Growing on the Edge – Dhu Varren Gardens. Mark & Laura Collins

The Oriental Tea House at Dhu Varren Gardens with Koi carp pond in foreground
The Oriental Tea House at Dhu Varren Gardens with Koi carp pond in foreground

We moved to Milltown, Co Kerry in June 2000 where we both took up employment in a local hospital.  We purchased an old farmhouse dating back to 1850 which sat on a 2.5 acre site containing the remnants of a farmyard.  The only area under cultivation was a lawn to the front of the house.  The south-facing site with a gradual slope away from the house was surrounded by mature trees and hedgerows offering shelter.  Having worked on the interior of the house for a couple of years we turned our attention to the garden.

The Palm and Succulent Bed
The Palm and Succulent Bed


As we are located on the western seaboard we have a very mild winter climate and consistent rainfall throughout the year, which means it is possible to grow – or at least attempt to grow – plants from around the world that would not succeed in other colder parts of Ireland.  This is the ongoing ethos of the garden.

Acer palmatum 'Shania'
Acer palmatum ‘Shania’

It quickly became apparent that the site was very damp in places and some areas were exposed to South Westerly winds (which are not the worst) despite the existing shelter.  Consequently, shelter belts were planted or enhanced and an extensive drainage system with ponds was constructed.  This was all done by hand.

Echinopsis eyriesii
Echinopsis eyriesii

One of the first projects was the construction of a large Koi carp pond with an Oriental Tea House adjacent to it.  Around this we developed an Oriental-themed garden of acers, pines, bamboo, ferns, etc.  Subsequent to this, using hundreds of tonnes of boulders and rocks from nearby quarries, we constructed a palm and succulent bed and also a rock garden.  These now contain many rare and unusual plants.

This highlights an underlying theme in the garden, which is that we initially have to create the correct conditions for the plants in a suitable location within the garden before planting can begin.  An on-going project has been the planting of a mixed woodland which displays many rare and hard to find trees and shrubs mixed with bamboos, herbaceous and woodland plants.  This is really gaining maturity in a short period of time.

An unidentified rhododendron
An unidentified rhododendron


Other outdoor areas of the garden include a Mediterranean bed, a shade garden, a wetland for wildlife, a herb and nectar garden, a southern hemisphere garden and a sunken garden where we grow plants requiring wind shelter.

Of course, our climate is not mild enough to grow all the plants we would like to grow, so two large glasshouses have been constructed.   One displays cacti and succulents and other xeric plants while the other creates a steamy, humid atmosphere to display sub-tropical foliage and flowering plants from around the world.

Kalopanax pictue
Kalopanax pictus

We plan to continue sourcing and growing plants that we discover on our various botanical field trips (aka holidays) around the world.

Telopia species
Telopia species

Mark’s “Growing on the Edge” talk features the development of our garden over the past 14 years, the concept of what growing on the edge means in terms of climate and cultivation and an overview of some of the rare and unusual plants growing in the garden with their associated trials, tribulations and successes.

Mark & Laura Collins


Tag my Tree – The Blarney Castle Garden Way – by Adam Whitbourn

Here at Blarney Castle & Gardens we have a fantastic collection of trees and I have spent the last few years updating the database and labelling the more unusual specimens (around 2000).


Unfortunately labels are often damaged or removed and tend to be costly. I wanted to look at a way of tagging the trees that was more vandal proof and could be linked to the online tree database we have created. My research led me to a company called ZipNFC in the UK, and working with them we have introduced a system called NFC (Near Field Communication) to tag our trees and, eventually, we will also extend this to our shrub collections.

This new technology offers many advantages over conventional tagging methods. It enables us to tag plants with a weather proof disc that contains a unique reference code for each plant. By scanning the tag with a smart phone one is linked directly to our online database. An android application on our mobile phones allows us to manage the database whilst working in the gardens while a GPS feature enables us to map every tree with perfect precision.


These NFC tags enable us, and eventually the public, to identify each tree ‘in the field’ and provide a link to an online database of information on each tree. For us in the garden it would be a reference page holding detailed information and notes on past and future work on that individual specimen. For the public visitor it would provide a photograph and basic information on each tree.

By way of explanation, NFC (Near Field Communication) is a technology that enables devices, such as smart phones, to access information by touching, tapping or waving near a tag. No swiping, inserting or pin entry needed and there’s no need to download an app or visit a website. It is extraordinarily easy and convenient and the tag can be placed on a sticker, on posters or plant labels, indeed almost anywhere.

