The Extra Room – A Review!

Armchair gardening is hugely popular. We have regular garden shows, garden festivals, books, newspapers, magazines, television programmes and eternal reruns on YouTube. There certainly is no lack of inspiration for the novices who wishes to create their own green paradise, their own room outside, their own Extra Room and who better to guide them along the way only Diarmuid Gavin.

Diarmuid Gavin is one of the better known of Irish garden designers with many years of television programmes, books and fabulously entertaining, enjoyable and imaginative show and home gardens behind him. Who better to show the way!

The book title, “The Extra Room” echoes the phrase coined by John Brookes, one of Britain’s most influential garden designers. It was he who brought us the term “room outside” and Diarmuid Gavin’s approach here is of the same practical nature, to develop the area outside our houses so that it will become both a practical and aesthetic addition to the home.


His aim in this book is for the reader “My aim is for you to take note of what you have, consider what you’d love and show you the steps towards achieving the Eden of your dream. The most important thing is relax, take hour time and enjoy. Gardens are ultimately about cultivation ‘- growing something. The basics are easy and the rewards can be everlasting” He begins by cautioning that the level of media coverage given to gardening may lead to unrealistic expectations and emphasises that “gardening is something you learn slowly and by taking a few wrong turns.” He lists some of his personal favourite gardens, his own inspiration, and outlines various styles which may both influence and inspire the new gardener – cottage garden, contemporary etc but turns quickly to the practical aspects one must deal with when beginning with their garden – storage, play area, eating area etc, another room to the house.

Subsequent chapters bring the reader through the steps in making a plan, choosing material, garden buildings and the selection of plants – and though it is a limited selection which is presented in the book it is a choice selection and each plant deserves its place in his listing and would grace any garden. Another chapter covers lighting, water, pots, the installation of a fire pit and similar interesting “additions” while it is very interesting to read his own account of several gardens of his own design.

Diarmuid has always made gardening entertaining and fun and this enthusiasm and joy in what he does also runs through this very practical book. Though our own garden is now about thirty years old I found much of interest in this book and will be passing it on to my son who is presently starting his own garden.

[The Extra Room, Diarmuid Gavin, Gill, Dublin, 2016, Hardback, 198 pages, ISBN: 978 07171 7254 2, €22.99]

Paddy Tobin

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

The Breathing Burren – A Review

The Breathing Burren by Gordon D’Arcy

It is wonderful to pick up a book and have the immediate reaction “Oh, this is beautiful” – comfortable in the hand, attractive in size, print and illustration – and there is an immediate longing to read. This is how it was when Gordon D’Arcy’s “The Breathing Burren” arrived from The Collins Press recently and my subsequent slow and savouring read proved that my first impressions were not only accurate but even understated. The author admits to an infatuation with The Burren and I certainly confess to a deep awe in the area so the book had certainly come to a receptive reader.


Gordon D’Arcy is Belfast born and came to explore The Burren, fell in love with the place and moved there and has been resident for over thirty years. His 1999 The Natural History of The Burren has been an inspiration to many who have come to love this unique environment in Co. Clare. The Burren is a landscape of limestone karst, its clints and grykes housing a summer display of flowers which attract both plant enthusiasts and tourists in great numbers.

The author describes this volume as a “salutation” to The Burren and presents a marvellous miscellany of experiences, recorded in his diaries, from many years of roaming the area so we are presented with a distillation of years of enjoyment and experience. As such, it is a book of highlight, of great experiences and wonderful occasions, a compendium of personal experiences which may not be unique but are certainly memorable – the first flowering of gentian in the spring, the incredible encounters with stoats and otters, the rare migrant seabirds, the dawn chorus of Burren birds and broadened and deepened by his recollections of other enthusiasts with whom he had spent time on The Burren. There are accounts of farming, caving and archaeology, all engaging and informative and all very pleasantly illustrated by the author’s watercolour paintings which are quiet and unobtrusive but a perfect complement to the text.

Beyond the recollection of happy events and encounters there is a final substantial section, “Musings” where the author goes far beyond the simple recollection of happy days poses serious questions which he has considered himself and urges us, the readers, and everybody involved with The Burren – those living there, those responsible for decisions which will affect the area – to think about what the area, its value, its use, its worth, its contribution to our culture and how we might care for it for the future.

It is clear that the author is passionately in love with this wonderful area of our country and this love extends far beyond simply enjoying it – which is about the extent of my interaction with the area – to feeling a responsibility and duty of care for it. When you read this book you will understand why he feels this way and you will find yourself agreeing with him very easily.

