Too Good to be True?

Have some entertainment gardens left the practices of normal gardening so far to the side that they have become artifices of what a garden should be? Has the desire to be a constantly perfect attraction lead to gardening in a manner and style which is far removed not alone from the practices of the common gardener but from nature itself? Of course, the reasons are perfectly understandable – the desire to attract more and more paying visitors and increased cash flow – normal gardening practices, even good taste, are often sacrificed for these gains.

Troy Scott Smith is the latest head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle Garden has made some interesting comments on the state of the garden and his future plans for it. “Sissinghurst”, he says, “has lost its way. In becoming a totem of horticultural perfectionism, it has forgotten what it really is.” On his appointment, he gave himself time to review the present situation in the garden, going back to the gardening notes of the garden’s creators Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. He concluded that the garden had changed radically over the years since her death and nowadays could be more considered the garden of Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger who had been employed as gardeners by Viva Sackville-West in 1959 and who continued to manage the gardens until 1991. Their successors, Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta continued to maintain the gardens in the style and manner which Pam and Sibylle had established and which the visiting public had come to expect.

Troy Scott Smith is pictured on the cover of Ambra Edward’s book

Under their care the gardens had been brought to a level of perfection rarely seen elsewhere as they wished the garden to look at its best for every day that it was open to the public. Troy Scott Smith believes that the garden no longer reflects the style or the intentions of its creator, being too perfect, fails to show how a gardens changes through the seasons and has concluded that two thirds of the plants grown were introduced by Pam and Sibylle with several of today’s much admired features introduced by Sarah and Alexis all distancing the gardens further from its creator and that now it is time to return it to how Vita Sackville-West imagined it.

Developments at Sissinghurst will be of interest as Troy Scott Smith makes the changes he has in mind. You can read further on his thoughts in a recently published book, Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, published by Pimpernel Press and you can hear Troy Scott Smith speak to the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society in Cork on Thursday, 25th January, 2018 or on Wednesday 24th January 2018 in Enniscorthy at the Co. Wexford Garden & Flower Club..   Both groups welcome non-members – at a small charge.

In general and for the sake of fairness and balance we should consider this perfectionism in gardens from another perspective. We must realise that all gardens are  the construct of the gardener and are always a departure from or, at least, a control of nature. Perhaps, those who have developed gardens of perpetual perfection as discussed above have simply moved further than most along the continuum between what nature dictates and what the gardener can control. We can admire them for the lengths they have gone to in achieving such perfection though it might be a case of being happy to admire such gardens rather than imitating them. It is a question of how much control is too much.

Paddy Tobin

Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today,  Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.

The Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society meets at the Lavanagh Centre, Ballintemple, Cork on the fourth Thursday of the month.


‘Barnes’ is the first!

The first snowdrop of the year is always awaited with excitement and anticipation. Yes, I have already had snowdrops in flower in the glasshouse, as early  this year as the end of September, but those in the garden are the ones most valued and appreciated for they show the wonder of the snowdrop – a little flower which can deft the weather and the season and thrive at what is a most inclement time of the years for flowers and for gardeners.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (14)
The first of the snowdrops to flower in the open garden.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (13)

Galanthus elwesii generally has two green marks on each of the three inner segments but there is group within the genus which has a single mark only which is why they are known as Galanthus elwesii  monostictus, literally one mark. There are several cultivars within this group and the one which does best in my garden is this one, called ‘Barnes’.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (12)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’
Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (6)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’

I have a special fondness for Galanthus elwesii monostictus as it was the first snowdrop I grew from seed and this at a time when the only snowdrops I had in the garden were the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and its double form Galanthus nivalis flore pleno. Those snowdrops grown from seed are still growing well in the garden nearly thirty years after being sown and the number of varieties of snowdrops in the garden has increased to, I imagine, about 250.

Galanthus elwesii monostictus 'Barnes' (2)
Galanthus elwesii monostictus ‘Barnes’

Yet, it is always the first to open which brings the special excitement. More will follow shortly as there are several groups showing their snouts above the ground and, perhaps, a dozen varieties will have opened before Christmas, all quite early as the main snowdrop season does not arrive until February. After that the later varieties will keep the show going until March so there are snowdrops in the garden over six months of the year. Is there a plant to match such a range of flowering times or which provides interest through the dark winter months? Not that I know of and it is one reason I like them so much.

Galanthus 'Faringdon Double' through leaf
Another snowdrop just appearing is Galanthus ‘Faringdon Double’ and I like the way one has pierced the leaf as it grew reflecting the French name given to snowdrop – Perce Niege.

Paddy Tobin

The Tree at the Top of the Field

The tree at the top of the field is in view from the window where I usually sit in our house. It has been part of the scenery for many years, a native oak clothed in ivy, standing proud in the otherwise tidily cut field boundary. I have photographed it many times over the years; it gives setting and interest to colourful winter sunsets and an interesting focal point to daylight shots.

Tree at the top of the field (2)

However, our recent Hurricane Ophelia toppled it, breaking the crown and leaving it lying nearby in the field. No doubt the ivy caught the wind and contributed to its demise for it was a healthy tree. It will probably lie where it is until spring as they field will not be in use until then when it will be ploughed in preparation for a cereal crop. I imagine the broken trunk will remain standing, at least a support for the ivy, and will resprout to form a crown again though hardly as shapely as the original.

Tree at the top of the field (24)

“When the oak tree is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze” Thomas Carlyle.

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Paddy Tobin

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

Just in time!

Hurricane and storm delayed our annual autumn visit to Mount Usher Garden in Co. Wicklow and we feared we had left it too late this year and that the recent violent winds would have left the trees stripped of their foliage and deny us the pleasure of the display of autumn colour we have come to love.

Mount Usher (10)

Spring at Mount Usher has the magic of fabulous drifts of spring bulbs – Scilla biflora, erythroniums, wood anemones, crocus and little pockets of snowdrops but fiery autumn colour reflected on the surface of the River Dartry which flows through the garden creates one of the most magical of pictures.

Fortune smiled on us; the gales had obviously spared the foliage and, although some trees had been brought down by the storms, there was a display to delight us.

Enjoy the photographs!

Paddy Tobin

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