the small parcel of ground I have been gifted, it served my great grandfather well, he was a prized market gardener specialising in fruit growing. This shared raw draw to the soil has made my endeavours in organic horticulture which I practiced down through the years completely effortless, a quote that resonates with me is “I garden, therefore I am.”
As a hay fever sufferer I was warned by my career guidance counsellor to abandon my preferred career choice of horticulture, I listened to him and went working in retail instead. Life happened, I married and was a very contented stay a home mom to four boys and three girls for twenty years.
It is only in recent years that I have returned to spending time in the garden. I began studying organic horticulture part-time in a local community organic garden in Tralee five years ago and have not looked back since.
I went on to study through distance learning with The Organic College in Dromcollogher Co. Limerick for two years, this certificate in organic horticulture had eight modules and involved receiving weekly notes online and a few practical weekends in the college. On completion of this course the majority of students either grow vegetables for themselves or set up to supply a local market. I decided to follow my heart and grow food for the soul instead, flowers are so much more interesting than vegetables. I attended a course with Ciaran and Kealin Beattie in Leitrim on cut flower production and was determined to give it a go.
I started on a small scale and attended a couple of local farmers markets but as much as the flowers were admired they didn’t sell. I persevered and soon found that there was indeed a market for my lovely blooms and after trialing the business in the summer of 2014, I opened Maura’s Cottage Flowers last June and I am now providing flowers for every occasion with an ever-growing number of regular customers. I have weekly orders with restaurants, hotels and other retail outlets as well as catering for wedding and event flowers.
I really love working in the wedding industry, it is a huge honour to me to provide wedding flowers. I offer a unique service for brides, they love the fact that my flowers are home grown and the fact that they can visit the gardens to choose what flowers they want for their wedding day. A visit can be very beneficial as it gives a bride the opportunity to see exactly what is available and gives them a general sense of my particular style. A bride can hand pick the blooms she wants in her bouquet a day or two before the wedding, I love that they can in essence design their own bouquet. When you are creating wedding flowers you’re also creating memories, these flowers will be looked at for years to come in photos and DVD’s, I feel very strongly that a bride should have the biggest say in their wedding flowers and this way the brides personality will be truly reflected in the flowers.
Growing flowers in Ireland is challenging but is very doable, with a small investment in polytunnels you can have protection from the weather and extend the growing season. As a business owner I have to be able to provide flowers for my customers year round but with our winters it is not possible when growing organically to do this so I do have to buy imported flowers but at least I can see where I am buying the flowers from and make informed decisions. My mission going forward is to reduce the amount of imported flowers and to encourage more growers to set up here in Ireland.
I have found that my timing has been opportune in that people are now more aware of the implications of buying mass produced flowers from third world countries. The damage to people and the environment is horrendous. Workers in Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand, and Kenya are poorly paid and work intensively, and they are exposed to harmful chemicals during the growing process and the flowers are also dipped in an antibacterial agent before being wrapped in cellophane and flown all over the world, these treatments leaves a nasty chemical residue on the flowers that is unquestionably unhealthy, serious work-related illnesses, including infertility and loss of sight are common. The cost to the environment is also huge unnecessary waste, exploitation of natural resources and incomprehensible damage to the local biodiversity.
Thankfully people are now seeking to make a difference and by taking simple steps like buying locally grown, natural, eco-friendly, sweet smelling flowers from growers like myself change is possible.
I consider myself to be very fortunate, my humble country flowers in their simple yet splendid beauty seem to attract a wonderful easy-to-please type of customer who typically share my passion for all things earthy. The flowers are beautiful, sustainable and offer a feel-good options to flower lovers.