This is an outstanding book which goes beyond the usual approach of simple descriptions of the natural phenomena of The Burren and is likely to inspire an even greater appreciation for the this treasure which is part of our landscape.

[The Breathing Burren, Gordon D’Arcy, The Collins Press, Cork, 2016, Hardback, 304 pages, ISBN: 9781848892682, €24.99 – €17.49 special offer on The Collins Press website at the moment:]

Paddy Tobin

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

Snowdrop – far more than a simple flower!

As with its subject matter, this book is a joy, a jewel, a treasure and an interesting, and different, addition to our reading material on snowdrops. Few could deny the appeal of snowdrops in the garden, those apparently dainty flowers which defy our harsh winters and bring interest over the six months of October to March. There has been a strong resurgence of interest in these flowers over recent years but over the centuries they have appealed not only to avid gardeners but also to artists, authors and musicians among others and this book delves into this broader appeal. Even the early chapter which describes the various species of galanthus concentrates as much on the social, historic and geographic connections as much as on the purely botanic. It adds an interesting and very enjoyable richness to the treatment of the marvellous genus of plants.

Of Irish interest is that the first recorded use of the name “snowdrop” was in 1664 by the Irish chemist and physicist, Robert Boyle in a paper entitled, “Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour”.  Another early name was “schneetropfen” as the closed snowdrop flower resembled the greatly valued pearl earrings of the time – as seen in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”(1665). The French admired its ability to pierce the snow calling the flower “Perce Niege” while the Spanish referred to them as Spring Bells, “Campanilla de Invierno”. These latter do seem somewhat more accurate and appropriate than John Gerard’s “timely flowring bulbus violet”.

snowdrops       snowdrops      snowdrops

We hear the word “galanthophile” used nowadays almost as a pejorative term and though it was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012 it was in fact first used by E. A. Bowles (1865- 1954) early in the last century. The caustic pen of Christopher Lloyd wrote that he grew around twenty snowdrop varieties in his garden but that “a genuine nutter might have upwards of 300 and still be far from sated” while Reginald Farrer, famed plant-hunter, commented “the snowdrop gives me chilblains only to look at it.”  Yes, indeed, they can be an addictive interest and while this book will certainly appeal to the “nutters” it will also appeal to those of more modest interest as the author threads her way through the wide and various ways in which snowdrops have been loved, used, appreciated and featured over the centuries. It is a wonderfully interesting journey, full of insight, unimagined connections, and delightful treasures.

Gail Harland’s previous books, The Tomato Book (2009), Designing and Creating a Cottage Garden (2011) and The Weeder’s Digest (2012), were each well-researched, readable and enjoyable and she has continued with another excellent volume. You will enjoy Snowdrop whether you are a nutter or not!

[Snowdrop, Gail Harland, Reaktion Books,London, 2016, Harback, 216 pages,£16, ISBN: 978-1-78023-492-2]

Paddy Tobin

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

The Making of Place

The Overview!

The extraordinary range of approaches and styles one sees in gardens throughout the world, in different countries and different cultures can be quite bewildering. It is fortunate to have one such as John Dixon Hunt, who seems to have a comprehensive knowledge and grasp of all matters of garden design, to organise such divergent and wide-ranging approaches and present them to us in a way that is easily comprehended. I cannot say that I didn’t find this book challenging – I am no more than an amateur domestic gardener – but I also found it informative, insightful and, very importantly I believe, enjoyable. To be educated without enjoyment would be a dreadful trial and educated I was while certainly enjoying the process.


The traditions of garden design stretch back over the centuries and while many of today’s gardens play homage to this tradition, garden designers of today also seek to be innovative, fresh, spontaneous and reactive to the differing situations with which they are presented as they seek, in the words of the author, to make a place for respite in nature. The author discusses approximately one hundred gardens ranging from large to small, public to private, botanical gardens, campuses academic and industrial, parks large and small, memorial and sculptural gardens, festival and reinvented gardens, even gardens still only on paper, a wide range from around the world – the United States, Australia, China, Germany, United Kingdom and France. Each is discussed and each is assessed for its contribution, importance and influence in landscape design and it is particularly heart-warming that the author can be unhesitatingly honest and critical where such is demanded.

John Dixon Hunt’s early academic career was in teaching English literature. He wrote extensively in this area before pursuing an even more successful and highly regarded academic career in the study of gardens and landscapes. He is presently Emeritus Professor of the History and Theory of Landscape at the University of Pennsylvania, edits the journal Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscape and is the author of many books. Given that he normally writes for an academic readership or those already familiar with gardening philosophy, theory and history it comes as a pleasant surprise that this book is written to be easily accessible to all who are interested in gardening, amateur and domestic as well as academic and professional.

