Planting Design for Dry Gardens – Olivier Filippi

Though it might not seem immediately relevant for Irish gardens, the more I read this book the more I enjoyed it, for the philosophy of its approach, the beauty of the book itself and, believe it or not, for the many ways in which this approach to gardening might be applied in an Irish garden situation. Most of all, I enjoyed reading this book because it was obviously based on years and years of observation, trial and error, so the comments and advice contained there come with a gentle but assured authority. It is a gardening book written by a gardener with dirty fingers and broken nails, a man of great experience and great love of plants and gardens.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (1)

The book is written specifically as a handbook for those who garden in dry climates, especially for those who garden in the areas around the Mediterranean. I heard Beth Chatto’s old comment the other day – “Right plant – right place” – that we should choose the plants that suit our garden conditions as these are the plants which will do best for us. Olivier Filippi is saying exactly the same thing with an particular emphasis on the Mediterranean lawn and how to replace it.

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The natural vegetation of the Mediterranean area which was an inspiration for Olivier Filippi
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Allowing the natural dynamics of the landscape free expression!

Quite simple, he states, the lush green lawns we see in British or Irish gardens are not suitable for gardens around the Mediterranean and are only an “invasion in the last decades”. These lawns suit our climates where we have abundant rainfall to maintain them in the summer but to do so near the Mediterranean requires – in the south of France, in Marseilles or Montpellier – 1,000 litres of water per square metre per year! Yes, 1,000 litres per square metre! An incredible amount! A lawn in Andalucía would require 2,000 litres per square metre! The author insists that this is simply unsustainable and unsuitable to the climate in which he lives. While the first gardens of the Mediterranean area always had an abundance of water in rills, pools and fountains, it was never used on grass. This has been a recent trend only.

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Requiring neither watering nor pesticides, the groundcover garden requires less maintenance than the traditional lawn.

George Washington was ever so proud of his lawn at Mount Vernon, grazed by goats, and he lead the way in it becoming a fashion in the United States. The invention of the lawnmower meant the lawn became a practical addition, and obsession, for the smaller household and this became a boom after the Second World War with the development of chemical fertilizers and selective herbicides. Nowadays, 60% of the water consumption in southern California is for the irrigation of lawns and automatic irrigation systems have become a basic garden installation in Mediterranean gardens – again to support the fashion for lush green lawns. Scott and Monsanto have even developed a lawn grass variety named “Roundup Ready” which is resistant to the indiscriminate herbicide ‘Roundup’.

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A mixed groundcover, consisting of Thymus hirsutus, Thymus ciliatus and Phyla canescans

However, with growing awareness of how our gardening impacts on our environment, there has been a movement away from the traditional lawn. We have seen the increasing popularity of the use of meadows of grass and wild flowers, the complete replacement of lawns with groundcover plants as seen at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, the increased use of xeriscape plantings in Arizona and New Mexico which use no water at all and the use of ornamental grasses with herbaceous perennials as lead by Piet Oudolf. We have all read of the wonderful meadows at Great Dixter, the gravel beds developed on the former car park at The Beth Chatto Garden and this movement is spreading and nowadays modern landscape designers in Greece and the south of France are developing gardens which require little water or maintenance and no lawn. Rather than lawns there are natural meadows which are dry in summer and which revive in autumn or there are a variety of groundcover approaches to planting which will give year round interest – all outlined in this book.

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In abandoning the goal of the perfect lawn, gardeners find that more natural lawns bring unexpected pleasures.

Gardeners are becoming more aware of their ecological impact and of their duty of care to the environment: “The model of a garden covered by a perfect lawn which is made possible only by a massive use of water, fertilizers and pesticides is reaching the end of its sway” and gardeners are “turning towards a kind of garden that better respects local soil and climatic conditions.”

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A steppic landscape. The stony soil is dotted with widely spaced patches of vegetation, including thyme, germander, bird’s foot trefoil, cinquefoil and Stipa

This book was originally published in 2011 in French, Alternatives au gazon, and the core of the book, a most perfect practical handbook, sets out Olivier Filippi’s suggestions and guidelines for his lawn alternatives. The various approaches suggested are guided by the proposed use of each area: whether or not it is an area which will be walked on regularly or not, for example. There are plant suggestions and general how-to advice on developing flowering carpets, flowering steppes, gravel gardens, the greening of stony surfaces, perennial shrub and ground covering of large areas, wild gardens and flowering meadows.

