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

Here’s the Plot: Balbriggan Community Allotments

June 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

It’s May when I visit the new Balbriggan Community Allotments, but it’s cold, with a wicked northwest wind blasting across the six acre site. Exposure is often a problem with new allotment schemes, and this one, which opened in February, is no exception. On former agricultural land with little shelter, and half a kilometre from the sea, it gets weather from all sides. The new plot holders are resourceful types, though, and most have erected windbreaks of polypropylene netting around their domains. When the sun shines, the green mesh catches and multiplies the light, sending a shimmering zig zag of iridescence across the plots.

Today, however, the sky above north county Dublin is in an operatic mood, building up angry, inky clouds and furiously tossing down cascades of icy water. I seek refuge in the polytunnel of Caítríona and John Redmond, but the rain battering on the plastic skin is so loud we can barely hear our voices.

Their tunnel, newly erected on their ten by twenty metre plot, is one of a growing number at the site. Every week another one pops up, like a giant mushroom on the landscape. In these early days, while the hedges and trees that will eventually diffuse the wind are still in their infancy, the protection that the polyethylene-covered hoop-houses afford is very welcome. “I sold all the baby gear to get this!” explains Caítríona. “I said: ‘no more kids: let’s get a polytunnel instead.’ ” So they did.

They’ve had it less than a month, but already there are crops luxuriating in its cocoon of warmth and stillness: cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, tomatoes, herbs. There are more edibles planted outside in the heavy clay soil that they have amended with compost and manure. Growing food is a serious undertaking for them. Only John, who works as a bus driver, has paid employment, and there are five mouths to feed. Caítríona was made redundant after the birth of her first child, four years ago — despite the fact that just a couple of years previously she had won an award for “Irish PA of the Year”.

© Jane Powers

She has since put her organisational and diplomatic skills to good use, volunteering with local community projects, and working as the chair of the allotments committee. She is one of many people here who has invested much time and energy into the plots, which are rented from Fingal County Council. Fingal Leader Partnership organised contractors to do the structural work on condition that this was matched by input from the new allotmenteers. Accordingly, the lining out of the plots, and the erecting of the post-and-wire fencing was all carried out by volunteers. There are 211 plots, in three sizes: 50, 100 and 200 square metres (with a rent of €1 per square metre per year). The community orchard of plums, cherries and heirloom Irish apples was likewise planted by plot-holders.

The spirit of communal endeavour pervades the place. Tools and knowledge are freely shared. “Nobody here is a food expert, or a growing expert,” says Caítríona, “but we’re learning from one another.”

An educational area — with polytunnel, raised beds, and compost bins — will be the venue for training courses offered by local horticulturists. Some of the plot-holders will also receive training as master composters through the EPA’s Stop Food Waste initiative, while others have already been to a pig-rearing course at Oldfarm in Tipperary.

The herd of five Tamworths arrived a few hours before my visit, and the sleek rusty-brown bonhams are bouncing around in one half of their two-acre paddock beyond the allotments. They are owned by a ten-strong syndicate: in late August, when the pigs are slaughtered, each of the members will receive their half share.

There is much industry evident in the rectangular lots: in one corner, John Dervan from east Galway is instructing his son in the precise art of digging traditional vegetable ridges, while Mark Mooney, who works in the zoo, is making a fascinating shed from 16 reclaimed palettes and a pair of salvaged windows.

© Jane Powers

Beginner gardener Aoife McGee, a primary school teacher, has made all her own raised beds from scaffolding planks, and is working in her polytunnel among dozens of healthy seedlings. She whispers that she hasn’t a clue what she is doing, but she is a natural and intelligent gardener. I envy her and her fellow plot-holders the years of growing ahead of them in this fertile field of fruit, vegetables and goodwill.

© Jane Powers

To enquire about a plot at Balbriggan Community Allotments, click on http://www.fingalcoco.ie and search for “allotments”, or telephone the Parks Division at: 01 8905600.

An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times

The Dry(ing) Season

June 7, 2013 § 31 Comments

This year, spring made it only by the skin of its teeth, hastily scrabbling together all its flowers and flinging them into a heap in May.

Summer, however has been exemplary so far (this week, that is) and has delivered one of my favourite sights:

I am both mesmerised and exhilarated by the sight of clothes drying on the line. I spent a lot of time today gazing upon my own happy contraption — and I was reminded that I have a page in my book, The Living Garden, devoted to this excellent device. I hope you don’t mind if I hang it up here to air for a bit. (The tone is quite crusading — and slightly at odds with this memorably sunny day — but there are some things about which I feel strongly.)

