Gardening: Two well-grounded reads on the fleeting essence of time and bittersweet beauty of natural world

New books by TJ Maher and Des Doyle offer intensely personal, celebratory accounts of magic that comes with making a garden

It’s often said that making a garden teaches all kinds of valuable life lessons, from the importance of patience and the virtue of persistence, to a recognition of the fleeting nature of time and the bittersweet beauty and resilience of the natural world.

Many would also say that it helps to nurture a kind of inner tranquillity, supporting mental wellbeing and serving as a path towards personal spiritual enlightenment, all of which is underscored by two great new books by Irish gardeners.

One, called Grounded in the Garden, is by the Tipperary-born artist TJ Maher, creator of Patthana Garden in Kiltegan, west Wicklow. It was published by Pimpernel Press last month.

The other book is the self-published Growing Beauty by garden designer and former jeweller Des Doyle of Lavistown House, Co Kilkenny, which comes out later this month. Both are beautiful publications that are intensely personal, contemplative and celebratory accounts of the magic that comes with making a garden and the lessons learned along the way.

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Patthana Garden, which I first wrote about for this paper in 2017, will already be well-known to many as one of Ireland’s loveliest small gardens, albeit not anything as small as it used to be. Maher and his husband Simon Kirby extended the garden after buying the field adjacent to the original site in 2020, so that it now stands at a little over an acre.

It’s in this new area that the author has developed his new Torc garden, as well as Patthana’s native flowering meadow. A charming and atmospheric country garden, it’s known for its expert use of space and its joyful, exuberant, expansive use of colour. In the hands of an artist like Maher, sizzling pinks, fiery oranges, rich reds and magentas are combined in masterful ways, something he has in common with his fellow Wicklow gardeners, June and Jimi Blake, whose influence can be seen in his palette of favourite plants.

Maher’s deft use of colour and his ability to manipulate it to create mood and ambience is one of the central themes of his book. So too, is his adroit understanding of what it takes to keep the show on the road in a smallish, multipurpose space, from prioritising ultra hard-working, long-flowering varieties with multiple seasons of interest to creating container displays for maximum impact. In summer, graceful, species-type single dahlias, salvias, linarias, perennial geraniums, geums and cosmos abound.

The ways in which gardening can profoundly shape our personal growth are at the core of Des Doyle’s engrossing book

Before them, it’s the turn of tulips in luminous shades of rust, apricot, pink, scarlet and gold, which Maher mixes in theatrically beautiful combinations. In autumn the show continues with crocosmia, helenium, monarda, sanguisorba and sedum, alongside the floaty, transparent grace of ornamental grasses including Calamagrostis brachytricha.

Maher’s love of nature also shines brightly throughout his book’s beautifully illustrated pages, which are filled with sumptuous photography by Richard Murphy, Jason Ingram, Clive Nicholls, Jonathan Hession and Maher himself. The book includes a preface by garden writer Jane Powers, who mentored Maher throughout the writing and editing process.

In its final chapter, Embracing Nature, Maher writes with intense feeling of how his Buddhist beliefs inform his deep love and respect for the natural world, which in turn has directed his own journey of self-growth and his willingness “to embrace some imperfection”. One of our greatest personal challenges, he points out, is “to embrace our mud ... just like the bulb or seed that is put into the ground where no sunlight can reach, the darkness can be a place where beautiful things begin”.

The ways in which gardening can profoundly shape our personal growth are also at the core of Des Doyle’s engrossing book, Growing Beauty. It charts his own evolution as a gardener and garden designer, in parallel with the historical gardens of Lavistown House, the home of the author, his wife Claire Goodwillie, their two teenage children and his parents-in-law, Roger and Olivia Goodwillie, who first moved there from Dublin in the 1970s.

Functioning as a series of interlinking but individual seasonal essays, it’s a deeply thoughtful and atmospherically written meditation on the challenges that life throws at us and the powerful ways in which our gardens can be redemptive, creative, nurturing spaces that help us to meet and overcome them.

What fascinates Doyle, and what he writes about with great insight, is the idea of the garden as a highly dynamic, living entity that’s in a state of constant flux yet still somehow endures, much like our own lives. The insightful lessons he’s learned and shares in his book will ring true for many experienced gardeners – from the need to understand and respect that all-important sense of place, to how relinquishing that all-too-human desire for control can lead us to a much richer, deeper and more meaningful relationship with the natural world.

After 12 years of reimagining the one-acre ornamental gardens surrounding Lavistown House, he’s learned to make room for what he describes as “spontaneous gorgeousness and moments of sublime takeover”, and to take a deep delight in the “maverick touches provided by unexpected pairings”.

Both Maher’s and Doyle’s books point the way forward in terms of how radically Irish gardeners’ attitudes to the art and craft of garden-making have changed over recent decades

Embracing the unexpected is something that Doyle discusses throughout his book with grace and good humour – from how he suffered from a period of deep depression after injury forced him to give up his earlier career as a jeweller, to how Storm Darwin in 2014 radically reshaped his early attempts at making a woodland garden at Lavistown by toppling 10 mature beech trees. Literally overnight he was presented with an entirely different landscape and set of growing conditions, a calamity which he doggedly turned into an opportunity to create a very different, contemporary gravel garden where sun-loving shrubs and perennials now flourish.

Over the last four years Doyle has also recorded the evolution of his garden on film with film-maker Alan Slattery, the edited version of which will be shown at a private screening at Rothe House in Kilkenny city at the end of this month, to coincide with the launch of his book. It will subsequently be available for public view via his website.

Both Maher’s and Doyle’s books point the way forward in terms of how radically Irish gardeners’ attitudes to the art and craft of garden-making have changed over recent decades, most notably in our relationship with the natural world. We’re less hidebound, less conventional, less authoritarian, and as a result far more interested in what Doyle aptly describes as a wildness of spirit. It’s a way of gardening that could be described as a conversation with nature rather than a monologue, and because of which our gardens – and ourselves – are all the better.

TJ Maher and Des Doyle’s new books are available to order from their websites, patthanagardenireland.com and gardenfable.com

This week in the garden

Continue sowing seed of hardy and half-hardy annuals, biennials and perennials. Protect from extremes of cold and heat as well as chilly winds – only seedlings of hardy annual species will tolerate temperatures in single digits, while seedlings of half-hardy annuals and most perennials need to be sown and grown on under cover and with gentle heat at this time of year. Also bear in mind that temperatures in glasshouses, polytunnels and cold frames can fluctuate wildly in late spring. So, make sure to gently ventilate them on bright, sunny days and then close them up before dusk.

Protect blossom on fruit trees from damaging late frosts which can destroy the emerging flowers, resulting in no fruit. When frost is forecast, cover any branches in blossom where possible with a layer of horticultural fleece or an old sheet. Make sure to remove this during the day to allow pollinating insects access to the blossoms.

Dates for your diary

Sunday, April 14th, 2024 (11am-4pm) at Fota House and Gardens, Fota, Carrigtwohill, Co Cork; Fota House Annual Plant, Craft & Garden Fair, with a wide selection of plants for sale from many of the country’s top specialist nurseries, plus garden tools and accessories, see fotahouse.com

Saturday, April 20th-Sunday, April 21st, inaugural Festival of Gardens and Nature at Ballintubbert House & Gardens, Stradbally, Co Laois, see festivalofgardensandnature.com for booking details.

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