Snowdrops at Altamont Gardens

Few gardens survive the death of their creator. They will be changed by those who follow them, who will garden in their own way, with their own enthusiasms, likes and dislikes so that the vision of the creator gets gradually fudged and eventually lost. This is a criticism regularly levelled at National Trust properties in the United Kingdom; that the gardens are managed to a corporate formula and lack individuality. There is some truth in this criticism, almost an inevitable truth and while a visit to such a garden may well be very enjoyable there is a certain disappointment of not seeing it in the hands of the original gardener.

Altamont (2)

Altamont Gardens, outside Ballon in Co. Wexford, was the creation of the late Mrs. Corona North and is now in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW). It is almost twenty years since Mrs. North passed away (7th February, 1999) and it is to the great credit of those who garden Altamont now, particularly Head Gardener, Paul Cutler, who worked with Mrs. North, that Altamont is still in the spirit of its creator. Were she to walk into her garden today I believe her reaction would be one of delight that her garden was being kept so very well. She would recognise it as still quite clearly her garden – dare I say, now a little better maintained – and certainly still loved and tended and her special plants still growing well.

Altamont merits several visits each year and, while I love it in all seasons, I especially love to visit for the snowdrops in February. The annual Snowdrop Week is now a well established event in the Irish gardening calendar and one which is loved by the many visitors who attend and this is very easy to understand. The gardens are so well prepared for the event – they are immaculate, to be honest – so the visitor immediately feels appreciated and welcome and the gardeners give of their time so very generously to give guided tours of the snowdrop collection. (And it’s free! – where else would you have it!)


The annual Snowdrop Gala, organised by Robert Millar (Altamont Plant Sales – in the walled garden at Altamont) and Hestor Forde, blends perfectly with events in the garden so visitors can go to the plant sales area afterwards and take home some choice snowdrops for their own gardens. Robert has the best selection of snowdrops on sale in the country along with a selection of other choice plants – hellebores would be a feature at this time of the year.

This year’s Snowdrop Week runs from the 12th to the 18th of this month but I dropped in to the gardens recently to have a preview and a leisurely and quiet walk around the snowdrop collection. The gardeners had obviously been busy, very busy, for the gardens have been perfectly prepared for the event and the snowdrops are looking marvellous. My fancy was tickled by one snowdrop  – Galanthus ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ – for I was given a snowdrop under this name many years ago by a gardening friend but when I grew it on I found that it was a more common snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and I have never managed to locate ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ since. It was nice to see it in the flesh as I have only grown a label with that name on it for over twenty years.


Two snowdrops took my fancy in Robert’s plant sales: Galanthus ‘Hercule’ and Galanthus ‘Byfield Special’. Both are snowdrops with connections and this, as well as their intrinsic beauty, is what attracts me. The latter was found by Andy Byfield who gardens in Devon and with whom I have exchanged snowdrops and is what I would call a good garden snowdrop – it is attractive, big and grows well. The other is one grown and named by Mark Brown in France, another with whom I have exchanged snowdrops. The story of the name is that Mark brought plants to a snowdrop lunch in England and, because it is a big leafy plant, a friend exclaimed that it looked like a leek. The French word for a leek is “poireau” and so, with Agatha Christie’s hero in mind, the snowdrop was named ‘Hercule’.


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Take a walk around the garden!

Best wishes to the gardeners at Altamont and to all those visiting for the Snowdrop Week. I’m sure it will be the success it has been for many years now.

Paddy Tobin


Revitalising Vita at Sissinghurst

Troy Scott Smith, the head garden at Sissinghurst Castle, gave an interesting, informative and entertaining talk to the members of the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society recently. His appointment followed on the lengthy tenure of the famous Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger and later by Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta who had brought the gardens to the pinnacle of perfection, attracting approximately 600,000 visitors in their eight month open season.  He was faced with a challenge: to continue with the garden along the lines well established over the previous forty or so years or to make changes.

Sissinghurst (2)

Sissinghurst (1)

The gist of his talk was that he had researched the manner in which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had created the garden by reading her gardening notebooks, records and general writings and was now moving along to “Revitalise Vita”, to return the garden to a style which more reflected her ways and he postulated that in the intervening years since her death it had reached a level of perfectionism which did not reflect her attitudes to the gardens. Her’s was a more relaxed style and approach – she was an amateur gardener after all – while Pam and Sybille, consummately competent and professional horticulturalists, did things properly, by the book, correctly, brilliantly and perfectly.

