Works for the garden in winter

Peter Dowdall on a piece of sylvan magic on the eastern Cork fringes.

YOU KNOW when something gets under your skin and you can develop an obsession. With some it can be wines or foods, with others it may be cars or motorbikes.

Some develop obsessions with porcelain dolls and teddy bears, collecting hundreds and striving for the most sought after and rarest.

Gardening got under my skin years ago and it’s not an obsession, it’s a life choice. My life is spent in the garden and I still adore nothing more than working the beds and dividing plants and sprucing up the garden at this time of the year.

I have several favourites, collecting which can become all encompassing. There comes a point where you have to stop yourself.

Works for the garden in winter

Hester Forde has a garden on the larger size of average in Johnstown in Glounthaune but that is the only context in which the word average could be used to describe anything about the garden.

On entering the gate through an impeccably maintained two-metre high beech hedge you are aware that you are indeed setting foot in something special.

Excellent little design features abound like well positioned grasses and Japanese Maples. It’s a suburban garden but with a woodland feel.

No, let me rephrase that, this is truly a woodland garden in a suburban space. If you never knew Hester and just entered the garden by chance you would instantly know this is the garden of someone serious about what they do. It’s hard to explain it’s just a feeling you get in certain gardens.

It’s not manicured to within an inch of its life but at the same time nothing is out of place. Nothing feels contrived or forced, it just flows, a sure sign that someone is creating from their soul rather than from the pages of a book.

Works for the garden in winter

Coosheen is a real plantsmans garden where the plants take centre stage. A few well-positioned urns and pots create interesting points along the way but it’s the plants that are the leading players.

Hester started the garden over 25 years ago and didn’t set out to necessarily create a garden for winter and early spring interest but regular trips to Helen Dillon’s garden in Dublin during winter, curious to see how the bones of a garden work in winter intrigued her.

The fantastic winter garden at Anglesey Abbey gardens in Cambridgeshire was also a huge influence. Having laid out the garden all those years ago Hester was of the opinion that all the trees and shrubs should have year round interest and be suitable for a small garden.

Favourites such as Acer griseum, the Paperbark Maple with its stunning peeling bark and Betula albosinensis Fascination, Chinese Red Birch with its coppery/pink peeling bark along with Magnolias and Daphnes were planted.

I wonder was it something subliminal that determined her choices for whilst these specimens do offer so much during all seasons it is without question during winter and early spring that they are at their best.

Indeed the siting of the Acer was largely determined by where it would best catch the low winter sun, something Hester learned from her trips to other winter gardens.

Layers of herbaceous perennials and bulbs have been added over the years and it’s fair to say that Snowdrops have got under Hester Forde’s skin. The show starts with Galanthus plicatus ‘Three Ships’ which is always in flower for Christmas Day hence the name.

Another one of Hester’s favourites is a variety called ‘S Arnott’, one of the very best snowdrops and a must for the beginner with its beautiful honey scent and flowers of great stature and presence.

Numerous clumps of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis make a great show mixing happily with Scillas, dwarf Narcissus and Helleborus. My personal favourites are ‘Wizard’ and the Irish bred ‘Green Lantern’ both of which have definite green markings on the outside of the petals.

When I asked Hester for her favourite snowdrop it was a bit like asking her to pick a favourite child and the answer was typical of a gardener, ‘At the moment my favourite is ‘Phillipe Andre Meyer’, its outer petals with long green streaks and its shape reminiscent of a pagoda roofline.’ I say the answer is typical of a gardener because of the first three words, ‘At the moment…’ I give the same answer, not wanting to commit to a favourite plant in case I later change my mind.

This passion for snowdrops has been further nurtured and indulged by starting the first Irish Galanthus Gala in Altamount Gardens in Carlow with fellow Galantaphile Robert Miller.

Coosheen is one of those rare creations a collectors garden which works perfectly. Often a collection looks just as it sounds, like a collection. Collectors often don’t take design and the feel of the garden into account being driven more by the buzz of collecting than how the garden works. Italian arums with wonderful marbled leaves, winter green Polypodium ferns and Hellebores make great partners for the snowdrops in this garden.

If there’s one plant apart from snowdrops that will jump out at you it’s the Hellebores which have been collected over the decades from Ashwood Nurseries, Harvingtons, Altamont, and Perennial Plants. Colours range from almost black to red, yellows, whites and apricot with all flower forms present, doubles, anemone centered and singles.

Well placed specimens like a stunning Edgeworthia chrysantha just inside the gate welcomes the visitor with its heady aroma and striking yellow flowers. Next to this is a rust coloured Hammamelis ‘Aphrodite’ which shouldn’t work as well as it does because of the chocolate brown Beech hedge directly behind it.

Another great in the winter garden is Daphne and they are well represented here with several specimens well placed about the garden. Beautiful potfuls of dwarf and unusual Narcissus with reflexed petals lie around each corner, urging the visitor to take one further step.

Coosheen may be only 25 years old but like many great gardens it is more the culmination of a lifetime’s interest and desire which can be traced back to when Hester was a child saving her pocket money to buy packets of seed.

She inherited the bug from her father and two aunts who had a keen interest. She also has a love of painting, watercolours in particular, and a great love for the natural environment and continues to be very involved in the green schools initiative.

The latest addition to the garden in Glounthaune is a new custom made potting shed. Using salvaged brick and nestled in the back of the site but still a focal point it looks new but also like it’s always been there, it just seems right.

Hester already propagates many little specimens and divides many Irises and Snowdrops and like most gardeners she has little treasures which were given to her by other green fingered friends and I have no doubt gardens throughout the country have plants in them that remind the owner of Hester. She opens her garden by appointment and for groups and if you are lucky she may have one or two of her little divisions available for sale.

Hester is still far too young to retire from her day job and I suspect she is the type of person that will never truly retire.

But with a structure like that in a back garden as beautiful as this one I can only imagine Hester is yearning to while away even more of her time in this little piece of sylvan magic on the eastern fringes of Cork harbour.


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