Gardening with Wildlife

I cannot say that I garden for wildlife but I do garden with it. It is all around us and, as far as possible, I work with a live and let live attitude.

Greenfly, blackfly, whitefly, slugs, snails, vine weevil larvae, carrot root fly, narcissus fly are all present in the garden and these and many others are simply part of life and I take no measures to eliminate them –  that is, I don’ try to kill them. They rarely occur in numbers which cause disaster but rather cause an occasional set back which quickly pass.

Blackfly can be a nuisance on Broad Beans but, by sowing in autumn, the beans are harvested before blackfly season arrives. Carrot root fly can be frustrated by a simply physical barrier. Narcissus fly, which could cause serious damage to our extensive snowdrop collection, can be outwitted by simply breaking the surface of the soil immediately after the foliage of the bulbs dies back – the fly lays its eggs at the base of the foliage and the larvae gain access to the bulbs by following the tunnel left in the soil by the fading leaves. When the soil is broken up these tunnels are closed.

Frogs are a joy in the garden and it is wonderful to observe the phases of development from spawn to tadpole to frog. However, frogs regularly hibernate in the soil by burrowing into soft ground and the local badgers and foxes will occasionally dislodge prized bulbs as they seek a mid-winter meal. It took me some time to realise that this was what was happening when a clump of particularly liked snowdrop bulbs were scattered on the grass several mornings in a row. I moved them elsewhere.

Woodmice are the funniest little creatures and regularly seek shelter in glasshouses in winter. A few years back we had one which would happily take peanuts from my hand and seemed to imagine it was invisible if it closed its eyes. Besides shredding some newspaper they do little or no damage though precious seed is best kept well out of their reach. On the other hand, their relatives, the rats are not welcome though they are difficult to discourage. As we keep hens there is always food for them to scavenge.

One wildlife mystery has always been the lack of rabbits in our garden. We will see rabbits very often along the road only a short distance from the house but we haven’t seen one in the garden for nearly 30 years and this was something we could never explain until all was revealed one day when we saw a small, long-tailed and frenetically active creature dashing along shrub to shrub, up and down trees and in and out between plants. We have a resident stoat. It took several days of careful observation to locate its home and I have taken great care since to never disturb it – the benefits of a stoat in the garden are wonderful.

We have bird feeders in sight of the house windows and enjoy watching the wide range of visitors and are especially delighted when a stranger arrives – the occasional Blackcap or Chiffchaff or the Long-tailed Tits which usually flit along the boundary of the gardens but rarely come to feed. However, my special birds are our pheasants – presently, one cock and two hens – which await me each morning as I go to let out the hens and bring their breakfast of rolled barley and Layer’s Pellets. Mind you, the Hooded Crow, Wood Pigeons and Magpies all wait for this morning delivery also but never come as close as the pheasants who run to meet me when I arrive with food in hand. Hopefully, they will breed successfully again this year and arrive with their clutches of chicks later in the year. Last year, we had 16 pheasants in the garden by mid summer.

Mother pheasant bringing her new clutch for a stroll on the lawn last year
And bringing them on a tour of the flower beds en route to the feeding post.
Pheasant  (1)
Having pheasants in the garden gives close-up views of the beautiful colours of the cock.

These pheasants are part of our garden. They will nonchalantly walk past while we are working and present themselves in a more persistent manner when they would wish to be fed. Fortunately,  I had my camera in hand for such an occasion this afternoon:

I had been watching this dark hellebore for some days, waiting for it to open so I could photograph it against the bright yellow-marked snowdrop in the background.
I lay on my tummy on cold and wet grass to get the angle I wanted and…..
I was photobombed by a pheasant who wanted a snack and who wouldn’t go away.
Now, she is happy with a pinch of rolled barley at her feet.


And keeps an eye on me also…
before toddling off again with a full tummy.

Paddy Tobin

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




Snowdrop House and Castle

Monday was a pet day in an otherwise generally miserable February. We had blue skies and bright sunshine, a crisp spring day, and we were quickly into the car and off up the M9 to visit snowdrop gardens.  Burtown House, near Ballintore, Co. Kildare, is furthest away from us and was our first stop while, later in the day, we visited Altamont Gardens (described in a previous journal) before going on to Shankill Castle in Paulstown, Co. Carlow.

