How Will He Be Remembered?

Will it be as a politician or as a gardener? Michael Heseltine has an established reputation as a long serving politician in the United Kingdom while his significant contribution to English gardening may not be as widely or as popularly known. Hopefully, “Thenford” written by Michael and Anne Heseltine and describing the development of their garden may go a long way to change that balance.

Thenford 2

A simple comment might be that this is a substantial, impressive and significant – and beautiful – book and that such is appropriate given the garden it describes.

The early chapters recall the search for a new home – brought about by the necessity of living close to the political constituency and being in touch with his constituents. When Michael and Anne Heseltine arrived at Thenford it was not in a dreadful condition but the estate had been significantly reduced in size over previous years through land sales and there was general need for a good renovation and a new spark of life and this they brought with enthusiasm and vigour.

Thenford village is part of the estate and the renovation of many of the houses there along with the reconfiguration of other for community/public use demanded early attention. The initial attention to the garden was to the area immediately around the house but was extended quickly to digging out a series of lakes and the start of the arboretum – Yes, Michael and Anne might well be called Mr. and Mr. Whirlwind!

Lanning Roper was engaged to advise on the area around the house and Hillier’s – in the person of Roy Lancaster – for the arboretum and further plantings. It was interesting to note throughout the book, and the various projects described, that those whose advice was sought were all horticulturalist and plant enthusiasts, something which clearly reflects Michael and Anne Heseltine’s love of plants.

Subsequent chapters, with the authors writing on those areas which are their particular interest, describe a range of projects undertaken over the years. The range and the scale of these projects are staggering for this is certainly gardening on a grand scale. We read of the development of the drives, the water gardens, woodland, a sculpture garden, the walled garden, the herbaceous borders, the rill (Wow!), the rose garden etc. and what I found most charming and pleasant throughout was the tone of the writing. Both are obviously very practical people, used to gardening, used to the trials and errors and are perfectly down to earth and honest in their accounts. Mistakes were made – who hasn’t made them! – and these are recounted candidly and honestly and a good sense of humour. The entrance gate with the arch too low so that vans hit it on entering or the lake with several small islands – it was only after flooding the lakes that they realised it would have been cleverer to have planted the trees on the island first rather than trying to bring them out in a small punt. However, it is well that the authors can say, “Looking back, there were mistakes but no regrets.”

When interviewed for the Daily Mail, Michael Heseltine said that none of his political battles or achievements will matter one jot 100 years hence and that his former Deputy Prime Minister days are not what he will be remembered for but his garden. What people will recall, he says proudly, is his garden. ‘Who can recall the name of any 19th-century politician except perhaps Gladstone, Disraeli or Pitt? But people know Westonbirt,’ he says, referring to Britain’s most famous arboretum in Gloucestershire, established in 1829.

Presently, I can only judge the garden by the book – having never visited – but I believe Michael and Anne Heseltine have made a magnificent and beautiful contribution to English gardening. In the meantime I commend this book to you wholeheartedly. You will enjoy it.

Here is a selection of images, taken from the book, to give you a flavour of the book and the garden.

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[Thenford, Michael & Anne Heseltine, Head of Zeus, 2016, Harback, 319 pages, £40, ISBN: 9781784979737]

Paddy Tobin

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

Catching up!

I have given up!

I try to be diligent with my books – read one and write a review – but my routine was broken and I have failed to recover. Earlier in the year  my laptop went on the blink for about a week so there was reading time but no facility to write the reviews.

Of course, in the meantime, more and more books have arrived and the temptation to read the new is always greater than the duty to review the old. Who has not been tempted by the latest arrival, the latest divinely smelling, fresh off the press and still crispy book?

To make amends, to some degree, I have put those books, enjoyed over the week of laptop absence, into one review and hope you will find one which will tempt you to enjoy the pleasure of a good book. (pssst….I have put them in order of my enjoyment of them!)

You should have been here last week

This was the perfect book for the Christmas stocking  – small, compact and a little treasure. It is a collection of Tim Richardson’s columns, articles, essays and reviews and they are, first and foremost, entertaining but also informative and thought provoking. Tim Richardon’s style is witty, insightful, provocative and, above all, enjoyable and fun to read. I loved it! Loved it! [You Should Have Been Here Last Week, Tim Richardson, Pimpernel Press, 2016, Hardback, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN: 9781910258354]

All the Presidents' Gardens

Michelle Obama brought media attention to the gardens of the White House with her vegetable garden but she was not the first resident to make an impact on the eighteen acres around the President’s residence. Martha McDowell recounts the contributions – or lack of them – of the many residents over the past centuries. The beautiful Rose Garden of the Kennedys will be well known but there are many, many more interesting stories: Eisenhower’s putting green, Lincoln’s goats, Amy Carter’s tree house, Gerald Ford’s swimming pool, George H. W. Bush’s horseshoe pit and Bill Clinton’s jogging track among them. Kings and Queens walked these grounds but Presidents and their families shaped them – in most interesting ways. A very well researched, well written and well presented book – very enjoyable! [All the Presidents’ Gardens, Marta McDowell, Timber Press, 2016, Hardback, 336pp, £20, ISBN: 9781604695892]

