Gardens are artificial creations and we determine what they will look like. Anything we do (other than pure neglect) is as a result of following, either by chance or accident, a fashion or style.
Garden design has evolved and been refined slowly over centuries as a result of philosophical, religious, mathematical, climactic and practical reasons. Styles have travelled, been adapted to regional conditions and the most loved and revered have survived.
Over the next few months, we will take a look at garden styles which remain relevant - ideas that we recreate, reinvent or reinterpret. They include Oriental, Islamic, English Flower and Cottage, Italian Renaissance, Modernist, Jungle, Prairie and Contemporary. This week, let's start with a style we've always loved - cottage gardens of the English tradition:
The original cottage garden has, at its heart, a simple style, born from utilitarian needs. The cottage dweller in rural England was often an agricultural labourer and planted the plot of ground in front of their home with turnips, cabbage and onions alongside hollyhocks, poppies, daisies, sweet pea, roses, honeysuckle and lavender. Together with an apple or pear tree and some soft fruit, the often smallish gardens were packed to capacity.
Walls were created from local stone as transporting other materials any distance was prohibitively expensive. Pathways ran straight from wooden entrance gate or archway to the front door and were either paved with the same stone, sprinkled with gravel or consisted simply of rammed earth.
Design and overall planning often appeared to be non-existent. Overall, the plot was easy to look after as, due to the crammed planting style, there was less opportunity for weeds to flourish. The overall effect was very natural, all elements seemed to 'belong' and a distinctive local look emerged which could differ from village to village.
The style evolved and was refined until the 1870s when, due in part to the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement, an idealised Chocolate Box version of the cottage garden suddenly became trendy. The vast collection of newly-arrived flowering plants from foreign outposts fed the trend and soon cottage garden genes mutated to the elaborate borders of society's new aristocracy - the city stockbroker.
For over 100 years, these harmonising styles of flower gardens held sway with both the influential and chattering classes. They defined what an English garden was, what it had to be.
Then, in the 1970s, new ways of living in city, urban and suburban situations, greater choice of interesting materials along with exposure to other outdoor lifestyles on TV and through travel, helped to challenge the status quo and the dominance of the flower garden. However, during our recent economic travails, many have found comfort in older garden styles. So, cottage and flower gardens, along with the craft of gardening, has had a resurgence.
The pure cottage garden is an enduring style which has become a world favourite, adapted from place to place. In Ireland, old tractor tyres adorned with paint and planted with begonias can add a different flavour to the style, while similar plots in parts of America will be bordered by white picket fences.
The look is easy to achieve and can be inexpensive to create. The cottage garden style works best when complemented by a sympathetic use of materials - wooden archways, woven willow screens, stone or kiln-fired brick pathways and paving can work well. The flowering plants are often pollen rich, making them attractive to wildlife, and the sheer abundance of plants provides plenty of cover and therefore, great habitats.
Butterflies, bees, bird life and hedgehogs will thrive along with less glamorous creepy crawlies. This combination helps to ensure a healthy eco micro-system, lessening the need for intervention with slug pellets or other chemical warfare.
The downside of this garden style is that it often heavily relies on herbaceous plants, annuals and biennials, which can result in an unsightly desolate look in winter.
Introducing some evergreen 'bones' to your plot, such as mounds of yew or box, along with evergreen holly surrounding hedges, can help overcome this.
I called to Kilmurry Nursery and Gardens, in Gorey, Co. Wexford last week and watched as they prepared for the spring invasion of plant lovers.
The nursery, run by husband and wife team Paul and Orla Woods, has developed a wonderful reputation at home and beyond for its excellence of production and choice displays at flower shows.
Orla told me about a fantastic service they offer. Often customers love the idea of buying plants from Kilmurry, but don't have a notion of how to use them in their own gardens. So, Kilmurry can be commissioned to oversee the preparation of the soil, place the plants and advise on their care - allowing the sometimes vague vision of the client to become a wonderful reality. And, if needs be, they'll do the actual digging!
The nursery's plant catalogue is at kilmurrynursery.com, so identify what you love in advance and then head to the sunny south east for some serious shopping. Kilmurry doesn't restrict its range to perennials and grasses. I have my eye on an unusual bulb, an African lily called Black Pantha, which is topped by spheres of deep bluey-black, trumpet-shaped flowers. These benefit from a full sun position in a moist but well-drained soil and they make a great show in a large pot. I also love primula beesiana, whose flowers hang in tiers on upright stems. Beesiana has rose purple flowers with a yellow eye.
COMMUNITY SPIRIT BLOSSOMS IN RURAL DONEGAL
In 2008, I began working on a commission from Donegal County Council with the community of Carndonagh on the Inishowen peninsula.
Part of my brief from Donegal County Council involved consultation with 670 local people, from mum-and-toddler groups, to schoolchildren, local gardeners and elderly members of the community.
Their requirements were varied... from places to play and texting circles (no, I hadn't a clue either!) to a BMX track, allotments, playground and a walking/jogging trail.
Last week, we gathered in the new facility as a local schoolgirl, Sarah Brophy, officially opened Carndonagh Town Park. I was astonished at the tenacity of the local people which ensured that this much-needed facility was created during some of the State's toughest economic times.
Diarmuiod Gavin's garden for Donegal Coounty Council at Carndonagh
Special mention must go to Aideen Doherty, area manager for community and enterprise, who gathered enthusiasm, support and funding from wherever it could be found and the park's de facto curator Stephen McGirr, a passionate gardener whose skills in planting and educating the local children will, in time, turn out to be the park's best asset.
If you'd like to cheer yourself up this Saturday, take a photographic tour of Aultaghreagh Cottage Garden, in Dunmanway, Cork, at youtube.com/watch?v=Vdh3CJrgtHk. The garden includes flowering borders, a pond and a 'secret garden'. It's filled with perennials, mainly grown from seed, including oriental poppies, Noble series lupins, thalictrum, campanulas, asters aconitum, agapanthus and choice crocosmias like 'Emily McKenzie'. Aultaghreagh also enjoys the Nowen and Shehy mountains as a backdrop. If you want to make more than a virtual visit, Les and Christine Wilson open their Eden from 11am-5pm on Tuesday to Sunday from May to September. This summer, they're looking forward to welcoming groups from famous UK nursery Hilliers, the Oregon Hardy Plant Society - and you! To book, call (023) 885 5307 or visit aultaghreaghcottagegarden.com.
The gardener's cottage at Glenveagh Castle in Donegal is a good example of a cottage garden. In Yorkshire, Hill Top at Ambleside, the former home of author Beatrix Potter, is a delight.