Sunday 15 September 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: How to incorporate exotic plants into your Irish garden

Take your travels home with you by planting these exotic summery flowers

The rich flowering plant, bougainvillea
The rich flowering plant, bougainvillea

Diarmuid Gavin

Like many of you, I sought some sunshine at home and abroad this summer, being very lucky to spend time in Kerry, Marrakesh, on the Cote D' Azur and in Provence. The melting point of an Irish person is said to be 25 degrees, and while the sun in Ballinskelligs didn't challenge that, Europe and North Africa were experiencing a bit of a heatwave, so I was glad to return to my garden in Wicklow for a rather damp late summer.

And now, before the onset of true autumnal weather, what is it that springs to mind about the gardens and planting we have seen during our holidays? How can we capture the essence of a summer's garden with planting, and maybe create an area in ours which acts as a bright reminder of relaxed times?

For me, it's the colour and scent of Mediterranean planting, species I associate with trips to the sun. They break down into two categories - the vibrant, rich flowering plants such as bougainvillea (pictured main) or the often aromatic foliage favourites like rosemary and santolina. Sometimes, both qualities combine in exuberant displays such as lavender.

Before you invest in these plants, however, you need to make sure your aspect is right. We live with a temperate climate but my list, below, is crammed with sun lovers. So pick spaces which take the most advantage of any sun we get to plant.

If you'd like to echo what you have seen on holidays at home, here are my tips and favourites. Most are already familiar and have the advantage of being easy to look after. They're not picky about soil types - indeed, Mediterranean shrubs such as lavender are known to thrive on fairly poor soil, but they do like good drainage. Some, such as lavender and santolina, do need pruning as they can get spindly and brittle after a few years and it's even better to consider replacing them after maybe eight years when they have delivered their best.


1 Sage This is one my favourites - a rougher than velvet textured leaf that demands to be stroked and crushed. It comes in numerous varieties. Wonderful for the kitchen garden and the colour of the foliage ranges from muted green through purple and onto variegated.

2 Rock rose A cheery little fellow whose happiest when surrounded by heat attracting stones. Its foliage will lazily cover the warm ground while this plant sends up very cheerful circular flowers.

3 Lavender My favourite are the English varieties such as Hidcote. The French variety is a bit more showy - a deeper purple colour with a flower that resembles a lady wearing a fascinator at Ascot. Perovskia, the Russian lavender, is an excellent shrub for providing purple haze combined with silvery foliage.

4 Rosemary With its pine-like scent and blue flowers, this evokes the Mediterranean for me more than any other plant. As a hardy herb, it will keep your cooking fragrant throughout the winter. Wonderful planted as a small hedge, or use the creeping variety as an exotic ground cover or dripping over a wall.

5 Santolina This plant has delicate grey/silver fern-like foliage. It's an absolute delight, but keep it compact with steady pruning.

6 Figs These will also conjure up southern European climes, but the best fig tree for growing outdoors in Britain is 'Brown Turkey' (Ficus carica). Grow against a sunny wall in a sheltered spot and fan train it, tying to horizontal wires. Restrict root growth by growing in a container, otherwise you will get more foliage, wonderful as it is, at the expense of less fruit.

7 Plumbago (pictured) If you are lucky to have a conservatory or heated greenhouse, consider planting this wonderful evergreen climber with its abundance of sky blue-flowers.

8 Bougainvillea This will also need to be indoors as it will only survive with minimum night temperatures of 10°C. While it needs the sun, it can get scorched under glass in direct sunlight.

9 Citrus fruits Orange and lemon trees can be grown outdoors in this country but they will need to overwinter under the cover of heated glass. If you don't have the benefit of a conservatory, why not just visit this type of planting in the depths of winter. The Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, has a collection of magnificent heated glass and iron houses which house plantations from temperate to desert and jungle environments - a permanent display of the flora from abroad on our doorstep!

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