Winter Gardens

The winter garden is an opportunity for imagination, surprise and great beauty and Cedric Pollet’s book, Winter Gardens – Reinventing the Season,  will certainly open your eyes to the possibilities, inspire you and move you to no longer think of winter as the closed season but as another vibrant time in the garden.











In the early 19th century the “winter garden” referred to the amazing glass palaces in towns such as Bath, Brighton and Harrogate where people could gather in winter to amuse themselves, dance and listen to music. By the early 20th century these had all but disappeared as they were so expensive to maintain. Gertrude Jekyll’s “Planting for Winter Colour” was published in 1908 but interest in winter gardens only became more widespread some years later. Stanley Whitehead published his “The Winter Garden” in 1948 and Graham Stuart Thomas his “Colour in the Winter Garden” in 1957. In 1951 John Gilmour, Director of the Cambridge University Botanical Garden, devoted an area specifically to a winter garden. Adrian Bloom developed his winter garden, mainly of miniature conifers and heathers, at Foggy Bottom in 1962. Peter Orriss, Director of Gardens at the University of Cambridge developed and expanded on the concept of the winter garden and broadened the range of plants used in such schemes. Other gardens followed suit and winter gardens were developed at Wakehurst Place, Rosemoor, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Anglesey Abbey among others. The trend also grew on the continent with Princess Greta Sturdza at Vasterival in the vanguard.

Winter Gardens (20)

The winter garden is often very simple and effective where the use of a limited range of plants seems to work best. Plants with interesting and attractive winter bark are most valued and it can come as no surprise that birch, maple and dogwood are dominant. Winter flowering plants and those which carry berries in winter are also greatly valued. The introduction of a wide range of plants by the plant hunters who went to China and the Far East in the early 20th century was of enormous benefit and provided excellent stock for the developing winter gardens.

Cedric Pollet, whose love of the winter garden has been shown in his previous book, “Bark, An Intimate Look at the Worlds Trees”, has always been fascinated by this form of gardening. He is also an excellent photographer and allows his photographs to carry this book – “an image is often much more effective than long descriptions” – and so this is a book where photographs dominate though it must be acknowledged that the text, though short, is well written, effective and a perfect companion to the illustrations.


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A selection from the photographs in the book. 

There are three main sections in the book: “Four Favourites” gives extended reports on the gardens of L’Etang de Launay, Jardin de Bois Marquis, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Bressingham Gardens. “Sources of Inspiration” gives a brief insight into sixteen other gardens while “The Plant Palette” lists plants suitable for the winter garden. All in all this is a visually very appealing book with a pleasant text to link the illustrations tastefully and effectively.

[Winter Gardens – Reinventing the Season, Cedric Pollet, Frances Lincoln, London, 2017, Hardback, £30, ISBN: 978-0-7112-3915-9]

Paddy Tobin



Gardens of the High Line

For many years I walked and enjoyed the wildness of a deserted railway line close to my home. The interaction between the industrial hard landscape and the gradual but persistent encroachment of nature is always fascinating and it was such a scene in New York which inspired the development of the High Line, one of the most interesting and challenging of modern gardens. The team that designed the High Line was led by the landscape architectural firm James Corner Field Operations who invited the architectural firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro to collaborate in design and Piet Oudolf to bring the project to life with his naturalistic plantings. This book tells the story of this project to date for it is a story which has not finished, as no garden is ever finished but continues to develop and change over time.

