New Garden Plants from the Netherlands – with Ronald Houtman

New Garden Plants from the Netherlands, Ronald Houtman, National Botanic Gardens March 9th 2018


We are all used to the fact that Dutch nurseries for years have supplied massive amounts of plants to satisfy our insatiable appetite – and especially for new plants. Based in Boskoop, the centre of the nursery trade, Ronald Houtman as Secretary for the Royal Boskoop Horticultural Society and Editor in Chief of the annual publication Dendroflora, and a regular reviewer of catalogues, is a perfect person to talk about new plants – some already in trade, others still coming along. Why though do we need new plants? Many reasons of course, new colours, better form, disease resistance, longer flowering times, from the grower’s point of view they often sell better (ooohhh………we haven’t got that one), and, again for the grower – maybe quicker to bulk up so a little more profit – and remember their costs and profits are based on cents per pot.

Ronald Houtman - from Stephen Butler

New cultivars can arise from chance seedlings, or a natural ‘sport’ or mutation – the sort of change that can give us variegation, or purple leaves, or a slightly different flower form for instance. Some growers though have carefully designed breeding programmes, often with a desired end product, ruthlessly culling the duds, and often spanning years. Ronald showed the flowery route from Calycanthus chinensis, Chinese Sweetshrub, first flowered out of China in the early 1980s, which now has several much more colourful cultivars including Calycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’ and ‘Aphrodite’. The naming though is tricky…………………..some say it should be Sinocalycanthus chinensis, and the other parent is the Carolina Allspice Calycanthus floridus, so the hybrid names could be Sinocalycalycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’ etc. The hybrids are named for J.C. Raulston from the North Carolina University Arborteum, who did much of the breeding work.


Another example was Echinacea, with a brief history of the past 40 years of breeding. Crossing different species has greatly increased the range of not just colour, but form too, with doubles and novel flower forms available now. More examples followed. There will always be more of course. Remember the lavish acclaim that met the wonderful Geranium ‘Roxanne’? Well there is apparently a new one Geranium ‘Havana Blues’ that is an improvement!

So how long before a new cultivar is available?? That depends on what it is. A tree may take 10/15 years to show it’s form – wide growth, fastigiate, or in between – and flower potential or autumn colour, and then it will take another 10 years to propagate and grow on for sale. Shrubs being smaller may take only 5/10 years. Herbaceous are the quickest, maybe flowering in first year from seed, then through maybe micropropagation quickly into thousands, so say 3/5 years.

New plants come from many sources of course, several Irish nurseries have named cultivars too, to mention a few, Mt Venus, Tullys, and Ravensberg (via garden centres), support your local nursery!


An excellent talk, well presented, and delivered with an ease that spoke well of Ronand’s knowledge.


Stephen Butler for Leinster Committee.


A New Blog!

This blog was set up to raise the profile of the Irish Garden Plant Society and to offer members a medium to write on gardening matters.

Over the past years I have become the dominant contributor and have found that some of the material was, perhaps, more personal than societal –  which lead to criticism of the society on a few occasions, very few to be honest but more than I would wish.

I intend to continue with the Irish Garden Plant Society blog but have also set up my own personal blog – gardening matters again, in the main, and I would be delighted if you would come along and follow me there:

Narcissus 'Tete-a-Tete'



Winter Gardens

The winter garden is an opportunity for imagination, surprise and great beauty and Cedric Pollet’s book, Winter Gardens – Reinventing the Season,  will certainly open your eyes to the possibilities, inspire you and move you to no longer think of winter as the closed season but as another vibrant time in the garden.











