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.

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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

The Breathing Burren – A Review

The Breathing Burren by Gordon D’Arcy

It is wonderful to pick up a book and have the immediate reaction “Oh, this is beautiful” – comfortable in the hand, attractive in size, print and illustration – and there is an immediate longing to read. This is how it was when Gordon D’Arcy’s “The Breathing Burren” arrived from The Collins Press recently and my subsequent slow and savouring read proved that my first impressions were not only accurate but even understated. The author admits to an infatuation with The Burren and I certainly confess to a deep awe in the area so the book had certainly come to a receptive reader.

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Gordon D’Arcy is Belfast born and came to explore The Burren, fell in love with the place and moved there and has been resident for over thirty years. His 1999 The Natural History of The Burren has been an inspiration to many who have come to love this unique environment in Co. Clare. The Burren is a landscape of limestone karst, its clints and grykes housing a summer display of flowers which attract both plant enthusiasts and tourists in great numbers.

The author describes this volume as a “salutation” to The Burren and presents a marvellous miscellany of experiences, recorded in his diaries, from many years of roaming the area so we are presented with a distillation of years of enjoyment and experience. As such, it is a book of highlight, of great experiences and wonderful occasions, a compendium of personal experiences which may not be unique but are certainly memorable – the first flowering of gentian in the spring, the incredible encounters with stoats and otters, the rare migrant seabirds, the dawn chorus of Burren birds and broadened and deepened by his recollections of other enthusiasts with whom he had spent time on The Burren. There are accounts of farming, caving and archaeology, all engaging and informative and all very pleasantly illustrated by the author’s watercolour paintings which are quiet and unobtrusive but a perfect complement to the text.

Beyond the recollection of happy events and encounters there is a final substantial section, “Musings” where the author goes far beyond the simple recollection of happy days poses serious questions which he has considered himself and urges us, the readers, and everybody involved with The Burren – those living there, those responsible for decisions which will affect the area – to think about what the area, its value, its use, its worth, its contribution to our culture and how we might care for it for the future.

It is clear that the author is passionately in love with this wonderful area of our country and this love extends far beyond simply enjoying it – which is about the extent of my interaction with the area – to feeling a responsibility and duty of care for it. When you read this book you will understand why he feels this way and you will find yourself agreeing with him very easily.

This is an outstanding book which goes beyond the usual approach of simple descriptions of the natural phenomena of The Burren and is likely to inspire an even greater appreciation for this treasure which is part of our landscape.

[The Breathing Burren, Gordon D’Arcy, The Collins Press, Cork, 2016, Hardback, 304 pages, ISBN: 9781848892682, €24.99 – €17.49 special offer on The Collins Press website at the moment: http://www.collinspress.ie/the-breathing-burren.html]

Paddy Tobin

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

Snowdrop – far more than a simple flower!

As with its subject matter, this book is a joy, a jewel, a treasure and an interesting, and different, addition to our reading material on snowdrops. Few could deny the appeal of snowdrops in the garden, those apparently dainty flowers which defy our harsh winters and bring interest over the six months of October to March. There has been a strong resurgence of interest in these flowers over recent years but over the centuries they have appealed not only to avid gardeners but also to artists, authors and musicians among others and this book delves into this broader appeal. Even the early chapter which describes the various species of galanthus concentrates as much on the social, historic and geographic connections as much as on the purely botanic. It adds an interesting and very enjoyable richness to the treatment of the marvellous genus of plants.

