Deck the house with… Denise Dunne

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?

Denise Dunne of theherbgarden.ie© Jane Powers

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.

Rosehip herb napkin tie587OR

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.

Table runner prepred by Denise Dunne of theherbgarden.ie © Jane Powers

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).

Napkins596OR

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

Table decorations prepared by Denise Dunne of  theherbgarden.ie© Jane Powers

Forager’s code

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

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Where are they now? (Those serviceable plants we all used to grow.)

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.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ © Jane Powers

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 'Wintermärchen' and friends © Jane Powers

Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and friends
© Jane Powers

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.

Sisyrinchium striatum

Sisyrinchium striatum © Jane Powers

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.

Vinca major © Jane Powers

Vinca major
© Jane Powers

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.

Plants we love to hate

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.

Oh no, not another hydrangea!

Oh no, not another hydrangea!

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.”

Will they still be singing after a few months on an Irish window sill?

Will they still be singing after a few months on an Irish window sill?

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.

Totally Terrific Tomatoes

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

 Basket of tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Latah' © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Latah’   © Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Persimmon', grown by MIchael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Persimmon’, grown by MIchael Connolly
© Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Black Sea Man', grown by Michael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Black Sea Man’, grown by Michael Connolly
© Jane Powers

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.”

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

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

Tomato 'Ananas Noire' grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Ananas Noire’ grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

 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

Alpine plants — or their royal lownesses from high places

April 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

One of my favourite events of the year just took place. It was the annual gathering of the most blue-blooded and elite of the horticultural world. I’m talking, of course, about the Alpine Garden Society show. The dainty plants, lovingly grown in cold glasshouses and raised beds, and transported from the four corners of Ireland for this day, are the aristocracy of plantkind.

I’m a lousy alpine gardener myself, but I admire the efforts of my fellow gardeners. So in honour of them, here are a few pictures, and an article on alpines that I wrote some years ago.

♣   ♣   ♣

Tightly-rolled gentian umbrella

In my small alpine bed I have five Narcissus bulbocodium blooming. There’s nothing terribly special about these dainty daffodils with their egg-yolk-yellow cones, but it’s the first time they’ve flowered for me, so I find myself going out to inspect them three or four times each day.

I also have 18 furled buds on a Gentiana acaulis, and in the next couple of weeks they’ll open into a little colony of deep-blue, upturned trumpets — like a miniature forest of His Master’s Voice gramophones. Trouble is that the slugs and snails like nothing better than rolled-up trumpets for dinner, but since I nabbed 37 of the critters the other night, I reckon we’re safe for a while.

So far I have only 26 different plants in this tiny alpine garden, so I’m no more than a rank novice. Real alpine gardeners have hundreds and thousands of plants. Still, I think I’ve cracked one of the essential characteristics of a successful alpinist or rock gardener. An obsessive interest in numbers.

Alpine gardeners are forever (well, nine times out of ten) counting, cataloguing and listing their little charges. And that is perfectly understandable, because alpine plants are the jewels of the garden, and being so, they induce compulsive inventory-taking in their owners.

But unlike static gemstones, pearls and gold, alpines are performing treasures — with a repertoire of colourful tricks to lure us right into their inches-high world.

Androsace laevigata

Some, like many of the saxifrages, cover their tight, wind- and drought-resistant foliage entirely with shimmering, perfect stars. Others, the pleiones, for instance — or terrestrial orchids — erupt in spring from shiny, green bulbs into flamboyant pink affairs with five winged petals and a fringed tube whose corrugated and spotted innards draw you in for a closer view.

Pleione formosana

And some, like the gentians, produce flowers of such pure, concentrated colour that they make your eyes sing. Or, as the 19th century botanist, Thomas Corry, put it when applauding the Burren’s Gentiana verna: “Blue — blue — as if the sky let fall / a flower from its own caerulean wall.”

But the most common stunt pulled by many of these horticultural pets is the one where they keel over dead without so much as a blink. Only the white plant label remains as a sad little tombstone.

Alpine plants are a special challenge for Irish gardeners with our rainy, mild climate and soggy wintertime soil. True alpines, with their close-knit leaves and short, brilliant flowers are adapted to grow high up on mountains in thin stony soil, where the winters are hard and long, the summers short, and where the spring brings nutrient-rich snow-melt washing down the slopes.

A rather nice Lewisia

Obviously we can’t recreate the high-mountain weather, but we can ensure really good drainage with a mix of equal parts grit, good soil and peat-free compost — a recipe that will suit many alpines. And we can keep the necks of the plants dry — and thus prevent rotting — by mulching around them with more grit. And we can mimic the spring flood of nourishment by feeding plants annually with bonemeal, pelleted chicken manure or liquid tomato food.