The approach to Burtown House where mature trees are underplanted with snowdrops 
Trees and snowdrops on the drive, a beautiful combination 

Burtown House dates to 1710 when it was built for the Quaker, Robert Power. The layout of the garden is credited to Isabel Shackleton who married the present owner’s great grandfather but in the last twenty years it has been Lesley Fennell and her son, James, who have made the garden their own. The original gardener, Mother Nature and the passing of many years must be credited with what is the iconic picture in the garden at Burtown House, the mass planting of winter aconite under a group of trees to the side of the house. In season, it is one of the most spectacular planting of this sort in the country and it is one of the thrills of the gardening season to see this.

Winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, with snowdrops
Winter aconites in magnificent profusion 

The drive to the house has an informal arrangement of old trees – one horse chestnut is an outstanding specimen with branches sweeping low almost to the ground – and these were underplanted at some time with snowdrops, rather unusually with more Galanthus plicatus than the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. These have spread moderately over the years and would have been better enjoyed if the grass had been cut late last autumn and the debris from the trees cleared away.

Hellebores in profusion 
Winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, with the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis , a pretty combination 

There are further naturalised snowdrops in a small woodland area which is beyond the house and gardens and, here, is it the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which dominates, mainly in its single form though with occasional clumps of the double-flowered form, Galanthus nivalis flore pleno. Nearer the house some new snowdrops have been introduced to provide further interest and diversity but these have not yet built up in sufficient numbers to make an impact. I expect the selection of snowdrops will be increased over coming years so as to attract further visitors.

The woodland at Burtown House with Galanthus nivalis spread about under the trees. 

Shankill Castle is in the village of Paulstown which was for us, before the M9 was developed, no more than a junction on the road to Dublin. Looking over the wall from the car, one could see two parallel raised landforms leading the eye to the front of the castle and I had always imagined it might have contained a formal stretch of water, a canal of sorts, at one time but it appears that this was not the case.

The approach to Shankill Castle with specimens of yew topiary 

An original Butler tower house was rebuilt in 1708 and set in a formal garden landscape with a vista to the front and a canal to the rear. Though the general layout of the gardens is still discernible all is now rather rough and unkempt and the majestic giant Sequoias, a Victorian favourite, must now compete with seedling ash. Without a guide, I could not discern the 18th century lime allees, the 19th century laurel lawn nor the later rose garden except that the latter is not described as “The Moat Garden” and shown on the provided map. We didn’t manage to gain access to the walled gardens but, from looking through the gate, they were empty but for a goat and some ancient fruit trees. There was a further walled garden which we didn’t manage to view and, which I imagine is put to more use because I see that fruit is sold in season.

Snowdrops in the woodland at Shankill Castle 




However, there were snowdrops – thousands and thousands of snowdrops – running through the woodland, along a drive to one of the entrances, scattered here and there under mature trees and, most impressively, in an ancient graveyard which predated the earliest house on the site. The lady who greeted us on our arrival informed us that the first snowdrops were planted only twenty five years ago. Given their numbers this was both surprising and impressive though the style of the planting did indicate the hand of man rather than the whim of nature as almost all were in clumps rather than in more disorganised drifts. Nonetheless, there was a wonderful atmosphere here and especially so in the graveyard where moss covered headstones and bright snowdrops made a fascinating combination.

Snowdrops in the graveyard at Shankill Castle 



Snowdrops on one of the Castle drives. 
The canal to the rear of the castle 

Paddy Tobin

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


Suffering for Snowdrops

The Snowdrop Week at Altamont Gardens has become not only the established snowdrop event of each year here in Ireland but it is, undoubtedly, the best. It has run each year for over ten years and there are many reasons it is so successful.

The front of the house with a mature weeping ash underplanted with crocus, winter aconite and snowdrops
At the rear of the house, looking down through the Rose beds with the iconic large specimen yews and the yew arch leading the visitor to the lake

It the first place, it has the wonderful setting of Altamont Gardens, the gardens of the late Mrs. Corona North and now in the hands of the Office of Public Works, and while these are wonderful gardens at any time of the year there is a special delight in visiting in spring as the plants wake for another season. Perhaps it is a rather peculiar comment to make but, though Mrs. North is dead for quite some years, the gardens continue to be her gardens, in her style, with her feeling about them and this is because of the good fortune that the head gardener, Paul Cutler, worked with Mrs. North for some years before her death, became perfectly familiar with her ethos and has continued to maintain and develop the garden in a manner which is loyal to its creator – a very difficult task but perfectly achieved. Though I can’t say for sure, I believe that Mrs. North saw in Paul a gardener with the same vision of gardening as she had and, so in the most practical manner, she ensured the gardens would continue as she hoped after her death. How odd of me to speak of death in the spring of the garden year but it is part and parcel of life.

