The Making of Place

The Overview!

The extraordinary range of approaches and styles one sees in gardens throughout the world, in different countries and different cultures can be quite bewildering. It is fortunate to have one such as John Dixon Hunt, who seems to have a comprehensive knowledge and grasp of all matters of garden design, to organise such divergent and wide-ranging approaches and present them to us in a way that is easily comprehended. I cannot say that I didn’t find this book challenging – I am no more than an amateur domestic gardener – but I also found it informative, insightful and, very importantly I believe, enjoyable. To be educated without enjoyment would be a dreadful trial and educated I was while certainly enjoying the process.


The traditions of garden design stretch back over the centuries and while many of today’s gardens play homage to this tradition, garden designers of today also seek to be innovative, fresh, spontaneous and reactive to the differing situations with which they are presented as they seek, in the words of the author, to make a place for respite in nature. The author discusses approximately one hundred gardens ranging from large to small, public to private, botanical gardens, campuses academic and industrial, parks large and small, memorial and sculptural gardens, festival and reinvented gardens, even gardens still only on paper, a wide range from around the world – the United States, Australia, China, Germany, United Kingdom and France. Each is discussed and each is assessed for its contribution, importance and influence in landscape design and it is particularly heart-warming that the author can be unhesitatingly honest and critical where such is demanded.

John Dixon Hunt’s early academic career was in teaching English literature. He wrote extensively in this area before pursuing an even more successful and highly regarded academic career in the study of gardens and landscapes. He is presently Emeritus Professor of the History and Theory of Landscape at the University of Pennsylvania, edits the journal Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscape and is the author of many books. Given that he normally writes for an academic readership or those already familiar with gardening philosophy, theory and history it comes as a pleasant surprise that this book is written to be easily accessible to all who are interested in gardening, amateur and domestic as well as academic and professional.

The author’s knowledge seems to be encyclopaedic and his grasp of the subject comprehensive yet he presents a wealth of information and comment in a manner which is a pleasure to read and which gives the reader an overview of the current landscape and gardening scene – quite an achievement and a joy to read.

[The Making of Place: Modern and Contemporary Gardens, John Dixon Hunt, Reaktion Books, London, 2015, Hardback, 304 pages, £25, ISBN: 978-1-78023-520-2]

Paddy Tobin

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





Ice-cream first, then Weeds and Good Bits and Bad Bits – Ness Botanic Gardens!

As we approached the entrance to Ness Botanic Gardens information notices told us that we could enjoy two locally made varieties of ice-cream inside. I suppose we could have been told of worse things but I had come to see plants and a good garden and ice-cream was not of interest, especially as it was early in the morning. So early, that we had arrived a little before the garden’s opening time and, after browsing the shop for several minutes, we went to the plant sales area  which was open, though not for sales. It only added to our bad first impressions as the plants had, for the most part, dried out and the paving slabs of the footpaths were infested with weeds.

At times I can be quite negative in my view of gardens I visit. I become very annoyed with gardens where there a poor standard of maintenance, where weeds are widespread and where there is a general air of neglect. I don’t feel it unreasonable to visit a garden such as Ness Botanic Gardens and expect high standards of gardening, planting and maintenance and find it a huge disappointment when this is not what I experience.

There were many beautiful vistas in the Ness Botanic Gardens but also many areas which disappointed me. I’ll continue with photographs and captions.

Three very attractive vistas which are met very early in one’s walk around the gardens.

Immediately after the enjoyable views above we stopped at this bed of azaleas which was overrun with weeds. 

dsc_0027There were large areas of wildflower meadow which were pleasant, quiet and gave good views to the surrounding countryside. 


When there is widespread concern over the demise of our pollinating insects it is good to see an installation which provides nesting sites for bees. The one pictured above is for solitary bees – I had to wonder if solitary bees would feel at home in this high rise apartment block. Perhaps, they are not quite as demanding of their solitude as I am.  


This pond did not look well – of course, conditions may get ahead of the gardeners but seeing three ponds in this condition was off putting.  

This did not have the appearance of being left on the day we visited but seemed to have been there for some time.

The Rock Garden area is very attractive with mature specimens and comfortable walking pathways. The presence of Mare’s Tail throughout the area was a disappointment though. 

Is it unreasonable of me, when I spend £7.50 on admission, to expect a well-kept garden?

I realise that this is somewhat of a bearbug with me, this disappointment with gardens which charge admission yet do not maintain reasonable standards,  and that I am inclined to rant on about it but that’s how it is with me. Grumpy old man? Maybe! LOL!

Paddy Tobin

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

Orchids – A New Enthusiasm!

Although widespread, orchids are not commonplace and to look at them growing in the wild is one of the great pleasures of the plant world. The Burren in Co. Clare, Bull Island in Dublin and The Raven in Wexford are three easily accessible locations where one may find orchids with ease and there are many other lesser-known spots throughout the country where they can be enjoyed.

