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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 irishex­am­ /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.

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.

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 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 ver­neyn@eir­


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...

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