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The railway line was built in 1931–’34 and was quite literally a life line for the city and now in its new reinvention might be considered such again. It was an all freight line bringing milk, butter, eggs, meat and cheese from upstate farms into the city until it closed in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nature crept in; wild plants established themselves, annuals and herbaceous perennials, shrubs and even trees and, of course, the fauna which such plants support. The designed garden of the High Line aimed to be in line with how nature was acting though not a natural garden but a naturalistic one. It was designed for change, as change is part of nature, a garden for ecological succession so that while around 400 different plants were introduced there is “a sense of letting wildness come through”, of letting it happen yet managing this change. It was designed and planted with the intention of being perpetually unfinished, allowing growth and change over time. The structure was preserved, the railway line remains intact through lifted and bedded again, and is an essential part of the whole design and experience. It is a very interesting experiment, most certainly a garden, yet quite different and without a doubt a fabulous addition to the city of New York and a pleasure to its citizens.

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As it is a railway line the High Line is narrow in comparison to its length but it is comfortably wide enough to accommodate the track, walkways, seating areas and planting. It was designed as a “choreographed experience” – a linear garden best experienced by beginning at the Gansevoort Street Stairs, the southern end, and walking its 1.45 miles (2.33Km) length. The Ganesvoort Wood  is dominated by Grey Betula populifolia interplanted with Cercis, Cornus, Amelanchier and Viburnum, all able for the dry conditions of the High Line. The move to the Washington Grassland, as with all such transitions along the line, is not marked by any architectural structure but rather with plant architecture – there is sufficient architecture in the High Line itself and in the surrounding city buildings that further additions would have lead to clutter and distraction from the purely garden or plant content. The Hudson River Lookout is unusual in that this section of line is higher than the rest and gives wonderful views to the river and is filled with plants which are typical of the north eastern United States – sumach and tall perennials. There is also a Sundeck and Water Garden on this raised section with the cleverest of water features – no more than the most shallow sheet of water running over the surface of the walkway. It is a place for people to sit, chat and relax.

High Line (1)

The Northern Spur was bricked off when the line was closed and has been left in this state. The soil here is especially shallow and poor and planting here is determined by “survival of the fittest” – economically the cheapest option and ecologically the most sustainable. 10th Avenue Square includes an open air theatre among the planting while The Chelsea Grasslands feature the most common plant of the High Line – grasses, interplanted with suitable herbaceous perennials. There is a move back to woodland planting in the Chelsea Thicket which leads to the 23rd Street Lawn and Seating, one of the most popular areas on the High Line. The visitor then meanders through The Meadow Walk with grasses, Achillea, nepeta, calamint, coreopsis which have proved to be one of the most successful plantings. The Flyover, a raised walkway, brings visitors to canopy level to enjoy redbuds, shadbush, sassafras, sumach and broad-leaved magnolias. The Wildflower Field leads to the final section of the garden, The Rail Yards, an area left nearest to nature in its planting and development.

High Line (2)

The High Line is a public park owned by the City of New York and maintained and operated by the Friends of the High Line in partnership with the New York Department of Parks and Recreation. The Friends raise the funds to operate the gardens and provide the personnel to maintain them. Gardening the High Line is challenging: traditional gardening is about maintaining the status quo while gardening the High Line is more dynamic in nature as it aims to maintain and accommodate change.

High Line (1)

The gardens of The High Line are already an outstanding success and it will be interesting to see how they develop in coming years. In the meantime this book will give you an wonderful insight into the history, development, philosophy and beauty of The High Line. It is well written and the photographs are more than excellent, indeed they dominate the book and prove the old adage of the picture and the thousand words perfectly.

[Gardens of the High Line – Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes, Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, Timber Press, Oregon, 2017, Softback, 320 pages, $40, ISBN: 13:978-1-60469-699-8]

Paddy Tobin



Right Plant, Right Place!

The Beth Chatto Garden in Elmstead Market, near Colchester, is one of the “must-see” gardens in the United Kingdom. I find it difficult to put the sensation I felt on my first visit to there. There was an immediate sense that this was right; that it all fitted together; that this was a garden comfortable in its surroundings where design, plants and landscape were a perfect fit. It was love at first sight for me and it is a reaction and assessment which remains true to this day.