The author’s knowledge seems to be encyclopaedic and his grasp of the subject comprehensive yet he presents a wealth of information and comment in a manner which is a pleasure to read and which gives the reader an overview of the current landscape and gardening scene – quite an achievement and a joy to read.

[The Making of Place: Modern and Contemporary Gardens, John Dixon Hunt, Reaktion Books, London, 2015, Hardback, 304 pages, £25, ISBN: 978-1-78023-520-2]

Paddy Tobin

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




Ice-cream first, then Weeds and Good Bits and Bad Bits – Ness Botanic Gardens!

As we approached the entrance to Ness Botanic Gardens information notices told us that we could enjoy two locally made varieties of ice-cream inside. I suppose we could have been told of worse things but I had come to see plants and a good garden and ice-cream was not of interest, especially as it was early in the morning. So early, that we had arrived a little before the garden’s opening time and, after browsing the shop for several minutes, we went to the plant sales area  which was open, though not for sales. It only added to our bad first impressions as the plants had, for the most part, dried out and the paving slabs of the footpaths were infested with weeds.

At times I can be quite negative in my view of gardens I visit. I become very annoyed with gardens where there a poor standard of maintenance, where weeds are widespread and where there is a general air of neglect. I don’t feel it unreasonable to visit a garden such as Ness Botanic Gardens and expect high standards of gardening, planting and maintenance and find it a huge disappointment when this is not what I experience.

There were many beautiful vistas in the Ness Botanic Gardens but also many areas which disappointed me. I’ll continue with photographs and captions.

Three very attractive vistas which are met very early in one’s walk around the gardens.

Immediately after the enjoyable views above we stopped at this bed of azaleas which was overrun with weeds. 

dsc_0027There were large areas of wildflower meadow which were pleasant, quiet and gave good views to the surrounding countryside. 


When there is widespread concern over the demise of our pollinating insects it is good to see an installation which provides nesting sites for bees. The one pictured above is for solitary bees – I had to wonder if solitary bees would feel at home in this high rise apartment block. Perhaps, they are not quite as demanding of their solitude as I am.  


This pond did not look well – of course, conditions may get ahead of the gardeners but seeing three ponds in this condition was off putting.  

This did not have the appearance of being left on the day we visited but seemed to have been there for some time.

The Rock Garden area is very attractive with mature specimens and comfortable walking pathways. The presence of Mare’s Tail throughout the area was a disappointment though. 

Is it unreasonable of me, when I spend £7.50 on admission, to expect a well-kept garden?

I realise that this is somewhat of a bearbug with me, this disappointment with gardens which charge admission yet do not maintain reasonable standards,  and that I am inclined to rant on about it but that’s how it is with me. Grumpy old man? Maybe! LOL!

Paddy Tobin

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

Orchids – A New Enthusiasm!

Although widespread, orchids are not commonplace and to look at them growing in the wild is one of the great pleasures of the plant world. The Burren in Co. Clare, Bull Island in Dublin and The Raven in Wexford are three easily accessible locations where one may find orchids with ease and there are many other lesser-known spots throughout the country where they can be enjoyed.

A group of Common Spotted Orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsii near Cahir, Co. Tipperary
Pyramidal Orchids, Anacamptis pyramidalis, which were growing company of the Common Spotted Orchids above.

A friend brought me to a population of the Bee Orchid on the sand dunes in Tramore earlier this summer and also to a location in the Comeragh Mountains where Marsh Orchids grew in profusion. Without him I would not have known of these locations and it was a great thrill to see them, a true delight. On a more domestic front, good chance and kind friends expanded the selection of orchids we have growing in the garden and it is wonderful to be able to look at the amazing structures of the flowers and intricate detail of the colours and patterns.

The fabulously beautiful and interesting Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera, photographed on the sand dunes at Tramore, Co. Waterford 


So, while still very much a novice, I have become enthralled by orchids, our natives and those hardy enough to be grown in the open garden. I must confess that I find many of the tropical orchids just a little too gaudy for my tastes but one is never too old to develop a new interest but I hope my days will pass without my feeling any such inclination.

On several of my outings this year I was very fortunate to be in the company of a friend who was familiar with the populations of the sites we visited so he was good enough to point out the distinguishing features of each orchid we encountered. I have found this a very good way to begin to learn about new plants as it gives you a base number which you can confidently identify and when you next encounter an orchid your immediate question is whether it is one you already know or a new discovery for you. In this way you widen your selection gradually and confidence grows.