The Nun’s Walk which is to the side of the garden with a bank of clipped laurel to the left, as we look at it, and a line of beech trees to the right. The beech trees have been underplanted with large numbers of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and a selection of hellebores in a wide range of colours. Some of the mature beech trees have had to be replaced in recent years, as you can see from the photograph.
The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, with hellebores at the foot of a beech tree.
Nature could not have designed it better: snowdrops among the roots of a beech tree.

Another aspect of the Snowdrop Week at Altamont which contributes hugely to its success is the time the gardeners give to the visitors both in preparation and while the visitors are in the garden. The snowdrops are clearly labelled so it is possible to wander the garden and take note of the various cultivars grown there, enjoy them at your own pace, take photographs etc. or you can join the guided tours where the details of the various snowdrops are given in a very clear and informative way.

Snowdrops planted in a woodland setting

A huge bonus for Altamont is the presence of Robert Millar’s “Altamont Plants” in the walled garden and there are very few garden centres which have what I would describe as such tasty plants, desirable and garden-worthy plants. Yes, it is entering the jaws of temptation in a big way to visit but it is so worthwhile. At this time of the year there is always a great selection of snowdrops – Robert, along with Hester Forde, organises the annual Snowdrop Gala when interesting speakers are brought in to entertain the attendees and where Avon Bulbs, probably the best suppliers of snowdrops in the U.K., bring a wide range and large stock of new and interesting snowdrops each season. Those who attend the gala have first bite of the apple, so to speak, but there is still and extensive stock available in the nursery afterwards for the visitors. I came along a few days after the gala and found the rare and highly-desirable Galanthus ‘South Hayes’ – and at a rock-bottom price, thanks to Robert! At this time of year, the display of hellebores is always outstanding and difficult to resist; as are the witch hazels and the wide array of spring-flowering bulbs – there is always something to tempt the gardener!

Galanthus 'South Hayes'
My special prize from my visit: Galanthus ‘South Hayes’

As well as the immediate interest in snowdrops, Altamont is simply a wonderful garden such that even the non-gardener enjoys the experience. There is the short and very pleasant walk around the garden and the lake- which was half frozen this week, by the way – and the further and longer walk through the glen, to the banks of the River Barrow, up the 100 granite steps and back to the gardens either through the arboretum or via The Temple. There is plenty to interest the avid gardener and those “dragged along” all through the year.

The lake is a wonderful attraction – notice the water in the foreground is frozen!
The reflections show off the trees so well
Plenty of space to walk with the children

We had planned our visit for the Snowdrop Week for the Wednesday but sat at breakfast on Tuesday morning looking out at blue skies and brilliant sunshine and decided to make hay while the sun shone as there was no guarantee that Wednesday would bring better weather. As we travelled northwards on the M9, the sleet began to fall just after Kilkenny – over half way to our destination so we decided to persist. The hills of the Castlecomer Plateau were quickly covered in snow and we felt that, perhaps, we had made a bad decision. Altamont is a cold spot – I recall, during the bad weather of spring 2011, arriving at Altamont and saying to Paul Cutler that we had had -7C during the previous night and the replying that he had recorded -17C in the garden.  We arrived and it was miserable, a strong, cold and cutting wind with driven sleet.

A view back to the house from across the lake showing the snowdrops growing in the grass.
Double borders  (2)
In summer the double herbaceous borders in the walled garden are fabulously colourful but there is interest there at this time of year also with hellebores and snowdrops

We had only entered the walled garden when Robert Millar spotted the two drowned rats from Waterford and took us in for a cup of coffee. It was most welcome and heated us up a little before we ventured out into the garden. We went only as far as the front of the house before we decided that retreat might be the better option and headed off for lunch to The Step House in Borris – which was delicious! It looked like the day was brightening so we decided to head back to Altamont for the afternoon but the weather was only worse. We managed a quick run around the snowdrops and headed home. Monday of this week brought a wonderful day – cold but dry and sunny – and we enjoyed a beautiful time in the gardens.

Hellebores  (9)
Some beautiful hellebores in the walled garden

Hellebores  (8)

Hellebores  (3)

Skimmia red berries  (1)
This Skimmia always delights me with it brilliant red berried in mid-winter
The witch hazel gives wonderful colour and scent in mid-winter
Galanthus elwesii 'Helen Thomlinson'  (2)
And, finally, the snowdrop which Paul Cutler has told me is the most admired and most commented on when he gives guided tours of the collection is Galanthus elwesii ‘Helen Thomlinson’

Paddy Tobin

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