Of Irish interest is that the first recorded use of the name “snowdrop” was in 1664 by the Irish chemist and physicist, Robert Boyle in a paper entitled, “Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour”.  Another early name was “schneetropfen” as the closed snowdrop flower resembled the greatly valued pearl earrings of the time – as seen in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”(1665). The French admired its ability to pierce the snow calling the flower “Perce Niege” while the Spanish referred to them as Spring Bells, “Campanilla de Invierno”. These latter do seem somewhat more accurate and appropriate than John Gerard’s “timely flowring bulbus violet”.

snowdrops       snowdrops      snowdrops

We hear the word “galanthophile” used nowadays almost as a pejorative term and though it was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012 it was in fact first used by E. A. Bowles (1865- 1954) early in the last century. The caustic pen of Christopher Lloyd wrote that he grew around twenty snowdrop varieties in his garden but that “a genuine nutter might have upwards of 300 and still be far from sated” while Reginald Farrer, famed plant-hunter, commented “the snowdrop gives me chilblains only to look at it.”  Yes, indeed, they can be an addictive interest and while this book will certainly appeal to the “nutters” it will also appeal to those of more modest interest as the author threads her way through the wide and various ways in which snowdrops have been loved, used, appreciated and featured over the centuries. It is a wonderfully interesting journey, full of insight, unimagined connections, and delightful treasures.

Gail Harland’s previous books, The Tomato Book (2009), Designing and Creating a Cottage Garden (2011) and The Weeder’s Digest (2012), were each well-researched, readable and enjoyable and she has continued with another excellent volume. You will enjoy Snowdrop whether you are a nutter or not!

[Snowdrop, Gail Harland, Reaktion Books,London, 2016, Harback, 216 pages,£16, ISBN: 978-1-78023-492-2]

Paddy Tobin

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

The Making of Place

The Overview!

The extraordinary range of approaches and styles one sees in gardens throughout the world, in different countries and different cultures can be quite bewildering. It is fortunate to have one such as John Dixon Hunt, who seems to have a comprehensive knowledge and grasp of all matters of garden design, to organise such divergent and wide-ranging approaches and present them to us in a way that is easily comprehended. I cannot say that I didn’t find this book challenging – I am no more than an amateur domestic gardener – but I also found it informative, insightful and, very importantly I believe, enjoyable. To be educated without enjoyment would be a dreadful trial and educated I was while certainly enjoying the process.

the-making-of-space

The traditions of garden design stretch back over the centuries and while many of today’s gardens play homage to this tradition, garden designers of today also seek to be innovative, fresh, spontaneous and reactive to the differing situations with which they are presented as they seek, in the words of the author, to make a place for respite in nature. The author discusses approximately one hundred gardens ranging from large to small, public to private, botanical gardens, campuses academic and industrial, parks large and small, memorial and sculptural gardens, festival and reinvented gardens, even gardens still only on paper, a wide range from around the world – the United States, Australia, China, Germany, United Kingdom and France. Each is discussed and each is assessed for its contribution, importance and influence in landscape design and it is particularly heart-warming that the author can be unhesitatingly honest and critical where such is demanded.

John Dixon Hunt’s early academic career was in teaching English literature. He wrote extensively in this area before pursuing an even more successful and highly regarded academic career in the study of gardens and landscapes. He is presently Emeritus Professor of the History and Theory of Landscape at the University of Pennsylvania, edits the journal Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscape and is the author of many books. Given that he normally writes for an academic readership or those already familiar with gardening philosophy, theory and history it comes as a pleasant surprise that this book is written to be easily accessible to all who are interested in gardening, amateur and domestic as well as academic and professional.

The author’s knowledge seems to be encyclopaedic and his grasp of the subject comprehensive yet he presents a wealth of information and comment in a manner which is a pleasure to read and which gives the reader an overview of the current landscape and gardening scene – quite an achievement and a joy to read.

[The Making of Place: Modern and Contemporary Gardens, John Dixon Hunt, Reaktion Books, London, 2015, Hardback, 304 pages, £25, ISBN: 978-1-78023-520-2]

Paddy Tobin

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

 

 

 

Coming to Terms with Your Plants!

