BY THE ILEN WATER’S SIDE
A garden with a sublime situation on the Skibbereen estuary was taken in hand and transformed by garden designer, Verney Naylor. And on video, Verney shows us around the grounds and explains her methods. Find it on irishexaminer.com /video
Designing a garden on the Skibbereen estuary was about respecting local materials and the superb riverside setting, explains Verney Naylor
IFOUND my way down the twisty boreen and stood at the gate. There were builders everywhere, renovating the cottage and the stone barn alongside. It was November 2010 and my job was to come up with ideas for a garden. This was my first visit to what has turned out to be a really exciting and long-term project, for a client who has been a source of encouragement, appreciation, and with quite a few ideas of his own The cottage and barn nestle into the top of a south-facing slope running down to the banks of the tidal river Ilen in West Cork. On that November day the first thing I saw, just outside the gate, was the spring that had provided water for generations. It was overgrown, dark and mysterious. Later we opened it up, adjusted the flow of water, placed stepping-stones and planted tree ferns and bog primulas, leaving some of the native ferns, moss and ivy. It still has an air of mystery but is now more interesting. Through the gate the entrance garden was then the preserve of the builders. Facing north, I expected this area to be shady, but because the cottage roof is low it gets a surprising amount of sun. We brought in huge boulders and planted bamboos as screening from the boreen. To continue the vaguely oriental theme, we added Japanese maples, hostas, ferns, a magnolia and a winter-flowering cherry. But, because this is an Irish cottage there are roses on the walls. The rose ‘Bantry Bay’ does very well here and flowers until Christmas. We added several Myrtus communis tarentina to give a touch of formality and we spared the two ancient hawthorns by the gate, to add a little maturity.
The narrow gap between the cottage and the barn used to be dark and gloomy but now has a path of stone slabs set in gravel and is planted with ferns and Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ whose yellow leaves now add a patch of sunshine to this area. A steep bank beyond is now retained by giant boulders. Putting them in place with a mini-digger was quite a task. From here narrow stone steps lead up, past hydrangeas and skimmias, to a copse of existing trees. Amongst these, I was delighted to find a beautiful mature Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’. Its pale, layered branches make it a prominent feature in the garden. Beyond the copse, half hidden and perched high up in a boundary ash is a shingled tree house. Close by we planted a small orchard, where summer brings a good crop of apples, blueberries and alpine strawberries.
Back down the hill and continue round to the sunny side of the cottage and there, at the bottom of the slope is the river, slowly flowing, high or low
tide, into the west, enticing us into the view. On my first visit I found the presence of the river almost overwhelming. How was I to make a garden with such competition for attention? And how on earth was I going to make the river, the wooded bank beyond and the hill in the distance seem to be an integral part of this garden? In fact, why make a garden at all when you have such a beautiful scene in front of you already?
After a little pondering, I realized that there were things we could do to enhance the view, and to make it even more a part of the garden.
To begin with we cleared away structures and old shrub plantings that obscured the view. We left a sycamore, an ash and a hawthorn on the river bank. These trees break up the view so that you don’t see it all at once. Then we widened the terrace that ran the length of the cottage, changing its shape and pushing it out onto the slope – all the better to feel part of the scene. We paved it with large irregularly-shaped, natural stone slabs separated by pebbles, and softened by the planting of Erigeron karvinskianus, Stachys byzantina and Campanula muralis.
Looking from the terrace most of the space between you and the river is now wild flower meadow with wide mown paths through it and areas of shorter grass around the edges. We are still trying to work out a cutting schedule to allow for bulbs, Camassia and crocus, to fade naturally before cutting in early July so that the meadow looks refreshed by August.
But the picture now needed a frame, so down each side of the meadow we created thickly-planted, curved borders separated from the boundary by a path — a cordon sanitaire — to give access to the rear of the beds at the same time as trying to prevent countryside weeds from encroaching. This is a rural garden after all.
‘Wings’ protrude into the meadow, enclosing embayments, each one having its own purpose. One has an open view through the boundary fence to cows grazing in the nearby field. Another leads through a kissing gate to a hidden seat with its own private view of the river. A dovecote, viewable from the terrace, stands in another border. Lower down, a new gazebo is tucked away behind lush planting. From here there is a wonderful westerly view right down the river, especially lovely in the evening light.
The planting of these borders is dense, consisting of small trees, shrubs, low maintenance perennials and masses of bulbs with the idea of creating interest throughout the year. The colours in the garden generally are in the blue, pink, purple spectrum, though the gazebo border has more yellow, orange and white. In order to link both sides of the garden, some plants are repeated on each side, such as multi-stemmed Betula utilis jacquemontii and the grass, Stipa gigantea.
It has been good to be involved in a garden for so long. We all know that a garden never stands still. Plants die, blow over (especially in West Cork), or grow too big. Short-lived plants such as lavender and santolina need to be replaced occasionally. Mizen Landscapes, who did all the hard work, are still caring for the garden and the client still makes suggestions, so that, like most gardens, this one is continually evolving
The front terrace of the cottage is deliberately interplanted with low growing perennials and alpines. The windows are painted in a specially created colour called ‘Ilen Green’ which perfectly captures the moody hues of the river beyond. By contrast, the doors are in a harmonising ochre tone which blends with the local stone.
ABOVE : The newly built gazebo was hand-made in green oak by Mizen Landscapes who undertook all of the landscaping at Ilen Cottage. Below: A view up to the simply renovated house from the water’s edge. A large paved terrace lies behind the raised beds.
The view from Ilen Cottage to the wide river estuary that flows past its back garden.
The near wall is finished in a simple, crosshatching of galvanised wire that supports the shade-loving, climbing hydrangea.
All pics: Dan Linehan
Left: The rickety and slightly collapsed pontoon adds a lyrical touch to this cottage garden.
Right: Verney Naylor in the handforged love seat which she designed for this spot.
The delightful Shepherd’s Hut sits on the ‘cordon sanitaire’ which prevents incursion into the garden from the wild ditches behind. Behind is the cedar-shingle, three-storey tree house.Dan
Verney Naylor, MGLDA. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The main entrance is a gravelled curve softened by planting around the low roof of the cottage. Rosa Bantry Bay is clambering up the cottage walls and thriving in this sheltered spot.
LEFT: A curved path uses large, upright boulders for impact. Verney cleverly used an upright as a safety feature around a low roof, it gently guides the visitor past the danger.
LEFT: Seth Sutker of Mizen Landscapes.
Garden designer, Verney Naylor keeps planting on the shoreline low so as not to obscure the view from the house.
Clockwise from top left: A superb example of Cornus controversa Variegata — The Wedding Cake Tree, reflects the colours of the shepherd’s hut.
The rough flagging and old iron gate at the main entrance. The two-storey loft has a stunning, sunny aspect to the river.
The granite trough, part of a treasure trove acquired by Verney Naylor and snapped-up by the cottage’s owner.