Peter Dowdall finds himself spellbound with every turn of a corner at The Old Rectory in Crosshaven.
I wasn’t sure when I arrived at the garden of B FitzGerald whether or not I was in the right place. The gate was closed and there was no sign with the name of the house on the pillar.
However, as I travelled further up the driveway I could be in no doubt that this was the home of a very keen gardener and plantsperson. There was just something about it that left me sure, before I got out of the car, that this was indeed the right place.
The first part of the garden at The Old Rectory, Crosshaven, to greet any visitor is the woodland area. This had been full of different varieties of Euphorbia, many of which succumbed, along with several tree ferns and other tender specimens, during the severe winters of 2010 and 2011. Just one specimen of E mellifera remains.
B has planted many wonderful varieties of rhododendron in this area, and in particular some of the big leaved varieties, particular favourites of mine.
She moved into this garden with her husband Mike 23 years ago and she credits her love of trees and gardening to her father, a geologist who had an innate appreciation of the natural world. The garden contains many mature specimens of ash, sycamore, lime and chestnut. Underneath, you will see many plant treasures which she has collected on her travels, and believe me there are many rarities. I found myself asking “what’s that?” around nearly every corner.
One of the more recent and outstanding additions to the garden is a line of pleached lime trees planted in front of a beech hedge. She has underplanted these limes with several specimens and varieties to date, but each has been removed as nothing has yet proved correct. That’s the thing with a garden, it’s constantly evolving and it’s as much trial and error as good design.
Her newest project is directly behind these pleached limes and it’s an area which had been untouched for the previous 20 years, as Mike wanted to reinstate a grass tennis court which once stood there. He won’t be playing tennis there now — a new garden pond takes pride of place in the centre of a new planting area.
This is a garden which gives much to the viewer at anytime of the year. During the spring, camelias, rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom along with hellebores and many different bulb varieties. If you visit now you will see the best of the herbaceous planting.
A particularly good specimen of the willow gentian demands attention along with agapanthus Northern Light and many, many different varieties of dahlia, one variety in particular Weston Spanish Dancer, in the courtyard garden, is showing off its bright red and yellow cactus-type flowers, and will take your breath away.
As the herbaceous plants come to an end, the garden comes alive with hydrangeas. One particular planting group will direct you into small private parterre. Two years ago, B borrowed Saint Coleman’s Cathedral — or rather the view of the cathedral and the town of Cobh — by reducing the height of part of the surrounding hedge in this area to allow a glimpse of the harbour of the East Cork town directly across the water from her garden. The effect is expertly drawn — like a living picture on a green wall.
Back in the courtyard garden you really get a sense of the wildlife which abounds here. This is a garden where no weed killers or chemical pesticides are used and as a result, it is rich in biodiversity. Bees are everywhere,
stripping one particular eryngium of its pollen as they gorge on its nectar and in so doing spread the flowers. One stunning pink flowered phlox planted behind the box hedge is covered in mildew as no fungicide has been used and do you know what, it still looks lovely.
At the front of the house, the planting is very simple — Lavandula angustiflolia mixed with stunning blue and red flowered Ipomeas which scramble up metal obelisks handmade by Bandon blacksmith, Pat Ronan. I must have counted six or more different types of bees feasting on the lavender.
This garden is a mixture of different areas — some formal and some informal. You forget how close to the coast you are in this place and it’s only when B tells you about some plants that haven’t survived because of the salt in the air that you are reminded of seaside location. She’s lucky to have the shelter of so many mature trees, for if this garden wasn’t as protected as it is, there would surely be many more fatalities.
An established rhododendron arboreum stands like a punctuation mark at the front of the house and shallow rooted as it is, it still didn’t succumb to Storm Ophelia or any of the high winds which must have passed through this garden since it was planted many years ago.
Ophelia did remove some beech trees which were growing in the lowest part of this garden. They were planted too close to each other over a century ago and as a result, several were weak and not in great shape. Nature can be harsh and the weakest won’t always survive, however, Mother Nature knows what she is doing and we trust her to do the correct thing — new life will colonise where these trees once stood.
Beyond this area is a mature planting of beech trees over 150 years old and as I stood in the garden I could hear the sound of machinery and metal upon metal as an encroaching housing development may come too close to these trees and perhaps, undermine them. When will we ever learn?
For a few extra measly euros to the developer, these trees which have stood proudly since the Famine, have benefitted our environment by cleaning the air and providing refuge to myriad wildlife will now most likely come down. Where are those people employed by the public purse as guardians of our environment and our countryside?
The gardens here at The Old Rectory in Crosshaven are open to groups by appointment and B FitzGerald is donating all her admission fees for the month of September to CHASE, the alliance of groups campaigning to stop the construction of a large commercial incinerator in Cork harbour.
Pictures: Dan Linehan