Therein lies the problem of all gardens left in care after the death of the creator – how do we know how Vita and Harold would have developed the garden over the years? Of course, it is impossible to know and Troy Scott Smith, even with the best of research and the best of intentions, can only surmise and give it his best shot and in that one must wish him every success.

In the course of his talk he recalled some of the developments since he took charge. The area between the car parks and the entrance are more “gardened” to make them more attractive to visitors. “Meadows” (inverted commas because these instant creations are really not truly meadows and might better be termed “wildflowers plantings” or some such) have been planted near the entrance. A pond – it was noticed on an old map of the property – has been dug out again and the area surrounding it planted. At some time in the past a gateway in one of the walls of the Rose garden was bricked up. This has been reopened, a set of steps reinstated to bridge the drop in level to the area outside the wall where new garden borders and beds are being planted and views to the surrounding countryside opened.  The area outside the restaurant has been revamped with new furniture and plants while some of the old outhouses have been developed to host displays or exhibitions.

Can these developments be attributed or linked to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s thoughts for the garden? I am inclined to think that they probably cannot at least specifically though I believe that as a general development they certainly can. The gardens first opened to the public in the late 1930s when the admission charge was one shilling which lead to the visitors being referred to as the “Shillingses”. They later employed Pam and Sybille to maintain and develop the garden so it is reasonable to assume they intended to develop the garden as a commercial concern. The developments by Troy Scott Smith fit in perfectly with this background, with this commercial outlook. He is developing the garden in a manner which will both attract and facilitate visitors and it is of note when viewing the garden’s website that “Eating and Shopping” facilities feature more prominently and well before the garden. The garden may be the nominal attraction but the shop and the restaurant bring in most money.

Sissinghurst (10)

So, I believe Troy Scott Smith is “revitalising Vita” in a certain sense – the development of what is successful commercially in priority to the developments of the garden.  I am not surprised that he is making some changes to the garden and to the style of the gardening. Pam and Sybille followed by Sarah and Alexis had brought the garden to a perfection unlikely to be surpassed and to simply continue with this style would have committed Troy to a future simply as caretaker and deny him opportunities for creativity. Some of the changes made to date – “meadows” and pond – are very much in line with what is currently fashionable, a sense of conservation, a return to nature and a care for wildlife and I’m sure Vita would have been as influenced by and would have moved with gardening fashion as much as the next though this is hardly referencing any historic direction followed by Vita but a recognition that she would have moved with gardening trends. Troy Scott Smith is young, capable and ambitious and wishes to make his mark on one of the most renowned of English gardens. In this I wish him every success and hope the gardens develop as well as the car park, restaurant and shop.


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Paddy Tobin


Winter Whites

I have been busy – that’s an excuse and half a lie!

Truth is that I have been busy enjoying the snowdrops in the garden this past while and am using this as an excuse for not writing. I enjoy writing very much; find it very relaxing; a pleasant pastime. Then, at times, when I haven’t written for a while I have thoughts that I ought to write, that I am somehow being neglectful. It is often said that guilt is part and parcel of the Irish Catholic and, perhaps, this explains my inclination to think such thoughts, though that might be simply another excuse. However, it is amazing how quickly these thoughts dispel once I get my fingers tapping the keyboard so let me tell you about the snowdrops.

We seem to have a garden which suits snowdrops, a good rich loam which is slightly acidic to which I add generous amounts of leafmould when planting bulbs. We are growing snowdrops for over thirty years and began collecting different cultivars over twenty years ago. In our early years we simply grew the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and its double variety. That word, “common” is, unfortunately, generally used as a somewhat derogatory description but I am not inclined to view it in this light. This snowdrop is common simply because it is the best; it is the one best suited to our conditions; it is the one which grows best for us; it is the one which has persisted with us as a garden plant – and as a garden escapee in many places – for over two centuries. It is common because so many people love it and wish to grow it.

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A garden visited today showing a wonderful use of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis – simple beauty

A few years ago we were shown a garden left untended since the 1950s, a garden shortly to be cleared and the area used as a quarry, where there were many clumps of the common snowdrop and we did as any gardener would in the situation – we “rescued” as many as we could. On our return home they had to be cleaned – the roots washed to ensure we were not going to introduce scutch, ground elder or the likes into our own garden and we planted them into a patch of grass where we already had some crocus, a few daffodils and a pinch of snakeshead fritillary growing. We planted about 4,000 snowdrop bulbs – this may sound a lot but, after the effort it took to plant them, it looked quite miserable. After a few years they are beginning to make an impression though I think the fritillarias will prove to be the successful species in this situation as they are self-seeding generously there. I will watch and see and enjoy the developments.

