Meet the Cork gardener who is the top man at one of Britain’s most visited estates

Peter Dowdall meets the top man at one of Britain’s most visited National Trust estates, the sometime TV presenter, Cork’s Alan Power

Alan Power, Garden and Estate Manager, Stourhead. Pics: British National Trust

There’s great debate at the moment about how to get young people interested in gardening as a pursuit and as a career.

Monty Don has come under criticism in the UK, yes you read that correctly, hard to believe anybody scolding the venerable Monty, but some people are disagreeing with him.

It’s all thanks to a recent headline in the Telegraph: “There’s No Point Trying to Convince Millenials to Garden, Monty Don says”. I admit on first reading that I thought, “that’s not right” but on further reading I think the criticism is somewhat unfair, as what he is saying is that there is no point trying to force 10-20 year olds to garden. Everything should be done to get them interested before they are 10.

“Get them eating well, growing, doing things, you know, really getting them to enjoy and play, but don’t ram it down people’s throats, let them come to it,” said the presenter of the long running BBC programme Gardener’s World.

He went on to say “When you’re 15 and your parents tell you what you should do, you’re not going to do it. Any self respecting 15-year-old [will rebel] and so they should.”

It rather reminds me of the Irish language, there was no way I was going to learn that in school because it was being forced on me. However, I did get the gardening bug as a toddler and it has stayed with me ever since, I’m lucky I get a kick out of what I do every day, I look forward to going to work. And another Cork native who got hooked at a young age, is Alan Power.

Alan grew up in Cork, between Glasheen and Bishopstown and from there decided to go on and study horticulture. Alan’s mother, Elma Power, is a very well known gardener and flower arranger in Cork.

Views of Stourhead’s gardens and Stourhead House where Corkman, Alan Power is head gardener and estate manager.

“For Mum, it was supposed to be a hobby as she actually worked in the Histology Lab in a hospital, but with a passion for plants, it always takes over.”

Elma is a member of the Lough Flower Club and has competed on the world stage representing Ireland over the years, winning her category in Canada a few years ago. She was also invited to judge the World Show, when it was in Ireland in 2014.

“My first job in horticulture, although voluntary, was under the guidance of my mother at home. We moved house when I was around 14 year’s old and we took the garden with us, we redesigned, replanted and landscaped, and this was my first taste of really working with plants.”

From then on, the seed was sown, so to speak: “During the summer holidays when I was not working with my dad in Roche’s Stores, I worked with a gardener based in Glanmire called Billy Irwin, he had trained at Writtle College in the UK.

“I did learn a lot with Billy, but mostly I gained the experience of working in the outdoors and loved the variety of tasks we did, the horticulture industry was just opening its doors to me at this stage.”

Alan then went on to study Horticulture at Writtle for three years, and then on to my old alma mater, Merrist Wood College in Surrey, to study Arboriculture.

In recent years Writtle University has presented Alan with an Honorary Doctorate for his outstanding contribution to horticulture. Working with the National Trust for nearly 22 years in various positions, including a period at Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland, (a magnificent garden with an outstanding collection of plants), Alan is now the head gardener at Stourhead in
Wiltshire.

“During my time at Stourhead, I have been a gardener and arborist, assistant head gardener, and for the past 13 years, the head gardener. My job covers the whole estate, 2,650 acres of designed, 18th century landscape.”

Stourhead is one of the busiest open gardens in the UK, attracting over 400,000 visitors annually and this in itself poses challenges, not all horticultural. In a garden of this size and this busy, there is a fine line between conservation and access.

“The role consists of the conservation, preservation and maintenance of the garden and wider estate, managing the garden and estate team to ensure that Stourhead is managed appropriately and to a high standard.”

A busy garden must bring challenges with it, the impact, the difficulty in getting work done and other practical issues of accommodating that number of visitors.

“But we also get to share the work we are doing with the visitors,” he says. “Luckily we are well supported in the National Trust. However, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing peoples’ reaction to the garden when they experience it for the first time.”

There are still many restoration projects to complete in the garden and Alan is currently researching the late 19th century and early 20th century ‘lost’ plant collection to begin a re-introduction into the collection.

“We have also been restoring the temples and features in the landscape and have spent close to £1m on these features over the last three years.”

When I asked him about the differences between managing a garden of that scale in the UK and an open garden in Ireland, I got the obvious answer:

“Oh I do miss the Irish climate, the variety of plants that can be grown in parts of Ireland is to be envied by all.

“We are lucky in the fact we do have a larger audience to attract in the UK, and therefore there are more opportunities for investment in the gardens, I suppose.”

Alan is passionate about all aspects of gardening and in particular, open gardens. “Currently my focus is on the management of historic gardens and applying appropriate horticultural techniques to their maintenance to present them properly.

“Over the past few years, my role has offered me the opportunity to be an internal gardens’ consultant for the National Trust, advising gardens and gardeners on the management and care of the historic landscapes in our care. In 2016, I spent time
managing the magnificent gardens at Hidcote. It all just feeds the passion.”

In recent years, Alan has presented various programmes on the BBC: British Gardens in Time which was a four-part series on BBC 4 and over the last couple of years, you will have seen him as a presenter on Gardener’s World on BBC 2.

Alan will be talking at the Ballymaloe Garden Festival at 10am on Sunday, September 3 about Stourhead, and again at 1pm about his journeys through amazing gardens. Gardening is at the core of this show, not big budget show gardens, but simple pursuits, methods and tips will be on display over the weekend and presented in a very ‘how to’ manner.

Many of the same horticultural techniques that Alan Power is talking about will be showcased at Ballymaloe.

Now in its third year in Ballymaloe House, it’s great to see an event like this developing in Cork as many of these skills could be lost if they can’t be showcased— there really is no substitute for some one-on-one conversation and ‘hands on’ demos.

For more information on the Festival go to http://ballymaloefestivals.ie/events/ballymaloe-garden-festival


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