December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Around this time of the year, I regularly have a battle with florist’s wire, lumps of foam, lengths of ribbon, green tape, pliers, spray paint and bamboo skewers. It’s all part of my annual attempt to wrestle greenery, cones and berries into garlands and other decorative whatnots. The fruits of my labours are satisfying and festive, but the operations usually swallow up two evenings. The first one is great fun, but by the second I’m feeling a little strained and at the mercy of various ungracious thoughts. Surely, there must be an easier way of decking the house with plant material?
Well, yes, there is, as I learned from a recent visit to Denise Dunne, proprietor of The Herb Garden. Denise grows organic herbs, salads and wildflowers, and produces seed for sale at her home in Naul, Co Dublin. Her unusual herbs and edible flowers are in demand by food stylists and chefs — including the contestants in the Irish Masterchef television show. She has applied her expertise in herb garden design in several places, among them Brook Lodge Hotel at Macreddin in Co Wicklow and Drimnagh Castle in Dublin.
Yet, what made me sit up and take notice recently were her table decorations for the Web Summit at the beginning of November. For the dinner at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham for 300 people, she supplied dozens of herb posies: delightfully simple bunches of bay, sage, lavender, meadowsweet and hawthorn berries. Then, for the Summit’s buffet dinner at Dublin Castle she made a table runner of material foraged from her garden. Hawthorn berries featured again, combined with ferns, ivy and oak leaves in full autumn glory.
“They were all native Irish plants, which was perfect — as the dinner was promoting Irish producers,” says Denise. And, because her whole garden is certified by the Organic Trust, all were organic, another nice touch. “It was all very simple and natural, we just laid them out, with no wiring, no tying, and no Oasis.”
Actually, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, as the day brought non-stop torrential rain. Picking and gathering was more akin to a water sport than plant collection, and then, because all the material was drenched, every leaf, sprig and berry had to be individually and carefully dried with a towel before being laid on the pristine white table cloths.
When I ask Denise to suggest some natural trimmings for a Christmas table, she takes to her garden again. She chooses native ferns — both the hart’s-tongue and male fern — for the long, flowing shapes needed to give continuity to a central runner. Additional foliage includes ivy, variegated holly, and a few autumn-flushed spindle leaves. She adds a sprinkling of bright fruits: plump rose hips, pink-and-scarlet spindle berries and rough-textured and perfectly-round Arbutus unedo fruits in lime-green, orange and crimson. The last is commonly known as the strawberry tree, and is unusual in that it is native to Ireland and the Mediterranean, but not to Britain. The fruits take a year to ripen, so the trees often bear fruits and flowers at the same time.
Denise is not averse to adding a bit of glitz to her Yuletide efforts, and she uses the occasional, judicious spritz of copper spray paint to give warm, metallic accents to ivy berries, birch twigs, teasel heads, and the curious, inflated seedheads of Nigella damascena. Tea-light holders with copper rims and a copper-toned candle “bling things up a little bit” while keeping the colour scheme co-ordinated.
She embellishes her napkins by tying them with raffia and inserting bunches of plant material. A green and red combination is sage, rosemary, French lavender and rose hips, while a more opulent mix is copper-sprayed nigella seedheads with the pearly, wafer-thin pods of honesty (Lunaria annua).
Denise’s kind of table decorations can be assembled relatively quickly, which is a boon when there are a million little tasks that need to be done. What I also love, though, is that they are snippets of nature at the Christmas table — a place where many of us linger for hours. The smooth perfection of a rose hip, the intricacy of a fern frond, the translucency of a honesty seedhead — all these offer moments of calm and contemplation in this sometimes frenetic season.
Denise Dunne may be contacted at theherbgarden.ie
Material for seasonal decorations can be found on woodland walks, but remember, you should be foraging, not pillaging. It is best to collect only nuts, cones and leaves that have fallen to the ground. Plentiful plants, such as ivy, can also be harvested in moderation. Leave holly alone, as there are far too many people plundering it already. Gardens – your own or a friend’s — offer plenty of material.
