As pop-up gardens give us a taste of stunning arrays of plant life, Peter Dowdall shares his pick of the bunch of Irish gardens you should visit this summer
Dublin city centre came to life recently as pop-up gardens appeared across the city to showcase just a handful of the stunning stately gardens and country estates that are scattered across Ireland’s Ancient East just waiting to be explored and appreciated.
Ireland’s Ancient East is rich with garden experiences, packed with tales of passionate designers and big house drama, allowing visitors to step into another world where great houses, intriguing stories and gorgeous eateries are all just waiting to be enjoyed.
These magical places are not just for the garden enthusiast, prepare to dive into the deep history of lavish stately homes and the stories they have to tell.
We are fortunate on this island that our climate allows us to grow such a broad range of plants and as a result our gardens are places rich in beauty and biodiversity.
One of the most well-known of these gardens, Powerscourt in Wicklow which was listed as the third best Formal Garden in the wold by National Geographic in 2014 was part of the initiative.
The Powerscourt pop-up was installed in Merrion Square and according to head gardener of Powerscourt, Alex Slazenger, the aim of the pop-ups was to illustrate to Dubliners and visitors to the city just how impressive and how easily accessible these gardens are.
Powerscourt is being developed each day as a visitor attraction and as we are all becoming more aware of the importance of gardens and green spaces to promoting biodiversity and counteracting the effects of climate chaos, the focus here is on change and education.
“We are constantly trying new approaches and new ways of doing things here in Powerscourt,” explains Alex as he explained how they are trying to extend the lives of the original roses in the rose garden by using organic, high nutrient feeds to make the plants healthier and thus disease resistant instead of reaching for the fungicides and insecticides.
The Formal Garden is what people expect to see when they visit Powerscourt and that needs a high level of maintenance to look perfect during each of the 52 weeks but that doesn’t mean it can be environmentally sustainable. Using plants such as the perennial Salvia Ostfriesland in the formal bedding schemes provides just as much ‘bling’ as any summer bedding but is loved by the bees and other pollinators.
The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall recently visited the gardens here, near Enniskerry to strengthen the ties between these two islands and made a point of visiting the Cool Planet Experience while there.
To mark the occasion, The Prince planted a Sequoiadendron giganteum, Giant Redwood tree, following in the footsteps of other luminaries such as Princess Grace of Monaco, Jackie Onassis and Buzz Aldrin, who have planted trees in the Gardens.
On entering Powerscourt, you first land on the terrace looking out over the picture postcard front lawns and Italian Gardens. In the distance, these, classic formal gardens meet the natural landscape beyond. From there you must move on to see the Walled Gardens and onwards again to the Herbaceous Borders where the effect is every bit as you would expect, cottage garden style planting spills over onto the gravelled path.
Moving on past the Pet Cemetery, you then enter the Japanese Garden which used to be a private area where the family could enjoy to themselves. Perhaps the oldest and most special place in the entire gardens is the grotto in the Japanese Garden. 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 gardens at Mount Congreve, near the village of Kilmeaden in Co Waterford contain one of the largest plant collections in these islands. The entire collection consists of over 3000 different varieties of trees and shrubs, more than 2000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants.
These, along with acres of sweeping lawns here, a giant pagoda under a disused rock quarry and sheltered by a mini wall of China, which should be out of place but isn’t, a walled garden with herbaceous beds as good as you will see anywhere in the world, complete with working glasshouse somewhat describe what Mount Congreve is.
However, I don’t think the gardens of Mount Congreve can be described with words and pictures alone. However, there is an essential ingredient missing. The only way to understand these gardens is to be in them, to experience the energy, the aura of the place, the feeling that it will give you.
Perhaps you will understand if I tell you that Ambrose and his wife lie in a crypt under the temple in the gardens looking out forever over the surrounding countryside. It is here in that exact spot that they chose to spend eternity. All I can say is that to enjoy something that has been created on a grand scale and to a degree of excellence rarely seen and to truly really experience a garden then take a trip to this magical place.
The gardens at Burtown House in Carlow are one of those rare places that exude a kind of calmness when you enter. This is very much a family home and loved as such. It’s a garden that has evolved over the years since the home was built in 1710 for Robert Power.
Lesley Fennell is the current driving force behind the gardens. Lesley’s mother was the esteemed botanical artist Wendy Walsh.
Wendy’s garden, which contains among other treasures, many of the plants which were given to her to paint over the years, is part of what makes up the overall space here and this is one of the things that strikes you about Burtown. It is made up of so many different facets, different rooms and areas.
The Nutgrove is a medieval woodland area on a small island in Burtown and this is accessed by several bridges which Lesley uses as defining points with one of them clearly dividing this living tapestry of ground cover from an area completely covered with Cow Parsley.
Lesley’s son James and his wife Joanna have developed the Green Barn restaurant which offers the finest of food and a farm to plate philosophy which sees most of the fresh produce sourced from the organic kitchen garden outside the window.
This is a garden of generations, the last private owner, Corona North grew up in the house and planted many of the specimen trees which are some of the statement pieces of Altamont now, such as the Davidia involucrata (Handkerchief Tree), Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), Cornus kousa chinensis (Chinese Dogwood) and Taxodiums (Swamp Cypress).
Paul Cutler, worked with Corona for several years before her death in 1999 and is now the Head Gardener in Altamont and this continuity is something invaluable and intangible.
Paul works with a team of three other full-time gardeners in the main gardens here and Robert Millar tends the Walled Garden nestled alongside where he runs the plant nursery which is a pure treasure trove of rarer and more unusual specimens.
The journey into the gardens at Altamont starts off with a wander down Nuns Walk, so named to commemorate the fact that it is thought that the site was home to a convent in the early 16th Century.
On then to the Broad Walk which leads down to the lake. On either side of this walk which has narrowed over the years are mature Buxus hedges punctuated by magnificent Yew arches which frame the view of the lake beyond.
On the lawn terraces on either side of the Broad Walk are to be found some of the finest specimens in Altamont such as one Chamaecyparis named the Twelve Apostles. It is so named as it has 12 stems from ground level reaching up to over 20m in height.
Altamont is just as much about the fauna who call this garden home as he is about the flora. Head gardener, Paul, a member of Birdwatch Ireland has recorded Redwings, Fieldfare and Lapwings mingling with the over 30 other species of birds who live here including a pair of Grebes who make their floating nest on the leaves of the Lilies in the lake.
The animals too have cottoned on to the atmosphere here and the safe refuge that Altamont provides. Hares abound, Pine Martens live here too along with Minks. There were red squirrels up to about 15 years ago and now the greys who were becoming a problem have also died out, probably due to the Pine Martens who are a natural predator.