I f ever you’ve happened to pay a visit to Howbert & Mays in Monkstown, Co Dublin, then you’ll already know that as garden centres go, it’s pretty small. Too small, for example, to have its own pet centre, coffee shop or household wares section, too small to have its very own garden furniture warehouse, and too small to fill its shelves with artificial flowers, overpriced boxes of fudge or scented candles of the kind that give customers a migraine.
Instead this pint-sized garden centre sells the sorts of things that gardeners want. Genuinely useful tools, for example, and handsome pots, as well as sturdy wheelbarrows, proper gardening gloves, unusual seeds, smart deckchairs, well-balanced watering cans and decorative but hard-wearing garden mats. Quirky things also, such as vintage growing guides and botanical prints. And, of course, lots and lots of lovely healthy plants.
Defying the mantra that big is always best, this elegant little urban garden centre is the brainchild of Tig Mays and his American-born wife Anthea Howbert. Together the couple set up shop in 2012, after a serendipitous stroll through Monkstown led them to a “For Let” sign standing next to a small building previously used as a motor repairs centre. “Instantly we saw the potential of the small courtyard next to the building as an ideal place for an outdoor plants area”, says Mays. Within a few weeks they’d signed the lease, and within a few months the dark, dingy building had been transformed into a light-filled shop, and its grubby, oil-stained courtyard into a leafy treasure trove of choice plants. “I really do believe”, says Howbert, “that it was meant to be.”
The fact that the couple also work together as a well-known garden design team has played an important part in the success of Howbert & Mays, as together they bring a clean, contemporary and eco-friendly aesthetic to every aspect of the business. So when I recently set them the challenge of creating two summer pots, one with a “hot” planting scheme, the other “cool”, I knew the results would be both clever and original. Below is their very modern take on a gardening classic.
Howbert & Mays'
'Hot' summer pot
"We liked the idea of using this slightly whacky plant, known as Pseudopanax ferox, or Toothed Lancewood, as the focal point of this pot. A native of New Zealand, it's a very slow-growing, half-hardy evergreen shrub/small tree with great presence, and looks particularly good in a modern urban garden. To accentuate its architectural, angular foliage, we've chosen a container with a strongly geometric shape. The wispy plumes of the Mexican feather grass, Stipa tenuissima, slightly soften the planting and add movement, while to pick up the reddish stripe that runs down the middle of the lancewood's jagged leaves, we've added some scarlet-flowering nemesia, a pretty, very floriferous and long-flowering annual. Adding a few specimens of the herbaceous perennial Geranium "Samobor", the dusky cranesbill with purple-black early summer flowers and purple-blotched leaves, gives yet another dimension of colour.
Howbert & Mays'
'Cool' Summer Pot
"Astelia 'Silver Shadow' is one of the finest foliage plants out there, a half-hardy grassy perennial with fantastic, silver, spear-shaped leaves, that's happy in either full sun or light shade.
We’ve chosen a very simple, streamlined fibre clay container whose shape and colour complements its architectural, silvery leaves.
For seasonal colour, we’ve paired it with Tulbaghia violaceae, a long-flowering perennial with scented, violet flowers that appear from summer until early autumn. Around the edges, we’ve planted the long-flowering Bacopa ‘Cabana’, a surprisingly hardy, drought-tolerant, bedding plant that produces a profusion of white flowers from summer until late autumn, and a mauve-flowering form of alyssum, the popular low-growing bedding plant whose sweetly scented blooms are loved by bees and butterflies.”
Top Container Growing Tips
"You don't have to rely solely on bedding plants to get a great display of summer colour. Instead, mix them with handsome foliage shrubs, grasses and long-flowering perennials, using species that like a well-drained growing medium.
"Choose your container carefully; the bigger, the better, but make sure that it's frost-proof.
“With small containers, not only is it difficult to create a good display but nutrients in the compost are also more quickly depleted, while watering is more of a hassle.
“Container-grown plants need a great growing medium.
“Avoid a peat-based compost and instead go for a good quality multi-purpose compost with added John Innes. After planting, we also add a thin (2.5cm) mulch of Gee-Up [a bagged horse manure, see geeup.ie].
“People often underestimate how much water a summer container needs. Stick a finger into the compost – if it feels dry, then it needs water. Water gently but generously, until it begins to leak out of the base of the pot.
To guarantee healthy plants and a long display of flowers, dead-head regularly and give a potash-rich liquid feed with every third or fourth watering.