by Derek Hill
I contributed an article on “A Painter’s Garden” to the Royal Horticultural Society Journal – May, 1968.
Re-reading what I had then written, I should wish to change very little over my initial planning of a garden and the principles then suggested would still hold today. “Gardens should reflect the landscape they are in”, I wrote. It would have been a complete mistake to make an ordered, severely laid-out garden on the edge of the lake surrounded by hills where St Columb’s stands. I dislike formal beds planted with regimented flowers of the same height and colour. Perhaps my preference for an almost wild garden, reflecting the natural country around it, coincides with the clutter I seem to enjoy in a house – the collection of a lifetime. Similarly in my garden there are plants from everywhere – often gifts from kind botanical friends. Variation and contrast are for me essential; above all contrasts in texture, shape, colour and intensity.
Strangely enough, there is little similarity between the garden at St Columb’s and that at Glenveagh a few miles away. Glenveagh stands on the edge of a very deep lake that never freezes over. It is also protected from the chief prevailing winds and the soil is mostly composed of the bog silt that has run down into the valley from the hills above it. The opposite is true of St Columb’s. This garden is on a hump in the middle of a frost-pocket valley – the three shallow lakes around it all freeze over and the hump itself is open to every wind from every angle. The soil too is mostly rock and slag, with blue clay often the underlying factor in the valley below the house. Before any gardening could be started, protection belts were necessary on the west side of the house – also to the north and on what I think was a rath, probably the one used to protect Red Hugh when he is known to have sheltered in Gartan, I planted beeches, western hemlock, and on the outside sycamores as well. Old maps call the ‘hump’ of St Columb’s “Bridge Island” and I suspect the property was once surrounded by water and would have been the natural position for a fortified rath, with its views on every side as a danger protection.
Donegal has a naturally dramatic landscape; so small-leaved plants that are selected by rockery-lovers have no place here except where they may be a groundcover. With this thought in mind I have always concentrated on large-leaved shrubs and plants, from rhododendrons down to weeds, like the giant Heracleum, or cow-parsley, strictly controlled so that it can stand out as a twelve-foot sentry at various scenic positions. The giant leaves of the American skunk lily also help.
Nearer the lake I have planted the Shakalin Island Polyganum with its tall almost bamboo-like stalks and big leaves. There are at least a dozen varieties of bamboo in the garden including the Chilean chousquea couleou with its solid stems that are so useful for staking and in Chile are used as fishing rods. In boggy parts of hte garden there is the huge Gunnera, several forms of Rodgersia, the indigenous royal fern Osmunda regalis and clumps of New Zealand Phormium. All these plants help to give a tropical jungle effect and are not out of keeping with the countryside around them – by reason of their very size. I have also planted several forms of Rheum, or cultivated rhubarb; the red-leaved one “Bowles” variety – looks beautiful with the evening sun behind it, showing its red veins.
Birches happen to be almost my favourite trees. They flourish here and the lake was, until the nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey revisions, called after them Lough Beagh. I have planted mostly white barked varieties like jacquemontii and costata – also the lovely cinnamon-baked alba septentrionalis. Where possible I put these against dark backgrounds so that the contrast could be most striking. Also near to the more static, majestic and dark leaved plants I have allowed a local variety of the poplar, tremulus, to sucker because in the autumn its small dazzling gold leaves keep up a continual flutter, like so many coins, as they shake in the wind. Everywhere I have tried to create contrasts of some sort. Variegated shrubs and plants help in this and there is even an example of a rare variegated chestnut given me by the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Also variegated Solomon’s Seal and, as a helpful groundcover, a variegated Bishops-weed that is luckily not invasive like its non-variegated relative.
The few busts on pedestals and statues in the garden came from Bishop Hervey’s garden at Castlerock in Co. Derry, and again I have put them where they show up best against a dark background. The white metal chairs and seats around the house itself I designed and got a local blacksmith to make, and the crockery pots inside white painted car-boys is an idea I copied from Cecil Beaton’s garden in Wiltshire. The wrought ironwork came from a house being demolished at Clontibret in County Monaghan and was already the same colour as St Columb’s so went well on the very bare and windswept western side of the house. In winter it is closed-in and heated to house tender plants. Its date is almost exactly the same as that of the house – so again it fits in with the natural environment; as I hope the whole property does. James Russell who now runs the garden at Castle Howard in Yorkshire helped me over the entire project with his great knowledge of what plants would be best in which position, and Eddie Moore, my gardener for many years, on whom I was so dependent, saw that our ideas were all carried out.
One day I hope to write another article for the Royal Botanical Society on the garden losses, rather than the successes. So many of the tenderer plants I admired at Glenveagh have failed to survive more than a few winters. The broad leaved Cordyline indivisa from Australia and its purple-leaved cousin both died. And the splendid Mahonia acanthijolia that grows like a palm tree finally succumbed in the frosts because of badly drained soil. Only the golden variegated Aralia has flourished, with the one hardy palm tree (Trachycarpus fortuneii) that could still, after nearly twenty years, be killed by a specially hard winter. Two herbaceous Aralias, again given me from the Edinburgh Botanical garden – nepalensis and californica are rare and extremely useful plants for forming clumps. They spread to give exactly the tangled ‘wild’ look which goes well with the wonderful untamed landscape that still surrounds the Gartan Valley and makes it at national attraction.