A group of Common Spotted Orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsii near Cahir, Co. Tipperary
Pyramidal Orchids, Anacamptis pyramidalis, which were growing company of the Common Spotted Orchids above.

A friend brought me to a population of the Bee Orchid on the sand dunes in Tramore earlier this summer and also to a location in the Comeragh Mountains where Marsh Orchids grew in profusion. Without him I would not have known of these locations and it was a great thrill to see them, a true delight. On a more domestic front, good chance and kind friends expanded the selection of orchids we have growing in the garden and it is wonderful to be able to look at the amazing structures of the flowers and intricate detail of the colours and patterns.

The fabulously beautiful and interesting Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera, photographed on the sand dunes at Tramore, Co. Waterford 


So, while still very much a novice, I have become enthralled by orchids, our natives and those hardy enough to be grown in the open garden. I must confess that I find many of the tropical orchids just a little too gaudy for my tastes but one is never too old to develop a new interest but I hope my days will pass without my feeling any such inclination.

On several of my outings this year I was very fortunate to be in the company of a friend who was familiar with the populations of the sites we visited so he was good enough to point out the distinguishing features of each orchid we encountered. I have found this a very good way to begin to learn about new plants as it gives you a base number which you can confidently identify and when you next encounter an orchid your immediate question is whether it is one you already know or a new discovery for you. In this way you widen your selection gradually and confidence grows.

Three orchids from the Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford. 

My reference book has been Ireland’s Wild Orchids – A Field Guide by Brendan Sayers and Susan Sex which lists and describes, I think, thirty five orchids we might find here in Ireland. This suits me perfectly as it is not too large a number and does not present too wide a selection to the beginner when attempting to identify the latest find. Of course, orchids do not always oblige by remaining true to form and some are inclined to interbreed and present the newcomer with a confusion of features but a new interest and a new enthusiasm propels one onwards.


Bloomsbury have recently published a new Pocket Guide to the Orchids of Britain and Ireland written by Simon Harrap, a man experienced in such guides as he has previously written Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guide (2005 and 2009), Harrap’s Wild Flowers (2013), the RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds (2007 and 2012) and Where to Watch Birds in Britain and Ireland (2003 and 2010) so I reckoned his new book was a good bet to extend my study of native orchids and I was not wrong.

This guide describes the fifty two species found in Ireland and Britain with excellent notes and guidelines to help with identification, along with notes on habitat, biology and conservation. In fact, the text is of such a standard that it raises this book well beyond that of being purely a field guide that one might use simply for identification. The descriptions are detailed and extensive and the over two hundred photographs illustrating the orchids are of an excellent standard though I have enjoyed the detail of the illustrations produced by Susan Sex in Ireland’s Wild Orchids and would have welcomed some photographs which gave more detail – a very minor quibble given the excellence of the photographs and the quality of the text.

This book will certainly satisfy my present interest in our native orchids and will, I believe, serve me well for many years to come. The flowering season is coming to an end but, with winter reading, I will be well prepared for next year!

[A Pocket Guide to the Orchids of Britain and Ireland, Simon Harrap, Bloomsbury Natural History, 2016, Paperback, 255 pages, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1-4729-2485-8]

Paddy Tobin

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



Coming to Terms with Your Plants!

Amicia zygomeris is an uncommon and rather unusual looking plant. The leaves are of a peculiar shape, not unlike those of the tulip tree where what would normally be a pointed end of the leaf is blunt and double-lobed with an almost cut-off appearance leading to the common name of yolk-leaved Amicia and it is this foliage which is most attractive in the plant. On closer approach one sees the purple-veined stipules – which I would have called bracts but now know better – and later in the season yellow pea-like flowers emerge. All in all it is an odd thing, somewhat peculiar and out of the ordinary. Even the name is peculiar. Although “Amicia” is used as a girl’s name and generally explained as “One most loved” this plant is named in honour of John Baptiste Amici, an Italian scientist of the 19th century while the specific name derives from the botanical term “zygomorphic”,  as all parts of the plant display bilateral symmetry.

Amicia zygomeris – a strange plant with an equally strange name

A Botanist’s Vocabulary by Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell lists and illustrates 1,300 botanical terms and, while I would not suggest a cover to cover reading, even a quick browse will throw up some nuggets of interest.


As we enter autumn and winter those who delight in the winter colour of their beech hedges should realise that it is because the foliage is “marcesent” – the withered leaves remain attached. Those stickyback seedheads we threw at our friends woolly jumpers as children displayed “epizoochory”, seed dispersal via transportation on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals). How exactly they also managed to get into our minds and have us throw the seedpods at each other is still beyond me but I certainly recall the fun we had. These seeds could also have been described as “sticktights” – which makes sense!

