Choosing Plants for a Holiday Home Garden

Bothar Bui in Bearra Peninsula, West Cork Rolf's Holiday Accommodation, Baltimore, West Cork Bothar Bui

Many Irish people have a second home – a holiday home for their own use or to rent out. The Irish landscape – if we’re honest about it – is in some areas ruined by their sheer number and the poor quality of siting and design.  Some counties – Cork being a good example – have higher planning standards than others, and have produced a set of guidelines, as well a guide to the siting of houses in the landscape.

From a garden design point of view, it’s all the harder to make anything attractive when the house, and its position in the landscape, is so insensitive. The architecture – or the lack of it, to be more precise – can be hard to work with, and the best thing that can be done for some holiday homes is to shroud them as much as possible. A lot of people want a very open view, and this is a shame, because views are generally much better when framed or glimpsed, rather than ‘in your face’ and totally open. There’s many a house that sits in the middle of its empty site: it may a great view, but it has ruined the view for everyone else

There are of course many beautiful holiday homes in equally gorgeous locations – the key is to keep the locations gorgeous. The unfortunate fate of many a beauty spot is that everyone wants to be there – and then it ceases being beautiful.

Holiday homes are by their very nature used only at certain times of the year. In most cases, that time is summer – mainly July and August. There may be visits at other times, and there may be exceptions, but this is the general rule. When choosing plants, they should be at their best during these months: summer-flowering trees and shrubs, deciduous trees and easy perennials which look after themselves from year-to-year.

We Irish could learn a lot from our Scandinavian neighbours. Anyone who has seen pictures of, or visited a Swedish summer house, will see how the over-riding aim is to blend in and fit in with the surrounding landscape. The modesty and lack of pretension conveys a true sense of relaxation and one-ness with nature. In Ireland, our own native vegetation is every bit as beautiful as anywhere else’s. We are fortunate in the natural beauty of the landscape, with our rocky outcrops, windswept hillsides, mossy forests, ferny glens and patchwork of fields. We are blessed with a fairly mild climate which favours lush, green growth and is the envy of many nations.

Around a holiday home it makes a lot of sense to use mainly native plants. These plants won’t suffer and die when there’s a severe winter, and they will bring to any holiday home a truer sense of place than non-native plants. Nothing could be worse than to find all your plants killed by the cold or the salty winds when you come down at the start of the summer. Native plants have the folklore and resilience inherent in them that links them to the land. They are generally cheaper, hardier and tougher than non-native plants, and they fit naturally into the landscape.

There are also wonderful plants that have naturalised and made Ireland a home from home: think of Fuchsia, Crocosmia (Montbretia), Hydrangea and Cordyline, all of which come from the other side of the world but bring a wonderful splash of exoticism to the landscape. Real care and attention needs to be given to non-native plants though. Giant rhubard (Gunnera) has proved horribly invasive along the west coast, and several aquatic plants – escapees from ponds and fish tanks – are playing havoc with our fragile waterways and lakes.

Hydrangea - very hardy and successful plant in Ireland

On the other hand, some holiday homes are part of small developments, and issues such as privacy may arise. In places such as these, there is a greater sense of ‘anything goes’ as the landscape is already fairly manipulated by man. It’s no less attractive than somewhere completely wild, and it brings a sense of freedom when choosing plants for the garden. Bold and exuberant planting can bring a sense of fun and a splash of colour, even if the weather isn’t up-to-scratch. Hedges of Tamarix, Fuchsia and Olearia can thrive by the seaside and plants such as Miscanthus, various bamboo species and Hydrangea are as tough as they are showy.

In terms of maintenance most people want as little as possible. Areas of mown grass should be kept to a minimum, and the natural look is definitely the easiest: boundaries of native hedgerow; a small patch of native trees for shelter and to frame views; a bare minimum of hard landscaping. Recent winters have decimated gardens, so creating shelter along the boundaries should be the first consideration. To be on the safe side, hedges should be of Holly, Hawthorn or Sea buckthorn – all wonderful, low-maintenance plants, which won’t suffer if we have repeats of the last couple of winters.

As to materials, in a holiday home as much as in any garden, they should be as local and unobtrusive as possible. This reinforces the sense of place: dry stone walls, uneven paving of local stones, locally sourced pebbles or gravel. Cars should be kept away from the house: ideally out of sight and parked on a permeable surface such as gravel, grass or sand. Materials such as kerbs and garden lights are wholly unnecessary: it’s all about blending in and getting away from it all. There are enough kerbs, lights and paved surfaces in the ‘real’ world: a holiday home should provide an escape.