A version of this blogpost appeared earlier in The Sunday Times, Ireland
October 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
One of the ten candidates for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Centenary” last year was Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’. Although it didn’t win (the prize went instead to Geranium ‘Rozanne’), I was delighted to see the perennial wallflower on the list, as it has nearly dropped out of sight in recent years.
Plants go in and out of fashion, and the slightly dumpy and ungainly character of ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ does not fit in with today’s trend for tall and airy, meadowesque perennials. Nonetheless, it is a plant that should be in your garden, if you can give it a bit of sun. It makes a shrubby mound about two or three feet tall and wide, with glaucous, evergreen foliage. Its racemes of cross-shaped, purple flowers are borne spasmodically during much of the year, with the main flush between February and July. Cut back all the spent stems in July, and it will start banging out flowers again after a month or two. Bees and butterflies love it, and slugs don’t bother much with it. A hard winter might kill it, but it is easy to take insurance cuttings any time in spring or summer. It is one of those plants that are known as “good doers”. They’re not fancy or rare, but they are robust and reliable, and do their job uncomplainingly.
I’d like to recommend five other dependable doers that we don’t see enough of these days. You won’t necessarily find all of them in garden centres, but they turn up at plant sales, or in older gardens. Most gardeners are generous types, and will usually hand over cuttings or small basal shoots with a bit of root attached. These last items, incidentally, are known as “Irishman’s cuttings”.
Bergenia is another plant that used to be better known and better loved. Twenty years ago it was in every Irish garden, but now, according to one nursery-owner, “we couldn’t even give it away.” The big, leathery, evergreen foliage confers on it the common name of “elephant’s ears”. The pachydermic leaves make it quite a coarse plant, but it is just the thing if you are looking for groundcover for a difficult place. It is equally happy in sun or shade, and in good or poor soil. There are about a hundred varieties, but only an expert is able to tell the difference between many of them. The sprays of flowers, which range from nearly white to deepest pink, are hoisted up on thick stems in mid spring. Bergenia pays its way in winter when some varieties (those with B. purpurascens in their parentage) become suffused with a chocolatey-maroon hue. When dusted with white frost particles they look delicious. My favourite cultivar for the chilly months is ‘Wintermärchen’, sometimes sold as Winter Fairy Tales. It has slightly smaller leaves than some, and excellent colour in both leaf and flower. The whitest blooms belong to ‘Beethoven’, while the variety ‘Silberlicht’, which plantswoman Beth Chatto grows in her famous gravel garden in Essex, is almost as pale.
London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) is a member of the same family as bergenia, and is another faithful character in what I think of as the “nice old lady plants” department. It has smallish rosettes of spoon-shaped evergreen leaves, each delicately zig-zagged around the margins, as if it has been cut out with a tiny pinking shears. The lacy, starry, shell-pink flowers are borne throughout the summer on foot-high, wiry stems. It was traditionally used in rockeries, or for edging paths, and is happy in just about any kind of soil.
Another trusty, old-fashioned plant is Libertia grandiflora, with dark-green, strappy foliage and tall stems of small, cup-shaped, white flowers in early summer. It is a little winter-tender in cold areas, but sturdy enough in most gardens. If you are a poultry keeper, then you’ll be pleased to know that this is one of the few perennials that is goose-proof. Geese are among the worst plant pests known to man.
Also in the strappy leaves department is the summer-blooming Sisyrinchium striatum, which has upright fans of grey-green foliage and batons of small yellow flowers. It is an easy-going addition to gravel gardens, seeding itself about each year. After flowering, the foliage may become blackened and unsightly. Don’t be afraid to pull out the entire plant when this happens, as its replacements will be already be developing at its feet. The cultivar ‘Aunt May’ has variegated leaves and cream-coloured flowers.
My final, nearly forgotten and nearly bomb-proof plant is the periwinkle. There are seven species of Vinca, with several dozen cultivars shared among them. Almost all form evergreen spreading mats by way of long, stringy stems bearing pairs of ovate leaves and pretty blue, mauve or white stars. I like the plain green-leaved V. minor and V. major, but for those who like stripy plants there are scads of variegated kinds. As with the other plants I’ve mentioned here, it doesn’t mind poor soil or a negligent gardener.
