Too Good to be True?

Have some entertainment gardens left the practices of normal gardening so far to the side that they have become artifices of what a garden should be? Has the desire to be a constantly perfect attraction lead to gardening in a manner and style which is far removed not alone from the practices of the common gardener but from nature itself? Of course, the reasons are perfectly understandable – the desire to attract more and more paying visitors and increased cash flow – normal gardening practices, even good taste, are often sacrificed for these gains.

Troy Scott Smith is the latest head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle Garden has made some interesting comments on the state of the garden and his future plans for it. “Sissinghurst”, he says, “has lost its way. In becoming a totem of horticultural perfectionism, it has forgotten what it really is.” On his appointment, he gave himself time to review the present situation in the garden, going back to the gardening notes of the garden’s creators Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. He concluded that the garden had changed radically over the years since her death and nowadays could be more considered the garden of Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger who had been employed as gardeners by Viva Sackville-West in 1959 and who continued to manage the gardens until 1991. Their successors, Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta continued to maintain the gardens in the style and manner which Pam and Sibylle had established and which the visiting public had come to expect.

head-gardeners-272177-800x600
Troy Scott Smith is pictured on the cover of Ambra Edward’s book

Under their care the gardens had been brought to a level of perfection rarely seen elsewhere as they wished the garden to look at its best for every day that it was open to the public. Troy Scott Smith believes that the garden no longer reflects the style or the intentions of its creator, being too perfect, fails to show how a gardens changes through the seasons and has concluded that two thirds of the plants grown were introduced by Pam and Sibylle with several of today’s much admired features introduced by Sarah and Alexis all distancing the gardens further from its creator and that now it is time to return it to how Vita Sackville-West imagined it.

Developments at Sissinghurst will be of interest as Troy Scott Smith makes the changes he has in mind. You can read further on his thoughts in a recently published book, Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, published by Pimpernel Press and you can hear Troy Scott Smith speak to the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society in Cork on Thursday, 25th January, 2018 or on Wednesday 24th January 2018 in Enniscorthy at the Co. Wexford Garden & Flower Club..   Both groups welcome non-members – at a small charge.

In general and for the sake of fairness and balance we should consider this perfectionism in gardens from another perspective. We must realise that all gardens are  the construct of the gardener and are always a departure from or, at least, a control of nature. Perhaps, those who have developed gardens of perpetual perfection as discussed above have simply moved further than most along the continuum between what nature dictates and what the gardener can control. We can admire them for the lengths they have gone to in achieving such perfection though it might be a case of being happy to admire such gardens rather than imitating them. It is a question of how much control is too much.

Paddy Tobin

Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today,  Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.

The Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society meets at the Lavanagh Centre, Ballintemple, Cork on the fourth Thursday of the month.

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‘Barnes’ is the first!

The first snowdrop of the year is always awaited with excitement and anticipation. Yes, I have already had snowdrops in flower in the glasshouse, as early  this year as the end of September, but those in the garden are the ones most valued and appreciated for they show the wonder of the snowdrop – a little flower which can deft the weather and the season and thrive at what is a most inclement time of the years for flowers and for gardeners.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (14)
The first of the snowdrops to flower in the open garden.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (13)

Galanthus elwesii generally has two green marks on each of the three inner segments but there is group within the genus which has a single mark only which is why they are known as Galanthus elwesii  monostictus, literally one mark. There are several cultivars within this group and the one which does best in my garden is this one, called ‘Barnes’.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (12)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’
Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (6)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’

I have a special fondness for Galanthus elwesii monostictus as it was the first snowdrop I grew from seed and this at a time when the only snowdrops I had in the garden were the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and its double form Galanthus nivalis flore pleno. Those snowdrops grown from seed are still growing well in the garden nearly thirty years after being sown and the number of varieties of snowdrops in the garden has increased to, I imagine, about 250.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (2)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’

Yet, it is always the first to open which brings the special excitement. More will follow shortly as there are several groups showing their snouts above the ground and, perhaps, a dozen varieties will have opened before Christmas, all quite early as the main snowdrop season does not arrive until February. After that the later varieties will keep the show going until March so there are snowdrops in the garden over six months of the year. Is there a plant to match such a range of flowering times or which provides interest through the dark winter months? Not that I know of and it is one reason I like them so much.

Galanthus 'Faringdon Double' through leaf
Another snowdrop just appearing is Galanthus ‘Faringdon Double’ and I like the way one has pierced the leaf as it grew reflecting the French name given to snowdrop – Perce Niege.

Paddy Tobin

The Tree at the Top of the Field

The tree at the top of the field is in view from the window where I usually sit in our house. It has been part of the scenery for many years, a native oak clothed in ivy, standing proud in the otherwise tidily cut field boundary. I have photographed it many times over the years; it gives setting and interest to colourful winter sunsets and an interesting focal point to daylight shots.

Tree at the top of the field (2)

However, our recent Hurricane Ophelia toppled it, breaking the crown and leaving it lying nearby in the field. No doubt the ivy caught the wind and contributed to its demise for it was a healthy tree. It will probably lie where it is until spring as they field will not be in use until then when it will be ploughed in preparation for a cereal crop. I imagine the broken trunk will remain standing, at least a support for the ivy, and will resprout to form a crown again though hardly as shapely as the original.