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A thick layer of gravel covers the ground between plants in a gravel garden

The section on planning and maintenance is simply stated and perfectly practical with sections on soil preparation, drainage, planting, watering (first year only), maintenance and weeding. The A – Z of plants lists 200 groundcover plants for dry gardens and many of the suggestions will be familiar to Irish gardeners and  made me think that this approach to gardening might not be as foreign as I might have first imagined and the likes of Achillea, Ajuga, Ceratostigma, Crocus, Cyclamen, Erica, Erigeron, Euphorbia, Geranium, to mention a few, certainly find suitable homes in our gardens and, I imagine, there are areas in many of our gardens which could be developed in the manner outlined in this book.

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The successive levels of large limestone slabs are enhanced by edgings of vegetation.

Although written for gardeners in Mediterranean areas I think, more fundamentally, this is a book which calls on all gardeners to be open to new suggestions and approaches in our gardening; to think about how we garden and to be willing to amend our methods to suit more than our present considerations and fashion trends. Do we need to water so much? Do we use chemicals unnecessarily? Do we consider the needs of wildlife? Do we give space to native plants? Do we choose plants which are part of our national horticultural heritage and do we make an effort to conserve them? While this book is a rethinking of the Mediterranean lawn it is also a call to us to rethink our approach to our own garden.

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Flowering meadows enable us to cover large areas while reducing maintenance

[Planting Design for Dry Gardens, Olivier Filippi, translated by Caroline Harbouri, Filbert Press, 2016, HB, Large format, 239pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0-99338-920-7]

Paddy Tobin

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



The Dilemma of Respecting the Elderly!

Some gardens, by reason of their history and previous owners, will have plants which are of great historic and horticultural significance. Their loss might be a great tragedy but their continued presence can be both a great burden of responsibility and an impediment to the development of the area as a garden.

The National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh are home to many magnificent plants



Gardeners of my generation will recall the “miniature” conifer and heather fashion trend in gardening in the 1970s and will, probably, have also found, like me, that those “miniature” conifers did not always behave to their description. The day comes when the mind is finally steeled and the decision is taken to remove them. They leave a gap and are a loss to some degree, yet they open opportunities for the gardener to plan anew, to introduce new plants and for the garden to remain vibrant and interesting.

However, when the plants in question are historically significant the gardener is faced with a dilemma. It was a visit in the last few days to the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow, which brought these thoughts to mind. The gardens have an outstanding and historically significant collection of plants. Here we can see plants such as the weeping cedar of Goa, Cupressus lusitanica ‘Glauca Pendula’, planted between 1820 and 1840 and the peculiar ash, Fraxinus excelsior ‘Monstrosa’, a tree which was noted as being 1 foot tall in 1840!

When Thomas and Janet Acton took on Kilmacurragh in 1854 they planted with enthusiasm and with the advice of David Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin furnished the garden with the choicest plants. The association with Glasnevin continued with Sir Frederick Moore and the planting riches of Kilmacurragh continued to expand, especially  to give a home to those plants which the alkaline soil in Glasnevin did not suit. Sir Joseph Hooker’s 1849 collection of rhododendron seed in the Sikkim Himalaya, after germination at Glasnevin, were grown on in the suitably acidic soil of Kilmacurragh, and developed into Europe’s most comprehensive collection of rhododendrons from Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. Many of these original rhododendrons are still in the garden – the original plants, not subsequent propagated generations, the original plants and so of extreme value for their historical significance and association with such wonderful past generations of Irish gardeners and I wonder if they are a blessing or an impediment to Kilmacurragh’s present day gardeners.


The Broad Walk might serve to consider this thought. It was laid out to the rear of the house by Thomas and Janet Acton in the early 1870s. At the time it was planted with alternate Irish yews, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, the tall and bright red Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’ and Rhododendron ‘Cunningham’s White’ which is lower growing. Given the passage of time the plants, especially those of Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’, are now quite enormous both in height and in width so that The Broad Walk is now not as broad as it once was and here is the quandary: Should the garden plants or the garden design take precedence?

At present, Kilmacurragh has a significant collection of plants but the garden layout has become somewhat overshadowed and overcrowded. We see the same problem with those who are more plant collectors than garden makers; it can be challenging to accommodate a plant collection within a satisfactory garden design.

