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

Revitalising Vita at Sissinghurst

Troy Scott Smith, the head garden at Sissinghurst Castle, gave an interesting, informative and entertaining talk to the members of the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society recently. His appointment followed on the lengthy tenure of the famous Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger and later by Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta who had brought the gardens to the pinnacle of perfection, attracting approximately 600,000 visitors in their eight month open season.  He was faced with a challenge: to continue with the garden along the lines well established over the previous forty or so years or to make changes.

Sissinghurst (2)

Sissinghurst (1)

The gist of his talk was that he had researched the manner in which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had created the garden by reading her gardening notebooks, records and general writings and was now moving along to “Revitalise Vita”, to return the garden to a style which more reflected her ways and he postulated that in the intervening years since her death it had reached a level of perfectionism which did not reflect her attitudes to the gardens. Her’s was a more relaxed style and approach – she was an amateur gardener after all – while Pam and Sybille, consummately competent and professional horticulturalists, did things properly, by the book, correctly, brilliantly and perfectly.

Therein lies the problem of all gardens left in care after the death of the creator – how do we know how Vita and Harold would have developed the garden over the years? Of course, it is impossible to know and Troy Scott Smith, even with the best of research and the best of intentions, can only surmise and give it his best shot and in that one must wish him every success.

In the course of his talk he recalled some of the developments since he took charge. The area between the car parks and the entrance are more “gardened” to make them more attractive to visitors. “Meadows” (inverted commas because these instant creations are really not truly meadows and might better be termed “wildflowers plantings” or some such) have been planted near the entrance. A pond – it was noticed on an old map of the property – has been dug out again and the area surrounding it planted. At some time in the past a gateway in one of the walls of the Rose garden was bricked up. This has been reopened, a set of steps reinstated to bridge the drop in level to the area outside the wall where new garden borders and beds are being planted and views to the surrounding countryside opened.  The area outside the restaurant has been revamped with new furniture and plants while some of the old outhouses have been developed to host displays or exhibitions.

Can these developments be attributed or linked to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s thoughts for the garden? I am inclined to think that they probably cannot at least specifically though I believe that as a general development they certainly can. The gardens first opened to the public in the late 1930s when the admission charge was one shilling which lead to the visitors being referred to as the “Shillingses”. They later employed Pam and Sybille to maintain and develop the garden so it is reasonable to assume they intended to develop the garden as a commercial concern. The developments by Troy Scott Smith fit in perfectly with this background, with this commercial outlook. He is developing the garden in a manner which will both attract and facilitate visitors and it is of note when viewing the garden’s website that “Eating and Shopping” facilities feature more prominently and well before the garden. The garden may be the nominal attraction but the shop and the restaurant bring in most money.

Sissinghurst (10)

So, I believe Troy Scott Smith is “revitalising Vita” in a certain sense – the development of what is successful commercially in priority to the developments of the garden.  I am not surprised that he is making some changes to the garden and to the style of the gardening. Pam and Sybille followed by Sarah and Alexis had brought the garden to a perfection unlikely to be surpassed and to simply continue with this style would have committed Troy to a future simply as caretaker and deny him opportunities for creativity. Some of the changes made to date – “meadows” and pond – are very much in line with what is currently fashionable, a sense of conservation, a return to nature and a care for wildlife and I’m sure Vita would have been as influenced by and would have moved with gardening fashion as much as the next though this is hardly referencing any historic direction followed by Vita but a recognition that she would have moved with gardening trends. Troy Scott Smith is young, capable and ambitious and wishes to make his mark on one of the most renowned of English gardens. In this I wish him every success and hope the gardens develop as well as the car park, restaurant and shop.


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Paddy Tobin


Winter Whites

I have been busy – that’s an excuse and half a lie!

Truth is that I have been busy enjoying the snowdrops in the garden this past while and am using this as an excuse for not writing. I enjoy writing very much; find it very relaxing; a pleasant pastime. Then, at times, when I haven’t written for a while I have thoughts that I ought to write, that I am somehow being neglectful. It is often said that guilt is part and parcel of the Irish Catholic and, perhaps, this explains my inclination to think such thoughts, though that might be simply another excuse. However, it is amazing how quickly these thoughts dispel once I get my fingers tapping the keyboard so let me tell you about the snowdrops.

We seem to have a garden which suits snowdrops, a good rich loam which is slightly acidic to which I add generous amounts of leafmould when planting bulbs. We are growing snowdrops for over thirty years and began collecting different cultivars over twenty years ago. In our early years we simply grew the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and its double variety. That word, “common” is, unfortunately, generally used as a somewhat derogatory description but I am not inclined to view it in this light. This snowdrop is common simply because it is the best; it is the one best suited to our conditions; it is the one which grows best for us; it is the one which has persisted with us as a garden plant – and as a garden escapee in many places – for over two centuries. It is common because so many people love it and wish to grow it.

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A garden visited today showing a wonderful use of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis – simple beauty

A few years ago we were shown a garden left untended since the 1950s, a garden shortly to be cleared and the area used as a quarry, where there were many clumps of the common snowdrop and we did as any gardener would in the situation – we “rescued” as many as we could. On our return home they had to be cleaned – the roots washed to ensure we were not going to introduce scutch, ground elder or the likes into our own garden and we planted them into a patch of grass where we already had some crocus, a few daffodils and a pinch of snakeshead fritillary growing. We planted about 4,000 snowdrop bulbs – this may sound a lot but, after the effort it took to plant them, it looked quite miserable. After a few years they are beginning to make an impression though I think the fritillarias will prove to be the successful species in this situation as they are self-seeding generously there. I will watch and see and enjoy the developments.

