Gardening with Good Intentions

The Garden Awakening

The essence of what Mary Reynolds has to say in The Garden Awakening is not only good and worthwhile but essential for our health and the health of our planet. We must take care of this earth and garden in a manner which respects the land rather than do harm to it. However, as I read the book I felt that Mary and I are not on the same wavelength in many ways and that the manner in which she expresses this message imbues it with such a baggage of mumble jumble that people may well disregard it as a result. The message is clouded by its presentation.

Mary Reynold’s show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2002, for which she was awarded a gold medal.

Mary came to prominence after she won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002 with a garden which presented an essence of natural, semi-wild rural Ireland, an Ireland of myths and symbols, an Ireland of simpler times, of simpler farming methods, of times past. A successful career in garden design followed but she reached a stage when she felt unhappy about  the gardens she was designing – this realisation and the way forward was revealed to her by crows in a dream – and she has now returned to an earlier approach.

A medium garden landscaped
A medium garden planted

She sees garden design as a process which “invites nature to express her true self” but comments that “people garden to be in touch with nature but gardens and nature have little in common” and involve “a lot of hard work and vast quantities of chemicals.” I felt this was an unfortunate statement. It was inaccurate, did not reflect my gardening nor that of many others, I imagine, and undermines the central message of the book. There is certainly work in my garden while nature is accommodated and encouraged and there are certainly not vast quantities of chemicals used. A statement early in a book which belittles and derides the efforts and good intentions of others is alienating. Design is a matter of intention, she states, and, while she is against designed gardens, she designs gardens herself but, it seems, sees her intentions as justifying her actions and one must presume that she believes the good intentions of others do not give such justification to their work though it is of a similar nature. She decries the damage done to the earth by ploughing and by machinery; advocates no-dig methods in gardening and farming yet suggests swales, berms and fire pits for her designed gardens which struck me as contradictory. All of her gardens which are illustrated in the book show that each involved considerable earth moving, reshaping and landscaping. I felt there were several such contradictory stances through the book – my intentions are pure and justify what I do while yours are not and what you do is bad for the earth. There seems to be a touch of “do what I say but not what I do”.

A medium garden landscaped
A medium garden planted

The pre-design stage for the gardener involves exercises in connecting with the energetic, emotional and physical body of the land, communicating with it as the land is alive, also conscious and capable of feeling. While I look at and consider my garden space I cannot ever see myself engaging in the exercises she suggests not see any great value in them. Various processes are suggested to heal the land before proceeding. We are encouraged to seek the core truth of the land, its distinctive personality – the genius loci as traditionally called – and each location must be treated separately and allowed to express its own truth so that garden design is a co-creation in partnership with nature – no training is necessary; one should follow no style nor fashion but one’s own intuition.

Perspective detail of a large garden

Each design begins by deciding one’s intentions for the area – “a place alive with the energy of nature”, “a protected place where you and the land can heal and grow”, “a magical place filled with child-like energy and fun” or “a strong flow of creative energy”. Areas of special intentions are selected, patterns and natural shapes are incorporated, symbols and imagery are included and the design is put on paper. Several designs are illustrated by line drawings and I was disappointed that there are no photographs of any of the gardens; in fact, there are no photographs in the book at all which is unusual for a book on gardening.

The second half of the book is concerned with developing a forest garden and alternative management practices. The forest garden is a method of producing food by replicating a woodland system through the seven layers from canopy to ground cover. It is probably not the most practical but would make an interesting gardening area if space allowed. It surprised and disappointed me that many of the trees suggested were non-native species given her comments elsewhere in the book that native plants were best suited to a natural garden. The alternative management approach suggests a more natural approach, less desire for the manicured lawn perhaps, less chemicals and a more natural approach to pest and disease control. The development of a forest garden is probably not practical, because of space constraints, for most people while all could learn and adopt something from the comments on management. However, suggesting that the rooting of pigs to clear the ground is in anyway less damaging than digging the same ground does not make much sense nor the recommendation of a particular breed of goats, especially suited to Californian conditions, to clear unwanted undergrowth.

Planning the layers for the forest garden
A Hugelhultur Raised Bed – tree trunks, branches, twigs, leaves etc covered with soil.

Overall, I found the book awkward to read and have read it three times to fully come to grips with it. So often I was distracted by sections about the spirit of the land, connecting with mother earth, listening and talking to the land, meditating in the garden, of spirituality and old beliefs, allowing my intuition to guide me etc.  Science, horticulture, biology and the needs of the common gardener were, I feel, neglected in this book.

“The land was very different when I was young. The methods of farming were gentler then as industrial farming hadn’t yet been completely embraced and the earth was still teeming with life.” Mary Reynold’s outlook seems to continue to be inspired by the sadness of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, a favourite in her youth but, truly, the earth is not more full of weeping than we can understand.