Tree at the top of the field (24)

“When the oak tree is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze” Thomas Carlyle.

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Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

Just in time!

Hurricane and storm delayed our annual autumn visit to Mount Usher Garden in Co. Wicklow and we feared we had left it too late this year and that the recent violent winds would have left the trees stripped of their foliage and deny us the pleasure of the display of autumn colour we have come to love.

Mount Usher (10)

Spring at Mount Usher has the magic of fabulous drifts of spring bulbs – Scilla biflora, erythroniums, wood anemones, crocus and little pockets of snowdrops but fiery autumn colour reflected on the surface of the River Dartry which flows through the garden creates one of the most magical of pictures.

Fortune smiled on us; the gales had obviously spared the foliage and, although some trees had been brought down by the storms, there was a display to delight us.

Enjoy the photographs!

Paddy Tobin

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The Poet’s Apprentice!

These  past two years or so I have been apprenticed to a poet, Mark Roper, a word sorcerer so to speak – as you see he has had some effect on me! He has never attempted, perhaps realising it would be futile on his part, to impart any guidance to me on the writing of poetry; instead, we travelled together to various locations in search of our native orchids.

A common friend brought us together though this friend does not share our interest in walking bogs, sand dunes, marshes and hills as we seek these beautiful flowers and it is often just us two or in the company of a few other like-minded people that we pursue our hobby.

This has been a particularly good year for us, especially so as a fellow enthusiast, John Fogarty, from Co. Tipperary, brought us to locations previously unknown to us and which were abounding in treasures. Although we aren’t “tickers” – those who mark off and count each species seen in a season in an almost competitive manner – we do delight in seeing something new and delight equally when a friend reports on seeing a new species though we haven’t been so fortunate to be there ourselves.

It is a quiet pastime and we are both comfortable with quietness. Silence is regular and easy and we often wander off separately when on the ground searching for orchids with a call one to the other when something of interest is found.

Mark’s interests go well beyond orchids to all aspects of our natural world. He has a particular interest in bird watching though not at all restricted to that. He has written several books of poetry and two books of local Waterford interest, “The River Book”, about the River Suir and “The Backstrand Book” about an area in Tramore.

The Bee Orchid, a particular favourite and the  title of one of Mark’s poems – see below. 

Yesterday, Saturday 21st October, Mark launched his latest book of poetry, “Bindweed” to a large, enthusiastic and supportive audience at the Imagine Festival in Waterford. While he read several of the poems he didn’t read “Bee Orchids” which I had hoped he would but I will type it below for you. (It was Mark who first showed me the Bee Orchids on the sand dunes in Tramore – the setting for the poem)

You can read more about Mark and his work at: https://markroperpoet.wordpress.com/ and order a copy of his book at www.dedaluspress.com

Bee Orchids

 

He’d been rowed

across the Rinnashark

to see them one last time

before he died

 

The photo of his hand

cupped round a flower,

a letting go

and a leaving be.

 

So hard to find them

in the kidney vetch,

in the marram grass

and the dead marram grass.

 

I found three, one inside,

two outside the dune.

On that dark evening

I took them as a sign.

 

Making

the strange meanings

you make

when you’re alone.

 

But the orchids –

their motley faces,

bright pink tricorn,

snaily horns.

 

So grave and so silly.

They stared me down.

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To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

Paddy Tobin

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Orchid Hunter

This is book bursting at the binding with enthusiasm and an almost obsessive love of our native orchids. Leif Bersweden, a precocious botanist who fell in love with native wildflowers as a child, was unsuccessful in his initial application for a place at Oxford University and decided to use his gap year to track down and photograph all the native orchids of Great Britain and Ireland in one year (with one forgivable exception, The Ghost Orchid, as it is so very rare) a feat which had not been completed previously.

THE ORCHID HUNTER

The first ticked off his list was the Early Purple Orchid and his last Autumn Lady’s Tresses which, by coincidence, were my own first and last of this past season though I must confess that I didn’t come across the other fifty in between.  Our native orchids are extraordinarily interesting and it is not uncommon for those who take an interest in them to find they are willing to go to some extremes to view one not found previously. With a group of friends I made several such journeys during this past season and one suggested we ought to dub our group the Fellowship Of Orchid Lovers with the appropriate abbreviation of F.O.O.Ls. Leif Bersweden would have been a very welcome member!

Orchis mascula Early Purple Orchid (10)
Orchis mascula, The Early Purple Orchid – the first of his list found by Leif Bersweden

 

His year was certainly a madcap adventure and how wonderful that we have eighteen year olds who have the interest and enthusiasm to do such things. His travels, in a none too reliable car, ranged from the south of England, to Wales and to the north of Scotland, to the Island of Jersey and to Ireland. He has since completed his degree in botany and, with such enthusiasm, I can only imagine and hope he has every success.