In the early 19th century the “winter garden” referred to the amazing glass palaces in towns such as Bath, Brighton and Harrogate where people could gather in winter to amuse themselves, dance and listen to music. By the early 20th century these had all but disappeared as they were so expensive to maintain. Gertrude Jekyll’s “Planting for Winter Colour” was published in 1908 but interest in winter gardens only became more widespread some years later. Stanley Whitehead published his “The Winter Garden” in 1948 and Graham Stuart Thomas his “Colour in the Winter Garden” in 1957. In 1951 John Gilmour, Director of the Cambridge University Botanical Garden, devoted an area specifically to a winter garden. Adrian Bloom developed his winter garden, mainly of miniature conifers and heathers, at Foggy Bottom in 1962. Peter Orriss, Director of Gardens at the University of Cambridge developed and expanded on the concept of the winter garden and broadened the range of plants used in such schemes. Other gardens followed suit and winter gardens were developed at Wakehurst Place, Rosemoor, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Anglesey Abbey among others. The trend also grew on the continent with Princess Greta Sturdza at Vasterival in the vanguard.

Winter Gardens (20)

The winter garden is often very simple and effective where the use of a limited range of plants seems to work best. Plants with interesting and attractive winter bark are most valued and it can come as no surprise that birch, maple and dogwood are dominant. Winter flowering plants and those which carry berries in winter are also greatly valued. The introduction of a wide range of plants by the plant hunters who went to China and the Far East in the early 20th century was of enormous benefit and provided excellent stock for the developing winter gardens.

Cedric Pollet, whose love of the winter garden has been shown in his previous book, “Bark, An Intimate Look at the Worlds Trees”, has always been fascinated by this form of gardening. He is also an excellent photographer and allows his photographs to carry this book – “an image is often much more effective than long descriptions” – and so this is a book where photographs dominate though it must be acknowledged that the text, though short, is well written, effective and a perfect companion to the illustrations.


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A selection from the photographs in the book. 

There are three main sections in the book: “Four Favourites” gives extended reports on the gardens of L’Etang de Launay, Jardin de Bois Marquis, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Bressingham Gardens. “Sources of Inspiration” gives a brief insight into sixteen other gardens while “The Plant Palette” lists plants suitable for the winter garden. All in all this is a visually very appealing book with a pleasant text to link the illustrations tastefully and effectively.

[Winter Gardens – Reinventing the Season, Cedric Pollet, Frances Lincoln, London, 2017, Hardback, £30, ISBN: 978-0-7112-3915-9]

Paddy Tobin


Gardens of the High Line

For many years I walked and enjoyed the wildness of a deserted railway line close to my home. The interaction between the industrial hard landscape and the gradual but persistent encroachment of nature is always fascinating and it was such a scene in New York which inspired the development of the High Line, one of the most interesting and challenging of modern gardens. The team that designed the High Line was led by the landscape architectural firm James Corner Field Operations who invited the architectural firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro to collaborate in design and Piet Oudolf to bring the project to life with his naturalistic plantings. This book tells the story of this project to date for it is a story which has not finished, as no garden is ever finished but continues to develop and change over time.

High Line (5)

The railway line was built in 1931–’34 and was quite literally a life line for the city and now in its new reinvention might be considered such again. It was an all freight line bringing milk, butter, eggs, meat and cheese from upstate farms into the city until it closed in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nature crept in; wild plants established themselves, annuals and herbaceous perennials, shrubs and even trees and, of course, the fauna which such plants support. The designed garden of the High Line aimed to be in line with how nature was acting though not a natural garden but a naturalistic one. It was designed for change, as change is part of nature, a garden for ecological succession so that while around 400 different plants were introduced there is “a sense of letting wildness come through”, of letting it happen yet managing this change. It was designed and planted with the intention of being perpetually unfinished, allowing growth and change over time. The structure was preserved, the railway line remains intact through lifted and bedded again, and is an essential part of the whole design and experience. It is a very interesting experiment, most certainly a garden, yet quite different and without a doubt a fabulous addition to the city of New York and a pleasure to its citizens.