What are other sterling doers and golden oldies can we add to the list above? Please weigh in below.
March 22, 2014 § 13 Comments
On the night of Monday, March 3rd 2014, Ireland’s most respected botanical artist died, a month before her 99th birthday. Wendy Walsh (née Storey) was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria, but she came to live here in 1958 when her husband, Lt. Col. John Walsh, originally from Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, retired from the British army.
It was not until Wendy Walsh was in her sixties that her work became widely known. In 1978 her paintings of wildflowers were reproduced on four postage stamps, and for the following six years she was commissioned annually to produce stamps on the theme of Irish flora and fauna. In 1983, she collaborated with Dr Charles Nelson and Ruth Isabel Ross on the first volume of An Irish Florilegium: Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, a sumptuous publication with 48 hand-tipped colour plates. Her name was suddenly everywhere, and the book was found in all the best drawing rooms. Today, the scarce first edition is offered for between €600 and €1250 by rare book dealers. The second volume followed in 1988.
Wendy’s paintings are keenly observed plant studies, with each detail carefully and faithfully rendered. They exactly capture the vulnerable softness of a petal, the beige brittleness of an autumn flower stalk, the joyful freshness of a spring bud, the angular kink in a year-old twig. Her colour matches are flawless and her composition elegant. In her best works, her subjects inhabit the page with the same kind of poise and presence that a great dancer manifests on stage.
The paintings are all the more remarkable because Wendy Walsh was that rare thing, a self-taught artist in a discipline that requires a precise knowledge of a science: in this case, botany. She was brought up, as she told me a few years ago, “in a curious old age” with a “mother who hated school and wouldn’t let any of her girls go to school.” She was taught by an “indifferent governess” until she was 14, and had no further education after that. Yet, she had an analytical and curious mind, consuming books and — as a teenager — keeping an illustrated wildlife diary.
Her mother named her Wendy Felicité after a favourite cocker spaniel and a French rose. She was gracious about the quirky origins of her name, and believed that it shaped her career as a painter of animals and plants. In the 1930s, she undertook commissions to paint dogs. She rode horses and hunted, and enjoyed herself immensely. “The 1930s were blissful times, no money, but lots of fun!”
During the Second World War she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary field nurse, and met a man whose horsemanship made him stand out from the many other officers. She married John Walsh in 1941, following him from camp to camp — moving 13 times in a year — until he was shipped out with the Eighth Army to north Africa. His army work during and after the war saw him travel extensively, including to the United States, India, Japan and Singapore. Sometimes Wendy and the growing family (three children eventually) were in tow, sometimes not. She told me: “That’s what the army’s like. We were always being separated and starting again.”
Eventually they settled back in Ireland, in Lusk, while John worked as the agent for Trinity College in Dublin, managing the campus. In 1999, after 40 years in north county Dublin, they moved to the stable-yard of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, the home of their daughter, Lesley Fennell, a portrait painter.
Throughout her life, Wendy drew and painted whenever she had time, and over the years completed hundreds of commissions. She won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 1996 Trinity College Dublin conferred an honorary DLitt on her, which, she said: “made me laugh, and delighted me so much. It struck me as funny that someone who had never been to school could call themselves doctor.”
Wendy worked on over a dozen books, almost all of which were close collaborations with Charles Nelson, the former taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Their working relationship, he says, was “a very amicable partnership”.
She was a good teacher, too, and continued to take students into her nineties. One former student recalls how she gave careful attention to each class participant. When a piece was so wrong that it was impossible to correct, she would say kindly, but pointedly: “That is rather a mistake.”
Many of those in the newly formed Irish Society of Botanical Artists have been inspired by this talented, generous and modest woman. It is fitting that on the morning of the society’s foundation on March 1st, just two days before her death, she was nominated its first member.
Wendy Walsh: April 9th 1915 – March 3rd 2014
The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, paintings by Wendy F. Walsh, with text by E. Charles Nelson, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. All the 99 illustrations from the 2-volume Irish Florilegium are gathered into this book: a perfect introduction to the work of Wendy Walsh.