Amicia zygomeris is an uncommon and rather unusual looking plant. The leaves are of a peculiar shape, not unlike those of the tulip tree where what would normally be a pointed end of the leaf is blunt and double-lobed with an almost cut-off appearance leading to the common name of yolk-leaved Amicia and it is this foliage which is most attractive in the plant. On closer approach one sees the purple-veined stipules – which I would have called bracts but now know better – and later in the season yellow pea-like flowers emerge. All in all it is an odd thing, somewhat peculiar and out of the ordinary. Even the name is peculiar. Although “Amicia” is used as a girl’s name and generally explained as “One most loved” this plant is named in honour of John Baptiste Amici, an Italian scientist of the 19th century while the specific name derives from the botanical term “zygomorphic”,  as all parts of the plant display bilateral symmetry.

amicia-zygomeris-1
Amicia zygomeris – a strange plant with an equally strange name

A Botanist’s Vocabulary by Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell lists and illustrates 1,300 botanical terms and, while I would not suggest a cover to cover reading, even a quick browse will throw up some nuggets of interest.

botanists-vocabulary

As we enter autumn and winter those who delight in the winter colour of their beech hedges should realise that it is because the foliage is “marcesent” – the withered leaves remain attached. Those stickyback seedheads we threw at our friends woolly jumpers as children displayed “epizoochory”, seed dispersal via transportation on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals). How exactly they also managed to get into our minds and have us throw the seedpods at each other is still beyond me but I certainly recall the fun we had. These seeds could also have been described as “sticktights” – which makes sense!

Some plant parts grow upwards and others downwards: those stems that sprout from the roots of a perennial plant, such as a tree, that has been cut down are called “ratoons” while some bulbs have the ability to reposition themselves at a depth in the soil which is most beneficial to them sending a shoot down from the bulb to develop a new bulb where required and these are called “sinkers” or “droppers”.

During last summer I visited a population of our native Bee Orchid where “sexual deception” was the order of the day – parts of the flower of these orchids mimic a female insect, in this case a bee, tricking the male insect into attempting to mate with it – “pseudocopulation” – which leads to pollination. Clever! Clever as it might be the “perfect” flower is described as one that has functioning female and male reproductive parts!

ophrys-apifera-bee-orchid-33
Ophrys apifera, the Bee Orchid, which uses “sexual deception” for pollination

It is that type of book, in essence a list, a dictionary which one might dip into occasionally as needs be and also come across an interesting term to brighten your day.

Susan K. Pell is the Science and Public Programs Manager at the United States Botanic Garden and, formerly, Director of Science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Bobbi Angell works at the New York Botanical Garden as an illustrator for botanists there.

[A Botanist’s Vocabulary, Susan K. Pell and Bobbi Angell, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 2016, Hardback, 226 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-563-2]

Paddy Tobin

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

 

 

Gardening with Good Intentions

The Garden Awakening

The essence of what Mary Reynolds has to say in The Garden Awakening is not only good and worthwhile but essential for our health and the health of our planet. We must take care of this earth and garden in a manner which respects the land rather than do harm to it. However, as I read the book I felt that Mary and I are not on the same wavelength in many ways and that the manner in which she expresses this message imbues it with such a baggage of mumble jumble that people may well disregard it as a result. The message is clouded by its presentation.

chelsea-flower-show-garden-2002
Mary Reynold’s show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2002, for which she was awarded a gold medal.

Mary came to prominence after she won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002 with a garden which presented an essence of natural, semi-wild rural Ireland, an Ireland of myths and symbols, an Ireland of simpler times, of simpler farming methods, of times past. A successful career in garden design followed but she reached a stage when she felt unhappy about  the gardens she was designing – this realisation and the way forward was revealed to her by crows in a dream – and she has now returned to an earlier approach.