What will happen at Kilmacurragh? I really don’t know but suspect that, as the present curator is an enthusiastic plantsman, these venerable old plants will continue to be treasured for as long as their good health allows and we may enjoy the garden with them for it would not be the same without them.

Paddy Tobin

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

What a Diva!


Impossibly beautiful, fabulously elegant, deep rose-pink from head to toe and with a sensational presence which effortlessly dominated the garden – this was quite an encounter!

I’m sure you all have had  moments when visiting a garden when you knew you had come on something supremely special, be it brilliant design, captivating plant association or, as with me today, a single plant which simply took your breath away.

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First glimpse – interesting! 

We entered the garden at Lismore Castle and caught a glimpse of colour at the far end of the Lower Garden, near the Berlin Wall, which immediately drew us along to investigate. It was obviously a magnolia but, my goodness, what a colour!

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Looking more and more promising! 

We moved along, giving little attention to other plants along the way and our rush along was well worthwhile.

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It all its glory and looking fabulous – Magnolia sprengeri var. diva!

The first view of the entire tree was breathtaking; this was a truly outstanding magnolia and one of the most beautiful I have ever seen – Magnolia sprengeri var. diva!

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Pink blossom against a blue sky are a perfect colour combination. 
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Magnolia sprengeri var. diva 
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Magnolia sprengeri var. diva 

The plant hunter, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876 – 1930) collected magnolia seed while on his first plant hunting expedition, on behalf of the famous Veitch Nurseries, in south-western China in the autumn of 1900. Plants raised from this collection were put up for sale in 1913 and one was bought by J. C. Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall. When it flowered in 1919 it turned out to have very attractive deep rose-pink flowers while all the other plants produced white flowers. J. C. Williams’ specimen was named Magnolia sprengeri var. diva while the others had Magnolias sprengeri var. elongata. It was named, by the way for the German botanist, Carl Ludwig Sprenger (1846 – 1917) who was a partner in the Dammann & Co. Nursery of San Giovanni a Teduccio, Naples.

As well as its large and beautifully coloured flowers, Magnolia sprengeri var. diva is also strongly fragrant and this gathered wonderfully around the tree in the Lower Garden at Lismore Castle as it is planted in a natural hollow which escapes the breeze and allows the fragrance to linger. What a tree!

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There were other plants and areas of interest in the gardens at Lismore Castle and here is a short slideshow to give you a flavour of our day out. It is worthwhile visiting the gardens right through the year so make your way there at some stage.

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Paddy Tobin

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

Primulas – The Plant Lover’s Guide

Our beautiful native pale yellow primroses announce, “Spring is here” more effectively than any other plant. It is no wonder we love them and delight in seeing them each year. They have a simple beauty which endears them to young and old, to gardener and non-gardener alike.

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Our native primrose, Primula vulgaris 

Beyond the native species of our own country and others there are innumerable cultivars, bred by enthusiastic individuals and by dedicated nurseries,  which now grace our gardens.  Barnhaven Primroses is one such nursery and it enjoys not only a reputation for excellence but is also held in warm regard by those who love to grow these obliging and beautiful plants.

Lynne Lawson and her daughter, Jodie Mitchell, are the present forces behind Barnhaven Primroses. Twenty years ago Lynne moved from the U.K. to Brittany and, by chance, settled within a mile of the Barnhaven Primroses Nursery which had been established there shortly before.  Some years later she, with her husband, took over the nursery and Jodie later joined her there in running the business.

Barnhaven Nursery was begun in Oregon in the 1930s by an out of work pianist named Florence Bellis. She was the first to engage in the hand pollinating of primulas on a commercial basis and produced new strains, introduced new colours – the first true blues and pinks – and transformed the world of primroses in the process. On her retirement in 1966 she passed her stock plants to customers of hers, the Sinclair family, who lived in the Lake District of England and Barnhaven Primulas were based there before moving to Brittany in 1990 under the care of Angela Bradford. David and Lynne Lawson continued the Barnhaven story from 2000 onwards and their daughter, Jodie Mitchell, and family have now joined them in the work.