Beth Chatt's Shade Garden
A spot in the woodland garden – Photograph from Steven Wooster

Beth Chatto exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and won gold medals for ten consecutive years before devoting her energies to the creating of her garden, plant nursery, lecturing and writing. The garden was in that corner of their land which was considered not good enough to farm, which left her with several problem areas which she tackled in turn and transformed into a garden of outstanding quality and beauty. Areas of bramble, woodland, parched gravel beds and swampy ditches were tackled, were areas for her experimentation and the inspiration for her books and her most frequently quoted garden saying – “the right plant for the right place”

 Of course, we now have the benefit of Beth Chatto’s years of experiment and experience which furnishes us with a whole range of planting suggestions and saves us the many frustrating mistakes which can be so discouraging. “Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest” first appeared as “Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden” in 2002 when she recounted the development of a new woodland garden following the devastation of the 1987 storm.


 We may not all have a woodland area in our garden but every garden will have an area of similar conditions – a bed to the north of the house, a wall or a hedge or in the shade of shrubs or trees – and it can be a challenge to find plants which do well in such conditions. This book gives wide range of planting suggestions, perhaps not comprehensive, which guide the gardener to make a success of the challenge. On reflection, one aspect of this book which struck me very strongly was the quality of the advice and suggestions given and that they were given with honest and forthright comments on how the plants had performed in her own garden, including difficulties and failures, renewed efforts and eventual successes.

Beth Chatto's Tiarella cordifolia
A woodland scene at the Beth Chatto garden featuring Tiarella cordifolia. Photograph from Steven Wooster.

This edition has a foreword from David Ward who is the Garden and Nursery Director at the gardens before moving through the year in a series of chapters:”Starting the Wood Garden, “Awakenings”, “Spring Enchantment”, “Early Summer Profusion”, “High Summer”, “Autumn Sunlit Openings” and finishing with “The Depths of Winter”. A substantial list of “Shade Tolerant Plants” concludes with comments, advice and remarks on performance in the garden. She sums up her seasonal journey through the shade garden stating clearly that the flowers will be in the early part of the year – bluebells, anemones, celandines, ramsons etc – and it is foliage which carries the show on through the year when “what has been unassuming takes on the leading role.”

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 Along with her often quoted “right plant, right place” there are several other gems through the book which give a succinct insight into Beth Chatto’s gardening philosophy and practice:

  “Put simply, my principles of gardening are to provide plants with the kind of conditions for which Nature has fitted them, to arrange them in planned groups, covering the ground with foliage for as long as possible and providing interest with bold plants” and, on similar lines, : “I try to follow nature, not copy her.”

 For us, readers and gardeners, I think that should we both follow and copy Beth Chatto’s advice in this book our gardens will be the more beautiful for it.

 A final comment: the photography throughout, by Steven Wooster, is excellent!

 Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Shade Loving Plants for Year Round Interest, Pimpernel Press, 2017, Hardback 232 pages, £30.00, ISBN: 978-1-9102-5822-4

Paddy Tobin






The Making of Three Gardens


Oh, sit back in your most comfortable chair; pour a strong coffee; open a box of the most delicious chocolates; browse this book and you will be in gardener’s heaven. From front cover to back this book is a dream and a delight; we cannot imagine that we will ever have a garden comparable to those shown on its pages but we certainly can appreciate and enjoy them. They are examples of the most wonderful creativity, imagination, architectural dexterity, installation perfection, aesthetic beauty and no shortage of disposable income!

The Making of Three Gardens COVER (1)

Jorge Sánchez is a principle partner of SMI Landscape Architecture in Palm Beach, Florida, an award-winning firm with clients throughout the United States and the Bahamas. The company is best known for its public gardens and street planning as well as large private gardens and this book presents three of these private gardens, two in Florida and one in New York. These gardens, by location and scale, are quite apart from our usual experience of gardens yet, by their art and design and planting, they transcend geographical boundaries and have a universal appeal. They are superb examples of art in gardening.

