Since 1970, Janet and David have lived on their quarter acre plot in Howth, 300 feet above sea level and less than half a mile from the shore. Originally pastureland with shallow, acid and stony soil, it presented a blank canvas for development into a garden. Firstly trees were planted to protect from wind and to provide privacy. The front garden mimics a woodland glade. The back garden is divided into various sections both practical and ornamental which blend seamlessly together. Not everything is visible at first glance and this gives the garden an element of surprise.
So what got you into gardening in the first place?
Well, my mother and grandmother both had gardens, says Janet. My grandmother had a lovely cottage garden and my mother also had a beautiful garden, so I was interested in gardening from an early age. I come from a family of professional gardeners replies David. Both of us have experienced allotment gardening!
The Front Garden
What plants have you in the front?
We first planted several large trees -Birch, Eucalyptus, Hoheria (lovely white blossom in August) and a Scots pine. An understorey of shrubs – eg Drimys aromatica, Amelanchier. Corokia cotoneaster, Skimmia and various Camellias all provide shade for the woodland glade. The Fuchsias were planted as a hedge. Shade tolerant ground cover plants such as ferns, Adjuga, Arum metallicum, Pulmonaria, foxgloves and lily of the valley we planted beneath. In spring and autumn Cyclamen add interest. Wild ivy tends to take over so we have to keep that under control.
The Back Garden
Our back garden is long and narrow. Emphasis is on privacy so we planted trees here also. There is a woodland walk hidden along the wall, with woodland plants such as hellebores, narcissi in abundance, wood anemones and ferns. The borders are mainly a mixture of shrubs and herbaceous perennials with a central ‘tongue’ bed reserved just for herbaceous perennials. Propagating is our addiction and largely determines our choice of plants. Many of our now mature plants were home propagated.
How do you propagate herbaceous plants?
Just dig them up in spring or autumn and divide them with a spade. Put one half back and pot up the remainder for distribution. David likes to use his trusty penknife which he always carries in his pocket. (And so he does. Out comes the well used penknife!)
Your lawn edging is immaculate. How do you keep a good lawn?
We do our best but some areas of lawn are troublesome. David points out a seating area. That area was never good so we paved it instead.
I don’t see very many bare patches in the borders. You obviously didn’t have too many winter casualties.
Normally the garden suffers more from wind than frost. This year, however, was particularly severe and we did have a few casualties. A positive though is that our slug population is markedly diminished. They did not relish the cold! The usual favourites for slugs and snails were well up before the residual population emerged. We lost a tender Solanum and a favourite Polygala but fortunately we have replacement cuttings in the polytunnel Janet explains. David adds, it is expensive to replace losses, but cuttings cost nothing.
I guess not. But most of your cuttings are used for your plant sales, are they not?
Well, answers David, the best way to keep a plant is to give it away! Most of our friends have cuttings from our garden so if we lose something, we just tell them, “We lost such and such a plant, have you still got one we could take a cutting from?” Then we can start again. Plants always remind us of the people we got them from
Everywhere in the garden there is an abundance of stone. ‘Every bit has been dug out over the years’ sighs David and it has been put to good use for walling, raised rockery beds and to enhance a pond and bog garden.
What plants do you recommend for a bog garden?
We have lots of hybrid Primulas, originally grown from seed which now self seed but the babies will be mixed.
Your pond water is crystal clear; my pond is full of green algae. What am I doing wrong?
We planted it with water lilies to provide shade and shelter for pond life. We have a pump and bubble fountain which is running most of the time. Duckweed is invasive so we remove that with a sieve. Remove blanket weed with a stick – just poke it into the water and twirl it around.
What’s the secret to your propagation success?
