A West Cork Garden Reclaimed by Nature

 
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Farm fields have been transformed into wonderful meadowlands along the River Ilen.

To the casual eye, the wild meadows belonging to the West Cork home and garden of Lord and Lady Puttnam look as much a natural part of the surrounding rural landscape as the nearby wooded hills or the tidal river that runs like a wide, silver ribbon along the garden’s edge on its journey out to sea. 

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And yet, before the Puttnams moved here in 1994, these were just ordinary farm fields. Rather than being the result of lucky chance, their beguiling beauty is down to the practice of good horticulture, as well as a deep-rooted desire on the part of both the Puttnams and their German-born head gardener, Monika Bergerhoff, to create a garden that is at one with its surroundings.

Or, as Monika herself puts it, “David and Patsy [Lord and Lady Puttnam] want the garden to look as natural as possible, as do I. The idea is that it should appear almost accidental.”

Monika and the Puttnams’ willingness to work with nature – to gently, patiently coax it, rather than try to bully it – is in evidence everywhere in this 12-acre country garden, which was expertly designed by Verney Naylor more than 20 years ago.

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You can see it in the way certain plants – Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus), valerian, Thalictrum – have been allowed to gently soften the hard landscaping, self-seeding with abundance into crevices and cracks in the paving, steps and stone walls, as well as the pebble paths. 

You can also see it in the different species of wildflowers that, over the years, have sprung up as if by magic in those organically managed meadows; these include the tattered pink flowers of ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), whose dainty blooms are an important source of nectar for pollinating insects such as the Common Blue butterfly. Once widely found growing in Ireland’s damp meadows and wetlands, it’s increasingly rare as a result of environmentally insensitive drainage projects and the use of herbicides.

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More proof of that willingness to create a garden that feels entirely at one with the wider rural landscape is evident in the artful adornment of the rocky shoreline adjoining the Puttnams’ starkly beautiful boathouse (now a reading room). Here, a carpet of sea thrift (Armeria maritima) – a plant that’s very at home in these kinds of growing conditions – softly blurs the line between the garden and the wilder landscape.

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The same creative, collaborative approach to the business of garden-making can be seen in the almost sculptural use of silver birch trees. These are mass-planted on the upper edges of the meadows along an informal avenue leading from the main house. In high summer, the trees’ ghostly white trunks sharply punctuate the meadows’ airy froth of dainty wildflowers and quivering grasses. The result is something that’s both timeless and yet distinctly contemporary in its aesthetic.

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A half-acre walled garden, which lies a little way off from the house, is tended with the same skilful hand. Here, roses (the climber Rosa ‘New Dawn’ and the shrubby R. ‘Bloomfield Abundance’) fill the summer air with their rich, sweet perfume, and water tinkles musically from a fountain, while old cottage-garden favourites such as Alchemilla, feverfew, catmint, lupins and sweet William tumble out onto the narrow paths to create an air of of romantic abundance.

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Monika has also found space here for vegetables; a series of raised beds is used to grow strawberries, blueberries, garlic, peas, aparagus and various tasty salad crops. Other, more heat-loving, crops such as tomatoes, courgettes and French beans are grown in a large polytunnel tucked tidily out of view in a clearing in the garden’s three acres of woodlands.

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All of this might lead one to assume that most plants grow with unrivalled ease in this pocket of West Cork when, as Monika points out, nothing could be further from the truth. To garden well in this wild, windy and wet part of the world, one must do so in a way that is thoughtful, tactical and adaptable.

For a start, as is the case with most coastal gardens, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of those searing, often salt-laden, winter gales to contend with. Without its carefully planted shelter belts of mainly native woodland (including alder, birch, field maple and hawthorn) planted back in the garden’s early days as part of Verney Naylor’s carefully contemplated design, much of this land would be horribly exposed.

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Even with those same shelter belts, some plants are regularly defoliated and their growth stunted. And yet the shelter belts themselves also require careful maintenance, as left to their own devices, they would grow too high, casting dense shade and gradually screening off those wonderful river views.

Mild, coastal gardens with high annual rainfall like this one also face more than their fair share of pests and diseases. To combat this, Monika regularly mulches with manure and homemade garden compost. She also enriches the ground with the occasional sprinkle of seaweed dust, which she prizes for its ability to promote both plant and soil health.

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“In a mature garden like this one, it’s vital to maintain soil fertility and resilience. Even then, some plants succumb, such as the Escallonia hedge that once provided a useful green screen next to the house but which eventually died of Phytophthora, a damaging fungal disease that spreads easilyin wet soils.

On the plus side, West Cork is famed for its almost frost-free climate. This enables plants such as the frost-tender, bee-friendly, shrubby Echium fastuosum (or Echium candicans) to self-seed in the sunniest, most protected parts of the gardens, as well as allowing Monika to experiment with other tender rarities.

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Many of these she treats as annuals, growing them from seed in the glasshouses in spring: the handsome foliage plant Ricinus communis; the lime-green Nicotiana langsdorffii; the false flax Heliophila longifolia, and the black and silver-flowered Nemophila menziesii ‘Penny Black’. 

Employing that same creative eye, Monika weaves these plants into more temporary displays in the garden, using them to add droplets of seasonal colour to the clusters of elegant pots and containers that sit in a sheltered corner of the sunny, enclosed courtyard next to the house.

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The house itself – with its pale-blue, painted wooden window shutters and warm, lime-rendered walls – provides a wonderful backdrop for many choice shrubs and climbers. These include the large-flowered, silver-blue Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’, whose blooms appear from June to September; the golden hop (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’), sweetly scented honeysuckle, and blue-flowered wisteria.

Even the sunny stone terrace that sits next to the house’s west-facing facade, and which enjoys expansive views out over the lush riverine landscape of this magical part of West Cork, is softened by ribbons of white mophead hydrangeas and stately blue echiums.

To sit here on a warm summer’s day is to experience a rare kind of peace, where the only sounds you’re likely to hear are birdsong, the hum of happy pollinating insects, and the whisper of the aspen trees.


WORDS Fionnuala Fallon

PHOTOGRAPHY Richard Johnston