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Various views of that grass patch with the planting of the common snowdrop

As for the other snowdrops, they are also a delight with various species and cultivars in flower from the first week of October until the end of March, six months of enjoyment right through the dark days of winter. Snowdrops are far from common, even the common snowdrop!

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And, snowdrops around the garden today

Paddy Tobin



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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Sincerity in the Garden!

A feature of many gardens which open to the public is that of constant change, perpetual renewal, ceaseless novelty and chronic frivolity, all in an effort to remain interesting and to attract paying visitors. Last year’s “height-of-fashion” and “must-have” plants have been discarded and the “latest thing” has been installed to be, in turn, discarded for next year’s extravaganza. This can be interesting and entertaining – and it seems to work well for those gardens – but I feel that it leads to a garden which lacks foundation, good bones or any sense of permanence or substance and these are essential elements of good garden design. The resulting garden may not have the smash, wallop, bang of the shop window style but it does have a quality which allows one to visit with great enjoyment again and again for there is depth there, depth of design and plant choice and combination, and depth of time and development. While one is a Banksy; the other is a Botticelli. One is beautiful and passing; the other beautiful and lasting.

This is the feeling I get when I visit Mildred Stokes’ garden in south County Tipperary. It is a garden which has been developed in sympathy with its surroundings; which is perfectly suited to its environment; a complimentary front to the house and comfortable in its countryside. It is of its place – that old chestnut of the genius loci; it matches and compliments the spirit of its setting. Everything feels at home there and the garden visitor feels comfortable because here everything fits together without clash, flash or pretence. Here the gardener has developed a garden for herself, in a manner which she likes and which suits her situation. It is authentic and honest and has integrity. It is a sincere garden rather than a show garden.

Enjoy the slideshow!

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Mildred opens her garden to groups and as part of the local Tipperary Open Gardens. She is in Killurney, Ballypatrick, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. See Shirley Lanigan’s book for details.

Paddy Tobin

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

Not as it should be!

It must be comforting to be able to lift one’s head, direct one’s gaze to some beauty in a garden, and ignore the weeds around one’s feet. Some will visit a garden, seek out the good and ignore the bad but I find this difficult to do and can find a garden visit spoiled when I encounter areas of poor gardening.

I visited the gardens at Bantry House last month and felt significant areas of the garden were far below the standard one would hope to find. Mind you, reading the leaflet one receives on admission, the owners do not attempt to hide the fact that there is a huge amount of work yet to be done and my visit certainly not only confirmed that fact but left me feeling very disappointed that some especially significant and integral parts of the garden have been allowed to fall into a state which is very unacceptable.

Bantry House Garden (1)
A sideways glance to the house before turning to the woodland.
Bantry House Garden (2)
A pretty bridge over the stream in the woodland.

We began our visit at a pretty red bridge over a small stream which ran into the woodland which the leaflet states “needs to be restored and to be made more accessible” – a reasonable assessment – and followed the walk along the stream to the Walled Garden. This “had been partly sold in the 1950s and then abandoned. Consequently, it fell into disrepair and neglect” and so it remains with little more than some hints that it might once have been a garden –  impressive gates, the remains of two ponds and a few trees, a scene to disappoint and sadden the visitor.

Bantry House Garden (5)
The entrance to the walled garden
Bantry House Garden (8)
Some signs of planting in the walled garden

The return walk, the “Old Ladies Walk”, leads to the top of The Hundred Steps, one of the main features of the garden and leads past the West Stable en  route which “is much more visible and its state of dereliction quite obvious. It has been made safe in 2011 with the help of the Heritage Council. To restore it is another hope.”  I had wondered if it might have been better to have excluded visitors from these areas of the garden. They were not attractive and seemed unprepared for visitors.