But even with such care there is still a high proportion of fatalities, which is discouraging for gardeners of perennials and shrubs — far less finicky subjects. So to avoid frustrating disappointment, the thing to do is to start off with a few easy, inexpensive alpines. You will kill some (I have my own mini-collection of gravestones) and you will bring some to glorious flowering.

We pay homage to Your Superior Floralnesses

“Easy” alpines include varieties of the low, mat-forming, north American phloxes, Phlox subulata and P. douglasii, some of the saxifrages, the succulent sedums, the smaller penstemons and campanulas, and all kinds of dwarf Dianthus, the relatives of garden pinks and carnations.

At the other end of the scale are alpine royalty such as the “cushion plant”, Androsace vandellii, from the high mountains of Europe — which blankets itself in white flowers (providing that it has been protected from aphids, winter wet and summer drought and is turned regularly to get even amounts of sunlight) and the dwarf shrub Daphne petraea ‘Grandiflora’, a similarly tricky individual with pink scented flowers. Plants such as this fill beginners like me with a respectful awe — but it helps to remember that their growers have left a long trail of plant corpses in the pursuit of such gems like these.

As any expert will tell you, even if you kill three out of four plants, you’re over fifty per cent of the way towards being a real alpine gardener (in nine out of ten cases).

Move over shamrocks, here come the Irish primroses

March 16, 2012 § 11 Comments

Seven years ago, I was wandering around the Alpine Garden Show in Dublin, admiring the little gems and rare treasures in their perfectly-presented pots — and feeling that annual mix of awe and envy at the people who grow these impossibly perfect plants.

And then, I was stopped short by a more than usually magnificent sight. It was a long table crowded with primulas: dozens and dozens of them in full flower. Some had a familiar look about them, but others were unlike anything I’d seen before. “New Irish Primrose Hybrids”, proclaimed the sign: “All Bred Over the Past 25 Years by Joe Kennedy, Ballycastle”.

There were several distinct forms: dainty, low-growing flowers,  in pink, white, mauve and palest yellow — not unlike our native Primula vulgaris; and bigger blooms in deep wine, peach and other tones that clustered among robust, deep-bronze leaves. There were also “hose-in-hose” kinds where one flower is improbably stacked inside another, and robustly-stemmed ones with their blooms held proud above the foliage. I had never seen such an array of good-looking, covetable plants.

Primrose breeding was a popular pastime among Irish lady gardeners at the end of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th. Mrs Johnson of Kinlough in Leitrim and Miss Winifred Wynne of Avoca (owner, with her sisters, of the woollen mill there) were just two who bred some fine cultivars. But there have been only a handful of new introductions since the 1950s. Many of the vintage varieties have disappeared, and the plants passed around among primrose fanciers tend to be a few old faithfuls, including ‘Lady Greer’, ‘Kinlough Beauty’, and ‘Guinevere’.

Primula 'Guinevere', possibly bred by Mrs Johnson of Co Leitrim

So, the unexpected appearance of a whole clatter of recently-bred, vigorous, handsome Irish primroses was tremendously exciting. (There is something especially winning about a primrose: it is a gentle and unassuming flower, but it hides a steely determination that allows it to bloom in the coldest of springs.)

Alas, Joe Kennedy’s plants were not for sale at that show in 2005. He had created them purely for his own pleasure. They had occupied him since the late 1970s, and when he took early retirement from dentistry in the eighties, they consumed him entirely. Each year, he would breed about 2,000 new plants, and at least 1,900 would end up as “compost for the future”. He kept only those that offered desirable traits for his back garden breeding programme.

His sole raw materials — the ancestors of all his progeny — were “wee pieces” of about twenty old Irish cultivars collected over the years from gardeners throughout Ireland. In the beginning, his pollinating choices were random, but as the years went on, he began to breed for specific attributes: darker leaves, larger blooms, distinct flower shape and colour, and of course, hardiness.

Joe Kennedy's backyard in Ballycastle, Co Antrim

The Kennedy primroses may well have remained a private passion, shared only with a few envious people at plant shows, as their creator is a self-contained person. “I’m a bit of a recluse. I just work here on my own. I have a job to do.” And then, with refreshing candour: “People coming around are only a bloody nuisance.”