High Line (3)

As it is a railway line the High Line is narrow in comparison to its length but it is comfortably wide enough to accommodate the track, walkways, seating areas and planting. It was designed as a “choreographed experience” – a linear garden best experienced by beginning at the Gansevoort Street Stairs, the southern end, and walking its 1.45 miles (2.33Km) length. The Ganesvoort Wood  is dominated by Grey Betula populifolia interplanted with Cercis, Cornus, Amelanchier and Viburnum, all able for the dry conditions of the High Line. The move to the Washington Grassland, as with all such transitions along the line, is not marked by any architectural structure but rather with plant architecture – there is sufficient architecture in the High Line itself and in the surrounding city buildings that further additions would have lead to clutter and distraction from the purely garden or plant content. The Hudson River Lookout is unusual in that this section of line is higher than the rest and gives wonderful views to the river and is filled with plants which are typical of the north eastern United States – sumach and tall perennials. There is also a Sundeck and Water Garden on this raised section with the cleverest of water features – no more than the most shallow sheet of water running over the surface of the walkway. It is a place for people to sit, chat and relax.

High Line (1)

The Northern Spur was bricked off when the line was closed and has been left in this state. The soil here is especially shallow and poor and planting here is determined by “survival of the fittest” – economically the cheapest option and ecologically the most sustainable. 10th Avenue Square includes an open air theatre among the planting while The Chelsea Grasslands feature the most common plant of the High Line – grasses, interplanted with suitable herbaceous perennials. There is a move back to woodland planting in the Chelsea Thicket which leads to the 23rd Street Lawn and Seating, one of the most popular areas on the High Line. The visitor then meanders through The Meadow Walk with grasses, Achillea, nepeta, calamint, coreopsis which have proved to be one of the most successful plantings. The Flyover, a raised walkway, brings visitors to canopy level to enjoy redbuds, shadbush, sassafras, sumach and broad-leaved magnolias. The Wildflower Field leads to the final section of the garden, The Rail Yards, an area left nearest to nature in its planting and development.

High Line (2)

The High Line is a public park owned by the City of New York and maintained and operated by the Friends of the High Line in partnership with the New York Department of Parks and Recreation. The Friends raise the funds to operate the gardens and provide the personnel to maintain them. Gardening the High Line is challenging: traditional gardening is about maintaining the status quo while gardening the High Line is more dynamic in nature as it aims to maintain and accommodate change.

High Line (1)

The gardens of The High Line are already an outstanding success and it will be interesting to see how they develop in coming years. In the meantime this book will give you an wonderful insight into the history, development, philosophy and beauty of The High Line. It is well written and the photographs are more than excellent, indeed they dominate the book and prove the old adage of the picture and the thousand words perfectly.

[Gardens of the High Line – Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes, Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, Timber Press, Oregon, 2017, Softback, 320 pages, $40, ISBN: 13:978-1-60469-699-8]

Paddy Tobin



Right Plant, Right Place!

The Beth Chatto Garden in Elmstead Market, near Colchester, is one of the “must-see” gardens in the United Kingdom. I find it difficult to put the sensation I felt on my first visit to there. There was an immediate sense that this was right; that it all fitted together; that this was a garden comfortable in its surroundings where design, plants and landscape were a perfect fit. It was love at first sight for me and it is a reaction and assessment which remains true to this day.

Beth Chatt's Shade Garden
A spot in the woodland garden – Photograph from Steven Wooster

Beth Chatto exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and won gold medals for ten consecutive years before devoting her energies to the creating of her garden, plant nursery, lecturing and writing. The garden was in that corner of their land which was considered not good enough to farm, which left her with several problem areas which she tackled in turn and transformed into a garden of outstanding quality and beauty. Areas of bramble, woodland, parched gravel beds and swampy ditches were tackled, were areas for her experimentation and the inspiration for her books and her most frequently quoted garden saying – “the right plant for the right place”

 Of course, we now have the benefit of Beth Chatto’s years of experiment and experience which furnishes us with a whole range of planting suggestions and saves us the many frustrating mistakes which can be so discouraging. “Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest” first appeared as “Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden” in 2002 when she recounted the development of a new woodland garden following the devastation of the 1987 storm.