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Primula ‘Kinlough Beauty’ which originated in Kinlough, Co. Leitrim, Ireland
Primula 'Guinivere'
Primula ‘Guinevere, a very old Irish variety

Mother and daughter, Lynne and Jodie, have co-written this book. It is one of the “Plant Lover’s Guides” series – an outstanding series – from Timber Press and follows the follows the same layout as the others: “Why We Love Primulas”, “Designing with Primulas”, “Understanding Primulas”, “100 Primulas for the Garden” and “Growing and Propagating”.

Without making a song and dance about it – though the book deserves fanfare, drum roll and wild unbridled dance – this is an excellent book to be commended without reservation. It will appeal to all lovers of primulas from beginner to enthusiast, accessible to the former yet interesting and useful to the latter. If primroses are your interest this book will delight you and, if not, this book will convince you that they should be.

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Primula ‘Dark Rosaleen’ – from Irish primula breeder, Joe Kennedy. 

As a final word, I was delighted to see some Irish primulas included in the book: ‘Kinlough Beauty’, ‘Lady Greer’, ‘Guinevere’, ‘Dark Rosaleen’ and ‘Innisfree’ among others and to see a photograph of them growing so well in Carl Wright’s Caher Bridge Garden. We have perfect conditions here in Ireland for growing primroses and this would be an excellent handbook to those who wish to grow them.

Primula 'Dawn Ansell'
Primula ‘Dawn Ansell’ a “Jack in the Green” primula – the flower is surrounded by a ruff of green leaves – raised by Cecil Jones in Wales in the 1960s
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Typical of many of these primroses, Primula ‘Dawn Ansell’ is a wonderfully easy plant to grow in the garden and can be divided regularly to increase numbers.

[The Plant Lover’s Guide to Primulas, Jodie Mitchell and Lynne Lawson, Timber Press, Oregon, 2016, HB, 246 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-645-5]

Paddy Tobin

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

Three Days to Eternity

Dicentra spectabilis
Dicentra spectabilis

We spend time in the garden every day, even on bad-weather days, if only to have a quick peep to see what is in flower, what is doing well, or not, etc. We weren’t out over the weekend as we had an indoor attraction far more important than the garden – a six-month old grandchild in the house! – and a walk around the garden today was a time to notice how much can change in a very few days.

Erythronium 'Susannah' (1)
Erythronium ‘Susannah’

The grass is looking a little fluffy even though I cut it only last week, a real sign that the soil has warmed up and that the garden will be into full and profuse growth from now on; Frittilaria imperialis have come into flower;  the orchids are above ground in the beds and appear to have multiplied – they had been planted as single roots last year so it is good to see them begin to bulk up again; that bergenia that I was told came from Carmel Duignan’s garden has flowers – nice purple foliage and pink flowers, promising!; the first tulips are out in the garden – a yellow one whose name is long lost, T. kaufmanniana ‘Heart’s Delight’ is fully open; the Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, is well into growth showing its yellow spathes; Leucojum vernum are all out of flower but the taller Leuojum aestivuum have continued the show; snowdrops are gone – just a few stray flowers on Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’ in a sheltered spot but daffodils are in profusion, some old varieties which have been years in the garden and some news ones to keep the interest going – one named ‘Chiva’ has multi-headed flowers and truly outstanding fragrance; magnolias are magnificent at the moment with M. soulangeana and M. stellata at their very best – they have escaped frosts this year though it is forecast for tonight; our native primroses are in full flower and their ornamental relatives are also in season; a number of pretty Primula x polyantha – a cross between our native primrose and the cowslip – are looking well in the garden with some different colours appearing also; Flowering currants are in full swing – I enjoy the smell from the foliage!; Erythroniums flower and vanish too quickly but they are so pretty and have such an attractive flower shape that they are worth growing; trilliums are terrific at the moment – I struggled with these for many years but now have a number which are thriving in the garden and it is still a thrill to have them growing well and flowering profusely; Snakeshead fritillaries are doing fabulously in our bulb lawn, they are obviously seeding about very generously and promise to be a feature in future years; what was expected to be an important old Irish daffodil – I received one bulb last autumn – opened today and was not what it should have been.. pffffffffff, there are often disappointments but tomorrow will have something else of interest; Arum creticum will surely open tomorrow and, maybe, the first of the yellow magnolias!

A lot happens in a few days in the garden!

