September 21, 2020 § 11 Comments
When I started this blog over ten years ago, nearly everyone in my trade — which was writing about gardens — had a blog. We settled down every evening (and several times a day) to read each others’ blogs. Other people read them too, which was gratifying.
Blog posts were short and took no more than a few minutes to read. It was easy to clatter through half a dozen posts by fellow bloggers, and feel that you’d spent a convivial time with your friends.
Well, that’s all changed now, and I feel lucky to get a few seconds of anyone’s online time (I’ve exceeded my quota already by at least 15 seconds).
So, it’s been four years since I wrote a post here. Sure, what was the point?
Something else happened to me during that period. I started writing more about nature, and less about gardening. Every time I sat down to write my weekly gardening column I had a mighty fight with myself to keep the nature content peripheral, rather than central. There were so many interesting things happening in nature around the plants and gardens that I was supposed to be writing about.
I’d start to write about biennials, for instance, and soon I’d be itching to mention about how foxgloves are pollinated by long-tongued bees. Only the garden and common bumblebees have tongues long enough to reach deep into the tubular corollas.
Or, when writing about teasels (another biennial), I’d have to tie my hands down to stop going into raptures about the pools of rainwater that collect in the leaf axils: the hollows formed where the leaves join the stems. These natural vases are known as phytotelmata, and it’s possible that their purpose is to prevent ants and other crawling insects (inefficient pollinators for this species) from reaching the flowers. When invertebrates tumble into the tiny vases and die, their corpses add nutrients to the water which then becomes an ecosystem supporting algae and microscopic creatures.
Imagine that! A whole world in the armpit of a teasel.
You can see why I had to change direction in my writing.
I still garden, and I still do a little garden consultancy — both of which I love. But, I’ve hopped the fence in my writing life, and for the moment, I’m writing mainly about nature.
And I’ve had a book published: An Irish Nature Year. After my last book, The Irish Garden, which took over four years and much angst, I swore I’d never do another book. But I did! And I think it is a fine thing, packed with useful information and amazing facts about the nature that is going on all around us.
November 27, 2015 § 9 Comments
When I was in art college studying woven textiles, I won the Lillias Mitchell award for hand-spinning. I got a nice letter and a small cheque. That was decades ago, and I never won anything after that except for two raffle prizes.
Yesterday, my book, The Irish Garden, won the Inspirational Book of the Year award at the Garden Media Guild Awards in London. You could say (and I have, a bit) that they are the BAFTAs (or the Oscars) of the gardening world. My husband, Jonathan Hession, took the photographs, so it is very much our book, not just mine. We worked on it for over four years. It was so all-pervasive that it was almost like having a small person living with us, with all the attendant joys and difficulties.
During this period, our publisher, Frances Lincoln, showed a fair amount of forbearance, especially my editor, Jo Christian, who now runs her own independent publishing house, Pimpernel Press. The book designer Anne Wilson created a thoughtful and beautiful design. If you ever need a garden book designer — she’s the best.
We didn’t go to the awards ceremony, so we learned by email that we’d won. We had a couple of glasses of Prosecco to celebrate. The dog vomited. We went to bed at 2am. It was a grand night.
Here is what the judges said:
“A superbly researched book that reads as wonderfully as it looks. Sumptuous, illustrative photography illustrates copy that takes you by the hand to enjoy a journey through the history, styles, variety, atmosphere and characters of a huge range of valuable Irish Gardens. There is much to admire and inspire in the pages of the book, and its relevance is so important to any gardener’s library. Congratulations to the husband and wife writer/photographer team Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession, their passion for the gardens in the area they live is alive and obvious in every page.”
Victoria Clarke The Gardener’s Garden
Heidi Howcroft & Marianne Majerus Garden Design: A Book of Ideas
Carol Klein Making a Garden: Successful gardening by nature’s rules
James Wong Grow For Flavour
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.
May 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
I am sitting outside a busy seafront cafe in Dun Laoghaire. Seagulls are performing aerobatics overhead while a glossy starling keeps up a spirited commentary on the ground nearby. It’s a perfect day: not only is the sun shining, but Ireland’s most famous garden designer — who is famously difficult to pin down — has kept his appointment with me.
Diarmuid Gavin gets straight to the point: he waves at the lofty Italianate clock tower on the County Hall: “It’s about the height of that.” I gasp. He’s pleased, but forces himself to be more exact: “Well, maybe it’s just short of that.” Still, at 24 metres tall, his Westland Magical Tower is his highest Chelsea Flower Show garden yet. “The height is really a by-product of the design,” he says, with just a hint of self justification. “It’s not me trying to say” — and then he laughs in between every word — “I’ve… a… bigger… thing… than you!”