Lives of the great gardeners

Stephen Anderton presents essays on 40 gardeners over a time spread of 500 years though with a strong leaning to those of the 20th century. Rather than a chronological sequence the gardeners are organised thematically: “Gardens of Ideas/Straight Lines /Curves/Plantsmanship” and includes Sir Roy Strong, Lancelot Brown, Russell Page, Graham Stuart Thomas, Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto and Piet Oudolf  among others – something for everybody! The essays are biographical rather than critical and, given Stephen Anderton’s pleasant style, are light, enjoyable and informative. I found this a very informative and enjoyable read; an easy-going read, pleasant and unchallenging, sure to appeal to all. [Lives of the Great Gardeners, Stephen Anderton, Thames & Hudson, 2016, Hb, 304pp, £24.95 ISBN: 9780500518564]

The Quest for Shakespeare's Garden

Did Shakespeare ever garden at New Place? Probably not, but that small fact has not stopped generations celebrating his garden at Stratford on Avon – and it has recently been completely renovated with the installation of an Elizabethan style box parterre! There are no plans which show that such a garden existed at New Place but it is supposed that it is the style of garden he would have had if he had a garden! (Truth and accuracy, obviously, will never get in the way of a good money-generating tourist attraction!) Despite my attitude to this fallacy of garden recreation I enjoyed this book enormously for Sir Roy Strong explores all these matters in a wonderfully insightful and informed manner and considers them of great gardening significance for, as he writes, “this recreated Elizabethan garden is not just sentimental curiosity but a milestone in the emergence of garden history and recreation,”and he describes the garden as “the first major public attempt in England to accurately recreate a garden of another age.” An excellent read! Truly enjoyable!   [The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, Sir Roy Strong, Thames &Hudson, Hb, 112pp, £14.95, ISBN: 9780500252246]


This book is not about growing carnations but about the social and cultural history of a plant which has delighted people for centuries. The carnation challenged the tulip as the florist’s favourite and was as popular a hobby plant in its era as the auricula. Time after time the author presents fascinating associations and facts about the carnation that makes this book a most enjoyable read. Very enjoyable! This is one of a series of such books, each on a different genus, and each dealing with the social and cultural aspects of the plant rather than its role in the garden. A nice series! [Carnation, Twigs Way, Reaktion Books, 2016, Hb,  224pp, £16, ISBN:  9781780236346]

There are five delicious books waiting for me to read. I can now go ahead and read these without the nagging in the back of my mind that I should first have reviewed those read previously! It has been a spring cleaning of sorts!

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



What were they thinking?

How often have you looked at a designed landscape and wondered what had inspired the creator to develop the area in this particular way! This book has been both a revelation and a comfort as there are times when the source of inspiration may be clear and obvious – for example, when the garden is an obvious reflection of its surroundings – while at others it can be quite obtuse as when the designer, in search of inspiration, delves into childhood experiences of which, of course, we could have no knowledge and, so, are unable to be in a position to interpret their design.

The Inspired Landscape

The designs, twenty one in total, discussed in this book are outside the experience of the vast majority of gardeners and while I have referred to them as “gardens” above it would be more accurate to call them “landscape designs”. They are far from the domestic in their dimensions, scale and impact and are truly impressive, awe-inspiring and works of art in themselves. The gardener of domestic experience could well be puzzled by them but Susan Cohan’s book provides a wonderful, insightful and very interesting insight into what lay behind these landscapes; what it was that inspired each designer.

Some were pleasantly obvious and, to me, comfortable: Shlomo Aronson’s design at the Ben-Gurion University of the Neger, Beersheba, Israel is directly inspired by the surrounding desert landscape, for example, while Charles Jencks’ design for the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre, Inverness, based on dividing human cells is not immediately obvious. Likewise, without being informed, it is not obvious that Tom Stuart-Smith’s box parterres in the walled garden at Broughton Grange are based on a microscopic picture of the cells of leaves. Some designers carry on in the style of local gardening traditions, others look to other garden designers for inspiration (is this copying?) while sculpture, plant form, even clothing patterns have inspired others. Some look to the past, – history, myths and legends – while others can impressively embrace the past and bring in along into the present and into the future, such as Peter Latz’s Landscape Park in Duisboury Nord, Germany, where he took a derelict industrial area of vast scale and, rather than clearing the area to begin on a blank canvas, kept as much as possible or ore bunkers, railway tracks and immense walls and made garden spaces within them which have served the community splendidly.