The earth still teems with life, all is not lost, all is not doom and gloom, and the vast majority of gardeners work in tandem with nature, enjoy their gardens and care for the land.

[The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds, Green Books, Dublin, 2016, Hardback, 272 pages, ISBN 9780857843135, £19.99]


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


The Saving Grace

Is it better to enter a garden, be immediately bowled over by the experience but be disappointed with the garden as the visit progresses or to begin on a low note, feel a little disappointed, but end with an experience of garden beauty that demands you simply sit, look and attempt, even if this is a vain effort, to take in the magnificence and beauty that is presented to you?

Perhaps, it is better to learn from experience to be patient and to be forgiving, to be less demanding and less critical and to give every garden time to tell its story. I must confess to being quick to judgement, to being influenced by the initial impact of a garden and to being slow, reluctant, stubborn even to ameliorate my opinions. It has been suggested in this household that the Victor Meldrew character in the television programme, “One Foot in the Grave” was undoubtedly based on me or certainly presents a reasonably accurate reflection of my behaviour.

I genuinely do not intend nor wish to be harsh or unreasonably judgmental of gardens I visit but can easily feel disappointed, annoyed and even angry when I have paid for admission and find the garden visited is of a poor standard. My friends should be reassured that I do not carry such demands when I visit their gardens – such occasions are for the pleasure of their company and the sharing of gardening chat and the enjoyment of plants and garden.

The impressive approach to Arley Hall through an avenue of pleached lime trees.


A recent visit to Arley Hall (Cheshire, England) was a mixed experience when some areas delighted me and others disappointed. Given that it is an eight acre garden it is not surprising, I suppose, that some areas will appeal while others will not. The entrance is hugely impressive as one walks through a fabulous avenue of pleached lime trees with a view to the clock tower above the Cruck Barn, dating from 1470. It speaks of  a place well established, well settled and comfortable in itself, of generations who have lived, worked and gardened here and promises that the visit will be enjoyed.

A glimpse of the house and the simple and impressive planting of mophead hydrangeas
The Cruck Barn which dates from 1470

The entrance is via what was once the farmyard and the impressive outbuildings still stand proud and in excellent condition. This yard now has three garden areas wrapped around it – The Flag Garden, The Kitchen Garden and The Walled Garden. Each area in turn disappointed; each had the promise and the facility to be excellent but none reached that standard. The Flag Garden was tired and past its best though a Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Roseum’ grown on the wall was very attractive. The Kitchen Garden was well organised  but also weedy in places – something which irritates me very much! The Walled Garden was in need of rejuvenation with many plants, mainly shrubs and small trees, in need of replacement – the borders were gappy.

The Flag  Garden, a small garden space planted mainly with roses and lavender 
Schizophragma hydrangeoides on the wall of the Flag Garden
The Kitchen Garden
The glasshouse in the kitchen garden 
The Walled Garden
The Walled Garden

The impressive gates of the walled garden led us to an area which at once surprised, delighted and took one’s breath away. Here was one of those rare gardening experiences where one saw genius and beauty combined to perfect effect. It is without doubt the jewel of the gardens at Arley Hall and would a jewel in any garden in the world. It was quite simply outstanding, a combination of structure provided by the yew hedges and the colour of the herbaceous planting. It was a situation where the overall effect far outweighed the sum of the parts and I reflect now that I did not walk the borders to pick out the various plants included in the planting because the individual plants were only  of significance in that they contributed to an overall picture. The gardens were very quiet – only two others that we say – and we sat for a long time in The Alcove to enjoy this marvel of gardening.

The Alcove situated at one end of the herbaceous borders is the perfect place to sit and enjoy the experience. 
The double herbaceous borders 
Truly, fabulously beautiful! 
The Saving Grace – the double herbaceous borders. 

With my spirits raised I moved along to enjoy the Tea Cottage and its garden, built for the children of a previous generation of the family, and the Fish Garden, a small sunken garden and The Ilex Avenue, an impressive planting of clipped hollies. The Rootree was rather a wilderness and I did not dally  before making my way back to the house along the Furlong Walk, a pleasant straight walk with garden to one side and farmland to the other.

The Tea Cottage and its garden
The Ilex Avenue
The Fish Garden

We made a quick visit to the Plant Nursery – closing time was quickly approaching – and found a few nice plants to bring home. Our final impression of Arley Hall was that of the man  who served us in the Plant Nursery who went to generous lengths to ensure our plants were well packaged so as to travel safely on our return journey to Ireland.