Whatever Gavin’s creation is trying (or not trying) to say, it is a rather wonderful item, and his most impressive Chelsea offering so far. The skeletal, pyramidal tower rises from a 16-by-16-metre footprint and tapers to an elegant point somewhere up in the heavens. The structure is unabashedly temporary, being built completely of scaffolding materials. The poles have all been painted ebony black, and the new couplers and clamps are burnished and golden. The colours are sumptuous and classy, like those of Chinese lacquer furniture.
On the way to the top — which can be reached by an internal lift, or by metal staircases — there are seven different levels, partially decked over with scaffolding planks, giving the tower a floor area of 600 square metres.
The elevated terraces will accommodate self-contained gardens, each with a different flavour and mood, as if they are tended by different personalities. So there might be a vegetable plot (complete with compost bin and shed), a patch of jolly annuals and hanging baskets, a cool sophisticated balcony for ladies who lunch, and any number of other high-level plots.
As with all of Gavin’s ouevres, a jumble of disparate ideas has inspired this design. Most have to do with the notion of city living and the need for increasing green space in unconventional places. Gavin is excited by the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) development in Milan, a pair of residential towers planted with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs. And he’s energised by the High Line, the linear park recently created on an abandoned railway track in Manhattan. But he is equally influenced by Rear Window, Hitchcock’s masterpiece of voyeuristic tension where protagonist James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, becomes obsessed with the goings-on in the apartment block opposite. Gavin loves the obvious artificiality of the film, and wants to replicate the feeling of a “series of lives being lived in a succession of boxes, one on top of the other.” And he adds, displaying his talent for a good quote: “if there is a murder, even better!”
The idea of making a garden out of scaffolding came last spring when he saw London’s Albert Bridge, then undergoing restoration, trussed in a densely packed and infinitely interesting web of poles and platforms.
Gavin’s magical tower, which is sponsored by Westland Horticulture, is being built near Stansted Airport by a crack team of British scaffolders. As soon as it is completed, it will be carefully disassembled, with all the parts marked and numbered before being packed into trucks and delivered to the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea — where the world’s most prestigious garden event takes place this month.
At the beginning of the nineteen-day build period before the show opens, the scaffolders will have five days to erect the tower. “I’m a bit apprehensive about the first few days,” admits Gavin. “We’ll have this amazing structure that everyone will be looking at and going ‘Oooohhh God, there goes Diarmuid again’, and ‘Who does he think he is?’ — and all that sort of thing.”
The Irish designer always attracts scrutiny, and not just because of his brash and flamboyant designs. Over the years he has been embroiled in public disputes with other participants, and — last year — with his sponsors. Accordingly, his Chelsea Flower Show appearances have always garnered more publicity than those of any other designer. But his gardens also warrant the attention for themselves: “We’re trying to be adventurous, and trying to have some fun, and trying to push it. We should, as designers, be offering something new. It’s an exhibition. It’s show business!”
Gavin admits that some of his gardens have been more successful than others — mainly because he becomes consumed with near-irrational enthusiasm during each project. He mentions one in particular: “at the time I thought it was the most magical thing in the world. And then to realise that it wasn’t — that was like a flat bottle of lemonade.”
His ideas often come to him almost fully formed, “and that is what causes me problems,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll refine it and you go and talk to everybody about it, and then a few weeks later, you will realise ‘That was the worst idea I ever had, and I’m so embarrassed!’”
When we meet, Gavin is at the not-sleeping stage of obsession with his current Chelsea offering. His iPad is crammed with images: besides the countless concept drawings and plant specimen photos, there are shots of scaffold fixings, wooden potato crates, rows of oil drums, and piles of rusted containers he found in the scaffolder’s yard — “Can you imagine ivy trailing over them? Or box planted in them? Or lavender in the sky?”
And there are dozens of pictures of the structure gradually ascending near Stansted. He’s thrilled by the way that the vertical scaffolding bars arrange themselves in regular ranks of columns — especially on the lowest level. “It’s absolutely classical!”
He’s crazily, madly in love with his scaffolding and all the beauteous shapes and dreams it conjures up all by itself. Yet he knows that he must put this infatuation to one side. “I can’t get carried away with the structure, I have to realise I am making a garden.”
“The planting stage is where you get it right or you get it wrong. The planting is whether this — like the Irish Sky Garden — becomes a garden that endears itself to people or not. You are a big show-off if you come along and make a scaffolding structure that size. But unless I can get the little old ladies standing there smiling at it, I haven’t done a good job.”