Each project is well illustrated with initial sketches and plans, design drawings and photographs with an outline of the journey from inspiration to completion. The author’s interviews with the various designers have provided an insight into an area with which I would be otherwise unfamiliar and have made the reading of these landscapes very enjoyable indeed. This is an excellent book to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace and includes work by:

  • Shlomo Aronson, Sheila Brady, and James Burnett
  • Gilles Clément, Gary Hilderbrand, and Charles Jencks
  • Mary Margaret Jones, Mikyoung Kim, and Peter Latz
  • Shunmyo Masuno, Signe Nielsen, and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
  • Laurie Olin, Ken Smith, and Stephen Stimson
  • Tom Stuart-Smith, Christine Ten Eyck, and Ryoko Ueyama
  • Kim Wilkie, Thomas Woltz, and Kongjian Yu


 [The Inspired Landscape, Susan Cohan,Timber Press, 2016, Hardback, 272pp, £35, ISBN: 9781604694390]

Paddy Tobin

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


Roy Lancaster: My Life with Plants

Roy Lancaster

Roy Lancaster’s first interest in flowers was in the wild flower of the countryside around Bolton where he was born in 1937. He began work with the Bolton Parks Department, spent two years in Malaya as a national serviceman, two years at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens as a gardening student and 18 years with the Hillier Nurseries before going on to a successful freelance career which included radio and TV work, journalism, two of the greatest books on plant-hunting, international consultancy work and innumerable awards and honours yet, through this lengthy career it was plants, and particularly plants growing in the wild, which held his heart and fired this enthusiasm. He was and is the ultimate plantsman.

roy-lancaster - from RHS
Roy Lancaster – photo courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society

He comments that he had the “good fortune in having spent my life in the company of plants” and that he was “a plantsman who loves storytelling” – and here is the essence of this book. As he recalls his life from childhood to the present day the overlaying theme is that of plants, his joy in encountering them for the first time, particularly so if this was in the wild, the associations and memories they hold for him of so many treasured friends, many now gone, and, above all, the sheer delight and wonder he saw in each encounter. He writes with enthusiasm, unbounded knowledge, and undiminishing sheer delight.

Dahlias, chrysanthemums, laburnum and privet were the plants of his childhood home but he soon began exploring the local countryside. He began work at 15 in Bolton Parks Department and, with national service, spent two years in Malaya where he recorded, collected and corresponded on his new plant encounters. Two years as an apprentice gardener followed at Cambridge Botanic Gardens before going on to the Hillier Nurseries where, to mark their centenary, he expanded their plant catalogue to the Hillier Manual, first published in 1971, and became curator of the Hillier Arboretum. The arboretum was passed to the County Council and shortly afterwards he left to begin his freelance career, a daring move which proved hugely successful.

There had been a three month expedition to Nepal in 1981  – this, and his further plant hunting expeditions in China (11 in total) are given only mention in this volume as they are covered “A Plantsman in Nepal” and “A Plantsman’s Paradise: Travels in China”, two magnificent volumes which enthused gardeners worldwide.

These publications lead to demands for him to lecture worldwide and he was particularly popular in the United States and each trip provided further opportunity to see plants in their native environment – and it seems that this was nearly as important to him as the basics of earning a living! There are many amusing stories from these lecture tours and recollections of meeting many interesting people.

roy lancaster - from Country Gardener
Roy Lancaster – photo courtesy of Country Gardener

There were eight years of appearances on the BBC’s Gardener’s World and other programmes followed with Channel 4: “In Search of Wild Asparagus”, “The Great Plant Collections”, “Garden Club” and, of course, many years on “Gardeners’ Question Time”. He has contributed to a long list of magazines and journals, including forty years contributing to the RHS “The Garden”.

It was a long and interesting career and his recollections in this autobiography will delight all gardeners and plant lovers. The book ends with a tour of his own garden, a selection of the plants he grows there and the friends, colleagues and associations they each recall. Finally, another group of students – regulars from Kew and Wisley – come on a visit and it brings him back to where he started himself as an enthusiastic student. His secret and success is that he has held this enthusiasm through his entire life and, while accolades, honours and awards were plentiful, it was the love of plants which fired his soul.

Roy Lancaster

[Roy Lancaster: My Life with Plants, Roy Lancaster, Filbert Press in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, 2017, Hardback, 312 pages,£25, ISBN: 978-0-9933892-5-2]

Paddy Tobin

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

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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (3)
The natural vegetation of the Mediterranean area which was an inspiration for Olivier Filippi
Planting Design for Dry Gardens (4)
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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (5)
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’.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (6)
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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (7)
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.”

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (8)
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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (9)
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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (10)
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.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens (11)
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


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.

Primula vulgaris (1)
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.

Primula 'Kinlough Beauty' (1)
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.

Primula 'Dark Rosaleen' 20100412
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
Primula 'Dawn Ansell' (1)
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

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