Don’t be afraid to dig deep in the garden this year

Forget turning over a new leaf, be brave and turn over a completely new garden

June Blake’s exciting, contemporary garden in County Wicklow. Photographs: Richard Johnston

‘New beginnings”, “a fresh start”, “a new leaf”; these are the words that rattle round our heads in the fledgling weeks of a brand new year. In the garden, that might be something as simple as getting around to weeding that overgrown border, or tidying up that cluttered garden shed. Or cutting back the lanky, light-starved shrub that’s been obstructing your passage from the front door to the garden gate, the one that requires an ungainly duck-and-weave manoeuvre to avoid being blinded/drenched by its rain-soaked branches.

Then again, it might be something altogether more transformative. Something braver, bolder. The sort of fresh start, for example, that impels a garden owner to dig up their impeccably coiffed, velvet-green lawn in order to replace it with a silver-grey rectangle of water that is a mysterious mirror to the world around it, as Dublin gardener Helen Dillon did some years ago – much to the initial alarm and eventual admiration of the gardening fraternity.

Or the sort of fresh start that, in 1994, prompted the late Christopher Lloyd to rip out Great Dixter's celebrated, Lutyens-designed rose garden. Its replacement? An exotic garden whose flamboyant, exuberant style of planting has since been copied all round the world. Not that Lloyd ever suffered a moment of doubt. "The noise of tearing old rose roots as they were being exhumed', he wrote, "was music to my ears."

That same spirit of adventure is shared by all great garden makers down through history. Without it, Le Notre would never have dared to create Versailles, while Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson would never have bought the ruins of an ancient English manor house and surrounded it with what were to become the world-famous gardens of Sissinghurst.


Nor would the late artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman have ever thought to build his remarkable shingle-garden on a stony beach beneath the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station. Without it, we wouldn't have the witty, eccentric gardens of Mount Stewart in Co Down, the spectacular formal terraces of Powerscourt gardens in County Wicklow, or the romantic splendour of Altamont in Co Carlow. It's also because of the brave and bold garden makers of the past that we have the paradise that is Mount Congreve in Co Waterford, the Robinsonian magic of Mount Usher in Co Wicklow and the haunting beauty of Kylemore Abbey in Co Galway.

Today, a new generation of talented Irish garden makers continues that tradition. While their styles of gardening may differ wildly, what they share in common is a willingness to make adventurous gardening decisions, rather than the lazy, easy or obvious ones.

So my new year’s resolution for 2015 is to be more daring, creative and surprising in the way I garden. Beginning with that lanky, light-starved shrub I mentioned earlier. Forget cutting it back: it’s going (how I’m looking forward to the sound of those roots tearing out of the ground), to be replaced with something much better. As for weeding that overgrown flowerbed, I’ve decided upon a more appealing solution, which is to strip it right back to bare soil and start completely afresh.

Life, I’ve decided, is terribly short, especially when you count it in gardening seasons, and there’s a lifetime’s worth of plants out there that I haven’t yet grown. Several thousand varieties of dahlia, for example, including the delicious purple-flowering D ‘Gonzo Grape, sooty-red’ D ‘Black Touch’ and the apricot-orange D ‘Gallery Art Deco’. Countless choices of salvias too, including the fruity-pink S ‘Mulberry Jam’, and the plum-perfect S ‘Nachtvlinder’. And innumerable cultivars of sweet pea– a plant I will always, always grow – including the raspberry pink ‘Mollie Rilstone’, and the blue-and white picotee ‘Betty Maiden’.

And don’t get me started on sanguisorbas, or astrantias, geraniums, tulips, snowdrops, or the host of varieties of flowering shrubs and trees I’d like to get better acquainted with, in the way you only do when you grow them yourself. Hydrangeas. Lilacs. Dogwoods. Magnolias. Chimonanthus. Acers. Malus. Sorbus. Or unusual vegetables such as the tart-tasting, Italian leaf vegetable known as Sculpit or ‘Stridolo’, or the fantastically flavoursome tall heritage pea, ‘Magnum Bonum’.

Fruit trees, too: medlars and mulberries, and heritage Irish apple varieties whose history of cultivation stretches back through time. And, and and . . . the list of plants I want to grow before I shuffle off this mortal coil (hopefully as a very old woman, spade in hand, sniffing the intoxicating fragrance of sweet pea flowers growing in the garden) is a wonderfully long one.

So that tidy-up of the garden shed can wait. This year, I’ve got bigger, better, braver things in mind.

This week in the garden

The early bird . . . It might seem crazy to talk of ordering dahlia tubers in January, but stock of new or unusual varieties runs out quickly and specialist suppliers are already accepting orders. Recommended online suppliers include Peter Nyssen (, Rose Cottage Plants (, the UK's National Dahlia Collection ( and Sarah Raven ( To save on delivery costs, consider pooling orders with other dahlia-loving gardeners.

In older gardens, overcrowding is often a problem, with overgrown shrubs and trees casting dense shade. These can often be transformed by careful pruning, to reduce their size and spread, and/or to create a more pleasing shape. In particular, ‘crown lifting’ (where the lowest branches of a tree or shrub or removed) is an effective way of artfully sculpting an overgrown specimen, while also increasing light and space.

For specific advice on the best time to prune a particular tree/shrub, see (pruning groups) for a guide.

Winter is the best time to prune free-standing apple and pear trees, using a sharp secateurs, loppers and pruning saw to remove any dead/diseased/damaged branches and to reduce the previous year’s growth on main branches by a third, to a bud.

But wait until summer to prune plum trees or trained apple, apricot, nectarine and peach trees. For a detailed step-by-step visual guide to pruning fruit trees, pick up a copy of Dr Hessayon’s The Fruit Expert.