A plea for the clothes line

Banned from some housing developments and shunned by people who seem to think that laundry is indecent, the poor clothes line has sunk to the same status as a messy drunk. This is horribly unfair. Those who use clothes lines are doing a service to the environment by keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere.

Dryers are avid energy guzzlers, having both a heating element and a motor. They release between one and two kilos of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each drying cycle. The clothes line, on the other hand, contributes zero carbon and is easier on your clothes (all that lint in the dryer is the fabric wearing away). And the bracing, fresh, ozonic smell of clothes just brought in from the line is an instant mood elevator. What’s more, sunlight and fresh air are potent bleaching and disinfecting agents — something our mothers and all the mothers before them have known ever since, countless centuries ago, woman first washed a length of cloth and hung it to dry in the sun.

Yet the clothes line is often ignored by garden designers, and forgotten about by those who are creating their own gardens. Usually, it is either forgone, or is shoved in awkwardly. So, if you’re planning your garden, give a tiny bit of thought to this greenest of laundry devices.

To my mind, the neatest way of drying clothes is to stretch a line (or two or more) across the garden when you need it, and to take it down when it is not in use. You can buy a retractable affair, with parallel lines that wind into a protective housing, or you can simply unhook the line from one side of your garden, and roll it into an unobtrusive coil that hangs against a wall or pole. Rotary dryers are more conspicuous, and tend to suffer from the same injuries as umbrellas in a storm. If you opt for one, make sure there is enough room for sheets to blow freely without snagging on plants, or brushing against walls.

I love clothes lines. They remind me of my fellow mortals’ daily lives; they are the flags and pennants of a human community. I asked for (and received) a clothes line for a recent birthday. The sight of our laundry flying in the breeze while being magically freshened by sunlight and oxygen always makes me happy.

A recent trip to Waterford where the porridge flows freely

September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

In nearly two decades of garden writing I’ve been to scores of meetings, seminars and other convocations of people who grow things. But I’ve never been to one with the same buzzy atmosphere and spirit of goodwill as the recent GIY Gathering in Waterford city. (And I’ve rarely experienced anything quite so surreal either as standing in Sunday’s pouring rain on The Quay while the world’s largest pot of porridge — 1,380kg, 550 servings — was being made, as part of the city’s Harvest Festival.)

GIY, of course, is an acronym for “grow it yourself”, an organisation started by journalist Michael Kelly in 2009. It has a strong online presence (www.giyireland.com), and a network of a hundred growers’ groups throughout Ireland, where members share knowledge and expertise with each other. There’s now also a smattering of GIY groups in Australia, and Kelly is planning a British invasion too.

The GIY Gathering was about much more than how to grow good spuds, make compost, or how to deter cabbage white butterflies from laying eggs on your brassicas. It brought together international specialists who spoke about growing — yes — but also about resilience, sustainability, health, education and everything else remotely related to the food we put in our mouths.

Michael Kelly, Lia Leendertz, Roger Doiron, Alys Fowler, Mark Diacono [© Emagine Media]

All the invited speakers gave their time voluntarily. Those who came from farthest afield included New Zealand social business entrepreneur Pete Russell whose Ooooby network (Out of Our Own Backyard: www.ooooby.org) links local backyard growers and smallholders with buyers; and American Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (www.kgi.org), whose “Eat the View” campaign led to the making of the organic vegetable garden at the White House in 2009. British speakers included broadcaster and writer Alys Fowler, writer and erstwhile River Cottage head gardener Mark Diacono, author of the Self-Sufficiency Bible Simon Dawson, writer Lia Leendertz, and sustainability visionary Paul Clarke. Among the participants from Ireland were Joy Larkcom, Klaus Laitenberger, Darina Allen, Trevor Sargent and many others. The weekend’s proceedings were presided over with good humour and intelligence by Ella McSweeney.

With five events going on at most times, it was hard to choose which to attend. Most of the talks I went to had my mind bubbling over with enthusiasm and fertilised with new ideas — although my mental jury is still out on the co-creationist’s method of slug control: include extra plants for the molluscs, and ask them nicely to leave all the others alone.

Are you sure you’re listening to me, little slug?

