The Irish Garden

Mount Usher garden Image © Jonathan Hession from The Irish garden
When I lived in Ireland, decades ago, every few months I would ride south from my home north of Dublin Airport to the garden at Mount Usher in County Wicklow. Ride on a battered old motor bike, I should say, not cycle: it was 38 miles (61 Km).

One of the first articles I ever wrote was about Mount Usher, for The Irish Garden magazine, which is still going strong. I criticized the maintenance at the garden and was then myself severely criticized for doing so – most of the angry responses, I seem to recall, assumed that I was criticizing the garden itself when in fact it was the lack of care: I was dismayed to see wild brambles growing out of ornamental grasses.

So, naturally, the first chapter I looked up in this splendid new book, The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, was on Mount Usher and I was delighted to discover how well it still thrives – and it certainly seems to be well looked after (although a local spy tells me this may not be the case). I remember it especially for its quietly The Irish Garden by Jane Powers with photography by Jonathan Hession published by Frances Lincolncompelling atmosphere and the fact that, then, you could cross so close over the river and streams. I also remember it for its rare South American evergreen shrubs, including Crinodendron and Desfontainea, and for its impressive Eucryphia collection. It now contains, Jane tells us, over two dozen trees which are champions of all Britain and Ireland.

Having visited many of the gardens featured in the book, mostly long ago, I was very pleased to discover elements of familiar gardens that were new to me as well as to have remembered enthusiasms rekindled. It takes four hundred pages to cover almost sixty gardens from an island the size of South Carolina (America’s tenth smallest state) and this and the very large format allows the expansive photography by Jonathan Hession space to make a real impact and the essays space to be reflective as well as descriptive.

This is both a book for the far away voyeur and a before-you-visit book. If you never visit Ireland you’ll enjoy this book anyway. If you intend visiting Ireland, all the gardens are open to visitors and their websites listed.

The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, with photography by Jonathan Hession, is published by Frances Lincoln at £40/$60.


Do you like your plants mingled or clumped?

Aster laevis 'Bluebird' intermingling happily with Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontaine'. Image ©

Over on the excellent and always provocative thinkinGardens website, there’s been some – how shall we say – strongly felt debate about planting styles. In essence, the dispute is between those who favor “naturalistic” mixed plantings over those who question why this touted as a universal ideal. Though to me, the very notion of an “ideal” way of planting seems perverse.

“Planting design in the last decade has taken a decisive turn toward ecology. One of the interesting by products of this shift is the rise of mixed plantings in many designed projects. Piet Oudolf’s work on The Highline in Lower Manhattan - now one of the most visited tourist sites in New York - is a much celebrated example of this trend…. But intermingling plants is not just a design strategy; it is increasingly an ideology.” So says Thomas Rainier, the landscape architect and writer from Washington DC.

Eryngium giganteum and Veronicastrum ‘Fascination’ making self-contained clumps. Image ©“Intermingling is inspired by natural plant communities, the free, uninhibited way wild plants grow, densely intermeshing, leaning on each other… Compare this with the typical garden border (left: hover for caption, click to enlarge), where about nine plants share a square metre and barely touch each other.” Says Noel Kingsbury, the writer and researcher, lecturer, teacher and long-ago nursery owner from the English/Welsh borders.

So - why is  “ecological” intermingling (at the top: hover for caption, click to enlarge) thought to be somehow superior? Bye bye Gertrude Jekyll. But hey, we’re talking about gardens – it’s all artificial, none of it’s natural. As Germaine Greer put it years ago, gardening is an inherently fascistic activity – gardeners impose order on nature, that's what gardening is. But is one form of order inherently superior to another? No. It’s a garden. It’s a matter of aesthetics, of taste.

Gardening (even, to some extent, growing food) is about the gardener creating what s/he believes is beautiful. You think it looks too clumpy or too messy? Fine - you do what you like in your garden and I’ll do what I like in  mine.