Despite this, one brave man managed to break through the reserve, and is now working with our eremitic primrose hero to bring these new Irish cultivars to a wider and international public. Hallelujah. Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny (which specialises in mass production of garden-worthy, easy-to-grow plants) contacted Kennedy after reading an article by him in Moorea, the Irish Garden Plant Society’s journal. He convinced the breeder to hand over twenty or thirty of his better plants, which were then subjected to a selection process. Finally, two dark-leaved varieties with yellow eyes were chosen to be launched last year: ‘Innisfree’ has red flowers, while those of ‘Drumcliff’ are white, flushed with lilac.

New Irish primroses with very old genes: 'Innisfree' and 'Drumcliff'

FitzGerald has four full-time employees working on the primrose project. Last year, five thousand of each variety were micropropagated at the nursery’s high-tech lab in Enniscorthy. Later they were brought to the Kilkenny division of the nursery on the old FitzGerald family farm to be “weaned” (acclimatised to outdoor conditions).

This year around 50,000 each of ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Drumcliff’ have been been propagated, and within the next couple of years, three new Kennedy cultivars will be introduced. The new Irish primroses are being sold across Europe: in France, Germany, Holland and Belgium; in Japan; and in America, where were launched at last year’s Philadelphia Flower Show. They’re available in Ireland and the UK also, in selected garden centres.

There’s good news too for the venerable old Irish cultivars that provided the genetic material for Kennedy’s new range. These antique primulas are due to be revived in a separate programme (supported by Bord Bia) at FitzGerald Nurseries. Nearly a century after their last heyday, Irish primroses will rule the world again.

This is an edited version of a piece that I wrote for the Irish Times gardening column in 2011

Some Seasonal Twiggery Pokery, and Ghosts of Christmas Wreaths Past

December 18, 2011 § 8 Comments

The secret to making a long-lasting and handsome wreath for your door is to use a ring made of florist’s foam as the base. This annoys me, as I’m a traditionalist, make-it-from-scratch kind of person. In my ideal world, all the raw materials for such decorations would be available in my garden, or in that of a friend, or by foraging in a wood. Of course, manmade stuff such as wire and ribbons is fine for frameworks and trimmings (and can be re-used again and again) — but floral foam is a single-use petroleum-based substance, a completely unrecyclable affront to the planet.

Dodonaea wreath

But, let’s take the creation above: see how the sprigs (of Dodonaea, or purple hop bush) flow around so gracefully? Well, if you had to affix each one individually to a wire frame, or stick them into a moss-filled donut (as used in the better British gardening magazines), you’d be days trying to get such an agreeable effect. But with your floral foam base (soaked first in a basin of water), you can just shove the bunches of leaves into the material. And, aside from the odd waif and stray that tumbles out on a windy day, they stay put. Fill in the outside perimeter of the ring first with sprigs of foliage, then the inner wall, and lastly, the face. In the wreath above I also added willow (an orangey-stemmed Salix alba), birch (brushed with leftover magnolia emulsion paint), skimmia berries and silver-sprayed lily seedpods.

You can also make a twiggy ring from willow (as below), or from dogwood, birch or other pliable stems, and use that as your base. Tie or weave in lengths of ivy, bunches of berries, dried hydrangea flowers, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Ivy-clad willow ring

The ring is pretty, in a Thomas Hardy sort of way. It is perfect for the cow byre — or for a garden shed, or for a wall decoration on a porch. But it lacks the plump sumptuousness that we like to see on a front door wreath. (The twiggy base, though, will last for a year or two, and you can use it as kindling when you’re tired of it.)

Variegated pittosporum wreath with skimmia berries

Skimmia berries are excellent fodder for Christmas wreaths and garlands: birds don’t eat them, so you can be sure of finding some on shrubs in December. You may need to wire two or three bunches together to make a cluster large enough to make an impression. If you don’t have a skimmia bush (and we got rid of ours shortly after I made the above wreath), you can buy hypericum berries from a florist, or use any bright berry or fruit. Christmas wreaths need a touch of gaudiness to bring cheer to this dark season, so don’t try to be too sophisticated and monochromatic. Our trusty tin of magnolia paint was wheeled out again for the birch twigs here, and for the ears of wheat — which I’d grown during the summer.

Dodonaea encore, with Casuarina cunninghamiana

Oh, look! It’s the painted birch again — but really, the pale, wispiness does help to lift the whole thing. Chillies offer up spots of red, while gold and silver love-in-a-mist (Nigella damescena) provide the glitzy bits. Our old friend the Dodonaea is making its final appearance (the wind uprooted it a few months later), and the fine froth of green foliage spiralling around the edge is a very rare (at least in Ireland and Britain) tree: Casuarina cunninghamiana. It’s dead too: killed by the Big Freeze of 2010. Its wood, however, is now nicely seasoned, and has been burning steadily in the stove behind me as I write this post.

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