We are using a range of horti-tags developed in conjunction with ZipNFC. At present we are using two types. One has a hole in the centre which suits it being nailed to a mature tree behind the existing label while the other has a length of cord which allows it to be attached to juvenile trees and shrubs. We are currently developing a plant label tag for use in the nursery area. These will be simple white labels that can be written on but contain extra information on the tag. The horti-tags can be locked when used for a permanent purpose such as the identification of a tree or rewritten when used in the nursery etc.

photo 1

Photo from Adam Whitbourn

photo 2

Photo from Adam Whitbourn

This project is currently in its early stages of development but is already proving its worth. I would welcome enquiries from other gardens, nurseries and organisations that might like to apply this technology in their own setting.

Adam Whitbourn – Head Gardener, Blarney Castle & Gardens.


Lismore Castle Gardens – Past and Potential: A Talk by Darren Topps, Head Gardener

Lismore Castle Gardens – Past and Potential: A Talk by Darren Topps at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin Thursday 13th November

Lismore Castle and gardens are steeped in history with an initial design by Sir Joseph Paxton dating to the 1840s with some elements of the gardens almost certainly older. In his talk to the members and visitors at our recent meeting Darren Topps, Head Gardener at Lismore, guided us through the various areas of the garden. The lower garden has a champion specimen of Magnolia delavayi and a yew avenue which is over three hundred years old but after a good spring display from Rhododendrons and Magnolias it has little in flower for the rest of the year though the Eucryphia are excellent in late summer. The upper garden has long been used for fruit and vegetables and still is with an emphasis on cut flower production for display in the castle. A mix of herbaceous borders and shrubs gives a very colourful summer display.

A view over the Upper Garden towards the castle.  Photo from Stephen Butler
A view over the Upper Garden towards the castle.
Photo from Stephen Butler

Times change though and with very few planting records there is a very free hand in replanting. Overgrown hedges, essential for the framework, are being reduced back to a correct width and height. Weed infested borders are being stripped, dug over, cleaned, and replanted. Box blight has badly affected the garden but an edge to the borders is essential so, instead of box, chestnut hurdles or step over apple cordons have been used. The grass in the orchard was previously kept mown but this year it was developed as a meadow giving much more floral interest, a great increase in insect life and far less work. The garden enjoys a remarkable microclimate and this has facilitated new plantings of unusual plants.

A ridge and furrow greenhouse range, a very rare style seldom found now, is due for renovation and an area termed the relic garden which has an interesting collection of trees, especially conifers, is also due to be reopened shortly. The Devonshire’s interest in art is evident too from the various sculptures displayed around the gardens.

Forty people braved the wind and rain for the lecture and their interest was very evident by the number of questions Darren fielded afterwards.

An excellent talk enjoyed by all and if you would like to join us at future events check out our website for dates and locations: or come join us on Facebook:

Stephen Butler

For Leinster Events Committee

The Weird and Wonderful World of a Plantaholic – a Talk by Deborah Begley

Deborah and Martin Begley
Deborah and Martin Begley

We had a great turn out last Tuesday in Cork for Deborah Begley’s talk on her garden.Deborah has a strong following which is a reflection of her engaging and humorous presentation. She began by showing us what she started with all those years ago, a blank canvas which could be either a great thrill or a terrifying challenge. For Deborah it sounded like it was a whole lot of fun with the flexibility of change as her children grew up and needed different things from the garden and also as the availability of time and space changed.

But what is immediately obvious is that Deborah is above all a lover of plants. And she has the knowledge and the artistic eye to put that plant in exactly the right spot. So over the years she has created a beautiful picture using different plants for colour, texture, structure, but has also been constantly changing the picture as her vision has changed.

So she took us on a walk around her garden, highlighting her favourite plants of the moment, using plants to lead us to a particular view or the opposite, to stop us in our tracks and see some special plant. Deborah’s garden is full of artistically placed features, full of fun and humour. One of the major projects undertaken has got to be her tea house which is the backdrop to some exotic plants like Cannas, Impatiens, ferns, bananas, Cautleya and Ricinus. Another feature which stands out was the lovely pergola built by Martin; Deborah told us it hosts her favourite rose, ‘Teasing Georgia’. She also has some lovely lilies in good strong groups, ‘Lilium leichtlinii’ being a particularly beautiful one. As she is an avid grower of plants from seed, Deborah has amassed a collection of unusual and difficult to find plants.