So, in order to make sure that the old ladies — and everyone else, including the judges — smile on him, Gavin is concentrating hard on the planting, along with Clontarf-based landscaping contractor Gerry Conneely, one of his team of sixteen workers. The hunt for perfect specimens has led them to nurseries in Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.
The lowest level of the garden will be full of shade lovers such as tree ferns, hostas and ivies. And rising into the next level will be a grove of chalky-stemmed birches. “I like really simple planting. I’ll always have box. And look at this!” — and he scrolls to a bold-leaved loquat. “I love it! It’s so Oscar Wilde. And what about this?” — a huge flat-domed Portugal laurel. “That costs a couple of grand. But it would be great for a very formal garden, like the Ladies Who Lunch garden.” And on and on he goes, as plants fly by on the iPad screen.
Gavin has mixed feelings about Chelsea: “Last year I felt it more strongly than ever. I am both massively excited and repulsed. And when I say repulsed, I really mean it.” And his voice thickens with horror. “Because it’s flower arranging. I absolutely love it, but I think ‘you’re just placing the plants.’ But then you walk away from it, and you realise that there is a bit of an art form in this.”
♣ ♣ ♣
Diarmuid Gavin’s Chelsea Gardens
1995: “To the Waters and The Wild”: the enchanting slice of Irish countryside and its romantic stone ruin was made on a shoestring, winning Gavin and collaborator, Vincent Barnes, a bronze medal.
1996: The modern city garden had glass slabs that lit up when stepped on, and although it won no medals, its designer’s ready charm and cheeky good looks landed him a presenter’s spot on television and launched a busy media career.
2004: “A Colourful Suburban Eden” was a jaunty creation, with a sea of giant lollipops and a Fabergé-egg-type pavilion. Probably Gavin’s most expensive garden: “I sort of lost the run of myself because it was so busy, and I left everything until late, and you pay top dollar then.” The judges gave it a silver-gilt medal.
2005: The pretty “Hanover Quay Garden” with swathes of lavender and box balls was awarded a silver gilt.
2007: “The Westland Garden”, which won a silver-gilt medal, had beauteous planting by Stephen Reilly and a softly-curving garden studio by Irish company, Shomera.
2008: The Oceânico Garden, with Sir Terence Conran was a city courtyard populated by a flotilla of airy, metal mesh daisies. The designers’ blurb enthused “It’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets Roald Dahl!” The judges awarded a bronze medal.
2011: “The Irish Sky Garden”, sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council, featured a giant pink metalwork pod suspended from a crane. It earned Gavin his first Chelsea gold, but the project was not a happy one. Destined to be rebuilt in Cork’s Fitzgerald Park, the Avatar-inspired creation has been the subject of acrimony between Cork County Council, Fáilte Ireland and the designer’s office — which is no longer involved in the venture. “It is a great embarrassment,” says Gavin. “But it is not my embarrassment. I don’t believe we did anything wrong.” The Fitzgerald Park project has been put out to tender. “It’s difficult for anyone who wins the tender, because they have to redo our garden with us not being too happy about it, but it’s work, and everybody needs work in this country in this day and age.”
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– The best thing about Chelsea: “Working with the lads, and seeing it coming together. And getting to work with plants that you will never get to work with on a commercial job”
– The worst thing about Chelsea: “The grasping for gold: nothing else matters, just gold.”
– The next big thing in gardening: “the environment, growing your own, cocooning, colour, herbaceous, conservation of water, composting, sustainability: all those things that I might have thought were boring 10 years ago.”
– Greatest inspiration? “I love what Philip Treacy [the Irish milliner] does: I absolutely love that genius because it’s fun and elegant and quirky in terms of design. It’s just… astonishing.”
– On being controversial: “I think our stuff is relatively tame. It’s quirky. If I wanted to be controversial at Chelsea, I would be projecting images of the queen, or of nude queens.”
– On past gardens made for television shows: “I was like a child in the sweetshop. We made the good, the bad and the ugly, and we threw everything but the kitchen sink in… But what with one thing and the other, I learnt a bit, and I calmed down.”
– On being middle-aged: “I love middle age for enjoying the simpler things, and not having frustrations any more. You are more confident in yourself, you’re not as shy. You just say ‘this is me’. A friend pointed out to me that my hair was receding, So I showed it to my wife, and she said, “Yes, it is. That’s what happens.”
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A series of short videos on Diarmuid Gavin’s Youtube channel comments on the making of this year’s Chelsea garden.
© Jane Powers A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times.