A fragrant retreat from wet, dark days
When Dermot O’Neill, one of Ireland’s bestloved gardening personalities, bought the walled garden at Clondeglass House, southern Ireland, more than a decade ago, it was derelict. In his new book he explains how he set about restoring it into the garden of his dreams. During the project Dermot discovered he had cancer. Clondeglass became a source of hope and sanctuary for him, and the book also explores the therapeutic role gardening can play in helping people to recover from illness.
In this extract he explains how he discovered that a polytunnel makes a huge difference to his enjoyment of gardening. With the big surge of interest in growing your own vegetables, polytunnels have increased in popularity. Originally, my dream was to have a large lean-to glasshouse on the south-facing wall at Clondeglass. However, finances were tight to start with, and so putting a polytunnel in place made sense. I never looked back. It allowed me to have many different edible crops earlier than if I’d grown them in the open garden. I can grow year-round salad crops and some vegetables and flowering plants.
I recommend you go for the largest you can accommodate (mine is approximately 55ft/17m long and 28ft/8.5m wide) and, obviously, consider that it may not be the most attractive feature to look at. However, it is one of the joys of my garden – a place I can retreat to on wet days, a place where I can grow all kinds of extra plants, bringing in everything from salads to strawberries ahead of the rest of the garden. The atmosphere in the polytunnel is very special, with all the wonderful fragrances that are captured within.
I chose a polytunnel where the sides could be easily raised to allow ventilation in summer. These roll up neatly and allow air to circulate, which is very important when growing edible crops. The next thing I did was to put in a path running through the centre of the tunnel. It’s made of decking timber, which had been well treated with preservative in advance of installation.
At the very end of the tunnel is a decking area – a very useful place to keep tender container plants in winter. One of the most important things when laying out a polytunnel is to allow for water. I laid a pipe bringing water from my well to the tunnel. I also recommend a large water barrel.
When erecting a polytunnel, it is important to install electricity. This allows for an electric propagator and lighting and, if needed in severe weather, an electric heater. This can all be done at the beginning and will add to the comfort and usefulness of the polytunnel.
A haven for herbs
The polytunnel offers warmth and dry soil, allowing for a range of herbs to be planted. I went for traditional, easy herbs, putting in a row of thyme. In the warmth of summer, I also include a row of basil and in one corner I have a dwarf rosemary. The scent from these on a warm, sunny day fills the air in the tunnel and immediately gets my taste buds working as I think of the wonderful dishes in which I can use them. There’s no comparison between fresh and dried herbs. Fresh herbs can make a great difference to the taste of a dish you’re cooking. The polytunnel offers a Mediterranean climate, allowing these herbs to fully enjoy warmth and shelter.
Also taking advantage of these conditions, I planted a small hedge of lavender on each side of the path. I went for a very particular variety called ‘Richard Gray’. This lavender has extra silvery-grey foliage and dark rich purple flowers. What drew me to this was the first time I picked and smelled the flower. To me, it was stronger than any other lavender I have grown and adds wonderfully to the overall scent in the polytunnel when in full flower. The contrast between the dark purple flowers with the light silver foliage is stunning, and the flowers are perfect for drying.
Annually, I sprinkle seeds of calendula, the pot marigold, into some of the beds. This beautiful orange annual thrives in the polytunnel and the edible petals can be used in salads, adding an exotic splash of orange as well as a peppery flavour. They are simple and easy to grow, and usually selfseed. A little borage gives brilliant blue flowers, which are also edible and good for use in summer drinks. When relaxing with a Pimm’s on a summer’s day, some floating blue borage flowers can add a touch of magic to the drink. A simple plant to grow from seed, I have found that bees love borage too, which is good for general pollination in the tunnel.
Exotic flowers all year
I also use my polytunnel to provide cut flowers for the house. It gives me the opportunity to grow some roses that don’t enjoy the wet climate in Ireland. This started as an experiment and turned out to be very successful. This year, I have added more varieties. The first to go in were two plants of the rose ‘Harry Edland’, one on each side of the door. This beautiful mauve rose is one of the strongest scented roses I grow. The fragrance is delicious, rich and sweet, and conjures up the essence of summer. Other roses I’ve tried this year include ‘Louis XIV’, a sumptuous rose with a rich, deep red flower.
‘Empereur du Maroc’ is also a dark red with a superb, rich scent. These roses are never happy outside, as they don’t enjoy the rain. The polytunnel offers the chance for them to develop flowers and fill the air with scent. Behind the roses, I put in a row of regal lilies ( Lilium regale) to use as a cut flower. When in full flower, you want to linger to enjoy their rich fragrance.
On the other side of the tunnel, I grow some chrysanthemums to provide late cut flowers. These include ‘Emperor of China’, a very beautiful pale pink with a dark centre. They grow 3-4ft (90-120cm) high and I usually use bamboo canes to stake them. They flower late, usually from October onwards, providing much-needed colour at that time of year. The exquisite quilled petals set it apart from others, giving it a more elegant look.
The polytunnel allows me to grow some tender, special plants, and the first to go into the ground was a compact form of Erythrina cristagalli, commonly called the cockspur coral tree. I had grown this exotic plant many years ago and had lost it. I was reintroduced to it on my travels around Italian gardens, where I saw plants in full flower. The brilliant red pea-shaped panicles of flowers are instantly eyecatching. In full flower it is a feast of scarlet red, lobster-claw-like blooms. In the northern hemisphere it flowers between April and October and loses all its foliage in winter.
This autumn and winter, I used the polytunnel to bring in a small collection of Brugmansia, commonly known as angel’s trumpet. I had planted these fabulous, exotic trumpet-flowered plants in containers and placed them in the garden to provide a summer display. Not being frost-hardy, I moved them into the polytunnel where I covered them in fleece and kept them on the dry side.
Unfortunately, the fleece did not allow enough air circulation – fungus hit and the plants had to be cut back. They are regrowing and the polytunnel played an important role in protecting them. I also did this with a variegated Tibouchina, a beautiful exotic with several colours in its foliage and bright ultraviolet flowers. The flowers seem to glow and give a sense of faraway places.
The polytunnel provides the perfect winter shelter for my collection of agaves. Agaves are those plants that you see when you travel around the Mediterranean: large, bold, spiky foliage in giant rosettes. I like the variegated varieties, which need a little more protection in winter, though don’t mind being allowed to dry out. Again, they are used in containers as accent plants in sunny, warm spots to add an exotic touch to the garden. I’m always conscious that they can be dangerous, especially with children around, because the spikes on the leaves are sharp. A trick I learnt years ago was to impale a wine cork on the spikes in areas where people got close.
Clondeglass: Creating a Garden Paradise by Dermot O’Neill (Kyle Books, £25), is available from the Telegraph Bookshop for £23 + £1.35 p&p. To order call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Climate control: in his polytunnel at Clondeglass House, top, Dermot O’Neill, above, grows exotic plants such as the cockspur coral tree, far right, and year-round salads, right