One of the things that struck me when I first visited Holland decades ago was the way that clumps of plants were set out in front gardens with bare soil between them – as they were grown in physic gardens in Britain hundreds of years ago. This is what Noel Kingsbury seems to be alluding to (above) but in reality no one plants like this any more – though, I have to say, it has its appeal. So I can understand why Piet Oudolf’s beautiful interconnected plantings are based on the opposite approach.

Thomas Rainer points to what are almost monocultures in nature as an example of a natural planting that can inspire a very different style of gardening from the intermingling promoted by Noel Kingsbury - who responds that with the many mosses and lichens growing down at ground level they are not actually monocultures at all. So what about this Japanese planting of an American native, Nemophila menziesii?
The American native Nemophila menziesii making a fine display at Japan's Hitachi Seaside Park. Image ©Luc Klinkhamer

I’ve heard gardeners say that they’re inspired by the South Downs in Britain with their flower-rich grassland cropped by sheep, and heard others say they’re inspired by the deciduous forests of the eastern United States where the chestnuts that once comprised a quarter of the trees are gone owing to disease brought from Asia – but as the ecology of both these man-made habitats settles into its new stability let’s remember that neither is really natural. It’s fine to be inspired by them, of course, but both habitats have been transformed by mankind - as has so much of the so-called natural world in developed and developing countries.

Me? I’m a mingler. I like to see the visual interactions between plants – those four different yellow daisies in the picture on the right were all grown individually pots and planted to achieve exactly that effect. But how many people have the time, energy or inclination to go to so much trouble?

Four different annual yellow daisies planted to mingle together. Image © here’s the thing: What you plant, and how you group the plants, is up to you. If you like, and have the time and expertise to maintain, the masterfully integrated intermingled plantings such as those created by Piet Oudolf, fine. If you prefer the more traditional approach of clumps of plants mingling only at the edges, fine. If you like to show off individual specimens in their own space, fine. If you like marigolds planted in white-painted car tires – that’s fine too. And, I should say, they can all appeal to insects and other wildlife as well as the eye.

None of these approaches is inherently superior - however much anyone of us dislikes any one of them – and no one should be telling us that it is. We should plant what we like, in the way we like it – whatever anyone else says. But we should also keep up with the discussion over at thinkinGardens.

Noel Kingsbury's latest book is Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press) available from and also from Check out his blog at Noel's Garden Blog

And please take a look at Thomas Rainier's blog at Grounded Design

Lush Pennsylvania beds and borders

Our Pennsylvania garden flourishing in late July. Image © (All rights reserved)
What a relief. After last year’s plague of voles, this year we’ve not seen a single one and our beds and borders are transformed. They look lush, verdant, and from early wood anemones, arums, epimediums and spring hellebores (now doing a great job as foliage ground cover) through lilacs then daylilies and clematis and luscious black raspberries… to today’s hydrangeas and bee balm and cleomes and hibiscus and bugleweed foliage… with phlox and rudbeckias just starting and asters and fall foliage and fruits to come – it’s a great year.

We improved the soil in places where it was too stony and thin and, as you can see, we like to see dense planting and that demands good soil. judy’s dedicated weeding and hand watering when it was so dry, coupled with extending the soaker hose network, have made a big difference. [Actually, judy’s done most of the work this year – credit where it’s due.]

True, that ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ bee balm has mildew and the phlox, including the supposedly resistant ‘David’s Lavender’, will probably get it soon as well, but if the plants are moist at the root mildew is less destructive.

And under this richness of summer foliage and flower, are those spring plants – shaded by summer’s leafage, quietly winding down their season as the summer plants take over. In such a densely occupied rootzone, crowded with roots and bulbs and tubers, sufficient nutrients and sufficient moisture are needed to provide enough for everyone.

So I’ll be finishing off the soaker hose network in late fall or early spring, after again enriching the soil. To ensure an extended season of flower and foliage we have to provide the conditions to make it happen. So the displays never stop – as long as the gardening never stops.