Though the gardens presented are quite fabulous and the author enjoys an enormously successful career with innumerable highly praised projects his voice, as he writes this book, is one of openness and humility where he generously acknowledges those who influenced and inspired him in his work and lavishly praises those with whom he collaborates and those who implement his designs. His accounts give an open and honest insight into his approach to each garden design – which is one of consultation and collaboration – and he explains the reasons behind his designs and changes in design as work progresses. It was all wonderfully informative and very pleasant reading.

The Making of Three Gardens (5)

The Making of Three Gardens (2)

The photography is by Andre Baranowski and is quite outstanding, a perfect accompaniment to the text and, along with the design plans, gives the reader a perfect insight and understanding of the designs and the gardens.

The Making of Three Gardens (7)

The Making of Three Gardens (6)

I suppose we might describe this as a coffee table book but it is far more than that. Yes, the photographs alone would allow it to be enjoyed without reading a word – as is the case with most coffee table books – but the text is so well written and such a pleasure to read that to relegate it to the coffee table would be a terrible disservice. Instead, read it with that coffee and chocolate for a truly enjoyable experience!

The Making of Three Gardens, Jorge Sánchez, Photography by Andre Baranowski, Merrell, London, 2017, Hardback, 208 pages, £45, ISBN: 978-1-8589-4665-8

Paddy Tobin

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

Head Gardeners

Ambra Edwards has given us a treasure of a book, a joy to read, insightful, informative and provocative. I have enjoyed it immensely and recommend it unreservedly.

She has interviewed fourteen head gardeners, a diverse group with only a few fitting the stereotypical image, yet all might be described as people at the pinnacle of gardening achievement with a wealth of experience, wisdom and green thumbs and, thankfully, a willingness to share their lives and insights with us.


Those of us who are interested in this subject, this book and the people presented to us in it, are most likely gardeners ourselves and I feel this puts us immediately at a disadvantage as we begin our reading for we have a concept of gardening and what a gardener is based on our own experience and this leaves us frightfully ill informed and terribly misguided regarding the life and work of a head gardener. “Gardening” as we know it – the tending of plants and gardens – forms but a very small aspect of the work of the present day head gardener. Garden management is a major part of the job, the organisation, guidance and training of those who work with them. Gardens must not only be tended and developed they must also be sold to the gardening public so as to finance the garden work. He head gardener is the one who must look to the future, not simply a year ahead but to where the gardens will be in ten years or even one hundred years from now. And then, the head gardener will be the one who must ensure the gates are closed, the lights switched off, the staff paid, the blog written, requisites ordered and checked on delivery and the list goes on and on. The head gardener must truly juggle innumerable duties and be master of them all.

The selection of head gardeners featured in this book appears to have been chosen to present the reader with a wide range of garden types and head gardener experiences; it is certainly eclectic, interesting and entertaining. Some of the usual limelight head gardeners are here – Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter springs immediately to mind and the reader might wonder what is there left to read about him as he has been interviewed here, there and everywhere already but I found it one of the most insightful of portraits which revealed aspects of his character and practices at Great Dixter which I had not known of previously and was a perfect example of the depth of the interviews conducted by the author and representative of the others in the book.

As for the other thirteen head gardeners in the book, I feel I would spoil a great enjoyment on you if I revealed them to you here. Some you will acknowledge immediately as deserving of their place in the book while others may surprise you but when you have read their chapter you will understand why they were so very deservedly included. Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens at the National Trust is quoted in the introduction: “It’s difficult to imagine a class of people who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” I can only add that society needs to read this excellent book and this perception will be blown to the winds.

Finally, one statement which I loved and which epitomises the honesty throughout the book. When garden designers are hogging the limelight and are viewed as the stars of the horticultural world it is good to read Alistair Clark, head gardener at Portrack in Dumphries which houses Charles Jencks’ “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”: “Charles is a clever, clever man, there’s no disputing that. But he doesn’t know the first thing about horticulture. He didn’t when he first came to Portrack and I don’t think he does yet.”