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A medium garden landscaped
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A medium garden planted

She sees garden design as a process which “invites nature to express her true self” but comments that “people garden to be in touch with nature but gardens and nature have little in common” and involve “a lot of hard work and vast quantities of chemicals.” I felt this was an unfortunate statement. It was inaccurate, did not reflect my gardening nor that of many others, I imagine, and undermines the central message of the book. There is certainly work in my garden while nature is accommodated and encouraged and there are certainly not vast quantities of chemicals used. A statement early in a book which belittles and derides the efforts and good intentions of others is alienating. Design is a matter of intention, she states, and, while she is against designed gardens, she designs gardens herself but, it seems, sees her intentions as justifying her actions and one must presume that she believes the good intentions of others do not give such justification to their work though it is of a similar nature. She decries the damage done to the earth by ploughing and by machinery; advocates no-dig methods in gardening and farming yet suggests swales, berms and fire pits for her designed gardens which struck me as contradictory. All of her gardens which are illustrated in the book show that each involved considerable earth moving, reshaping and landscaping. I felt there were several such contradictory stances through the book – my intentions are pure and justify what I do while yours are not and what you do is bad for the earth. There seems to be a touch of “do what I say but not what I do”.

medium-garden-2-landscaped
A medium garden landscaped
medium-garden-2-planted
A medium garden planted

The pre-design stage for the gardener involves exercises in connecting with the energetic, emotional and physical body of the land, communicating with it as the land is alive, also conscious and capable of feeling. While I look at and consider my garden space I cannot ever see myself engaging in the exercises she suggests not see any great value in them. Various processes are suggested to heal the land before proceeding. We are encouraged to seek the core truth of the land, its distinctive personality – the genius loci as traditionally called – and each location must be treated separately and allowed to express its own truth so that garden design is a co-creation in partnership with nature – no training is necessary; one should follow no style nor fashion but one’s own intuition.

large-garden-2-perspective-detiail
Perspective detail of a large garden

Each design begins by deciding one’s intentions for the area – “a place alive with the energy of nature”, “a protected place where you and the land can heal and grow”, “a magical place filled with child-like energy and fun” or “a strong flow of creative energy”. Areas of special intentions are selected, patterns and natural shapes are incorporated, symbols and imagery are included and the design is put on paper. Several designs are illustrated by line drawings and I was disappointed that there are no photographs of any of the gardens; in fact, there are no photographs in the book at all which is unusual for a book on gardening.

The second half of the book is concerned with developing a forest garden and alternative management practices. The forest garden is a method of producing food by replicating a woodland system through the seven layers from canopy to ground cover. It is probably not the most practical but would make an interesting gardening area if space allowed. It surprised and disappointed me that many of the trees suggested were non-native species given her comments elsewhere in the book that native plants were best suited to a natural garden. The alternative management approach suggests a more natural approach, less desire for the manicured lawn perhaps, less chemicals and a more natural approach to pest and disease control. The development of a forest garden is probably not practical, because of space constraints, for most people while all could learn and adopt something from the comments on management. However, suggesting that the rooting of pigs to clear the ground is in anyway less damaging than digging the same ground does not make much sense nor the recommendation of a particular breed of goats, especially suited to Californian conditions, to clear unwanted undergrowth.

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Planning the layers for the forest garden
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A Hugelhultur Raised Bed – tree trunks, branches, twigs, leaves etc covered with soil.

Overall, I found the book awkward to read and have read it three times to fully come to grips with it. So often I was distracted by sections about the spirit of the land, connecting with mother earth, listening and talking to the land, meditating in the garden, of spirituality and old beliefs, allowing my intuition to guide me etc.  Science, horticulture, biology and the needs of the common gardener were, I feel, neglected in this book.

“The land was very different when I was young. The methods of farming were gentler then as industrial farming hadn’t yet been completely embraced and the earth was still teeming with life.” Mary Reynold’s outlook seems to continue to be inspired by the sadness of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, a favourite in her youth but, truly, the earth is not more full of weeping than we can understand.

The earth still teems with life, all is not lost, all is not doom and gloom, and the vast majority of gardeners work in tandem with nature, enjoy their gardens and care for the land.

[The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds, Green Books, Dublin, 2016, Hardback, 272 pages, ISBN 9780857843135, £19.99]

Paddy

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