Book Bullet: Visitor’s Guide to American Gardens

Visitor's Guide American Gardens. Cover © Cool Springs PressProducing a guide to America’s (and Canada’s) gardens comes with both the advantages and disadvantages of a broad North American sweep. It ensures that wherever you travel the book has an interesting visit to suggest, but some states have so few entries that they may all be hundreds of miles from where you happen to be.

Entries are crisp and to the point, with symbols to highlight many features, and there’s enough to tempt you to look for more information on those that are especially appealing. But: “Smart-phone scannable QR codes that link to every garden’s website,” says the back cover and the publisher’s website. No. Of nine entries for South Carolina, a state picked at random, only three gardens have QR codes.

I can’t help but feel that the information should come not only as this useful book but as an app and a website where you can just put in a zip code (postcode) and see what’s nearby.

  • A useful throw-in the-suitcase book for American and overseas travellers.
  • Needs an app and website which includes far more gardens

The Visitor’s Guide to American Gardens by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp is published by Cool Springs Press.


Book Bullet: The Cottage Garden

CottageGardenJacketHistoric paintings and a lively text make this little book a really good introduction to the development of cottage gardens in Britain. Paintings by artists like Helen Allingham, which are not over idealised, give us a sense of how nineteenth and early twentieth century cottage gardens really looked.

Twigs Way explains the origins of the cottage garden in its value as source of both food and flowers and considers its place in the moral landscape of Victorian England as well as the everyday lives of the people who made them. She then brings us to date with glimpses of how cottage garden style influences the design of today’s gardens.

  • Historic paintings give a contemporary idea of Victorian cottage garden style
  • Lively overview of cottage garden development

The Cottage Garden by Twigs Way is published by Shire Publications



Abandoned in 1605...

Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, Image made available by Edbrambley at en.wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
A transatlantic visit to Northamptonshire’s Lyveden New Bield, in the heart of England, the other day. This is an unfinished “summer house” abandoned in 1605, before its completion, when its creator Sir Thomas Tresham died and his son featured in the infamous Gunpowder Plot (for North American readers: The Gunpowder Plot was a treasonous plan to blow up the British king by igniting barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the House of Lords where he was opening parliament).

What remains at Lyveden is a roofless and floorless house through which we wandered, inspecting the graffiti from 1799, plus a recently planted replica of the original orchard featuring many fruit varieties from the early seventeenth century. There are also spiral “snail” mounts, moats, raised terrace walks, a huge grass labyrinth, and red kites soaring overhead.

The transatlantic team was made up of one Brit, me, plus my American wife judywhite, plus the splendid American garden writer and editor, and distiller(!), Fiona Gilsenan, plus Fiona’s ten year old son Julian (To his mum: “You're so lovable and warm. Like bacon, but not crispy.") And thanks, Fiona, for the sample of gin from your boutique distillery Victoria Spirits.

The orchard at Lyveden is going to be fascinating. Grown hard, it’s slow to become established but with its wealth of old varieties I look forward to the day when the fruit is available to sample or even to buy.

And after a visit, there’s a walk through the woods to The Kings Arms at Wadenhoe on the banks of the River Nene for lunch. But we drove the few miles over to The Chequered Skipper at Ashton, named for a rare British butterfly, on the estate of the late Miriam Rothschild. An authority on the sex life of fleas, she also pioneered the use of native wild flowers on roadsides. “I must say, I find everything interesting,” she once said.

Surprising plants succeed in dry shade

Hydrangea in Dry Shade. Image © (all rigts reserved)
I have a piece about growing plants in dry shade in Britain's Independent newspaper today and there's also a version in its sparky little sister paper i.

But as well as the plants I mention in the piece - and the many I discuss in my new book Planting the Dry Shade Garden - a couple of slightly unexpected plants have been doing surprisingly well in dry shade this year.

