Back in 1997, when the esteemed British-born horticulturist and award-winning author Joy Larkcom wrote in her book Creative Vegetable Gardening of how “shelter from wind is probably the most undervalued factor in vegetable gardening,” she was still living and gardening in the flatlands of Suffolk, an eastern county in England that is noted for low rainfall and the relative rarity of violent gales.
But equivalent statistics for the wild and windswept southwest coast of Ireland tell an altogether different kind of story, as Larkcom and her husband, Don, were to discover for themselves when in 2002 they moved to rural West Cork. Their new home, Donaghmore Farmhouse, came with a gently sloping, free-draining, south-facing half-acre of land situated less than a mile from the salty, wind-battered Atlantic coastline. The couple arrived, Larkcom remembers, in the middle of what felt like a hurricane. “We’d thought our previous garden in Suffolk was windy, but it was nothing compared to what we experience here. Plants would get uprooted, defoliated, or burnt black, and some things just wouldn’t grow at all.”
And so the couple quickly became what she later jokingly referred to as “windbreak bores,” researching the subject so thoroughly that Larkcom even bought her very own handheld anemometer to measure the speed of those searingly salty, southwesterly gales. The solution, they finally decided, lay in the construction of a sturdy, 6-foot-high windbreak made of timber and recyclable polyethylene netting that was planted on both sides with a mix of tough, salt-tolerant deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. This would run straight along parts of the garden boundaries before zigzagging along the upper stretch of the windiest, western side. Secondary, internal windbreaks would offer a further line of defense, while even the farm’s gates would be covered with rigid, greenhouse ventilation mesh to prevent potential wind tunnels.
Decision made, a scaled design drawing of Larkcom’s dream garden followed, created with the help of architect and family friend Richard Grierson. With its distinctive, fan-shaped potager partly inspired by a visit that Larkcom had paid to Solveig Bjerre Hanghøj’s Munach Herb Garden in eastern Denmark, the garden’s design features three graceful, concentric arcs, all linked by a central allée of trained apple trees (protected on each side with parallel windbreaks). The “spokes” of the potager fan are internal windbreaks, protecting cordon-trained soft fruit such as gooseberries and red currants. Positioned between these is a collection of “pie-slice” shaped beds.
The formal framework, the color-themed flowerbeds intermingled with fruit and vegetables, and the imaginative use of fruit as a decorative and structural feature are all a reflection of Larkcom’s long-held belief that a vegetable garden can be both beautiful and productive. It’s an ethos shaped and informed by the many gardens around the world that she’s visited. Gardens in the United States, including the community gardens of New York and Boston and the “parking strip gardens” of Seattle and Portland, have proved especially inspirational. So, too, have its gardeners. Of the six trips to the States she’s made lecturing, researching, and garden visiting, Larkcom recently said that America “was always a tremendous source of ideas and inspiration because of the extraordinary enthusiasm I encountered from the people I met.”
As for how Donaghmore’s garden has fared in the years since its now much-renowned windbreaks were erected, the answer is quite remarkably well. An astonishing wealth of colorful flowers, fruit, salad greens, and vegetables now grows in this Irish coastal potager as well as in the nearby raised vegetable beds and greenhouse. All are abundant proof that being a “windbreak bore” pays off handsomely and that the garden’s greatest enemy—that roaring, salty southwesterly—has slowly been forced to beat a reluctant retreat. Personally, I like to think that it recognized the caliber of its adversaries.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012
Photos: Richard Johnston