I was more inspired by one of Paul Clarke’s many projects, Pop Up Farm (www.pop-up-farm.com) where people are encouraged to grow food everywhere and anywhere in their locality: in a window box, on a roof, at a railway platform, in re-purposed drinks cartons. This kind of “extensive farming” is the opposite of intensive farming, and it has none of the associated problems of waste management, food miles, habitat erosion, loss of diversity and so on. A well-organised pilot scheme exists in Burnley in Lancashire where over 30 primary schools grow food in conjunction with each other. It is one interconnected farm, but in many locations. In a leaner future, where fuel and other resources are in short supply, it is strategies such as this that might save the world. It’s not too far-fetched an idea. It worked in Cuba, where the “organoponicos” feed the majority of Havana’s population. These urban organic market gardens arose when the source of cheap oil and agricultural inputs dried up after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

I was inspired too by the recurring theme of involving children in the process of growing food. Paul Clarke noted: “If you get kids growing peas and seeds, they go on to become activists for a better food system.” Trevor Sargent (www. trevorskitchengarden.ie) implored parents to make sure that  their local schools include food growing as part of the curriculum, and that it is integrated into the other subjects. “Maths, English, Irish, geography, history — all of those subjects have a food-growing dimension to them.”

Darina Allen pointed out that the root cause of obesity is the way that food has been produced since the 1950s. Industrial production systems turn out foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt. “Get the children eating fresh, naturally produced, local food in season. We spend 7 per cent of our income on food. How much do we spend on medicine? Our food should be our medicine.”

There were hundreds of other ideas discussed over the weekend, far too many to communicate in this small space. So here are just three to end with. I admired Alys Fowler’s stockpiling produce by preserving, drying, fermenting, pickling and storing underground (her book on the subject will be out next spring). I was taken by Lia Leendertz’s simple solution of sharing her allotment with three other families to quarter the work and quadruple the fun. And finally, who could argue with Mark Diacono’s advice: “grow what you most like to eat”?

GIY Gathering Themes

Resilience: growing local food, using low energy home-preserving, planting diverse crops to avoid monocultural disasters and minding the soil all build a strong food system.
Rethinking energy-heavy, disaster-prone industrial systems: smaller self-contained growing operations make more environmental and social sense. Lessons can be learned from nature where there is no waste and where all is cyclical. We can learn also from subsistence farmers, who respect the land.
Good food is undervalued: growing our own, even if it’s only a tiny box on a windowsill, leads to an awareness of the benefits and worth of real food.
Community: better food networks are built when more people are involved — sharing knowledge, skills, spaces, crops and responsibilities.
Doing: just growing something, no matter how ham-fistedly, is far better than doing nothing.
And finally, let me commend to you… From the Ground Up: How Ireland is growing its own by Fionnuala Fallon, Irish Times gardening columnist and one of the speakers at the GIY Gathering. The book, which is beautifully produced by the Irish publisher, Collins Press (€24.99), celebrates 16 very different Irish food-growing operations and the people who tend them. Fionnuala’s subjects are as diverse as an eight-square-metre apartment balcony, the 2.5-acre walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, the monster pumpkins grown by teenage twin brothers in Co Louth, and the Cork-based, organic Brown Envelope Seeds. With each chapter, she captures the passion and dedication of the people involved, and deftly imparts large chunks of their know-how. Fionnuala’s husband, Richard Johnston, is a tremendously skilled photographer, and his pictures complete the book with great style.

This blog post is an elongated version of my Sunday Times column, published on September 23rd 2012

Queen of the Road — and Vegetables too

July 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is August 1976, and an old Mercedes van with a small caravan in tow sets off from a farm in Suffolk. Its passengers are a couple and their two children. The cargo spread among the two vehicles includes all the usual camping paraphernalia as well as bicycles, a table, chairs, a telescope, school books, and a small kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, spices and other staples. A gang of teddies, dolls, knitted animals and sundry other gregarious characters crowd the windows, catching a last glance at the East Anglia landscape. Behind them, lumpy black plastic sacks of clothing are piled high. Shelves of reference books, empty biscuit tins and a typewriter complete the inventory. Out on the road, the caravan’s momentum gradually swings open the unsecured doors of the cupboards, dumping their contents onto the jumble of possessions.

Thus started a year-long road trip that garden writer Joy Larkcom and her family made around Europe collecting old and interesting seed varieties (hence the biscuit tins), and gathering intelligence both on traditional cultivation methods and commercial growing practices. The “Grand Vegetable Tour”, as they called it, took place at a time before technology made travelling the constantly-connected and cushy business that it is today.