Deborah finished by telling us about her next great project which is in hand…. her classroom and plant shop. I think we will all be making a trip down to her early next year to visit her nursery which is guaranteed to excite.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Janet Edwardes

See more about Deborah’s garden here:

or visit her Facebook page here:

The Irish Garden – Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession

Jane Powers’ new book, with husband photographer Jonathan Hession, The Irish Garden, will be published next April. With 400 pages and describing approximately 60 gardens it will be the biggest treatment of Irish gardens in 15 years.

We are familiar with Jane’s writing from her years with the Irish Times, now with The Sunday Times and from her first book, The Living Garden, so we can be sure the book will be a joy to read. Jonathan’s photography has a deservedly high reputation and his recently published, The Atlantic Coast of Ireland, received great praise for the beauty of the photography. With such a combination of author and photographer I believe we are not only in for a great treat but for a book which will set a new standard in Irish gardening literature.


Jane very kindly agreed to do an interview with me for the blog during the week. It was conducted through e-mail and I hope you enjoy it. The photographs are from the book.

Q: Your newspaper writings over the years have shown that you have a very special interest in Irish gardens and in Irish plants. What led a lady of American background to such an interest?

Jane:”I was born here, but I spent my childhood moving back and forth between Ireland and the USA. My first move back to America was as a babe in arms. The family of five children fell into neat categories in order of age: “the girls” (my two much older sisters), “the boys” (my two brothers, also older) and me. So, I spent a lot of time alone, much of it in the garden or, rather, in lots of gardens.

My parents were writers, classically penniless, but also afflicted by itchy feet. We were always on the move — too many moves. I remember the gardens in great detail, but not the houses. There were wonderful oak trees, acorns and lily-of-the-valley at one home in Minnesota — on the banks of the Mississippi, which I left when I was 5.

We moved then to Greystones, in Co Wicklow, and I clearly remember seeing cordylines for the first time. They seemed the most exotic thing in the world. I’ve loved cordylines since, and feel a bit protective about them when people say unkind things about them.

So, I accumulated a lot of time in lots of Irish gardens (and Minnesota and Massachusetts gardens) as a child, and I quite like them.

Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.
Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

Q: What is it of Irish gardens that you think makes them particularly Irish? What do you think is the essence of an Irish garden? What distinguishes them from those of other countries?

Jane:  It has to be, first, the climate. We complain about the rain and the lack of proper seasons, but we are spoiled, blessed, when it comes to plant choice. There are few other places — the Pacific Northwest in the USA and parts of New Zealand, maybe— that can grow the same range of plants. Not all counties in Ireland can grow all plants well, but as a whole we manage pretty much everything. Lorna MacMahon in Galway can grow Asiatic primulas like mustard and cress, Billy Alexander in Kells Bay in Co Kerry can probably grow Australasian tree ferns in the creases in his rain jacket, and the late Ambrose Congreve grew great forests of Himalayan magnolias. And in my modest south county Dublin garden I can grow Mediterranean and Madeiran plants without any trouble. On what other civilised land mass of such a tiny size (300 by 170 miles?) could so many disparate plants thrive?

Q: Though we are historically and culturally so closely linked to England have we created a distinct Irish style of garden?

Jane:  I think we have. A lot of our gardens are based on English designs, but our climate, with its urgent growth and its insistent greenness, has claimed our gardens for Ireland. Jonathan, my husband, took the photos for the book and we got the proofs the other day. We were looking at them, page after page, the first time we’d seen the book on paper. It was really exciting, but more than that: we realised that the gardens were totally un-English, except for one or two in the North. So many of them have this glorious, unfettered and poetic quality. It’s partly the weather and the 11 months of growth per year, but it is also the free-spiritedness of Irish people. Irish gardens have a casual exuberance that is a little intoxicating.

The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.
The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.

Q: Which gardens would you suggest one visit to see the quintessentially Irish garden?

Jane: There are so many. It’s hard to choose just a few. And I don’t know if these are quintessentially Irish, but they are here, and so they must be Irish. Helen Dillon’s, of course, for pure, operatic, coloratura-soprano drama and perfection. Annes Grove in Co Cork for gothic romance. Killruddery for perfect baroque geometry. Birr Castle for its sense of history and its capturing of so many superlatives (tallest box hedges, oldest suspension bridge, first dawn cypress in Europe, and so many others). June Blake’s for a kind of intelligent dynamism that transcends ordinary gardening — I love watching her work things out and make her garden ever more reasoned and beautiful.

Q: On what basis did you select the gardens?

Jane: They all had to be open to the public, and welcoming to visitors. There are some that are open, in theory, but it’s not that simple to get into them, so we didn’t include those. We also picked gardens that were “happy in their skin”, that felt right for the landscape and environment. We included important historic gardens, even though a couple of these could do with a serious kick up the bum. We wish that we could have included many more (there are about 60 in the book), but we had to keep within the publisher’s brief. In the end, we actually had to cut 48 pages, so the book is shorter than we wanted. Mind you, it’s 400 pages, which is a huge commitment from the publisher.

Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow
Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow

 Q: Could you give a short outline of the book – contents, approach etc.

Jane: There are nine chapters and an introduction. I gathered the gardens thematically rather than by style or geography. The themes are a bit idiosyncratic, but I think they work. For instance, I have one chapter called “Lovely Day for a Walk” which includes gardens that offer delightful rambles as well as horticultural treasures: Kilmacurragh, Tullynally, Woodstock and Emo Court are some of the gardens in there. I also have “A Few Follies and Fancies”, which has lots of follies, obviously, but it also includes things that were fantastic in their day (and still are), such as the incredibly innovative glasshouses at Glasnevin. Another chapter, “Grand Big Gardens”, has the gardens of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the classic Big House gardens. We nearly changed the title of that chapter to “Stately Acres” because we were afraid that British and American readers wouldn’t understand the playfulness in the “grand big”. The book is being translated into German as well, so I’m not sure how that will transfer.

Q: Which garden, if any, would you take home to replace your own?

Jane: Well, rather than the gardens, I’d like to take home the gardeners — as gardens are more about the people who make and maintain them. I’d have Jean Perry from the Glebe in Baltimore (West Cork) to do my veg beds, as she is marvellously organised and organic, as well as having a good eye for the ornamental. I’d have Sean Heffernan from Mount Usher to do something marvellously architectural and textural with the planting around my tiny pond, and I’d give the rest over to Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook to fill with exciting plant combinations and the latest plants from all the most interesting nurseries.

The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.
The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.

Q: A shortlist for the American bus tour which has a week in Ireland? Five gardens!

Jane: Oh dear! I don’t know how to answer that! I mean, there are big and historic gardens that they would have to visit, but then they’d miss some of the more recent gardens. Obviously they’d have to go to Powerscourt (for the pomp), Glenveagh (for the juxtaposition of wildness and horticulture), Bantry House (the views! the mist! the drama!), Mount Usher (the trees and the exquisitely manipulated river with its beautiful bridges) and Birr (for the trees, parkland and history). But there are later gardens that I would love them to see. Helen Dillon, June Blake, Jimi Blake are all essential. Also, I’d like them to see Elizabeth Temple’s Salthill House (in Mountcharles in Donegal) for her meadows, and for the intimate atmosphere in her walled garden. Also, Iain MacDonald’s grass-and-perennial garden at the Bay in Camolin. There are madly interesting places too, like Dunmore Country School in Co Laois, where Tanguy de Toulgoët is gardening in a style that is part biodynamic, wholly organic and utterly French. There is Alfred Cochrane, at Corke Lodge, outside Bray, and he has made the most wildly theatrical garden with gothicky ruins and shaggy topiary. I could go on and on.

Q: Do the photographs capture the gardens as your mind sees them? Did you direct the photography or allow free rein?

Jane: I tried to direct the photography in some cases, because there were specific plants or planting combinations that were of interest to gardeners, and I wanted to include these. But, Jonathan made many visits to gardens on his own. Some gardens he visited 4 or 5 times to capture different seasons. And a few, he must have visited 20 times. He is obsessed with the Dillon Garden and June Blake’s, and a few others. Also, there were gardens where we were staying with the owners, or nearby, and he would get up at dawn for the best light, while I stayed in bed, all snug and warm. I told myself that he wouldn’t have wanted me with him on those early morning forays anyway. Sometimes there is only a tiny crack of time between darkness and harsh daylight — maybe just five or ten precious minutes when all is luminous and ethereal. He has a keen eye for the dramatic, as well as for the understated. Some of his photos show the gardens in ways that make me want to gasp and clap all at once. I know that sounds like I’m hamming it up — but they are very beautiful.

Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow
Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow

Q: Finally, what is important but I have not asked?