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The West Stable

The “Old Ladies Walk” brought us to the top of The Hundred Steps and one of the most glorious views in any Irish garden. From here one looks down The Hundred Steps to the fountain and parterre, the house and a magnificent view to Bantry Bay beyond. It is truly impressive and demands that one stop and admire it all. However, the walk down the steps brought terrible disappointment. The ornamental pots to each side had not been attended to this year and many sported weeds while the steps themselves seemed also destined to being overtaken by weeds. The terraces to either side of The Hundred Steps appear as though only recently rescued from wilderness. These were originally designed “to be grassed over” a simple treatment which would have complemented the architectural design but over the years Rhododendron ponticum, seedling willow and myrtles took hold. The information leaflet states that some clearing was carried out in 2016 but it was difficult to notice signs of any work in the current year. This feature, The Hundred Steps, is central to the garden design and it is such a pity that it has not received the attention that it deserves.

Bantry House Garden (30)
View from the top of The Hundred Steps
Bantry House Garden (31)
The view from the top of The Hundred Steps

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The Hundred Steps with views to the terraces – greatly in needs of attention

The parterre is impressive, the clean geometric design in box hedging very appealing and fitting against the façade of the house. It is an area which, obviously, receives more care and attention. It is worthwhile to choose a suitable vantage point and sit to take in the intricacy of design here, the framework provided by the balustrades with ornamental pots on plinths. It is no wonder that it is the most frequently seen photograph from Bantry House garden.

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The Parterre and its surrounds

The Sunken Garden at the gable end of the house did not hold our attention – it needed a lot of tidying up – and we moved to the north terrace on the seaward side of the house where the Round Beds, fourteen in all planted with hemerocallis, run across the front lawns in a single line. It is a simple and effective design, sufficient to entertain but not distract from one’s progress to the view to the sea. The views seaward and back to the house are very pleasant.

The northern terraces with the Circular Beds

In fairness, the owners acknowledge that there is a great deal of work yet to be done and, were it done, this would indeed be a magnificent garden. However, at present, there are many very disappointing areas in the garden.

Paddy Tobin

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

Much more than that!

It is disappointing to see a good garden receive scant and silly coverage on a television gardening programme. Recently, BBC’s Gardener’s World visited Jimi Blake’s garden, Huntingbrook, and gave more time to Jimi on a trampoline than to the garden and plants. With any television programme there will be editing and selection of material but one would surely expect the resulting material to be reasonably reflective and representative of the garden. Perhaps, any publicity is good publicity but I am certain the programme was not a fair return for the amount of preparation and work Jimi did in anticipation. I have since visited Jimi’s garden and realise – confirmed my belief – that the programme reflected the poor standards of presenting gardening on television and failed to capture the delights of this garden. (Oh, bring back Charles Nelson and “A Growing Obsession”)


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The areas around the house, full of colour and interesting plants 

Every garden lies along a continuum between an emphasis on design and an emphasis on plants and Jimi Blake’s garden is somewhere off the scale on the plant side. He has an exuberant love of plants and it perpetually searching for something new and interesting for his garden so that each year brings new delights for the visitor to see. There have been years where sanguisorbas dominated; a year with salvias; dahlias, many grown from seed, took over for a while and this year it seems that the best of many years have been kept, a culmination of some years of trial, testing and selection so that the main beds around the house are now jewel boxes of delight. One plant which caught my eye and which I thought was used particularly well was a red-leaved banana. It grew to only about a metre in height so that the foliage was within the bed, among the flowers, and not the ragged tower of tattered leaves we are so often urged to admire in someone’s garden. This banana actually looked well while I believe it is generally difficult for a banana to look well in an Irish garden.


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A selection of blooms from the area near the house

An enormous amount of work has been done in the woodland area of the garden with new paths laid out, surfaced and with handrails on the steeper sections. There has been some clearing which has allowed in wonderful light and there has been extensive new planting which is still very young but is certainly interesting and will be beautiful as the years progress. The banks of the stream in the basin of the valley has also been extensively planted with suitable additions and, as they settle and spread, these will be particularly beautiful in spring.


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The woodland area where an enormous amount of work has been done with new path and planting

Well constructed flights of steps make walking the particularly steep areas much more easy and makes the route to the meadow all the more inviting. The transition from woodland to meadow is dramatically one of those darkness to light experiences as one moves from the shadows of the trees to the openness of the Co. Wicklow countryside with beautiful views to the hills beyond the garden.


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The Meadow

Although Jimi’s garden would generally be described as a plantsman’s garden it is much more than that with the woodland area being developed very significantly and interestingly and the meadow becoming progressively better with each passing year. It is a delight to visit the garden at present and the future is even more promising.

Paddy Tobin

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