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.

Paddy Tobin


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



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.

The Orchid Hunter

This is book bursting at the binding with enthusiasm and an almost obsessive love of our native orchids. Leif Bersweden, a precocious botanist who fell in love with native wildflowers as a child, was unsuccessful in his initial application for a place at Oxford University and decided to use his gap year to track down and photograph all the native orchids of Great Britain and Ireland in one year (with one forgivable exception, The Ghost Orchid, as it is so very rare) a feat which had not been completed previously.


The first ticked off his list was the Early Purple Orchid and his last Autumn Lady’s Tresses which, by coincidence, were my own first and last of this past season though I must confess that I didn’t come across the other fifty in between.  Our native orchids are extraordinarily interesting and it is not uncommon for those who take an interest in them to find they are willing to go to some extremes to view one not found previously. With a group of friends I made several such journeys during this past season and one suggested we ought to dub our group the Fellowship Of Orchid Lovers with the appropriate abbreviation of F.O.O.Ls. Leif Bersweden would have been a very welcome member!

Orchis mascula Early Purple Orchid (10)
Orchis mascula, The Early Purple Orchid – the first of his list found by Leif Bersweden


His year was certainly a madcap adventure and how wonderful that we have eighteen year olds who have the interest and enthusiasm to do such things. His travels, in a none too reliable car, ranged from the south of England, to Wales and to the north of Scotland, to the Island of Jersey and to Ireland. He has since completed his degree in botany and, with such enthusiasm, I can only imagine and hope he has every success.

As he works his way though his list of orchids and his accounts of finding them we are treated to general historic notes on each species, when it was first recorded, what previous authors and authorities have said about each, the origins of the name and vernacular names applied along with the excitement of the search and the eventual find. We are treated regularly to idyllic bucolic descriptions of the various locations in which he found himself and these read a little a little sweet at times – “Chaffinches were trilling from the hedges and sheep bleated in the fields down in the valley. A barge chugged silently past on the river below cutting a wide “V” shape into the otherwise glass-like water.”

Spiranthes spiralis Autumn Lady's Tresses (40)
Spiranthes spiralis, Autumn Lady’s Tresses – the final orchid of the search. 

The subtitle to the book is “A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness” might first be assumed to refer to the happiness he would achieve in locating all the orchids but there is a regular parallel narrative through the book where the author expresses his thoughts on personal matters. As a child with an interest in wildflowers he felt apart from his peers and, as a teenager, regrets that his hobby is so often one engaged in alone. He wishes for a friend who might share his interest and had the company of a lady for part of his summer pursuit but, as the saying goes, he blew it. Most will choose this book for what it has to say on orchids – I cannot imagine too many are overly concerned about the author’s happiness though, of course, we would wish him well – and this thread in the book is incongruous. There are also some comments on those who helped and advised him which might kindly be described as juvenile humour where the editor’s red pencil might have been justifiably applied.

This book will be of little use to anybody wishing to learn more about our native orchids; it will certainly not become a book of reference but it will be a light read for those already interested. Indeed, I found the many quotations and references to earlier books especially interesting and enjoyable. Though he mentions taking a very large number of photographs in the course of his adventure, very few are used in the book – one for each species recorded and these gathered as one group in the centre of the book. There is a scattering of line drawing through the book, some illustrating orchids and others various views and vignettes mentioned in the text.


The author has since completed his degree in botany and considering orchids as a topic for his PhD. It is heartening to see young people taking up botany and Leif Bersweden, with his enthusiasm and single-mindedness, is likely to make significant contributions to the depths of our knowledge in years to come. I wish him the best.

[The Orchid Hunter, A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness by Leif Bersweden, Short Books, London, 2017, Hardback, 352 pages, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1-78072-334-1]

Paddy Tobin

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