Diarmuid Gavin: One of the highlights of my horticultural year is an annual visit to a nursery tucked away in the Dublin hills
Mount Venus Nursery is a treasure trove of the beautiful and unusual
One of the highlights of my horticultural year is an annual visit to Mount Venus Nursery, tucked away in the Dublin hills. Run by husband and wife team, Oliver and Liat Schurmann, it is a treasure trove of beautiful and unusual herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees.
Last weekend when I visited, Oliver had just returned from a hectic few weeks at Bloom. He and Liat had designed the Bord Iascaigh Mhara Aqua Marine concept garden, a timely project to raise awareness of Ireland's marine environment and the need to protect it against the growing threat of marine waste.
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I was on the hunt for a variety of plants - a few climbers, some shade lovers and any unusual specimens that caught my eye. My first stop was the climbing section where I chose Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Rosea' - a superb climber for a northerly aspect. It looks quite like the climbing hydrangea and its white flowers in July age to a rosy pink. Like many climbers, it's slow to start growing - they often take a few years to settle in before they take off.
Other suitable candidates for a north wall would be Boston Ivy, Virginia creeper and climbing hydrangea.
I also picked up the climbing rose Rosa 'Madame Gregoire Staechelin' which has delightful pink flowers throughout the season with plenty of colour and a beautiful sweet pea fragrance. This should be grown in full sun in well-drained fertile soil. A cheeky little Chilean Flame Flower also hopped on to my trolley - Tropaeolum speciosum is a delicate-looking climber which produces scarlet red flowers in summer followed by steel blue berries in autumn and will grow in sun or partial shade.
Hardy geranium (below) are one of nature's most useful plants - they're easy, growing in most soils, often in sun or partial shade and will flower steadily through the summer. Geranium maculatum 'Album' has clear white flowers, great for brightening up those dull spots in the garden. I also chose Geranium 'Ann Folkard', a zesty plant with yellow-green foliage and vivid magenta pink flowers which will do an excellent job of scrambling through other plants and providing some ground cover.
My eye was also caught by Verbascum 'Violetta'. This is a lovely verbascum for smaller gardens or containers. Unlike its wild relative that can grow up to eight foot tall, 'Violetta' is a dainty two or three feet in height. Its graceful spikes are covered in striking rich purple flowers. It's wildlife-friendly, attracting bees and butterflies to its nectar rich blooms and it's very drought tolerant so suitable for a gravel or Mediterranean type garden. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil and cut off the central spike after blooming and you may get some smaller spikes over the summer.
Erigeron karvinskianus (main photo) is a great little plant for growing in crevices of paving or even walls. Last year I inter-planted some paving with thyme which has worked very well and is just bursting into flower now. So this year I'm going to try the same with Erigeron in a different area. This is done to great effect in Mount Stewart gardens where a flank of steps leading from the house to the garden is a cloud of these daisy white flowers in summer.
Foliage plants will add texture and layers to your garden. I was able to find two of my favourites here. Tetrapanax papyrifer Rex is the rice paper tree which has huge deeply lobed leaves. It can be a little tender so protect from cold winds and you might need to mulch in winter. Its striking leaves are perfect for creating a jungly, tropical effect. Also tender is 'Pride of Madeira', Echium candicans. This is a shrub with silvery foliage and dark purple-blue flowers but will do fine in coastal areas or well sheltered gardens.
The real star of my visit was an exquisite Japanese maple 'Koto No Ito' whose literal translation is 'Harp Strings'. This refers to the very narrow foliage which adorns this graceful shrub. The finely cut leaves are a fresh apple green in summer and turn bronze and yellow in autumn before falling. Japanese maples should be planted in a sheltered area as drying winds or scorching sun will surely damage these delicate leaves.
Mount Venus Nursery, Mutton Lane, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16; mountvenusnursery.com
For those tricky shady areas, one of the most reliable plants is Pulmonari. 'Blue Ensign' is a good variety and its bright blue flowers will provide nectar for bees from early March through to the end of May.