 We may not all have a woodland area in our garden but every garden will have an area of similar conditions – a bed to the north of the house, a wall or a hedge or in the shade of shrubs or trees – and it can be a challenge to find plants which do well in such conditions. This book gives wide range of planting suggestions, perhaps not comprehensive, which guide the gardener to make a success of the challenge. On reflection, one aspect of this book which struck me very strongly was the quality of the advice and suggestions given and that they were given with honest and forthright comments on how the plants had performed in her own garden, including difficulties and failures, renewed efforts and eventual successes.

Beth Chatto's Tiarella cordifolia
A woodland scene at the Beth Chatto garden featuring Tiarella cordifolia. Photograph from Steven Wooster.

This edition has a foreword from David Ward who is the Garden and Nursery Director at the gardens before moving through the year in a series of chapters:”Starting the Wood Garden, “Awakenings”, “Spring Enchantment”, “Early Summer Profusion”, “High Summer”, “Autumn Sunlit Openings” and finishing with “The Depths of Winter”. A substantial list of “Shade Tolerant Plants” concludes with comments, advice and remarks on performance in the garden. She sums up her seasonal journey through the shade garden stating clearly that the flowers will be in the early part of the year – bluebells, anemones, celandines, ramsons etc – and it is foliage which carries the show on through the year when “what has been unassuming takes on the leading role.”

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 Along with her often quoted “right plant, right place” there are several other gems through the book which give a succinct insight into Beth Chatto’s gardening philosophy and practice:

  “Put simply, my principles of gardening are to provide plants with the kind of conditions for which Nature has fitted them, to arrange them in planned groups, covering the ground with foliage for as long as possible and providing interest with bold plants” and, on similar lines, : “I try to follow nature, not copy her.”

 For us, readers and gardeners, I think that should we both follow and copy Beth Chatto’s advice in this book our gardens will be the more beautiful for it.

 A final comment: the photography throughout, by Steven Wooster, is excellent!

 Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year Round Interest, Pimpernel Press, 2017, Hardback 232 pages, £30.00, ISBN: 978-1-9102-5822-4

Paddy Tobin






The Spring Thaw!

It began in the first week of October, reached its peak in mid February and should be finished by mid March. This is the annual snowdrop season when interest in the garden is almost completely provided by this one species. Being one of the very few plants in flower it is the one to catch the eye and the attention during these otherwise bleak winter months.

Galanthus reginae olgae 'Tilebarn Jamie' (4)
Galanthus reginae olgae ‘Tilebarn Jamie’ flowers in the first week of October – in the glasshouse as this Greek species does not thrive in our open garden as our summers are not dry nor hot enough. In the glasshouse it can be well “baked” and will flower within a month of being watered in early September.

The reason they endear themselves to people are simple and obvious – they flower when little else is in flower and in spite of the worst weather conditions of our gardening year. However, at this end of their six month season, I do not regret their passing and look forward to the flush of new growth which comes with warmer days.

I wonder if the current interest in snowdrops echoes the era of tulip mania when bulbs sold for enormous sums of money. We see similarly exorbitant prices nowadays on snowdrop bulbs. Even the more common and cheaper varieties sell for around €10 per bulb while more newly introduced and novel varieties may cost several hundred euros per bulb. I imagine that it is a bubble sure to collapse at some stage – the prices are based on current interest rather than on any intrinsic value in the snowdrops themselves, a pure supply and demand situation: there are many people interested in snowdrops at the moment and the small supply of new and interesting varieties does not match the demand and this leads to high prices.

Galanthus plicatus ‘E. A. Bowles’ is a rather special snowdrop. It was found in the grounds of Myddleton House, the home of the renowned gardener and garden writer, E. A. Bowles and is unusual also for its shape – with all six segments of the same size. It is presently one in very high demand and, consequently, of a high price so when a friend sent it as a gift it was especially welcome and greatly appreciated.

Of course, in parallel to this snowdrop market traditional gardening practices continue apace where gardeners share their snowdrops with other enthusiasts and friends and snowdrops received in this manner have a value far beyond their monetary price.