This blog post is an a version of my column, which appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16th 2014
February 13, 2014 § 25 Comments
Ask any gardener their favourite plant, and they pause . . . think . . . pause . . . and then come out with something indefinite or general. They like “what’s in flower now”, or “plants that do well in my soil”, or “old roses”. But, ask them what plants they hate, and there is no hesitation. They get right down to it, in detail and with enthusiasm. In other words, we gardeners are devoted to hating certain plants. So, in honour of St Valentine’s Day and its theme of love, I thought that it might be fun to consider plants that gardeners love to hate.
I was going to start with my own pet abominations, but I’ve found a man whose list of dislikes is one that I might have written myself, so I’ll let him speak for both of us. Andrew Wilson is the head of the judging panel for show gardens at Bloom, Ireland’s annual horticultural event in the Phoenix Park. Based in London, he is also a lecturer, designer and writer — and detester of variegated plants. They look ill, he says: “spattered, mottled or simply just a disgusting and fading yellow. I remember finding a golden-leaved Weigela tucked at the back of Denmans Garden in glorious pink flower, and wanting to vomit. I still use it in colour lectures to say ‘why would anyone do this?’ ”
Wilson also hates lilac and privet, and is not too keen on hybrid tea roses either. Photinia ‘Red Robin’, rhododendrons and Hydrangea macrophylla are also on his roster of disliked shrubs. Potential designers of show gardens at Bloom, take note.
Helen Dillon, whose patch in Ranelagh is one of the best town gardens in the world, can’t stand purple plum trees and Acer ‘Crimson King’.
“I particularly hate the purple plum,” she says. “I can see why people will fall for it. It looks pretty for a couple of weeks in early spring, with its pale-pink blossom. But when you get to August, it is positively vile: it gets darker and darker and darker. If you screw your eyes up, it looks black. Black and dead. A heavy, sulky, horrid thing.”
Acer ‘Crimson King’, a dark-leaved Norway maple, is even worse, she says, because of its larger leaves. “It is poisonous, because its does more killing, more shading out. It’s so unfair on its neighbours.”
Frances MacDonald of the Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford, and garden tour manager for the Travel Department has a special hostility towards orchids. “Can’t bear them. Hate getting them. There is nothing worse than seeing them stringing along on a grey windowsill in Ireland. They should be seen in a jungle setting or, at a push, in Madeira or Jersey where they are properly displayed and impeccably grown.” MacDonald sits on many question-and-answer panels at garden shows, and nothing irritates her more than the inevitable: “I got a present of an orchid, and can you tell me how to make it flower again?” What she doesn’t reply, but would love to, is: “Why not just stick to the good old spider plant? It used to be good enough for us.”
In Dunmore East in Co Waterford, Michael Kelly, founder of GIY, an international movement of home growers, is at odds with the globe artichoke. “It’s very decorative, not a bad-looking piece of kit — but it contributes the least for the most space. You get all this palaver about growing it, and then at the end, you get this tiny disc of food after all the ridiculousness of peeling back those scaly things — are they petals? — and dipping them in butter, and pretending that they taste good. You know, everything tastes good if you dip it in butter. I’d much prefer to root it out and put sixty beetroot in the same space.”
Bedding begonias are top of Geoff Stebbings’s bugaboo list. The show judge and former editor of the British Garden Answers magazine is restoring a large garden in Co Wexford. “They do have lots of good points: they grow in shade, they flower for ever, they don’t get any pests or diseases. They tick lots of boxes, but they’re like a plant designed by committee. They are boring and completely without any characer. They’re like little blobs of colour. There is something about the smug, dumpiness of them.You almost feel like you want to stamp on them to put them out of their misery.”
I agree. I wouldn’t mind consigning them to the compost heap — along with most of the plants above. And, can we add those ghastly orange, pink, wine and lime-green heucheras to the pile, as well?
How about you? What plant do you love to hate?
A version of this blog post appeared in the Sunday Times.
