Tuesday 17 September 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: Lessons in colouring

Carefully selected orchestra of plants sing as other gardens begin to fade

Burnt orange heleniums in TJ Maher's garden
Burnt orange heleniums in TJ Maher's garden
Snap dragons

Diarmuid Gavin

I've just had the most invigorating and pride inducing weekend, rambling through the hills and hollows of Co Wicklow introducing the fresh eyes of some British visitors to some of our newest garden delights. Three days were spent visiting established, recently rejuvenated or new plots and seeing them through my friends' eyes. Some, like Jimi Blake's Huntingbrook near Blessington, will be well familiar to readers and TV viewers. His sister June Blake's garden is equally renowned.

The Irish National Botanic Gardens has installed talented gardener Seamus O'Brien to transform its satellite arboretum garden in Kilmacurragh which was recently visited and much admired by Prince Charles on his recent Irish trip.

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We ended up in one which would provide many lessons for us gardeners who love colour. Patthana is a small garden in the village of Kiltegan, not too far from where the TV drama Ballykissangel was shot. Acclaimed artist TJ Maher uses his painter's eye to create mid and late summer pictures employing colourful herbaceous perennials. Over the past decade TJ has assembled a carefully selected orchestra of plants to sing as other gardens begin to fade. Mid-August the garden was bursting with joyful exuberance and will continue so through to the end of September.

Highlights for me included the very tall snapdragons in delicious warm orange and pink colours towering at the back of the border. These are Potomac Dark Orange and available from chilternseeds.com. They combined beautifully with the primrose yellow verbascums and burnt orange heleniums (pictured). In the central bed, there were clouds of light purple thalictrum 'Splendide', sanguisorba 'Lilac Squirrel' heavy with pink feathery blossoms, and a violet phlox emitting its beautiful scent along with hosts of cheerful cosmos daisies.

Snap dragons
Snap dragons

Elsewhere the colour extravaganza continued with rich pink dahlias, coleus with flame-coloured foliage in pots which will be easily lifted indoors for winter and some spicy orange tagetes such as 'Cinnabar'. Old reliables geranium 'Rozanne' and 'Anne Thomson' scrambled through any available gaps.

Dahlias are the backbone of late summer gardens and they make great long-lasting cut flowers. They fell out of fashion but for gardeners who like to extend the gardening season as late as possible, they're definitely in. If you haven't tried growing before, I would recommend 'Karma Choc', which bears delicious, rich, dark black-red flowers atop bronze foliage and is chocolate-scented. Twynings After Eight is also a beauty - single white flowers on black foliage. You can grow dahlias from tubers or rooted cuttings in spring. As they are from Mexico, they like to bask in the sunshine so choose a south-facing position and prepare the soil with plenty of manure as they are greedy feeders. And remember they are tender - they will need to be lifted and stored indoors as soon as frost blackens their foliage.

Other plants TJ uses and recommends for this time of year are eupatorium, sedum and Verbena bonariensis, great for butterflies, anemone 'Honorine Jobert', veronicastrum and Nicotiana alata. Sedum, the ice plant, is a deservedly popular perennial that will do sterling work from now until November. It's easy to grow and low maintenance. Its fleshy succulent stems are able to store water so it's very drought tolerant. It will grow better on average to poor soil as in very fertile soil it can get a bit too lush and droopy - so don't feed it.

The best known variety is 'Autumn Joy' with its rosy pink flowers but there's a new kid on the block called 'Jose Aubergine' which has purplish aubergine coloured stems and dusky pink flowers. It's a bit stouter than some of the other varieties and less likely to flop over. Sedums are very attractive to butterflies and bees who are grateful for the late summer pollen and they look fantastic paired with grasses such as hakonechloa or Stipa teniussima.

It's not just about perennials in TJ's plot - there are lots of interesting foliage plants such as the giant tetrapanax to greet you in the courtyard entrance as well as fatsias, trochodendron and aralia. TJ's gardening philosophy is one of respect for nature, eschewing chemical interventions and encouraging birds, bees and butterflies to make themselves at home.

All this combines to make Patthana a garden which is at once exciting and serene and a masterclass for us all in late summer planting.

Top Tip

September is a good time for planting perennials as the ground is still warm but the plants are less likely to dry out so if you're filling in gaps or having a rethink, late colour provides a cheerful picture in the next few months.

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