The first is Hydrangea arborescens 'White Dome', you can see it in the picture (click to enlarge). Only one nursery seems to stock it in Britain, though it's much more widely available in North America, but its broad white lacecap flowerheads set against rich green leaves are lovely and well supported by slender but strong stems. What's more, the skeletons of those same flowers don't fall to pieces in the autumn but remain through the winter for a lovely second season effect.

The other surprising dry shade success has been the yellow-leaved creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' (on the right, at the front in the picture). This shows the benefit of a little soil improvement, its shallow roots taking moisture from just the top few inches of soil. It looked a little sad when it got really parched but soon colored up when a little of our recent thunderstorms penetrated the tree canopy.

For more on dry shade…
Read my piece in The Independent
Subscribe to The Independent's lively little sister i
Find out more about the book on its own British website
Find out more about the book on its own North American website
Order the book in Britain
Order the book in North America
Check out the book's Facebook page

“The elephant in the garden”

Bad Tempered Gardener,Anne Wareham,Charles Hawes,Veddw. Image © (all rights reserved)
At first I thought that this image might itself might be my review. No words, just this image making clear how many passages in The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham (Frances Lincoln) I’d singled out and marked. But this could be ambiguous – had I marked passages because they were outstandingly good... or the other thing?

Well, I marked those that were especially funny, pithily sharp, were wildly hyperbolic, or impressively wise – plus one or two that were startlingly contradictory, that I especially agreed with, that were daft ill-considered, or were just very well written. But I started to mark so many that I had to become more rigorous, otherwise I’d have burst the binding with so many tags.

She’s sharp, perceptive and funny (that’s the line for the publisher to quote, or the next bit) and skewers traditional horticultural views with delight. She sounds off about nurseries (“the nursery habit is at the bottom of the abysmal British garden”), plant collections, sloppy garden writing, “‘King Edward’-type daffodils” (deliberately misnaming them after a potato). She champions ground covers of preposterous invasiveness, wood chip mulch, Erigeron ‘Profusion’, honest plant descriptions, garden centers, and black water-coloring dye. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not, like the best garden writing it makes you think.

In particular, she quite rightly complains that all commentary on gardens is positive, sometimes exuberantly and untruthfully so. She’s right, and this is pretty much unique to gardens. Reviews of movies, plumbers, restaurants, political campaigns, exhibitions, cars, even mothers… all just say it as the author sees it. And, often, dislike of the subject inspires fine and entertaining writing. But not gardens and, oddly, not reviews of garden books. When I helped run Plants & Gardens magazine (RIP) long ago, we were praised for our honest book reviews. But no else has been prepared to say that a garden book gives bad advice or recommends poor plants. It’s just not reviewed. Mustn't upset potential advertisers.

Bad Tempered Gardener,Anne Wareham,Charles Hawes,Veddw. Image ©Charles Hawes/ (all rights reserved)

And on gardening itself: “Gardening is boring. It is repetitious, mind-blowingly boring, just like housework. All of it – sowing seeds, mowing, cutting hedges, potting up, propagating is boring, and all of it requires doing over and over again….” Again, she’s right, mostly - I quite like sowing seeds. What’s odd is that her garden in Wales seems to have miles of hedges and acres of grass – two features which require endless hours of the most boring jobs of all. Presumably, as she says, “they’re mostly enjoyable for the result and not the process.” I have to say the garden at Veddw (above, click to enlarge) is wonderful (see pages 39/40 of the book – on writers who review gardens without visiting...).

I should say that while not all North American readers will understand the targets, many will enjoy the attitude and the style. Christopher Lloyd is very popular in the States and admired writers like Allen Lacy and Wayne Winterrowd are in a similar tradition. But, although her targets and assumptions are Brit-centric, North American readers will enjoy the ride.

All we need now is a weekly newspaper column of honest garden, plant and garden book reviews. Wanna share it, Anne?