December 9, 2013 § 4 Comments
I’ve been up to my oxters in garden-related books for the past couple of weeks in order to bring you my pick of the crop for 2013. First though, I have a plea. I have noticed that an increasing number of books now contain no index. Negotiating a book without an index is like navigating without a compass, GPS or other aid. It takes away the fun and adds a heap of frustration. My plea to publishers is this: don’t lose the index for the sake of a few quid. If non-fiction books are to compete with the internet, they must hold on tight to their indexes.
One book that I can’t put down is Seeing Flowers, with photography by Robert Llewellyn and text by Teri Dunn Chace (Timber Press, £20). Its 175 exquisite macro photographs of flowers are completely addictive. I keep returning again and again to sneak another look, and to read Chace’s informative text. Llewellyn uses “focus stacking”, where multiple shots of a subject are taken at varying focus points and then melded together in a computer application. The results are luminous, delicate portraits with every last hair and pollen grain in focus.
There is more excellent photography, of the luscious kind, by Andrew Lawson, Jane Sebire and Rachel Warne in The New English Garden, by Tim Richardson (Frances Lincoln, £40). It features 25 gardens that have been created or re-created during this century. Among their makers are some of today’s most important designers, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Piet Oudolf, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Arabella Lennox-Boyd (who has recently redesigned the landscape at Airfield in Dundrum, Dublin). The book is an important record of a new golden age in British garden design. Among the well-known horticultural hot spots in its pages are Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter, James Hitchmough’s and Nigel Dunnett’s Olympic Park, and the over-egged pudding that is the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove.
Tim Richardson has also edited Of Rhubarb and Roses: The Telegraph Book of the Garden (Aurum, £25). This is a compendium of articles from the newspaper for the pin-striped elite, which has always had excellent horticultural coverage. The book’s contributions range from 1935 to the present day and come from Vita Sackville-West, Constance Spry, Mary Keen, Fred Whitsey, Beth Chatto, Dan Pearson, and many others. Also included are garden-related letters to the editor and news items. Not included is an index, but the publisher has left 20 blank pages at the end, so you could write your own, I suppose.
Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press, £30) is an essential guide for those interested in the new perennial planting style. The naturalistic look may seem effortless, but it is not easy to pull off successfully. So often, one year’s harmonious scheme becomes next year’s brawl, as tough plants take over, delicate ones die out, and weeds creep in when no-one is looking. This book equips the reader with the information needed for crowd control in perennial plantings, explaining the ecology, behaviour and mechanics of the most suitable varieties. There are extracts from some of Oudolf’s plans, including snippets from his famous New York High Line planting scheme.
For serious planting designers and students, a useful companion volume to the above is Piet Oudolf’s and Henk Gerritsen’s Dream Plants for the Natural Garden (Frances Lincoln, £20). First published in 1999 and reissued in paperback this year, it is a directory of 1,200 plants suitable for naturalistic gardens.
Of course, not everyone wants the space outside their door crammed with uninhibited perennials. It is a style that does not fit all gardens. For those searching for the right mood and structure for their patch, I can recommend The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Garden Design (Dorling Kindersley, £25), edited by Chris Young. It is a complete guide to creating a garden, from conceiving and drawing a layout to laying paths, opening vistas and using plants for various effects.
I’ve also been enjoying Aubrey Fennell’s Heritage Trees of Ireland (The Collins Press, Eur 29.99), which pays homage to over a hundred of this island’s tallest, fattest, oldest, holiest, boldest and otherwise remarkable trees. Our moist and mild climate allows us to grow a greater diversity of trees than most places in the world. The pages of this book demonstrate it, depicting eucalyptus from Australia, redwoods from California, monkey puzzles from Chile, date palms from the Canaries, and a virtual woodland of other species.
Our Once and Future Planet, by Paddy Woodworth (University of Chicago Press, book: $35, e-book: $21; kennys.ie: €23.32) deals with restoration ecology, a subject that savvy gardeners should be aware of. Irish-harvested peat-based compost, for example, has helped turn our bogs to sterile tracts. Imagine if they were restored? Woodworth tackles this subject in one of his chapters, while Irish woodlands are the subject of another.