Paddy Tobin

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

Magnificent Magnolias

As I live very close to Mount Congreve Gardens in Waterford, magnolias are a big part of my gardening year as I can see not only an unrivaled selection of magnolias but also plantings in numbers which cannot be seen anywhere else. The February flowering of Magnolia campbellii, a planting made over fifty years ago by the garden’s owner and creator Mr. Ambrose Congreve, is one of the most fabulous planting of magnolias anywhere in the world. The storms of February 2014 did a great deal of damage in the gardens but such events can at times bring improvement and the loss of two large cherry tree to the side of a pathway in one of the higher parts of the garden suddenly opened a vista over 150 metres of the canopies of Magnolia campbellii, a vista the famous horticulturalist, Roy Lancaster, said he had never witnessed in all his travels, not even in the forests of China, the natural home of Magnolia campbellii. There are as many Magnolia campbellii again in other parts of the garden and an avenue of Magnolia x soulangeana of over 100 metres.


I cannot think of any other tree which gives as spectacular a display in the garden as the magnolia and while many are what might be described as forest trees, growing to fifty  feet or more, there are also many others which are perfectly suited cultivation in smaller gardens. Magnolia x soulangeana is probably the most commonly grown of these, a cross between Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliflora made by Etienne Soulange-Bodin in Paris and which first flowered in 1826. In its various guises it has graced gardens worldwide ever since. Its creator had served in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte before his retirement to establish a nursery in Paris and his interest in magnolias and I always feel gladdened that he did not follow his own comment on war – “It would have been better for both parties that they stay at home to grow their cabbages.” Though, to be accurate, it seems he grew vegetables to a standard and in a variety not previously seen in Europe and his plant interests covered other species also; dahlias being one favourite.

There are many, many other magnolias – species and innumerable cultivars – which would add beauty to our gardens and joy to our senses. The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias by Andrew Bunting gives a detailed description, along with excellent illustration, to 146 from which we might choose. The information for each is clear and concise and will guide selection with notes on size, hardiness and flowering times – somewhat critical with magnolias as those which flower earliest are prone to frost damage so it is important to make choices to suit your local conditions. There are introductory chapters: “Why I Love Magnolias” – which seems superfluous to me as I could not understand why anybody would  not love them – “Designing with Magnolias” and “Understanding Magnolias” which together give an informative introduction to the main section of the book and there is a concluding chapter on “Growing and Propagation Magnolias”.

Andrew Bunting is assistant director of the garden and director of collections at Chicago Botanic Garden and had previously worked at the Scott Arboretum in Pennsylvania for 25 years where he built a national collection of magnolias which gained recognition by the North American Plant Collections Consortium. So, quite simply, he is well experienced and well qualified to write a worthwhile book on this species. Given his background it is, perhaps, not surprising that he writes from an American perspective and that his comments relate to North America more specifically than to western Europe. Indeed, to my disappointment, neither Mount  Congreve nor Ireland receive a mention other than the listing of “Marjorie Congreve” as a form of Magnolia campbellii.

Nonetheless, my local bias aside, I could not but recommend this book. It is the most comprehensive, compact and convenient presentation on magnolias that is available. It is well written, well illustrated and wonderfully produced – another in the series of “Plant Lover’s Guides” from Timber Press, a thoroughly excellent series. If you are thinking of having some magnolias in your garden I would suggest you first purchase and read this book. Few garden centres stock a selection of magnolias so you will have very little choice locally. However, with a little research in this book, you can make a well-informed choice and may then to go on to source the tree which will give you joy and pleasure for many years to come.

[The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias, Andrew Bunting, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 229 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-604-659786]

Paddy Tobin

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



Pottering about in the Garden!

The quiet times in our gardens regularly allow us to enjoy delightful moments when we may witness scenes not enjoyed by those who rush along through life – the robin who comes to snap up the disturbed worm, the wood pigeon bathing in the garden pond, the house sparrows raiding the hens’ food, the stoat bouncing among the shrubs, the young foxes stealing our shoes, the grey crows who work as a team with one teasing the cock pheasant to distract him from his food so another another may slip in to steal it or the silly pheasant who stands in front of me and does her dance of indecision to and fro before eventually going on her way.


For one more gifted, the rabbit becomes Peter or Benjamin; the hedgehog is Mrs. Tiggy Winkle; the duck is named Jemima; the frog morphs to Mr. Jeremy Fisher; and there is Squirrel Nutkin, Miss Moppet, the cat and, of course, Tom Kitten; Samuel Whiskers the rat; Ginger and Pickles, a dog and cat and many, many other animal characters which featured in the fabulous tales penned by Beatrix Potter and enjoyed by generations of children such that 150 million copies of her books have been sold around the world and continue to entertain children to this day.