Communications, accessing money and finding running water were major ordeals. Despite this, Joy — sometimes in shorts and T-shirt, sometimes in scarf and mittens — would set up her typewriter and little table next to the van almost daily, and tap out hard-won notes and articles. Husband Don Pollard, meanwhile, was kept busy fixing the vehicles, schooling the children and coaxing meals (including birthday cakes) out of the caravan’s cooker.

It is thanks to the efforts of this raggle-taggle troupe, staying at camp sites and in farmers’ fields, that British seed companies began to offer vegetable varieties and mixed-leaf salads similar to those found on the continent, and that gardeners became familiar with European methods such as “cut-and-come-again” harvesting and polytunnel growing. In short, Joy’s research and seed collections acted as a catalyst for change in vegetable gardens throughout Britain and Ireland.

In the 1980s, while researching oriental vegetables, she went (sans famille) to China, Japan and Taiwan, and to Asian communities in the United States and Canada. Later excursions took her to vegetable patches, seed companies, markets and trial grounds in many countries. For four decades, she has been a one-woman research institute, collecting seed, making notes and taking pictures wherever she goes, whether it is a Cuban agriponico or a Dublin garden.

Her articles, published in trade periodicals and in magazines for home gardeners, are meticulous, rich in detail and beautifully written. They take a single subject and examine it from every angle. They are virtuoso performances on artichokes, on peas, on pumpkins, on mulching, on the correct spacing of vegetables for greatest productivity, on how to grow mammoth onions, and even on how to achieve champion giant gooseberries. They cover everything to do with the edible garden, and often introduce new ideas and crop varieties.

Joy, now 76, has won many prestigious awards (including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal) and has published many books. Ten years ago, at a time in their lives when most people are winding down, she and Don moved to a farmhouse near Clonakilty, in west Cork, and started a new garden from scratch. “It was just brilliant almost from the start,”, she tells me, “the sheer beauty of this place — and to hear the sea!”

The couple approached the plot, on a fiercely windswept slope, with the same dauntless enthusiasm that fuelled their year on the road in Europe. “The challenges of starting to garden here were so absorbing. It was a blank sheet, and it was just a lovely experience altogether.” The garden, an intensive patch filled with fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, is entirely organic. Joy, who was never keen on using chemicals, ceased abruptly over forty years ago. While spraying her apples with a particularly nasty tar oil wash, she discovered baby Brendan, caught in the crossfire, covered in great globs of tar.

 Although the move to Ireland was supposed to mark the start of her retirement, the woman who is widely known as the Vegetable Queen is still working as hard as ever. She has just published a book, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99), based on a collection of around a hundred articles written over four decades. Interspersed with photographs, diary pages and other intriguing snippets, they are linked together with a charming and extensive commentary. The book is so warm and appealing that it gives you the feeling of spending an evening with a wise and good friend, with a box of old photos, clippings and other memorabilia.

Although it is still early in the season, I’m pretty sure that this is my book of the year.

 

An edited version of this article appeared in my weekly column in the Sunday Times

 

Diarmuid Gavin talks about his (very large) Chelsea Flower Show offering

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!”

Quite a big thing, really

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.

Black scaffolding poles with burnished couplers

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.

Going up!

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!”

Do click for a better view!

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 Chelsea plot awaiting Gavin’s tower

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!’”

Barrels of fun

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?”

Potato crates

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.

Portugal laurel pudding — for the ladies-who-lunch

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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Diarmuid speaks:

– 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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Diarmuid Tube

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. 

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.

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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

The Month of Froguary

February 22, 2012 § 23 Comments

I’ve been in full voyeuristic mode recently: peeping out of an upstairs window with binoculars, and then, when the moment is right, rushing out the door. My camera is raised in the shooting position as I barrel down the steps and I’m firing it off rapidly, papparazzi-style. But, mostly I’m drawing a blank. Or, if I’m lucky, getting something like this:

Just sittin'

Which is nice, because it’s always cheering to see photos of frogs lolling around, nonchalantly taking the air. Or, I might get something like this, which is also nice, because it’s arty and amusing, and it gives you a warm feeling about this particular character:

'Ere wot you lookin' at?

What I’m really after, though, is a good, juicy photo of frogs mating. But that’s not easy. Although there are at least two dozen amphibians making whoopee in our tiny garden pond, they are desperately shy. Oh, I can see them bashing away and the pond rippling like a bubbling cauldron when I’m at a safe distance. But as soon as I get within a few paces, there is a split second of furious detangling and rapidly churning water. And then, they’re all gone. Except for a few innocent heads poking out of the water.