As he works his way though his list of orchids and his accounts of finding them we are treated to general historic notes on each species, when it was first recorded, what previous authors and authorities have said about each, the origins of the name and vernacular names applied along with the excitement of the search and the eventual find. We are treated regularly to idyllic bucolic descriptions of the various locations in which he found himself and these read a little a little sweet at times – “Chaffinches were trilling from the hedges and sheep bleated in the fields down in the valley. A barge chugged silently past on the river below cutting a wide “V” shape into the otherwise glass-like water.”

Spiranthes spiralis Autumn Lady's Tresses (40)
Spiranthes spiralis, Autumn Lady’s Tresses – the final orchid of the search. 

The subtitle to the book is “A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness” might first be assumed to refer to the happiness he would achieve in locating all the orchids but there is a regular parallel narrative through the book where the author expresses his thoughts on personal matters. As a child with an interest in wildflowers he felt apart from his peers and, as a teenager, regrets that his hobby is so often one engaged in alone. He wishes for a friend who might share his interest and had the company of a lady for part of his summer pursuit but, as the saying goes, he blew it. Most will choose this book for what it has to say on orchids – I cannot imagine too many are overly concerned about the author’s happiness though, of course, we would wish him well – and this thread in the book is incongruous. There are also some comments on those who helped and advised him which might kindly be described as juvenile humour where the editor’s red pencil might have been justifiably applied.

This book will be of little use to anybody wishing to learn more about our native orchids; it will certainly not become a book of reference but it will be a light read for those already interested. Indeed, I found the many quotations and references to earlier books especially interesting and enjoyable. Though he mentions taking a very large number of photographs in the course of his adventure, very few are used in the book – one for each species recorded and these gathered as one group in the centre of the book. There is a scattering of line drawing through the book, some illustrating orchids and others various views and vignettes mentioned in the text.

THE ORCHID HUNTER

The author has since completed his degree in botany and considering orchids as a topic for his PhD. It is heartening to see young people taking up botany and Leif Bersweden, with his enthusiasm and single-mindedness, is likely to make significant contributions to the depths of our knowledge in years to come. I wish him the best.

[The Orchid Hunter, A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness by Leif Bersweden, Short Books, London, 2017, Hardback, 352 pages, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1-78072-334-1]

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

 

 

On the Edge!

The seasons are moving; summer is past; autumn is in and all is change! Some plants continue in fine form and are treasured for performing so late in the year while others are well past their best and have already made their way to the compost bin.

Though near  the end of their season and soon to be lifted and stored for the winter, dahlias continue to give colour in the garden. 

Three which continue to perform brilliantly

One regularly reads advice to allow herbaceous perennials to stand overwinter, to enjoy their winter hues and skeletons and to provide food and habitats for wildlife. I prefer to clear up in autumn as I dislike untidiness in the garden and also because we have a large collection of snowdrops with cultivars flowering in the garden from November to March.

Clearing up at this time of year is a good opportunity to tackle those changes one has thought of and planned during the summer. Left on the long finger they are likely to be forgotten until it is too late and next season is in full swing.

One bed in the garden was earmarked for work this autumn. Three beautiful cultivars of Campanula latiloba – ‘Hidcote Amethyst’, ‘Chattle Charmer’ and ‘Beauty of Exmouth’ – had become rampageous and had swamped a planting of nerines which, as a result of being shaded out and lacking their summer baking, had not flowered for several years. It was decision time: the campanulas and the nerines could not live together and one had to go. It wasn’t a difficult decision. The campanulas, though very pretty and colourful in summer, were ever badly behaved. They spread too quickly, were awkward to support and needed constant dead-heading to prolong flowering – they had become a nuisance whereas nerines require little attention. Once planted correctly, in a sunny and dry position with their snouts above ground, they flower reliably year after year and congestion seems only to meet with better performance.

Nerine x bowdenii Phlox variegated
Nerine x bowdenii – planted here many years ago and thriving in this dry and sunny position. The variegated phlox in the background is a little striking but seems to go well with the nerines!

The necessity of dealing with the campanula/nerine conflict was the opportunity to do a general reorganisation of that particular bed. Plants which had been merely tolerated for several years were finally dispatched and congested plants lifted and split. As there had been some over vigorous plants in the bed and we feared they might sprout again in spring those plants which we wished to retain have been lifted and potted up and will be held until late spring/early summer before being replanted. This will allow time for the offending plants to reappear and removed if any have escaped our attention on this occasion.

The scene of our work this week.

With the plants removed it was an ideal time to add compost to the bed. The soil level had dropped a little while nerines and bearded iris prefer the best of drainage in a good sunny position.

Compost heap
The source of all goodness! The compost heap being emptied – how quickly it empties!
Scissors
Perhaps this was the real edge. The compost heap regularly reveals lost tools and on this occasion it was this small scissors which came as a very kind gift with a twine holder. It’s cutting days are over.

Gardening is a repetition of these routine tasks; it is neither often exciting nor glamorous but it is pleasantly enjoyable and we will look forward to this bed next year and imagine it will have been improved hugely – optimism and high hopes!

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook