Secret Gardens of the Cotswords – A Review.

What is most striking about this book is the wonderful number of beautiful gardens there are within the small area of the Cotswolds and that this is matched by glorious photography and delightful text used to present them to us.

Twenty gardens, all within the circle of Cheltenham, Banbury, Oxford, Cirencester and Stroud, are described and I do wish they were not quite as secret as the title indicates. Actually, they are not entirely secret gardens as some are open to the public on a regular basis, others occasionally, perhaps for one or two days each year for the National Gardens Scheme, while others, indeed, are not open at all. Were they all open for, say, one month of the year the Cotswolds would be a terrific location for a garden-visiting holiday. Colesbourne Park (home of the Elwes family and famous for its snowdrops), Bourtoun House, Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens and Sezincote are all open on reasonably regular basis and all would merit a visit.

secret gardens of the cotswolds

However, I am allowing my dreams to take me away from the book but, then, it was this book which lead me to dream in the first place. As soon as you hear “secret garden” you immediately want to get in there and see what it is like just as we are all intrigued by a garden enclosed by a high wall. It is our curiosity, I suppose, to want to see what is usually hidden.

This book gives us a very good peep inside these gardens and the author and photographer were obviously welcomed as the participation of the garden owners has been open and generous and through the author’s interviews with them we are given a clear insight into each garden, the history of each, the inspiration for the design and planting, the successes and tribulations and a general sharing of the happiness of gardening on one’s own patch.

The text is perfectly accompanied and illustrated by Hugo Rittson-Thomas’ photography and the photographs are perfectly arranged to give various insights into each garden – a full page shot to show a striking vista or a full page with a group of shots to create a display board of impressions and the occasional shot for detail and delightful features – only one  flower was given the full page close-up treatment and that was yellow-marked snowdrop named for Carolyn Elwes of Colesbourne Park and, as much as the gardens, that made me wish I were there.

It may not be quite the same as visiting the gardens but this book is perfectly enjoyable for what it is – armchair garden visiting, to be done at leisure and in the comfort of one’s own home. I found it a very enjoyable book, well written and perfectly illustrated.

Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds: A Personal Tour of 20 Private Gardens, Victoria Summerley, photographs by Hugo Rittson-Thomas, Frances Lincoln, London, 2015, Hardback, 143 pages, £20, ISBN: 978 0 7112 3527 4

Paddy Tobin


Subtly Scented Sarcococca

Sarcococca confusa growing at the base of a pendulous birch, Betula pendula
Sarcococca confusa growing at the base of a pendulous birch, Betula pendula

We learnt to recognise the signs, visitors stopped, looked around, walkedback, looked again, and then saw someone obviously gardening and out comes the question – ‘where is that lovely scent coming from’?

This winter, especially on calm days, and after planting probably hundreds of plants over the years, the scent has gently wafted around as people pass, and what pray is the cause? An overlooked humble shrub, with small white flowers, usually half hidden in the shade of other shrubs.

Sarcococca, often called Christmas Box or Sweet Box, is indeed in the box family, Buxaceae, but it is very different. Not shrubby, it forms dense low mounds of always green stems and leaves. New shoots arise from the ground each year, and the ‘bush’ slowly gets wider, and maybe a little taller. Happier in partial, even deep shade, it suffers in bright sun, with the leaves becoming yellowish. Tolerant of dry conditions, it grows well even under birch, though struggles to do well. Given good conditions, shade, moisture, and a good mulch occasionally, it will always be green and verdant. We never seem to do anything to it! No dead shoots to remove, no pruning back, mulching maybe, but not often, no watering, literally no effort!

Sarcococca seedlings under the parent plant
Seedlings of Sarcococca confusa under the parent plant

There are several species commonly found. S. confusa – well named as no one is quite sure where in west China it probably came from – is one of the commonest. The oldest single clump we have, planted about 50 years ago, is now about 1.6ms tall, and 2ms across. It self seeds regularly if there is bare ground next to it – birds may take some of the fleshy black berries, but enough are left.

Sarcococca humilis
Sarcococca humilis

A dwarfer one is S. humilis, which is not my favourite as it is too dwarf, only getting to about half a metre high. Only after a few years does it seem to start doing well, spreading slowly by restrained suckers, moving a mere 25cms or so at most.

Sarcococca humilis  (2)
Sarcococca humilis

Very similar to S. confusa is S. ruscifolia, though once you get used to them it is obvious the leaves are more pointed, though the giveaway at the right time of year is that the berries are red. Possibly a more open form of growth too, though that depends on where it is growing.

Sarcococca ruscifolius
Sarcococca ruscifolia
Sarcococca ruscifolia
Sarcococca ruscifolia

S. hookeriana is also about a metre high, has narrower leaves, reddish coloured stems in some cvs, and a more adventurous suckering habit, spreading maybe 250mm per year when happy and established.

Sarcococca hookeriana - new plants from cuttings. Note the new growth from the base.
Sarcococca hookeriana – new plants from cuttings. Note the new growth from the base.

S. orientalis is a more recent introduction, and not so easy to find, from Roy Lancasters travels in China, with a bigger more noticeable flower, and an equally delightful scent. The anthers are a good dark red on emergence, giving a reddish tint to the flowers, while the leaves are narrower than the commoner species.

Sarcococca orientalis
Sarcococca orientalis

Text and photographs from Stephen Butler(who gardens at Dublin Zoo)

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

Helen Dillon – An Inspiration to the Irish Gardener

The Dillon Garden  (11)

A visit to the Dillon garden is always a treat for the senses. Helen, who created the garden along with her husband Val, describes May as the ‘deadest month’ of the year but the dreaded May gap would seem to be a thing of fiction in this garden, with so many plants in full flower.

Swathes of sweet rocket, alliums, honesty, Irises and bluebells give the borders a predominantly purple appearance at this time of year, a sort of calm before the explosion of colour that is to come. However also in bloom are Roses, with Rosa ‘Bengal Crimson’ a particular delight, Trollius, the last of the tulips to flower, Tulipa sprengeri, Camassia, Clematis, Aquilegia, Paeonia, dark Astrantia, bright red and orange Geums, double flowered Welsh Poppies, Cerinthe – the list goes on – not to mention many other choice oddities and exotics.

The Dillon Garden  (13)

As I leave Helen to converse with garden visitors who are anxious to speak to Ireland’s gardening royalty, I hear howls of laughter from various locations in the garden as Helen entertains and educates her visitors simultaneously. Whether she is commenting on the Oedipus complex playing out in the canary cage, the sad passing of Mr Reginald, the dog, or singing the praises of Allium ‘Globemaster’, the visitors appreciate the individual attention and sharing of knowledge. And visitors come from all over. An Italian could be heard exclaiming ‘Meraviglioso!’ everytime he rounded a corner.

The Dillon Garden  (5)

I imagine that if Helen has a mental list of all plants, they would be divided into two categories, ‘ghastly’ and ‘darling’. When asked about a wish list she refers to the desire to travel, to Mongolia and Far East Russia. As for which plants are on her wish list she said she doesn’t have a wish list, but that she would like to grow what she has better. This is hard to fathom when plants must view this garden as the holy grail of places to grow with her husband Val’s ‘dynamite for plants’ compost and Helen’s incredible understanding of plant needs. However, believe it or not, there are some things that Helen cannot grow. “There are lots of woody things that are desirable but not suitable. I’m riddled with honey fungus” she says “not me, the garden!”

The Dillon Garden  (6)

She laments the trend for gardens to be viewed solely as an outdoor room rather than a place for growing plants, where the barbeque supplants the border and decks and paving supersede trees and shrubs. She believes we should be marketing gardening as everything else is marketed. We need to sell it. Gardening can be a lifesaver when coping with the ups and downs of life. “How comparatively serene one feels after a day in the garden compared to a day in the office” she says.

She subscribes to the idea that ‘the best way to keep a plant is to give it away’ and is delighted that now, with the internet and Paypal, anyone can have almost anything. Although this does make it difficult to choose especially seeing as here in Ireland, we are blessed with a damp, generally benign climate which adds to the range of plants that we can grow.

The Dillon Garden  (8)

There is no shortage of rare and exotic plants in the Dillon garden but often the more arresting features are things that are in her own words ‘common as mud’ but that are celebrated and used imaginatively. Tulips in dustbins, a bramley apple that has been pruned to look as though it overlooks a Mediterranean village rather than a Dublin suburb are just two such elements.

Helen’s approach to gardening changes regularly, according to what works for her. She might once have advised us to make holes in the bottom of plastic yoghurt cartons with the tip of a lit cigarette and while her borders were once colour themed, now she goes more for a zingy kaleidoscope of colour. She has compared the more recent planting style in the borders to throwing a box of Smarties up in the air.

Over 10 years ago the “bully” of the garden, the lawn, was dispensed with and replaced with imposing Kilkenny limestone which shows off the borders beautifully. Visitors generally gasp as they get their first glimpses of the garden from the house, and I’d warrant some might actually faint as they emerge onto the balcony such is the ravishing scene before them.

The Dillon Garden  (7)

Dr Charles Nelson, one of the founders of the Irish Garden Plant Society, recalls that Helen was  active in the IGPS during the 80s.  “She supported the IGPS from its beginnings in different ways, as did other plantsmen like Molly Sanderson, David Shackleton and Rosemary Brown to name just three. I am delighted the IGPS is to make her an honorary member.”

The Dillon Garden  (10)

One of the IGPS activities Helen was involved in was the annual IGPS plant sale. Carmel Duignan recalls one year buying a plant of Hebe ‘Headfortii’ from the late David Shackleton who accompanied Helen Dillon as she presided over the Rare and Special Plant stall, a post that these days is presided over by Carmel herself along with Stephen Butler.

Mary Davies, well known for her involvement in the Irish Garden Magazine actually started her garden related publishing activity in the Irish Garden Plant Society Newsletter. Mary was the third chairperson of the IGPS and remembers fondly activities from the 1980s that she was involved in with Helen Dillon. The two grandes dames of gardening had great fun as co-editors of the IGPS newsletter. “Our compilation time involved a mixture of desperation, drink, last minute brain waves and much hilarity” they confess in a piece they wrote for the 100th edition of the newsletter in April 2006. In the 80s the articles came in hand written and had to be typed up on a typewriter, a laborious job by today’s standards. Little wonder there was the odd drink involved.

The Dillon Garden  (9)

When asked to describe Helen, Mary Davies says “Helen is an incomparable gardener and a witty and spontaneous lecturer and writer. Ireland is lucky to have her.” Although Helen is Scottish, many Irish gardeners would see her as a national treasure. And so it is with great pride that the Irish Garden Plant Society is inviting Helen Dillon to become an honorary member of the society, in recognition of her support and inspiration not just to the Society but to gardeners all over Ireland and beyond.

Text and photos by Ali Rochford.

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

Mount Congreve – A Preview

Mount Congreve Gardens, in Waterford, will open for the 2015 season on Thursday 12th of March but I took the opportunity to have a walk around the gardens during the last week.

Mount Congreve: A view to the house.
Mount Congreve: A view to the house.

My first impression, as I remember the scenes of devastation we witnessed in the gardens following the storms at this time last year, is the amount of work the gardeners have done in the last 12 months. It can only have been an enormously upsetting occasion for those who have worked for years in the garden to see the huge number of mature trees which were knocked over by the gales and the amount of underplanting – rhododendrons and camellias etc – which were flattened by their falling. The work over the last year has simply been trojan in its scale and the gardens are looking marvellous.

The woodlands are coming to life again with beech trees above flowering camellias.
The woodlands are coming to life again with beech trees above flowering camellias.

Along with the essential work of clearing up after this storm a great deal of work has been done in renewing large areas of older planting. Old rhododendrons and old camellias have been pruned back hard – indeed, to such an extent that the amateur gardener would believe they had been too harshly treated but they are all sprouted anew with great vigour and this work has allow light into areas which had become overshadowed with the passing of years.

Camellias with a scattering of snowdrops at their feet.
Camellias with a scattering of snowdrops at their feet.

The necessary clearing after such a disaster also led to some wonderful vistas being opened. One of the walks from the Temple leads to a small rise and two old cherry trees which grew there were blown over. It is always sad to see such mature specimens being lost but their departure opened up a vista which has probably not been seen in twenty five years or more. Now, one can look along and over the canopy of, perhaps, a 150 metres planting of Magnolia campbellii, running along the terrace to the back of the house. Looking at it last year I though it was the most beautiful and marvellous garden vista I had ever seen – and it will be in flower again shortly, so the treat awaits again.

A venerable Sweet Chestnut tree with white crocus below
A venerable Sweet Chestnut tree with white crocus below

At present, the first of the magnolias are coming into flower along with the earlier rhododendrons and camellias. Some are in absolute magnificent full bloom and are a sight to behold and the flowering will improve as the season progresses. Here and there through the garden there are specimen trees which are given more space than the general planting – most of the garden is planted as a woodland garden, a very natural style where neighbouring trees must jostle for their space and for light but a few have been allowed a little more room, mainly venerable oak or sweet chestnut trees and these are underplanted with crocus or wood anemones which give great splashes of colour in the early garden.

This old oak tree has become surrounded by a  multi-colour planting of crocus.
This old oak tree has become surrounded by a multi-colour planting of crocus.

Mount Congreve Garden is a place that merits being visited many times during the year as the display of plants in flower develops as the season progresses. The first big display will be from the huge plantings of Magnolia campbellii and will continue with a whole range of other magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, maples etc etc – and this truly is a garden where the “etc” can be applied liberally as it was Ambrose Congreve’s style to plant everything in big numbers, never a single plant when you could plant fifty.

You will notice the fragrance of this Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postil' before you see it. The scent is a pure delight.
You will notice the fragrance of this Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’ before you see it. The scent is a pure delight.

June will bring the glory of the paeonias, roses and catmint display in the walled garden and July/August/September will bring the delightful colour of the Pleasure Gardens with the abundance of dahlias, asters, eucomis, gingers etc.

It is a year round garden, a delight to visit at any time of the year so make your plans and come along.

One of the early camellias in flower at the moment
One of the early camellias in flower at the moment

Paddy Tobin 

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