Bernie McGovern, Stephen Fannin, and Patsy Sheridan. Photo: Damian McCarney

The trio making Cavan bloom!

Do you ever stop to appreciate the seasonal flower displays festooning Cavan Town?

With blossoms toppling from boxes and baskets, dripping with colour and offering an olfactory riot of scents they’re difficult to ignore. A magnet for pollinators, the buzz of insects is the town’s subtle summer soundtrack. The flowers go beyond simply softening the hard concrete realm of the town centre, they help elevate a commercial sector into a hometown, while offering a sensory welcome to visitors.

The hanging baskets, which suddenly appear as if by magic one June morning, are the culmination of months of preparations undertaken by horticulturalist Bernie McGovern and gardeners Patsy Sheridan and Stephen Fannin. The trio are tasked with planting and maintaining every green space in Cavan Town, and - when requested - advising various community groups in their floral displays across the county.

While the work that goes into Cavan’s floral displays may not be fully comprehended, it seems the end result is widely appreciated. We are reliably informed it’s the aspect of the council’s remit, which attracts the most positive feedback.

Patsy has worked alongside Bernie for the past 27 years and she quips he is “our memory” as he reminds us of what’s possibly their greatest achievement.

“We did Con Smith Park from start to finish to what it is today,” Patsy says proudly.

Asked what was there before, he explains: “Nothing, all clay. We raked it, gathered the stones off it, seeded it, planted it – you name it, we did it. The far side of the road as well – White City.”

Almost surprised by the recollection, Bernie agrees, “I suppose we planted every tree.”

“Every tree in the park we planted,” Patsy echoes.

While Bernie is more inclined to hold a professional remove for the end result, describing it as “work”, and dismissing the emotional impact of vandals uprooting plants – “we just put them back in”; Patsy is more open about his personal investment in their endeavours.

“It’s very enjoyable,” he says. “When you plant something and see it growing, it gives you great satisfaction.”

Cavan is unusual amongst councils by employing gardeners, as the majority of other local authorities contract private companies to take charge of planting and maintenance duties. However, the Cavan team have a modest budget to work off compared to the halcyon days when they could recruit students each summer to keep everything watered. They have had to cut their floral cloth to suit.

“We used to do baskets with totally different plants and we used to water twice a week. We don’t have the resources now to water twice a week, so we changed our plants – we use different plants and water once a week.

“Begonias is what we do mostly in our baskets and barrier boxes. So we get away with watering once a week, sometimes once a fortnight,” she says, explaining they use containers with reservoirs.

They also favour salvias and bidens – “the bees love it”.

“This week we are planting up our barrier boxes and our hanging baskets. We have about 7,000 plants came in yesterday,” she says. “We will plant them up into the pots and grow them on to the end of May and hopefully we will put them out on the first week of June.”

For them to produce their own seedlings they would need warm benches and glass houses – “It wouldn’t be cost effective at all.”

The other great planting frenzy comes in autumn, for the displays the following spring.

“So we do two crops a year. But we don’t do near as much in the autumn as we do for the summer.”

The rest of their work is dominated by maintenance, whether it’s the Green Lake, Con Smith Park, the French Garden (Railway Road) or Rose Garden (Farnham Road at the Townhall) it all takes time.

“Everywhere takes maintenance,” observes Patsy. “There’s no such thing as no maintenance. When you have grass and shrub beds, it all takes time, it’s a lot of work for three people to keep on top of.”

It’s this mindset, which informs Bernie’s advice to residents’ groups and Tidy Town committees when they come to plan displays in villages elsewhere in the county.

“A lot of these community groups don’t have big budgets. Less is often more – just do what you can do and maintain it well rather than a whole pile of stuff and nothing being maintained.”

It’s advice she heeds herself.

“I would love to get away from the begonia because you get very bored growing the same thing, but say if you do petunias or surfinias or anything like that – you need to water them at least twice a week. You can do a lot more if you have more staff, but if you don’t have the staff you have to do what looks well and what’s going to be maintained.”

With points for biodiversity available for Tidy Towns competitions, there’s an increasing trend county-wide towards encouraging wildflowers. Bernie has long valued wildflowers’ importance long before the recent embrace of biodiversity - for example the section of Con Smith Park on the other side of the Kinnypottle is cut once and is otherwise left to its own devices. Approach roads are also havens for wildflowers.

“If you look at say on the Cootehill Road, we don’t mow until our dandelions have set seed. June bank holiday weekend is when we will do our first mowing of our verges.

“On different roads, because a lot of people walk them, we just mow a metre along it, and the rest of it we don’t do – it depends where it is.”

The most prominent example of more natural displays has been the patch opposite Tractormotors, when each summer it generates a joyous tangle of wildflowers.

“Mrs Richmond’s Corner,” says Bernie fondly. “We are reseeding that again this year – the week after next probably. That cost us about €34. We bought the seed in Lidl and just tried it and it was lovely. It was September when I thought it came into its own.

“So you can do lovely wee simple things without costing a fortune. Now people will give out we are not using native wildflower seeds, and all of that but you do what you can.”

Bernie keeps bees, so hoping it would provide a good source of nectar, she had trialled the wildflower display at her home in County Monaghan.

“If you are doing something like that you want to try it at home first – if you feck up at home no one will see it.”

Bernie’s own garden must be fantastic, the Celt opines.

“My mother had this phrase: the nearer to church the further from God,” she jokes.

The flipside of wildflowers of course is weedkillers. The Celt notices a bedraggled mare’s tail peeping up the side of the polytunnel where we are chatting.

The deep “Yes” with which Bernie acknowledges this seems to begin somewhere around her toes, such is the level of exasperation.

“We are trying to move away from glyphosate, Roundup and chemicals, for our own sake and everyone’s sake. We are trialling a new chemical at the minute. It’s plant based – pelargonic acid – so it destroys the plants’ cells.”

If you use Roundup you would have to do it once every three months, this is about once a month, so it’s a lot more work, it’s a lot more expensive, but it’s safer chemical,” she explained.

She acknowledges “a lot of people” are opposed to them using weed killer, but balances that against the “duty of care to the public” and rate payers who expect the town to be kept tidy.

“We are trying our best – we have tried steam, we are trying this new chemical this year – so we are always trying something different.”

After the displays are finished for the year, that doesn’t mean that Bernie and her team are able to put their feet up. She assures us that there’s a busy work schedule all year round.

“Our easiest time of the year is July and August because we are just watering and cutting grass. In winter-time we are doing all of our heavy maintenance - pruning, cutting back, so when people think you are doing nothing in the winter time – because they don’t go out to their garden in winter time – that’s when we do all our heavy work – pulling out shrubs, putting in shrubs, all of that.”

While the height of summer might be their “handy time”, it’s all relative.

While the rest of us can enjoy the floral displays over the coming months, it seems the gardening team won’t reflect on a job well done.

“There’s three of us, we’ll have over 200 baskets, over 100 pots, barrier boxes and tower planters. We won’t have time to appreciate it and sit back,” she says.