A phenomenon I notice with people new to growing/collecting snowdrops is that they often have the most recently released snowdrops – which come at a high price – but might not grow the old reliable varieties which have proven themselves as good garden plants, grown for decades and longer, and still worth their place in the garden among the newcomers.

The thaw will continue for this year; it will soon be time to lift some bulbs to post to friends and to look forward to our post woman bringing packages of new snowdrops for our garden and then we will have six months to dream of how they will look when they flower in the next snowdrop season!

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A random selection of snowdrops which have proved themselves in the garden and which are not expensive!

Paddy Tobin

Snowdrops at Altamont Gardens

Few gardens survive the death of their creator. They will be changed by those who follow them, who will garden in their own way, with their own enthusiasms, likes and dislikes so that the vision of the creator gets gradually fudged and eventually lost. This is a criticism regularly levelled at National Trust properties in the United Kingdom; that the gardens are managed to a corporate formula and lack individuality. There is some truth in this criticism, almost an inevitable truth and while a visit to such a garden may well be very enjoyable there is a certain disappointment of not seeing it in the hands of the original gardener.

Altamont (2)

Altamont Gardens, outside Ballon in Co. Wexford, was the creation of the late Mrs. Corona North and is now in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW). It is almost twenty years since Mrs. North passed away (7th February, 1999) and it is to the great credit of those who garden Altamont now, particularly Head Gardener, Paul Cutler, who worked with Mrs. North, that Altamont is still in the spirit of its creator. Were she to walk into her garden today I believe her reaction would be one of delight that her garden was being kept so very well. She would recognise it as still quite clearly her garden – dare I say, now a little better maintained – and certainly still loved and tended and her special plants still growing well.

Altamont merits several visits each year and, while I love it in all seasons, I especially love to visit for the snowdrops in February. The annual Snowdrop Week is now a well established event in the Irish gardening calendar and one which is loved by the many visitors who attend and this is very easy to understand. The gardens are so well prepared for the event – they are immaculate, to be honest – so the visitor immediately feels appreciated and welcome and the gardeners give of their time so very generously to give guided tours of the snowdrop collection. (And it’s free! – where else would you have it!)


The annual Snowdrop Gala, organised by Robert Millar (Altamont Plant Sales – in the walled garden at Altamont) and Hestor Forde, blends perfectly with events in the garden so visitors can go to the plant sales area afterwards and take home some choice snowdrops for their own gardens. Robert has the best selection of snowdrops on sale in the country along with a selection of other choice plants – hellebores would be a feature at this time of the year.

This year’s Snowdrop Week runs from the 12th to the 18th of this month but I dropped in to the gardens recently to have a preview and a leisurely and quiet walk around the snowdrop collection. The gardeners had obviously been busy, very busy, for the gardens have been perfectly prepared for the event and the snowdrops are looking marvellous. My fancy was tickled by one snowdrop  – Galanthus ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ – for I was given a snowdrop under this name many years ago by a gardening friend but when I grew it on I found that it was a more common snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and I have never managed to locate ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ since. It was nice to see it in the flesh as I have only grown a label with that name on it for over twenty years.


Two snowdrops took my fancy in Robert’s plant sales: Galanthus ‘Hercule’ and Galanthus ‘Byfield Special’. Both are snowdrops with connections and this, as well as their intrinsic beauty, is what attracts me. The latter was found by Andy Byfield who gardens in Devon and with whom I have exchanged snowdrops and is what I would call a good garden snowdrop – it is attractive, big and grows well. The other is one grown and named by Mark Brown in France, another with whom I have exchanged snowdrops. The story of the name is that Mark brought plants to a snowdrop lunch in England and, because it is a big leafy plant, a friend exclaimed that it looked like a leek. The French word for a leek is “poireau” and so, with Agatha Christie’s hero in mind, the snowdrop was named ‘Hercule’.


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Take a walk around the garden!

Best wishes to the gardeners at Altamont and to all those visiting for the Snowdrop Week. I’m sure it will be the success it has been for many years now.

Paddy Tobin