Three orchids from the Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford. 

My reference book has been Ireland’s Wild Orchids – A Field Guide by Brendan Sayers and Susan Sex which lists and describes, I think, thirty five orchids we might find here in Ireland. This suits me perfectly as it is not too large a number and does not present too wide a selection to the beginner when attempting to identify the latest find. Of course, orchids do not always oblige by remaining true to form and some are inclined to interbreed and present the newcomer with a confusion of features but a new interest and a new enthusiasm propels one onwards.


Bloomsbury have recently published a new Pocket Guide to the Orchids of Britain and Ireland written by Simon Harrap, a man experienced in such guides as he has previously written Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guide (2005 and 2009), Harrap’s Wild Flowers (2013), the RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds (2007 and 2012) and Where to Watch Birds in Britain and Ireland (2003 and 2010) so I reckoned his new book was a good bet to extend my study of native orchids and I was not wrong.

This guide describes the fifty two species found in Ireland and Britain with excellent notes and guidelines to help with identification, along with notes on habitat, biology and conservation. In fact, the text is of such a standard that it raises this book well beyond that of being purely a field guide that one might use simply for identification. The descriptions are detailed and extensive and the over two hundred photographs illustrating the orchids are of an excellent standard though I have enjoyed the detail of the illustrations produced by Susan Sex in Ireland’s Wild Orchids and would have welcomed some photographs which gave more detail – a very minor quibble given the excellence of the photographs and the quality of the text.

This book will certainly satisfy my present interest in our native orchids and will, I believe, serve me well for many years to come. The flowering season is coming to an end but, with winter reading, I will be well prepared for next year!

[A Pocket Guide to the Orchids of Britain and Ireland, Simon Harrap, Bloomsbury Natural History, 2016, Paperback, 255 pages, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1-4729-2485-8]

Paddy Tobin

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



Coming to Terms with Your Plants!

Amicia zygomeris is an uncommon and rather unusual looking plant. The leaves are of a peculiar shape, not unlike those of the tulip tree where what would normally be a pointed end of the leaf is blunt and double-lobed with an almost cut-off appearance leading to the common name of yolk-leaved Amicia and it is this foliage which is most attractive in the plant. On closer approach one sees the purple-veined stipules – which I would have called bracts but now know better – and later in the season yellow pea-like flowers emerge. All in all it is an odd thing, somewhat peculiar and out of the ordinary. Even the name is peculiar. Although “Amicia” is used as a girl’s name and generally explained as “One most loved” this plant is named in honour of John Baptiste Amici, an Italian scientist of the 19th century while the specific name derives from the botanical term “zygomorphic”,  as all parts of the plant display bilateral symmetry.

Amicia zygomeris – a strange plant with an equally strange name

A Botanist’s Vocabulary by Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell lists and illustrates 1,300 botanical terms and, while I would not suggest a cover to cover reading, even a quick browse will throw up some nuggets of interest.


As we enter autumn and winter those who delight in the winter colour of their beech hedges should realise that it is because the foliage is “marcesent” – the withered leaves remain attached. Those stickyback seedheads we threw at our friends woolly jumpers as children displayed “epizoochory”, seed dispersal via transportation on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals). How exactly they also managed to get into our minds and have us throw the seedpods at each other is still beyond me but I certainly recall the fun we had. These seeds could also have been described as “sticktights” – which makes sense!

Some plant parts grow upwards and others downwards: those stems that sprout from the roots of a perennial plant, such as a tree, that has been cut down are called “ratoons” while some bulbs have the ability to reposition themselves at a depth in the soil which is most beneficial to them sending a shoot down from the bulb to develop a new bulb where required and these are called “sinkers” or “droppers”.

During last summer I visited a population of our native Bee Orchid where “sexual deception” was the order of the day – parts of the flower of these orchids mimic a female insect, in this case a bee, tricking the male insect into attempting to mate with it – “pseudocopulation” – which leads to pollination. Clever! Clever as it might be the “perfect” flower is described as one that has functioning female and male reproductive parts!

Ophrys apifera, the Bee Orchid, which uses “sexual deception” for pollination

It is that type of book, in essence a list, a dictionary which one might dip into occasionally as needs be and also come across an interesting term to brighten your day.

Susan K. Pell is the Science and Public Programs Manager at the United States Botanic Garden and, formerly, Director of Science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Bobbi Angell works at the New York Botanical Garden as an illustrator for botanists there.

[A Botanist’s Vocabulary, Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 226 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-563-2]

Paddy Tobin

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