If life give you lemons, you make lemonade. If it throws rocks at you, well, make a rockery. That’s what Corkman Malcolm and Scots woman Phemie Rose did when they met, each having been widowed, in the 1980s. Now, 23 years later, they not only have a rockery, but stone steps, terraces and excavated stone paths wend through their two acres of temperate West Cork gardens, hewn from exposed bedrock and which, now refaced, give a bone structure to a verdant, whirlwind tour of the plant world.
Featuring native species properly rooted and respected, as well as Mediterranean and southern hemisphere sections, themes, plants and rarities, there’s little here at Kilravock Garden that doesn’t look contentedly at home, running the gardening gamut of A to Y be it acers and agaves, through, ferns, palms, restios, rhodos and on to yuccas.
Happy and all as the couple have been, developing exceptional gardens out of un(com)promising rock, they are about to uproot: they’re moving from this Irish slice of heaven, to a warmer, drier climate, joining grown family (they’ve got five children and eight grandchildren) in Catalonia, Spain, where they plan to start another garden.
As Malcolm and Phemie Rose’s Kilravock Gardens, with its much-visited two acres and private home comes up for sale, what they leave behind is testament to back-breaking rock-breaking, hard work, finished with a barrow and spade, and over-laid by vision, gardening experience and skill with seeds and saplings.
As one of the founding gardens in the acclaimed West Cork Garden Trail, it has since been visited by thousands down the years. Modest in scale, but well-proportioned and envisaged, it has appeared on TV programmes in Britain and Ireland, as well as in Austria and Germany, and across the US, and has featured in many books and magazines. Kilravock has been in these pages before, much-praised by garden writer Charlie Wilkins of this parish (who was an early 1990s initiator of the West Cork Garden trail) and by Mary Leland too in 2010, the year it also featured in the book 100 Best Gardens in Ireland, by Shirley Lanigan.
The couple met up in Crosshaven having being widowed and were both avid sailors, favouring National 18s, and still have a sturdy boat by the end of the gardens on Dunmanus Bay — but it was used less and less as the garden passion grew.
Phemie grew up in Scotland, moved to Australia with her parents at age 13, but moved back again at 18 to her beloved Scotland, to her grandmother’s farm where she fostered a love of gardening.
Cork-born Malcolm enjoyed the outdoors too, with weekends away sailing, shooting, fishing, but after his first wife died “I said if I was ever lucky enough to have someone want to marry me, I’d be interested in their hobbies.” True to his word, he fell for Phemie and for her gardening obsession, and while she’s the more acknowledged plantswoman and queen of raising exotics from seeds, he’s been known to have devotions to hostas, and varieties of more sizeable sorbus too: they’ve been known to fight for space for their own plants and patchese.
Malcolm’s other skills include building. Almost as an aside he reveals not only did he do the hard landscaping here, the arches, walls and viewing platforms, but that he built the house here too, with the help of a handyman.
It had been started off as a holiday home, but after he wooed and won Phemie, and they had to decide where to live (eh, no brainer) it quickly became their permanent home turf. He started working on it in March, and the two men worked dawn to dusk, finishing it in September, presumably glad by then the days were shortening.
When it came to the gardens, the work was aided by a mechanical rock-breaker. “I first thought there’d be three days work; as it turned out, the local plant hire man Dan ‘CAT’ was here six days a week, for three weeks and it took the money we’d expected it would cost to build the house,” Malcolm recalls ruefully.
They were pleasantly surprised to discover a stream coursing through the western end of the south-facing site with views through Dunmanus Bay where it rapidly discharges, having gone through pond and waterfall.
Phemie herself set out the garden’s progression, to run out and down from the house’s now-terraced site and its million of years old Liscannor stone flagged patio, and it includes bog and fern gardens, a gentle Japanese-style bridge and spreading acers, great for autumnal colour in particular, as well as more exotic southern hemisphere arrivals and — across the entrance drive on the drier eastern side, is the Mediterranean garden.
Wildlife loves it, the air is pierced by birds and lightened by butterflies, while back at ground level there’s hedgehogs and - sometimes - an otter.
Other visitors come from further afield: on Friday last, when we arrived to view, hot on our heels was a tour bus of 30 or so gardening aficionados from the Netherlands.
As the rain poured down in unwelcome sheets and squalls, they were happy as sand boys, swathed in capes and water-proofs as they trailed around Kilravock’s suddenly-drenched paths and spitting stream. As they cheerfully mooched, meandered and admired, the MD of the Dutch company Garden Tours, Bert Vermejden, appeared at the porch’s half- door and popped inside, dropping and dripping by, to say a personal farewell. He’s been sending Dutch gardeners to Ireland for years, and the Roses and the West Cork Garden Trail are special to him, he admitted with some poignancy as the move to Spain was lightly touched on as a new challenge to look forward to. The irony of a move to create a new garden, in a different climate where water’s in short supply, wasn’t lost on anyone that deluge day.
Then, as ever happens in coastal Cork, the rain eased and photographer Denis Scannell had the skids under him, roaming the couple of just sluiced acres.
“The landscape is a bonus for us,” Phemie admits (even if it’s beauty only has a background role in some cases) and although the sea is only across the road, the fact the site here is well up the bay towards Durrus village affords a lot more shelter than on the more exposed north/westerly flanks. The garden’s own growth has latterly provided considerable shelter. Incredibly enough, most of the plants survived the two previous years of hard, cold winters and temperatures as low as minus six. The trick, says Phemie, is to put plants where they’ll be happiest, while she says the keys to good gardening “are patience and optimism; you’re foolish if you don’t learn from experience.”
The couple has stories of the far-flung sources of many of their garden successes, brought back from holidays and trips abroad, from seeds and cuttings, or from packing and repacking a Volvo estate to get the most number of pots and plants in after striking hard bargains in a Somerset garden centre.
There’s swaps of course, too and the Roses are known to many of the country’s serious gardeners and the barter goes on, giving and receiving, and sometimes Kilravock gives more than it receives. In gentle humour, the subject of certain women’s groups calling and slipping and snipping at will comes up, and Phemie recalls one woman who not only filled a bag with slips and cuttings, but then asked her if she’d name them for her before she made off with them. Our nickname for them as the Scissors Sisters is instantly approved of.
Now, by end of summer 2012, all of Kilravock is there for the taking, and hopefully bound for more good hands and green fingers. It carries a €290,000 price guide with Ballydehob estate agent Martin Swanton who stresses the importance of viewing to appreciate. In this case, that auctioneering adage is well-deserved (see also www.kilravock.com). This Sheep’s Head peninsula mix includes a waterfront section across the Durrus-Kilcrohane road which can be used for bay access and extra parking, there’s a small boathouse too, and the house sits on the western end of its east-west gardens, next to pragmatic and packed glasshouses, near drifts of herbs for the kitchen. Clad in scented jasmine and other climbers, the Roses’ own house is a practical c 1,100 sq ft two-bed home, with its end bedroom en suite and with a dressing room, and the main kitchen/living/dining area at the other end has the best of the views, with its end wall shelved and full of books on gardening. There’s space for one more title — for the couple that metaphorically wrote the book on creating a lush garden from rock.
VERDICT: Good to grow.