Irish Garden Odyssey: The Bay Garden

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As with any tour of this type towards the end we found ourselves discussing which garden we had liked best.  I think for all of us it was hard to identify one garden that stood out above the others but different gardens had different elements that appealed to us.  For me the stand out planting was The Barn Garden at The Bay Garden in Co. Wexford.

The Bay Garden belongs to Iain and Frances MacDonald.  They are both qualified horticulturists and met whilst working at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.  These days Frances is the Garden Tours Manager for Travel Department, the company that organised our top, and Iain also leads tours as well as giving talks and designing and landscaping private gardens.

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The majority of the garden is laid out in large mixed borders with themed areas.  As you can see from the photograph above the MacDonalds are very good at combining plants. The quality of the plants and the standard of the upkeep of the garden show the MacDonalds’ passion and horticultural background.  However, walking through a gap in a hedge you enter the Barn Garden and I have to say my heart really sang at this point.

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The garden is surrounded by hedges on three sides with the fourth looking out towards the surrounding fields.  The path serpentine through the space allowing you to feel completely surrounded in the grasses which, given it was  a windy day, positively billowed backwards and forwards.

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You can see the extent of the movement in the photograph above.  It was one of those days where the air seems still and then there is a sudden period of gusty window; all adding to the atmosphere of the space.

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What I found particularly fascinating was the combination of plants in the garden.  My enthusiasm for adding grasses to my garden has come and gone.  I have  seen many a poor grass border or garden where the focus is purely on the grasses with little to lift them.  I also don’t like borders which are huge blocks of one grass as I find them quite dense and dull.  So to see a range of grasses mixed with an interesting range of perennials was great. IMG_1413

I think this photograph, albeit slightly out of focus, shows the MacDonald’s skill with combining plants.  You can see that the magenta flower centres of the verbascum picks up on the magenta sanguisorba buttons behind.  It allows the planting to have a more cohesive feel.

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As with the other gardens I enjoyed during my time in Ireland the garden was planted densely.  Of course this is something that takes time to achieve and I forgot to find out how long ago the garden had been planted.  I think it had been in for a couple of years as I remember Frances saying they had to wait for it to bulk up and that last year the amount of rain and warmer temperatures had led to the grasses being so tall that you were dwarfed by them.

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Look how the dark burgundy of the scabious picks up on the helenium flower centres and then on the grass behind which I think might be Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. The finer small grass in the foreground, unknown, blurs the divisions between the different plants. And who knew Lychnis could looks so lovely with grasses.

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Persicaria was also a key plant in the garden and I think the broader leaves add a good contrast to the grass as well as adding some green substance to the planting.

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I also like the way the colours pick up on the rusty roof behind the hedge; a very simple effect but it really ties the garden to its space.

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I loved this garden and it re-ignited my view that I should use grasses in my front garden.  It’s interesting how they work against the hedge which I think is beech. My front garden is bordered by a beech hedge and a laurel hedge.  The beech would work well especially as the grasses fade against the rusty autumn beech leaves but as for the laurel hedge – well I think if I am going to take this approach it will have to go.  The thinking hat is well and truly on.

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. homeslip says:

    What a wonderful garden. I can see why it was your favourite of the tour. It seems so effortless and relaxed but we know how hard it is to combine plants like this. Oh I wish I was brave enough to remove a laurel from my garden. I planted it over 20 years ago to hide an ugly juxtaposition of two different fences. I have had it professionally ‘mushroomed’ a couple of times and it badly needs doing again but really I would like it gone.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Homeslip
      I planted the hedge 7 or 8 years ago to provide some privacy. I am waiting to see who buys the house next door before I make a decision.

  2. rusty duck says:

    The persicaria does work really well with the grasses. There seems to be quite a wild theme running through the gardens that you’ve seen… love it!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jessica
      I have been showing you the gardens that I really liked as opposed to all of them so I think the wild theme must be a preference of mine!

  3. Yvone Ryan says:

    Oh Oh WOW just love this garden – Definitely on my Bucket List. Otherwise just remember your lovely photos and stories! Lovely the way grasses have become favourites. I think we have to be careful with which ones are brought into NZ as some become weeds very quickly. eg Pampas from Argentina – large white plumes. A menace now! We have lots of native grasses but some have been planted in wrong places – eg mountain grasses on the flat, wet conditions etc. Garden Club coming tomorrow and we have a speaker on organic veg etc. Some of the older members not so interested in growing vegetables now but I am sure she will be interesting. doing a tidy up so that not too messy when they wander around our garden!

  4. This truly is a lovely garden, I can see why you think it’s one of the best. It’s rare to see such a good blend of grasses and those pops of colour add even more to it. Gardening can also be an art form and a way to express yourself but the masses always go for a nice trimmed grass. It’s easier I suppose.
    The bad thing about it, though, is that it leaves less gardens to admire to and have as an inspiration.
    And just imagine an old chair in the middle of this beauty, a favorite book, and a cup of tea. Reading while the grass is whispering to you would be a magical sensation.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Fred, There is a shady seating area in one of the corners from which you can do just as you describe.

  5. A simply stunning garden, thank you for capturing the spirit of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ in action. I think it’s a splendid grass. There are shorter variegated cultivars plus, I’ve heard an exciting new dwarf ‘Cheju-Do’ waiting in the wings …. All are sterile hybrids. (;

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Kate
      I have Calamagrostis Overdam which is nice but I dont think it is as tall as Kar Foerster as mine doesnt seem to billow as much althought that may be because I have tall perennials around it so maybe that is the lesson. If you want the grasses to billow dont hem them in with tall perennials.

  6. It’s interesting, isn’t it, to see something that got trendy enough to be done – badly! – everywhere – but this time done well and thoughtfully, and be reminded of how good it can look!

    1. I absolutely agree – this subject, of how to use ornamental grasses with complimentary perennials in a contemporary garden, is a subject very close to my heart!

  7. Pauline says:

    We have quite a few grasses here, but some are a bit too free with their seed! It’s wonderful when you find a garden to inspire you, you certainly found a beautiful one, I can understand your excitement!

  8. I am glad you shared this and the other gardens you visited….this one shows beautifully how you can achieve a wild and graceful garden with gasses and flowers….stunning combos here.

  9. Great photos with plenty of combinations that are wonderfully copyable. Thanks for the virtual tour.

  10. Jane Powers says:

    I’m sorry that we didn’t get to meet, Helen. I’m glad you like the Barn Garden. It is one of my favourite places in Ireland. It was planted in April 2004 — so it has developed a lot over the years.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jane
      Yes the Barn Garden really inspired me. I was less inspired by some of the gardens I had gone on the trip deliberatly to see though!

  11. Brian Skeys says:

    I had missed this post when I left my comments Re: Irish gardens. With the blend of grasses and perennials it looks like natural meadow planting. I can see why you liked this one.

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