Paddy Tobin

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

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Castlewellan Kindness

A little kindness can make a whole day great. We had wandered around the forest trail in Castlewellan Forest Park but a chance meeting with one of the gardeners changed a rambling, almost aimless, visit into an afternoon we enjoyed thoroughly.

This was our first visit to the Forest Park and we approached through the hilly countryside of south Co. Down to the town of Castlewellan with its spaciously wide main street, two squares and a very attractive Market House (built in 1764) which now houses the public library. It was an impressive approach with the entrance to the estate was directly from the town and I imagine it must the most wonderful amenity for those living locally and, given the number of people walking about, it seems that they take advantage of this and enjoy it.

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There are several forest trails to choose from, some short; some long, and all pleasant
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The park has facilities for horse riding and cycling among other activities.
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Our walk lead to this lake!

At one time the estate belonged to the Maginess family but has been in the Annesley family since 1741 and it was the Annesleys who engaged a French architect to design the layout of the town. The arboretum was begun in 1740 with trees from around the world. Castelwellan Forest Park in now in the hands of the Department of Agriculture and extends to approximately 450 hectares with most being managed as a commercial forest while also accommodating activities such as walking, cycling, horse-riding, orienteering, camping and caravanning. The walled “Annesley Garden” is at the heart of the arboretum which is considered one of the very best in the British Isles and contains the twenty oldest existing specimens in the British Isle, forty two champion trees of the British Isles and fifty champion trees of Ireland, a truly significant and impressive collection.

The “Peace Maze”, made from 6,000 yew plants, was planted in 2000 and 2001, mainly by volunteers, covers nearly three acres and has 2.18 miles of pathways. It was for several years the largest maze in the world and has become a huge attraction to visitors with quarter of a million in the first three years it opened.

Our visit to Northern Ireland was to visit friends rather than gardens and we hadn’t done our normal research into the garden before travelling. On arrival we simply studied the large map in the carpark and headed off on one of the several forest walks which were signposted. It was a pleasant walk – a little fresh air was welcome after the long drive – but held nothing of plant interest. We were at the end of the trail, with map in hand and considering the various signposts, when one of the gardeners came along on a small tractor. He stopped to say, “Hello” and to ask if he could be of help and our visit to Castlewellan suddenly surged from enjoyable and pleasant to being special. We chatted about gardening; that we knew one of the gardeners as we were fellow members of the Irish Garden Plant Society and that we were delighted to hear of the rediscovery in the garden of Narcissus ‘Countess of Annesley’, a late nineteenth century Irish daffodil cultivar which was presumed to be extinct. It turned out that we were talking to the man who had searched out and identified this historic daffodil, had transplanted numbers from other areas in the garden to a place of prominence which it would be admired and, most importantly, remembered. It was a hero moment – meeting somebody who had made a contribution to saving our heritage plants. For the moment, there is a restriction on the distribution of this daffodil as there had been an outbreak of fungal pathogen in the park which the bulbs, possibly, might spread to other gardens with devastating impact on trees – the forest park has cleared a hundred acres of trees to contain its spread.

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The Walled Garden is simply full of atmosphere
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The restored glasshouses, a fabulous accomplishment which will be all the better as they are filled with plants  

Rather than continue our forest walk we were brought into the bothy area, formerly the accommodation of the gardener and also the works yard of the garden and on to the fabulously restored glasshouses which are on a raised area overlooking the walled garden – The Annesley Garden – which holds the treasures of the tree collection.

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This is a golden form of the native Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris ‘Aurea’
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Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris ‘Aurea’ dominated the garden and caught the eye on our visit as the sunshine made it glow. 

It strikes me as an unusual arrangement – a tree collection accommodated in a walled garden amid the formal layout of walkways, ponds and fountains – but it was a very pleasant setting and very enjoyable and, undoubtedly, there was an atmosphere one would not experience in parkland or woodland. It was a magical place, steeped in history, with trees which were truly impressive.

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Check here for information on Castlewellan Forest Park

Paddy Tobin

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



Irish Heritage Plants – A Review

It was a delight to read this review of Irish Heritage Plants – Plandaí Oidhreachta from Fionnuala Fallon in Irish Arts Review

Irish Arts Review 1


Irish Arts Review 2



Irish Arts Review 3

If you haven’t yet purchased a copy of Irish Heritage Plants you can do so on the website of the Irish Society of Botanical Artists

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

Paddy Tobin