Book points:

  • Some wobbly editing: someone can’t decide if contractions are OK or if they are not.
  • With great respect to Anne's husband/photographer Charles Hawes, the designer is absolutely right to use the pictures relatively small, making it clear this is a book for reading and that the images illustrate the text. The text is not just the squiggly stuff round the pictures.


Thank you for images to:

Book and tags:
Veddw garden: Charles Hawes

Primroses I won't have in the garden

Primrose,Primula,horrid,color,colour. Image © (all rights reserved)
Strolling through the centre of town back in Northamptonshire today, I couldn’t help noticing the most horrible primroses offered for sale at the florist (above, click to enlarge). They were gross travesties of our delightful native wild primroses - in more or less the same shade, but in this hybrid the flowers are about three or four times the size of a wild primrose.

In fact one of the plants had a strange, rather putrid, green caste to its flower colour; in both the foliage was completely smothered by the far-larger-than-life flowers making them look noticeably unnatural; and they were offered as a mismatched pair in a lurid pink painted steel container – for £9.50 ($15.30). No thank you.

Primrose,Primula,vulgaris,wild,native. Image © (all rights reserved)
Then a few minutes later, in pot in a front garden, I spotted a true wild primrose, Primula vulgaris, plant looking delightful in a (slightly battered) blue-glazed pot (above, click to enlarge). I know which I’d rather have. And even in those pink pots, wild primroses would have looked good

The lesson? Bigger is not necessarily better.

"Green" gardens can be modern and stylish

Graham Rice,Stephen Orr,Tomorrow's Garden,Rodale,review. Image ©Rodale (all rights reserved)It’s always interesting to see what other people do with their gardens. The gardens featured in Tomorrow’s Gardens by Stephen Orr (Rodale) all have an environmental awareness in their background, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that many are so determinedly modern in style… being “green” doesn’t always mean being green, if you get my drift. Paving, stone, concrete, steel and gravel are everywhere.

The old idea of a garden as a room outside is the other theme that pervades the book, good living made easy with tables and chairs and easy-to-walk surfaces extending the inside to the outside.

There are some intriguing ideas for dealing with unusual spaces, some lovely clean designs allied with sensitive planting, plants are used as architecture more than as individuals (Anne Wareham, author The Bad-Tempered Gardener, will be pleased to see) and chosen to minimize the need for irrigation. Water features are crucial in many designs.

I liked the author’s own idea of planting tiers of different bulbs in large holes in his upstate New York garden to create a long display from different species, especially valuable in a small space. The thoughtful layout of a Texan garden, following the removal of the asphalt driveway, retains storm water and allows it to soak into the soil rather than rush away into the street.

The writing is loose but crisp, the pictures atmospheric or clearly explanatory. But Brits might wonder why we need pictures of the garden owners: “Is this a book or a magazine?” they’ll be thinking.

For this is a book that will appeal more to North American than British readers, I feel. While American readers are more familiar with, and more comfortable with, this magazine-style approach to creating a book, with the gardens’ owners and designers in focus as well as the gardens themselves, I think Brits are still more locked into the distinction between books and magazines – they’d expect the author and the gardens to interact, with the owners and designers as personalities set aside.

The other issue for Brits is that the gardens are chosen from across the USA so their content is related to the climate of each area in which they’re created. American readers are used to adapting on the fly and will garner great ideas, British readers may be unable to draw useful lessons from the design and planting of a Texas garden.

But hey, this is exactly as it should be. So many publishers still fail to appreciate that few garden books work well on both sides of the Atlantic. They think all that’s required is a change in the spelling. Often it’s better not to try to make it universal and the result is a better book - for one side of the Atlantic, if not the other. This is a valuable book for American gardeners looking for sustainable design ideas.

* Oh, before I forget. This book is from the same publisher as the text-only Grow The Good Life by Michele Owens, which I reviewed here recently. It’s larger in format and packed with color pictures – and it’s same price, $24.99, and discounted on by the same amount. Something wrong here, surely…