Jane: I feel it is an important book, as it is the first big book on Irish gardens in 15 years. But it’s also a personal book. Not everyone will agree with my views, but that’s good. We need to talk about Irish gardens more in a critical and constructive way. Some gardens are not fulfilling their potential, to be honest. There are evident problems with management, and the gardens suffer. Poor plant choice, indifferent maintenance, odd sets of priorities etc. It breaks my heart. But, we also have some of the most romantic, important and creative gardens in the world, and I’m glad that we have been able to celebrate them in the book.

Publishers: Frances Lincoln.

ISBN: 978011232228

Date of Publication: 2nd April 2015

Hardback, 400 pages, 305 x 250mm

Pre-order at:

Iris unguicularis ‘Kilbroney Marble’

IRIS UNGUICULARIS 'KILBRONEY MARBLE' 180103 (6) Iris unguicularis, commonly called the Algerian Iris, is one of the delights of the winter garden. It is a perennial plant, growing from rhizomes which spread with ease when planted in a soil which is free-draining and in full sun. It grows to about 30cm. high and though generally described as being evergreen it is more the case that the old foliage hangs on while the new foliage is replacing it. Indeed, at times, it might be considered a little messy.

The first flowers of iris unguicularis have begun to appear here over the last few weeks. They signal the start of winter and what a delightful start  with such beauty and such hope as these delicate blossoms brave the worst weather of the year and yet look so beautiful.

I grow three cultivars in the garden, ‘Mary Barnard’, ‘Walter Butt’ and the one which is very special to me ‘Kilbroney Marble’. This latter because it is of Irish origin and because it has unique markings on the petal. The true species of I. unguiguaris has deep violet petals with white and deep yellow at the base of each fall. The petals of ‘Kilbroney Marble’ have the addition of marbling on each of the petals making them particularly interesting and attractive.

It is occasionally suggested, and I had thought this myself, that the marbling was as a result of a virus in the plant. However, it seems that this streaking on the petals is a feature which occurs occasionally in irises and there are also a number of bearded irises, Iris germanica, with this streaking in the petals.

Iris unguicularis ‘Kilbroney Marble’ arose in a garden in Co. Down and was originally propagated and distributed by the famous Slieve Donard Nursery. Presently, it is not a plant you are likely to come across in garden centres – mine came from an  IGPS plant sale around 2003 as I see I wrote a note about it in the IGPS newsletter in 2004.

However, Fitzgerald Nurseries have it in production at the moment and it is likely to be stocked by garden centres in 2016 so take note and you will have a beautiful plant for your garden and a little piece of Irish gardening heritage to treasure.

Paddy Tobin

Iris unguicularis 'Kilbroney Marble' Iris unguicularis 'Kilbroney Marble'SMALL JPEG Iris unguicularis 'Kilbroney Marble'

‘In the Footsteps of Joseph Hooker, An Expedition to the Himalaya‘ – A talk by Seamus O Brien.

‘In the Footsteps of Joseph Hooker, An Expedition to the Himalaya
On Thursday, 23rd October Seamus O’Brien, Curator of the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh, came up north to give us a most interesting lecture ‘In the Footsteps of Joseph Hooker, An Expedition to the Himalaya‘. It was an excellent talk and attracted an attendance of over 100 people at the Old Courthouse in Antrim.

 Earlier in the afternoon we had a guided tour around the beautiful Antrim Castle gardens and were joined by Neil Porteous, Head Gardener at Mount Stewart who had travelled with Seamus to the Himalaya last year. Several committee members also attended and we had a very pleasant day walking around the gardens.

Left – right: Yvonne Penpraze, Neil Porteous (Head Gardener of Mount Stewart), Barbara Kelso, Seamus O’Brien (Curator of the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh), Billy McCone and Maeve Bell
Left – right: Yvonne Penpraze, Neil Porteous (Head Gardener of Mount Stewart), Barbara Kelso, Seamus O’Brien (Curator of the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh), Billy McCone and Maeve Bell
As the hall was filling for the talk – part of the large attendance for the event.
As the hall was filling for the talk – part of the large attendance for the event.
The parterre at Antrim Castle Gardens
The parterre at Antrim Castle Gardens
Admiring the Clotworthy coat of arms
Admiring the Clotworthy coat of arms
Seamus O Brien and Neil Porteous
Seamus O Brien and Neil Porteous
The ruins of the original Antrim Castle
The ruins of the original Antrim Castle

Text and photographs from Barbara Kelso.