Martha McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales is a biography of Beatrix Potter from her childhood days in London to her later life in the Lake District, exploring the influences and experiences which lead to the creation of her wonderful characters and books though her personal life and marriage and her activity  as a land conservationist, eventually leaving vast tracts to the National Trust. It is an account which gives a very interesting insight into one of the best known of English authors.

This is followed by a season by season description of a year in her garden – and she was a most enthusiastic and competent gardener as well as being an efficient estate manager. Despite her wealth and success her garden was a very modest one because this is how she wished it to be and how she enjoyed it and, perhaps, this account of her gardening also gives a great deal of insight into her character and personality.

A final section gives a guide to the tourist who might wish to visit her gardens – she had several houses and gardens in the Lake District – with all information that the visitor might need.

This was a very interesting read, one I enjoyed very much, especially so to see how many of the illustrations in her books were paintings of scenes in her own gardens or neighbourhood.

[Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, Martha McDowell, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2013 – in its fifth reprint in 2015, Hardback, 339 pages, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-363-8]

Paddy Tobin

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



Give a lot; Demand little!

Geraniums are among the most popular of garden plants and it is easy to understand why. They are versatile, easy to please and excellent performers. It is easy to find cultivars which will suit sun or shade, those for border display and others for ground cover under shrubs and trees.


Robin Parer is the owner of “Geraniaceae”, a mail-order nursery in California and specialises in geraniums with, at last count, 398 varieties on offer. She is the author of “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Hardy Geraniums”, one of twelve titles in the series of Plant Lover’s Guides published by Timber Press. This is the ninth of the series that I have read and it is a testimony to the design, editing and production standards that it appears as fresh and as interesting an approach to a plant genus as the first I read.

Geranium 'Rozanne'
Geranium ‘Rozanne’ regarded as the best perennial plant of the century!

As with others in the series, there are three introductory chapters, “Why I love Geraniums”, “Designing with Hardy Geraniums” and “Understanding Hardy Geraniums” before we get to the core of the book which is a selection of the very best and most suitable geraniums for our gardens. Every gardener seems to love viewing good plant photographs, reading of the plants and wondering if there is a place in the garden which would be perfect for it – the perfect fit of plant and conditions.

Geum 'Tai Mai' with Geranium 'Splish Splash'
Geranium ‘Splish Splash’ with Geum ‘Mai Tai’
Dianthus with Geranium sanguineum
Geranium cinerium with dianthus in the foreground

Robin Parer’s treatment of this selection divides into a number of categories, something probably unnecessary given the versatility of geraniums in the garden, but here it is used to highlight some aspect of each group so as to make our perusal all the more interesting. However, with the exception of the more demanding alpine species and those tender to our climate – which are quite few in numbers – the vast majority of the geraniums described are amenable to general planting in our gardens.

Geranium 'Mrs Kendall Clarke'  (2)
Geranium ‘Mrs. Kendall  Clarke’

A total of 140 hardy geraniums are beautifully illustrated, described succinctly, accurately and informatively and will lead the avid gardener to seek out more varieties for their own use. For example, I have a bed in the garden about 30 metres X 4 metres which has a line of mature ash trees running along the boundary behind it. It is an excellent bed for spring plants and I have snowdrops there in large drifts. Finding a plant which will grow over snowdrops without choking them is a challenge in itself so there is a great delight to find a geranium that will do this, will flower well, can be propagated easily and will thrive in the deep shade and arid conditions that the ash trees create. Geraniuim x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ (white flowers)has performed that task perfectly for over ten years and three years ago I added Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Karmina’ (pink flowers) to the planting. I came on Geranium x cantabrigense ‘Cambridge'(a lighter pink) only a fortnight ago but, with the help of this book, I now have another selection I can seek out – with eleven cultivars of this cross described. This is just one example of the wealth of information in the book and why it will be so useful to the gardener.

Geranium cantabrigense 'Biokovo'
Geranium x cantabrigense ‘Biokovo’ – a perfect plant as groundcover over spring bulbs in dry shade

A later section of the book deals with “Growing and Propagating” – excellent information –  while there is also information on where one might buy or see plants along with other minor offerings in the appendices.

Each of the books in this series has been a joy to read and likely to be a standby reference book for many years to come with abundant material for the enthusiast as much as for the beginner. A success!

Geranium nodosum ex Frances McDonald
Geranium nodosum which thrives in shade

Oh, by the way, the term “hardy geranium” seems to be gaining in usage as the confusion between “geranium”, the garden plant, and “pelargonium”, the house geranium, continues with some!

[The Plant Lover’s Guide to Hardy Geraniums, Robin Parer, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 272 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-418-5] 

Paddy Tobin

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