Some plant parts grow upwards and others downwards: those stems that sprout from the roots of a perennial plant, such as a tree, that has been cut down are called “ratoons” while some bulbs have the ability to reposition themselves at a depth in the soil which is most beneficial to them sending a shoot down from the bulb to develop a new bulb where required and these are called “sinkers” or “droppers”.

During last summer I visited a population of our native Bee Orchid where “sexual deception” was the order of the day – parts of the flower of these orchids mimic a female insect, in this case a bee, tricking the male insect into attempting to mate with it – “pseudocopulation” – which leads to pollination. Clever! Clever as it might be the “perfect” flower is described as one that has functioning female and male reproductive parts!

Ophrys apifera, the Bee Orchid, which uses “sexual deception” for pollination

It is that type of book, in essence a list, a dictionary which one might dip into occasionally as needs be and also come across an interesting term to brighten your day.

Susan K. Pell is the Science and Public Programs Manager at the United States Botanic Garden and, formerly, Director of Science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Bobbi Angell works at the New York Botanical Garden as an illustrator for botanists there.

[A Botanist’s Vocabulary, Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 226 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-563-2]

Paddy Tobin

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



On Reflecting!

We seem to spend quite an amount of time in our gardens yet little time simply looking and reflecting on it. It’s somewhat like the number of seats we have in our garden – we seldom sit on them. It’s a pity we don’t sit more and reflect more as both the garden and ourselves would most likely benefit from it.

Fallen leaves announce the change of season

My morning was spent painting our bedroom and the afternoon clearing up the many branches an unthinking contractor had shredded from any trees and shrubs which had grown through the fence into the farmland surrounding our garden. He had been hired to cut the field boundary ditches and, obviously, failed to distinguish between those and our garden planting. It was upsetting to see trees and shrubs which we had grown and tended for fifteen or so years broken so roughly – this cutting back of ditches is not a precision job but more of a flailing where branches are broken rather than cut. I spent yesterday morning pruning back to undamaged wood over a fifty metre stretch of boundary and today began the cleaning up. It will continue tomorrow and the following day.

Before finishing for the day I took out my camera and went for a stroll around the garden. I find this a wonderful way to make one look at the garden. When you walk around seeking shots for the camera you are more inclined to look in greater detail at the garden that you normally would when working in it – when one’s mind is occupied with the job in hand.

So, what was there to see? Most of all that we are in a time of transition; that the garden is moving from summer to autumn, that the summer display is in its last hooray, that dahlias have performed fabulously this year but are showing signs of the colder nights; that asters are wonderful late-season plants providing excellent colour as are nerines and some of the monkshoods; that hydrangeas are outstanding shrubs and that I will get more of them, particularly  Hydrangea paniculata cultivars; that the first of the trees are changing colour and the leaves are beginning to fall and I shall have to begin collecting them shortly; that Crataegus prunifolius is an outstanding tree which provides beautiful blossom in spring and excellent berries and foliage colour in autumn; that a certain rhododendron has put out the Christmas decorations already; that medlars and quince are almost ready to be made into jelly; that though it seems the year is coming to an end the first snowdrops of the season are already in flower and before this season has ended the next has begun so, really, there is no time to be sitting on those garden seats nor for reflecting on the garden. There is work to be done! There is always work to be done and I enjoy doing it.

Some late season performers in the garden: 

Showing autumn colour:

Paddy Tobin

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


My Favourite Plant

Our local garden club hosted Des Doyle of Lavistown House, near Kilkenny, last evening when he delivered a talk on his favourite plants – a total of forty plants as it turned out! Des showed an admirable reluctance to narrow his selection and I imagine that if time allowed he could have continued to list another forty plants which he loves to grow.

In the course of the talk Des asked us to consider the criteria on which we should select our favourite plant – the most obvious being that it should actually grow for us in the garden! People will have many reasons for their own choices – a favourite colour, a memento of a special day out, a kind gift or a name that coincides with that of a child or grandchild. Immediacy is another influence – what is in flower at the moment is more likely to be favoured that one held in memory or in anticipation.

Some flexibility is called for on occasion: a gardening journalist on a national newspaper once contacted me and asked me to say what my favourite flower was and to write a few lines about it for her. I considered for a day or so and dropped her a line with the information she required. She thanked me but came back the following day and asked if I could make another selection as someone else had also chosen my favourite plant. There is always room for more than one favourite!

Besides the obvious there is one quality which I have found has the greatest influence on my choice of favourites and that is association or connection. Were it an antique or a work of art we might call it provenance – its origins, its history of ownership and how it came into your ownership.

My list of favourites is long; certainly there is a favourite or two for each week of the year but here is a quick selection which has come to mind following Des’ talk last evening.

