Peter Dowdall previews the Rare and Special Plant Fair at Glin Castle

Catherine FitzGerald with her pet dog Sooty looking towards Glin Castle and its grounds. Picture: Garden Exposures/Andrea Jones

For gardeners, visiting a plant fair is like being a child in a sweetshop, says Peter Dowdall.

IT’S ALWAYS a treat to see someone else’s garden. A visit never fails to bring inspiration and new ideas. Perhaps dangerous then for the Rare & Special Plant Fair to be hosted this year in the grounds of Glin Castle, because for me, or any gardener, to be in the middle of a plant fair is like being the fabled child in a sweetshop.

Add to that the beauty and inspiration that lies all around in the gardens at Glin and you can expect to be catapulted to Willy Wonka territory.

Home, for 800 years, of the FitzGerald family, hereditary Knights of Glin, the castle stands in the middle of a 400-acre wooded demesne with 12 acres of pleasure grounds, on the banks of the Shannon estuary. John Francis FitzGerald is credited with laying out the garden, as we now know it, in the 1800s. It has been lovingly added to by several generations of the FitzGerald family over the years who worked with horticultural royalty such as William Lobb, a plant hunter for Veitches Nursery in the UK, to develop it into one of the great gardens of Ireland.

The castle looks over formal lawns centred on a sundial with yew hedges and topiary, which gives on to a more natural garden of ancient Killarney oaks, a picturesque stream and meandering gravel walks surrounding a wildflower meadow. Interesting specimen trees and shrubs have been continuously planted by the family since the 1890s — it has been lovingly tended by each generation of the FitzGerald family.

Currently, it is Catherine FitzGerald who is adding her mark to this magnificent place.

Having had “two plantaholic grandmothers” and growing up in a place like Glin Castle, it seems that it was inevitable that life would take Catherine down the path of garden design and so it has. Catherine, who trained in RHS Wisley, shares a studio in London with landscape architect Mark Lutyens and divides her time between projects in the UK and Ireland along with spending as much time in the family home in County Limerick as she can. She is paying particular attention to extending the season of colour and interest in the garden adding many different varieties of hydrangea and evergreen, flowering trees such as eucryphias and the earlier-flowering Embothrium coccineum.

May will be a good time to visit as you will get to enjoy the final display from the rhododendrons and camellias and to admire the 19th-century walled kitchen garden with its romantic borders, rose arches and a vegetable and herb plot is full of interest. The herbaceous plants in this garden will be just coming into their own during May and getting ready for the season ahead, during which they will be the stars of the show here. Catherine is as interested in “creating atmosphere and making people feel emotions” as much as she is in plants and this garden does just that.

The Rare & Special Plant Fair, in association with Bord Bia, has taken place annually for the last 18 years at historic homes and gardens throughout Ireland. This year, Glin Castle will play host to this special event on Sunday, May 12, from 10am to 5pm. Up to 40 specialist nurseries from all over Ireland will be onsite to offer and showcase beautiful, unusual and hard-to-find varieties of plants for sale, as well as giving expert advice on plant care and growing.

The Rare & Special Plant Fair was established in 2001 to ensure that the gardening public has an opportunity to purchase rare, unusual and special plants at reasonable prices, and to ensure that nurseries and breeders of these plants in Ireland have an opportunity to present them for sale. At the same time, the fair aims to give the public the chance to visit a private garden that they might not otherwise visit. The fair is an annual event, always held on the second Sunday in May.

Over the years the event has grown in stature and reputation with the fair being hosted in some of Ireland’s most notable and beautiful private gardens, and more recently in public and state gardens of note, including Fancroft Millhouse Gardens, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, Lakeview Gardens, Co Cavan, Kilfane Glen, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, Anne’s Grove Gardens, Co Cork, Castleforbes, Co Longford, Farmleigh, Phoenix Park, Dublin, St Anne’s Park, Raheny, Russborough House, Co Wicklow, Killruddery House, Co Wicklow, Airfield Gardens and Farm, Dublin, and Burtown House, Athy, Co Kildare.

The entry price is €6 and children under 12 are free. Tours of the house will be held at 11 30am and 1pm and cost €7.

For further information visit www.rareandspecialplantfair.ie www.glin-castle.com or contact Claire Whyte, email claire@glin-castle.com

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