Frogs are impossible to sneak up on. Their bulging eyes give them near all-round vision. And our pond is not the most secure place. While crouching behind the Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and hoping to get a better photo, I am assailed by an eye-stinging pong of fox urine. Our neighbourhood foxes, I imagine, are partial to the occasional frog dinner, and have been patrolling the garden more than usual.

What I saw through the Bergenia

So, I decide to leave them in peace and to sit a while where they can’t see me, and I can’t see them, but I can listen to their fluty croaking. Actually, the sound they make is far more melodic than a croak. It’s more a soothing, sonorous purr.

For me, watching the frogs may be entertaining and thrilling, but every year, after trying yet again to get photos of them in flagrante, I have to remind myself that this annual mating spree is a crucial part of their lives. Each female Rana temporaria produces around two thousand eggs, and she may mate with many males (often several at a time) in a process called amplexus. But only a few of her blobby eggs will reach adult froghood, three years down the line. Along the way, most of the tadpoles will be eaten by other water dwellers, or even each other (a gruesome sight to behold when you’re idly gazing into the depths of the pond). And baby froglets — no bigger than a pea with legs — perish if they can’t quickly reach a nearby cool and leafy sanctuary when they first venture out of the water.

So, I’m hanging up my frog-shooting camera until next year, when I’ll probably try again. My best bit of spawnography yet was taken two springs ago. Here it is, an uncommonly busy bundle of common frogs.

"If you could just move your flipper over there a bit..."

Springuary Days

January 17, 2012 § 18 Comments

At this point in January, it really should be winter. But the balmy weather has fooled plants and animals into thinking that we’ve moved into spring. So, I’m re-naming this month Springuary, the first month of Sprinter.

The blackbirds and the greenfinches have been dawn-chorussing for days now. They crank up at around 7am, which is a much more civilised hour than the rowdy 4.45am reveille in May. And occasionally, I hear a lone blackbird practicing its wobbly notes in the dead of night. Apparently the young males take advantage of these quiet hours when there is no other competition: they can perfect their warbles and riffs without it turning into territorial oneupmanship (or oneupbirdship). A pair of collared doves — a species that can mate for life, and mate all year round — are looking decidedly frisky, in a beige and puritanical sort of way.

Winter redpolls, still visiting

The little redpolls, who arrive in winter and depart in spring, are still visiting. So there is a jumble of birdlife at the feeders.

On the floral front, there is a crazy collision of seasons. The snowdrop, Wordsworth’s “venturous harbinger of Spring, and pensive monitor of fleeting years”, is flowering weeks early, while the last rose of last summer, a long-blooming Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is still hanging on palely. Shasta daisies and hardy geraniums are also popping out the occasional, surprise flower.

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy'

Many plants that normally bloom in mid or late spring are already flowering. Among them is the little bronze-leaved celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, discovered in an English wood by the late Christoper Lloyd. And, on our boundary, the evergreen Ceanothus ‘Trewithen Blue’ has been blooming for months. Usually it takes a break in winter before throwing its energy into a proper late-spring display.

I have to admit that although it is fascinating, I find this hodge-podge of a season disturbing. I wonder am I alone?  What’s flowering in your garden that shouldn’t be?

Ceanothus 'Trewithen Blue'

And now, two bits of exciting news:

1. My book, The Living Garden: a place that works with nature, is to be published in Germany by Verlag Freies Geistesleben in 2013. I’m very happy about this, especially since it is a nod to my many German ancestors, who account for at least three-quarters of my blood, and who enjoy euphonious names such as Seberger, Muller, Strobel, Zilberstorff, Routzong and Wahl.

2. I have a new job, as gardening correspondent for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. I’ve enjoyed the last few column-free months, but it’s time to put on my opinionated garden lady bonnet again. Next weekend, on January 22nd, the Sunday Times is launching a new forty-page section, called “Sunday”, which will feature Irish content exclusively. So, besides my weekly gardening spot, there will be restaurant and wine reviews, cookery (from Mary Carney, winner of MasterChef Ireland), a motoring column, outdoors and lifestyle features and loads of other things — all from Ireland. I’m quite excited. At a time when most newspapers are slashing and burning, it’s very heartening that the Sunday Times has taken on a raft of new contributors (anyone know what is the collective noun for journalists? A cliché of journalists?)

The Sunday section is available exclusively in Ireland (not in the UK, alas). Why not stroll into your local newsagent next Sunday, January 22nd, and give it a go?

**UPDATE** I’ve just heard that the Sunday section will be online on the Times website. Hurrah!

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