Other books that I have enjoyed this year, and have already written about, include Kate Bradbury’s The Wildlife Gardener: Creating a Haven for Birds, Bees and Butterflies (Kyle Books, £14.99), which Alan Titchmarsh rightly calls a “joyous book”, and Alex Mitchell’s The Rurbanite: Living in the Country without Leaving the City (Kyle Books, £16.99), a handbook for townies who yearn for the rural life while still holding onto their urban benefits.
An edited version of the above appeared in my weekly column in The Sunday Times on December 1st 2013
September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
A dark day in the sun
The heron ate my frogs.
Not “a heron”, but “the heron”. In Ireland, serious threats are accorded the definite article: the fox, the blight, the whooping cough, and — on that fine day last spring — the heron.
Or rather, it was a fine day for the heron, but not so for the frogs. They had already had a stressful year. Spring had come early, and gone away again. January was so mild that the frogs had spawned on the 7th (the earliest date yet in my twenty-one-year stint in this garden). They spawned again at the end of the month, and then, spring retreated and winter blew back in with flurries of sleet and snow.
When spring finally reappeared in March, they were in the pond again — glorious, tumbling bundles of fornicating frogs. I left them to their work, undisturbed by my camera. After the difficult start to the year, they deserved some privacy and peace.
The heron thought otherwise.
My phone rang. It was a neighbour: “Are you looking out the window?”
No, I wasn’t (for once).
“There is a huge bird eating the frogs — like a crane or something. It’s amazing!”
I was torn: should I reach for my camera, or should I shout at the dogs to scare off the intruder? A quick look out the window revealed that it wasn’t a crane (a very rare visitor to Ireland), but — as I suspected — a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the largest heron in Europe, which is native to Ireland, Britain and much of Europe and to parts of Asia and Africa. My glance revealed also that it was too late for the frog, dangling darkly from the bird’s brutal bill, so I grabbed the camera.
I felt like a traitor towards the amphibians with whom I had shared many summer afternoons by the tiny pond, but I wanted the picture. I am, after all, keen on wildlife, and here was wildlife — and wild death — happening right in front of my lens. Still, I felt affronted and angry. I had nurtured the frogs, thinking of them as “my” frogs, although they were nobody’s frogs but their own. But now, it was apparent, they were the heron’s.
The frog that was in the heron’s bill, and that would soon be in its stomach, was old enough to breed, so it was three or four years old. What a way to go. One minute in the throes of reproduction, and the next in the jaws of death.
I moved closer and closer to the heron. Was there a touch of annoyance in its golden, predator’s eye? Eventually, it unfolded its massive wings and flapped off to perch on a tree in a neighbouring garden, the frog still hanging from its bill.
It swallowed it whole (and still alive?), and moved to the top of a swing set, perhaps contemplating its next move. Would it be able to cram in another frog? It was the heron’s own breeding season, so perhaps it was stocking up on food to regurgitate later for its chicks. A magpie arrived, sat next to it on the wooden bar, and then dive-bombed it several times. Maybe the magpie, a ruthless predator itself, was worried what might happen to its future offspring if the heron got too comfortable in this place.
The big bird came back to rest on the wall of my garden, but I saw it off too. I felt mean scaring it away, but it had already helped itself to several frogs. I thought it would probably be back before I managed to get some netting for the pond.
And indeed it was: a while later it was swishing its yellow bill around in the weedy water, as if stirring a pot of porridge. After I had rigged up an unlovely wire grid over the pond — with room for songbirds and frogs to scoot under — the heron returned several times, puzzled at this barrier to its food source. It sat on the greenhouse roof (where it made a striking finial ornament), waiting to see if the wire mesh might somehow disappear. It didn’t. In making the pond inviting for the frogs, I felt I had a duty of care for them. The heron, I decided, could go somewhere else.
August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”
So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.
The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.
Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.
The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.
When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”
Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.
“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky. “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”
Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.
As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783
Let’s talk tomatoes
Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.
Let’s go to Laois
Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.
An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times