Glowing under the sugarloaf

It’s no wonder that Peter Dowdall sees Powerscourt as one of Ireland’s jewels. And he thoroughly enjoyed a recent visit with head gardener Alex Slazenger, who embodies the change and continuity in this special place

There are some places whose very name brings a smile to your face.

For me, Powerscourt is one of those places. I immediately think of standing on the terrace looking down at the Italian Gardens and the great fountain at the end with the Sugar Loaf in the distance.

I remember visiting here as a child with my parents and, later, as a lover of gardens and gardening and I still recall it vividly, with happy memories.

Quite simply, Powerscourt is one of Ireland’s best gardens and, on my most recent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting with Alex Slazenger, part of the third generation of Slazengers who purchased Powerscourt in 1961 from the 9th Viscount Powerscourt. Alex Slazenger is now head gardener here.

Head gardener Alex Slazenger surrounded by plants in the herbaceous border at Powerscourt House. Powerscourt is full of contrasts, from the broad Italian terrace lined with sculpture, to the contemplative Japanese Garden.

Don’t think for a second that he walked into this role because of his surname. No, he travelled a similar route to this position as many before him had, and in comparable roles.

Alex left school, travelled the southern hemisphere for a while before returning to work for a local landscaping company.

Then, feeling confident that his love for, and interest in gardening could

become his career, he studied in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin and got his first job in the gardens at Powerscourt.

Soon after — and, as Alex says himself, “probably sooner than I would have wanted” — the head gardener role became available.

Not sure whether he should apply as he was relatively young and, perhaps, not experienced enough, Alex took advice from those around him and put his name in the hat.

Head gardener roles don’t come up too often, and particularly not in gardens such as these, bearing in mind that someone could stay in the role for life — Alex’s next opportunity could have been many years hence.

What he brings to the role and to the estate is something intangible. He grew up here, this was and still is, his family home, not just the great Powerscourt House which opened to the public after 20 years of lying idle following the great fire in 1974.

No, he lives elsewhere on the estate with his wife, bringing up his own young family. It’s impossible not to be taken in by Alex’s enthusiasm for what he is doing, his love for this special place, his vision for further development of the gardens, and of course his knowledge.

He possesses all the knowledge that experience and formal education has given him, but he also knows the gardens better than anyone else, because he has played here since before he could walk.

The beautiful and rare weeping holly (Ilex aquifolium ’Pendula’) is situated beyond the herbaceous borders and on the way towards the Japanese gardens.

When he is talking to me about his favourite tree, (a beautiful Ilex aquifolium ‘Pendula’ situated beyond the herbaceous borders and on the way towards the Japanese gardens), he is describing not any horticultural or botanical feature, but rather the intricate stem detail.

And he becomes positively effusive when describing how the sunlight hits it after 4pm in the summer and illuminates it so beautifully.

Powerscourt can best be described as a series of gardens. You first land on the terrace looking out over the picture postcard front lawns and Italian gardens.

It’s that photograph that you have seen a million times before, classic formal gardens meeting the natural landscape beyond.

From there, you travel to the walled gardens and encounter the rose garden.

Alex tells me that many of the roses are underperforming this year, that blackspot is a problem and a programme of replacement will have to be implemented.

Back in fashion once more, the dahlia bed brazenly displays its puffball glory at Powerscouty House, Enniskerry, County Wicklow.

I don’t see much underperformance — the place is awash with colour and insect life.

Two island beds in the middle of the lawn are now planted with dahlias which have been moved forward from their previous home, tucked away nearer the glasshouse.

Alex explains that he felt it was time to move them somewhere more prominent. They remind him of his grandmother who would have planted a lot of the original specimens — there’s that continuity and connection to the gardens once more.

It really does make a difference when the man in charge is that invested in the place. Dahlias too, are coming into fashion once more and they’re moving forward from the shadows is timely.

Moving onto the herbaceous borders, the effect is every bit as you would expect — and as you would want.

Cottage-style planting spills over onto the gravelled path. Agapanthus were stealing the show along with the Cynara, Phlox, Eupatorium, Joe Pye Weed and several varieties of Crocosmia.

Sweet Peas twined up metal obelisks and acted as punctuation marks throughout the beds. Some of the plant combinations are spectacular — like the mauve blue of the Echinops growing with the Bronze fennel.

A view through gates of the staggeringly vast herbaceous border.

The yellow flowers and feathery bronze foliage of the fennel acts as the perfect complement to the mauve blue sphere-shaped flowers of the Globe thistle.

The Nepeta, which frames the circular fountain, had just gone over, but must have looked spectacular when it was in flower, mixed with the purple coloured Geranium armenium.

These are big beds and some of the more vigorous species could be planted with the knowledge that they will have enough space, but I was still taken by the bravery of planting the autumn anemone, Inula and variegated applemint in the open ground.

I hope they don’t become problems.

Moving on past the pet cemetery, (which again brought me back to my childhood), I entered the Japanese gardens which used to be a private area for the family to enjoy.

Created over a hundred years ago, this is a reflective space, as all classic Japanese gardens are laid out in circles, the space is designed to be a place where we can look at our innermost selves and as we travel out to the larger circles we become more connected to the outside world.

Perhaps the oldest and most special place in the entire gardens is the grotto. Dating back to the first Viscount in 1740, it is made up of fossilised sphagnum moss collected from the banks of the river Dargle which runs nearby. It is truly a unique and special feature.

The temperature is a few degrees cooler and the noises from the outside world are muffled when you sit in here.

Designed for a time when ladies crippled themselves with corsets and the like, this was a place removed from view where they could go to relax and loosen the stays, so to speak.

The gardens are about more than just one area, and there are several different types and styles of gardening to enjoy.

There are stand-out trees, such as the Taxodium sempervirens planted by Princess Mary; the Quercus petraea which stands majestically over the lake; a particularly impressive Abies firma; Liriodendrons and a Drymis winteri which collects timeless memories in the form of names and initials carved into the bark since the year dot.

If you’re an expert gardener, there’s much to admire. And even if you have no knowledge of matters horticultural, this is a place to experience to just wander and enjoy.

Alex has plans. He wants to leave his own imprint on this place so that, in time, when people look back and are telling the Powerscourt story to the thousands of tourists who flock here — and more particularly for his own family — that there will be another chapter created from his work.

“I would like them to see areas that I was responsible for — and that they will look at a tree or an area and say ‘your grandfather, Alex planted that’.”

Now, Alex is bringing his own daughters up to enjoy the gardens, when the masses have left and calm reigns. And so continues the story of one of Ireland’s most beautiful places.


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