We started gardening almost forty years ago – marriage, new home and new garden – and our first steps were as often based on best value rather than on best taste. That border which mixed azaleas with dahlias still remains in our minds and we laugh at the incongruity of plants and the clash of colours. However, some memories from those early days are happy ones and are still with us. Two workmates gave us primulas – Primula juliae types – from their mothers’ gardens so we still grow “John Howley’s Mother’s primulas”, all the way from Mooncoin, and “Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primulas” all the way from Ballyhale. In the great scheme of garden primroses neither of these is special but they have connections to friends, their families and memories of our first steps in gardening. Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primula, by the way, has crossed with a native primrose, Primula veris, planted nearby to give a pleasant new addition to the garden.

John Howley’s Mother’s primula – a form of Primula juliae
Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primula with the native Primula veris on the right and a seedling between the two in the middle.

This liking for connection in plants lead to my membership of the Irish Garden Plant Society, a group with a particular interest in plant of Irish connection whether raised or found in Ireland or with a connection with an Irish person. One such, which I grow, is Anemone nemerosa ‘Lucy’s Wood’. It is a light blue variation on our native wood anemone and was found by Evelyn Booth, who wrote a flora of Co. Wexford, in the wood of that name near her home in Bunclody. I also have a pink coloured wood anemone which I found on The Burren that I like very much. For the moment, at least, I refer to it as ‘Burren Pink’.

Anemone nemerosa ‘Lucy’s Wood’ – found by Evelyn Booth near Bunclody, Co. Wexford
A pink-flowered form of Anemone nemerosa found on The Burren.

Orchids had been absent from my garden for many years; I had always been reluctant to grow them as I imagined them to be difficult to please. A friend in east Cork had the native dactylorhiza growing in abundance in her garden and gave me a few some years back. They are now established in grass in our garden and have increased well but have also prompted me to try others and I now have a selection which is thriving. Another was added last evening when local gardening friends, Noreen and Ollie, arrived to the meeting with a pot containing a nice clump of an orchid I had admired in their garden during last summer – another favourite has been added to the garden!

A native orchid now settled in grass in the garden.

What is now a particularly fine and beautiful specimen of Cyclamen hederifolium came from Lindy, a friend in Borris. It has especially good foliage and the clearest of white flowers – good white flowers are especially valued in this species. Planted close to it is a small corm of Cyclamen cilicium, a kind and spontaneous gift from a gardener at the Villa Balbianello on Lake Como last autumn. Plants, memories, connections – favourites!

A particularly fine form of Cyclamen hederifolium
A small plant of Cyclamen cilicium from Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy.

Snowdrops have been a particular interest of mine for several years and snowdrops of Irish origin especially so. Few are as treasured as Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’. It was kindly given to me by Miss Rita Rutherfoord and she, in the company of her mother, had received it from Lady Moore herself during the Second World War as they attended a Sale of Work at the Mansion House in Dublin to support the families of those actively involved in the war. It has a wonderful connection with the original grower and was a very kind gift. Galanthus elwesii ‘Keith Lamb’ is a diminutive snowdrop from the garden of the late Dr. Lamb at Clara in Co. Offaly. Again, it was a kind gift and will be treasured for its connection. Harold McBride is a keen breeder of snowdrops, among other choice plants, and his ‘Waverley Little Egret’ is a little beauty he passed on to me in recent years. Good fortune smiled on me when a friend suggested I visit an old garden as he thought there were some interesting snowdrops there. As it turned out, those he considered interesting were relatively common but I came on a small population of yellow-marked Galanthus plicatus. There were three different forms and one is especially good, quite distinct, and waiting to be named.

Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’, a treasured snowdrop
Galanthus elwesii ‘Keith Lamb’
Harold McBride’s Galanthus ‘Waverley Little Egret’
Found in an old garden, a yellow-marked Galanthus plicatus which is presently under the unflattering name “PT01” Friends have suggested “Pacman” as a possible name because of the shape of the marking but I feel something more Irish or to connect with its origins would be more appropriate.

Finally, for this list could go on and on, I have a beautiful form of Trillium chloropetalum which grows especially well and looks quite fabulous in flower each year. It came from a great and most generous friend, Bob Gordon, in Northern Ireland whom many in Irish gardening circles will know well. This is only one of Bob’s many gifts in our garden for I “blame” him for the large number of snowdrop varieties which we grow.

Trillium chloropetalum from Bob Gordon
Trillium chloropetalum from Bob Gordon, an outstanding plant

Plants have a value far beyond their oftentimes fleeting beauty. They recall the kindness and generosity of friends; they connect us with other times and people long gone. This makes them especially treasured and certainly among our favourites.

Paddy Tobin

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

Just for interest – those other two yellow-marked snowdrop finds.