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Various views of that grass patch with the planting of the common snowdrop

As for the other snowdrops, they are also a delight with various species and cultivars in flower from the first week of October until the end of March, six months of enjoyment right through the dark days of winter. Snowdrops are far from common, even the common snowdrop!

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And, snowdrops around the garden today

Paddy Tobin



The Making of Three Gardens


Oh, sit back in your most comfortable chair; pour a strong coffee; open a box of the most delicious chocolates; browse this book and you will be in gardener’s heaven. From front cover to back this book is a dream and a delight; we cannot imagine that we will ever have a garden comparable to those shown on its pages but we certainly can appreciate and enjoy them. They are examples of the most wonderful creativity, imagination, architectural dexterity, installation perfection, aesthetic beauty and no shortage of disposable income!

The Making of Three Gardens COVER (1)

Jorge Sánchez is a principle partner of SMI Landscape Architecture in Palm Beach, Florida, an award-winning firm with clients throughout the United States and the Bahamas. The company is best known for its public gardens and street planning as well as large private gardens and this book presents three of these private gardens, two in Florida and one in New York. These gardens, by location and scale, are quite apart from our usual experience of gardens yet, by their art and design and planting, they transcend geographical boundaries and have a universal appeal. They are superb examples of art in gardening.

Though the gardens presented are quite fabulous and the author enjoys an enormously successful career with innumerable highly praised projects his voice, as he writes this book, is one of openness and humility where he generously acknowledges those who influenced and inspired him in his work and lavishly praises those with whom he collaborates and those who implement his designs. His accounts give an open and honest insight into his approach to each garden design – which is one of consultation and collaboration – and he explains the reasons behind his designs and changes in design as work progresses. It was all wonderfully informative and very pleasant reading.

The Making of Three Gardens (5)

The Making of Three Gardens (2)

The photography is by Andre Baranowski and is quite outstanding, a perfect accompaniment to the text and, along with the design plans, gives the reader a perfect insight and understanding of the designs and the gardens.

The Making of Three Gardens (7)

The Making of Three Gardens (6)

I suppose we might describe this as a coffee table book but it is far more than that. Yes, the photographs alone would allow it to be enjoyed without reading a word – as is the case with most coffee table books – but the text is so well written and such a pleasure to read that to relegate it to the coffee table would be a terrible disservice. Instead, read it with that coffee and chocolate for a truly enjoyable experience!

The Making of Three Gardens, Jorge Sánchez, Photography by Andre Baranowski, Merrell, London, 2017, Hardback, 208 pages, £45, ISBN: 978-1-8589-4665-8

Paddy Tobin

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

Head Gardeners

Ambra Edwards has given us a treasure of a book, a joy to read, insightful, informative and provocative. I have enjoyed it immensely and recommend it unreservedly.

She has interviewed fourteen head gardeners, a diverse group with only a few fitting the stereotypical image, yet all might be described as people at the pinnacle of gardening achievement with a wealth of experience, wisdom and green thumbs and, thankfully, a willingness to share their lives and insights with us.


Those of us who are interested in this subject, this book and the people presented to us in it, are most likely gardeners ourselves and I feel this puts us immediately at a disadvantage as we begin our reading for we have a concept of gardening and what a gardener is based on our own experience and this leaves us frightfully ill informed and terribly misguided regarding the life and work of a head gardener. “Gardening” as we know it – the tending of plants and gardens – forms but a very small aspect of the work of the present day head gardener. Garden management is a major part of the job, the organisation, guidance and training of those who work with them. Gardens must not only be tended and developed they must also be sold to the gardening public so as to finance the garden work. He head gardener is the one who must look to the future, not simply a year ahead but to where the gardens will be in ten years or even one hundred years from now. And then, the head gardener will be the one who must ensure the gates are closed, the lights switched off, the staff paid, the blog written, requisites ordered and checked on delivery and the list goes on and on. The head gardener must truly juggle innumerable duties and be master of them all.

The selection of head gardeners featured in this book appears to have been chosen to present the reader with a wide range of garden types and head gardener experiences; it is certainly eclectic, interesting and entertaining. Some of the usual limelight head gardeners are here – Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter springs immediately to mind and the reader might wonder what is there left to read about him as he has been interviewed here, there and everywhere already but I found it one of the most insightful of portraits which revealed aspects of his character and practices at Great Dixter which I had not known of previously and was a perfect example of the depth of the interviews conducted by the author and representative of the others in the book.

As for the other thirteen head gardeners in the book, I feel I would spoil a great enjoyment on you if I revealed them to you here. Some you will acknowledge immediately as deserving of their place in the book while others may surprise you but when you have read their chapter you will understand why they were so very deservedly included. Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens at the National Trust is quoted in the introduction: “It’s difficult to imagine a class of people who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” I can only add that society needs to read this excellent book and this perception will be blown to the winds.

Finally, one statement which I loved and which epitomises the honesty throughout the book. When garden designers are hogging the limelight and are viewed as the stars of the horticultural world it is good to read Alistair Clark, head gardener at Portrack in Dumphries which houses Charles Jencks’ “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”: “Charles is a clever, clever man, there’s no disputing that. But he doesn’t know the first thing about horticulture. He didn’t when he first came to Portrack and I don’t think he does yet.”

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.

Paddy Tobin


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