For cuttings David shows me his homemade propagator sitting on the greenhouse bench. It is covered with polythene. A removable sheet of light weight cotton material provides additional protection from very bright sunlight. A 50-50 mix of coarse grit and peat in the bottom to a depth of approx 4cm we find works the best. In the poly tunnel, rooted cuttings are potted on into sifted soil, peat and a little organic fertiliser, usually fish blood and bone, and nurtured until well established. They are then moved outdoors. Seed we sow in the unheated greenhouse. Much we collect from our own garden but the Irish Garden Plant society is also a good source of seed. When large enough the seedlings are pricked out and potted up and transferred to the tunnel and then put outdoors.
What have you got at the moment in your tunnel?
Abutilon, Penstemon, Prostanthera, Euryops, Calceolaria, and lots, lots more.
How did you start propagating?
Initially to raise money for our daughters’ primary school, then the secondary school and finally a travel fund for college students. After education we changed tack and fund raised to set up the garden at ARC House, the Cancer Support Centre at 65, Eccles Street. Of course we supply a good deal to the plant stall at the 2 annual shows of the Howth and Sutton Horticultural Society. David is eager to tell of his latest involvement in the re-establishment of a Physic Garden to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the schools of Botany, Physics and Medicine in Trinity College.
What goes on in the vegetable plot?
This is an intensively cultivated area taking up about a quarter of the total garden. It is divided into a series of raised beds. We grow main crop potatoes, carrots, turnip, courgettes, beetroot, salad leaves, sea kale, French beans, sugar snap peas, broad beans, spinach and mange tout peas. Of fruit we have blueberries, loganberries, black and red currants, rhubarb, apples and gooseberries. Alpine strawberries are allowed as ‘licensed weeds’ and fill any available gap.
All those fruit and vegetables must take a lot of watering. How are you coping with the surprisingly dry summer?
Janet explains,- we’ve had a huge water tank for thirty years now. It used to be our oil tank but when we changed to gas we didn’t want to dump it, so we found a use for it as a water butt. It lasted well. We fixed it many times but it’s gone now. We replaced it with two, thousand litre water butts catching water from the house and shed. The garden generally requires lots of water but we’ve always tried to conserve it.
And you make your own compost I see…
Yes, we use all our garden waste and we have a much valued shredder for the larger prunings. This is all composted and spread as a mulch to conserve water and keep down weeds.
How do you control pests?
Slugs are our worst pest. These will eat all our tender seedlings if we let them so, very reluctantly, we have to use slug pellets. We’d like not to use them but we’d have no plants at all if we didn’t. Fortunately our abundant frog population, devourers of slugs, do not seem to suffer. We support all wildlife as far as we can.
What other wildlife have you?
A good variety of birds. We have tits nesting in boxes in the trees, and seagull chicks on the roof! They love the canopy of trees and large bushes. Unfortunately we do not see as many butterflies as we used to.
You have lots of Hostas. I’ve heard it said that slugs will only go for the variegated ones. Does that happen?
No they eat both.
What all is going on in the herb garden?
Mint must have its roots contained, otherwise it will take over. I use a piece of drain pipe. Also we have thyme, oregano, coriander, borage, chives, and rosemary. Salad leaves are with the vegetables.
You have a few succulents in pots as well. Any recommendations for tender plants outside?
Well actually I’m growing fond of sempervivums because they’re hardy, Janet answers. Many precious Echiverias and Agaves succumbed to the winter cold. But we won’t be deterred and will continue to push our luck with the many Southern Hemisphere plants of which we are so fond. The really tender plants are in the plant house especially for them built along the South face of the house.
So who all lives indoors?
There is a good variety – including climbers Hoya, Jasmine, Plumbago and Pandorea on a west facing wall. Pots of all sizes house succulents, cycads, puyas, a fruiting lemon and other tender things which take our fancy. The house wall outside is south facing so we have climbers running up to hide unsightly pipes and such. A Fremontododedron and a Tropaeolum speciosum scrambling up a yew make a successful screen.
You have a great view of the garden from the lounge area.
We like to sit here in the evening and relax. We always have a posy of picked flowers in a vase. We have flowers in the house all year round. We’ve had a lot of fun with our garden through the years. We even had Gerry Daly come and do a TV programme for ‘Room Outside.’