Iris Anderson is succinct in describing the history of her garden: “Well there was always a garden here but in 1998 it got serious.”
She is now putting all of her creativity in this beautiful oasis outside Ballinhassig in Co Cork on show and is opening the garden gates to allcomers on September 12, in aid of Marymount Hospice.
The story of why the garden developed or ‘got serious’ in 1998 is sad, but at the same time uplifting and brimming with emotion.
In 1998 Iris’s first husband, Richard was suffering from cancer and in May of that year she found herself seeking refuge in the garden. A mother of four very young children, aged at the time from 6 to 16, and nursing a sick husband, I can only imaginehow frightened she was of what lay ahead.
The garden called her and she found herself using the peace that can be found outdoors as a distraction from what she was going through on a daily basis.
As she will say herself, Richard was looking out the window at what she was doing, (and God knows what he must have been thinking — knowing that Iris would not only have a family to raise and a business to run — but was adding an ever-developing garden to her list of responsibilities.
But of course, the garden was not a chore — it was therapy when she needed a break from being a carer, or when she felt herself becoming impatient — it was then that the garden called her.
Up to that point the layout was typical of many Irish bungalows up and down the country; a driveway up through the half acre site with sloped lawns on either side.
And perhaps, one obligatory ‘bed’ near the front door with probably (I didn’t ask), the ubiquitous dwarf conifer (which have grown in the interim) and maybe a few Cordlylines thrown in for good measure.
That bed is still there and there are some dwarf conifers such as Taxus baccata Fastigata Aurea and Picea nidiformis but the lawns are ever decreasing, a sure sign of someone becoming more and more obsessed with their garden.
Great use of texture and repetition in this part gives a relaxed and flowing sense to the garden. South American Restios are mixed here with other more familiar ornamental grasses such as Stipa gigantea and some of my favourite Stipa, Pony Tails doing their thing in pots.
That bed grew gradually as the garden evolved, a rockery was created complete with a man-made, (or in this case a woman-made), stream which meanders between two ponds and travels under some railway sleepers which form a bridge and allow access across the water from one lawn area to another.
The stream is not overpowering, rather the opposite, as at first you don’t see it — after a few minutes enjoying the planting, however, you can’t fail to notice its presenc as a gentle, glimmering trickle of running water or by sideways glimpse of a copper heron, stooped over into one of the ponds.
It flows under and between shrubs and at one point a mature Taxus has had a channel cut through the lower foliage creating a most natural effect.
I always think it’s incredibly brave when somebody opens their garden to the public, baring their soil, if you will. and more so with a garden like this, where at every turn the deftest of personal touches can be seen.
Every small ornament and sculpture in the garden (and there are many), has been carefully positioned to create the desired effect — rabbits hiding behind upturned pots; terracotta cats playing on an island in the stream.
Little whimsies like this are all around the garden at Belvedere, unseen at first glance but as you get under the skin of the place, you pick up on their presence.
Last year Iris and her husband John, needed access for machinery through the garden and a hole had to be made in an established Griselinea hedge.
What could so easily have been a problem afterwards, replacing with mature Griselinea to make it look like it never happened etc, was turned to opportunity and Iris had a gate made for the opening and framed it with some tall copper Beech.
And it’s not just any gate, this is a blacksmith’s work of art, inspired by a gate Iris saw in a garden in England complete with Lily of the Valley type flowers forged into the steel.
It goes nowhere, but creates a lovely effect of a gateway into the surrounding countryside.
There are other artistic points of interest around the garden such as a large metal stag lurking behind some Hydrangeas and a bicycle potholder ablaze with colour from Begonia Bonfire, at the moment.
This garden is neither that of a plantswoman nor a garden designer — and in many ways it is all the more special for that.
This is a family garden and the creation and development of this space from a patch of green lawn outside a house on a hillside in rural Ireland, to the showpiece that it is now, has been the result of a voyage through heartbreak and loss, but also the joy that comes with raising a family.
Iris will tell you that she got great therapy from creating the garden and that she used the outdoor space as an escape from the daily grind, when that grind got too much.
A farmer’s daughter from the neighbouring parish, Iris built each wall, stone by stone, every bed was created by her — physically.
Admitting to a passion for hydrangeas, this garden really isn’t about the plants, though there are many exquisite specimens and hydrangeas are one of the show-stoppers at the moment, all colours are growing here — illustrating that pH levels can vary in the smallest of spaces.
A stunning Itea illicifolia [holly-leaved sweet spire] stands proud at the top of the drive, as fine a specimen as you will see anywhere, dripping with long flowers and creating a dreamlike effect.
The seed heads of Dierama or ‘Angels Fishing Rod’ are everywhere — teasing the visitor with hints as to how beautiful they must have been in July. They are nowbeing replaced by Dahlias and after that the Schizostylis or Kaffir Lilies will be giving of their bright best through the winter.
While the creation of this garden may have helped Iris deal with life’s challenges on her voyage so far, it is only over the last few years that she has taken the chance to stop and breathe, to sit back and enjoy the garden that she has created — to enjoy the sound of the water, to get to know the family of swallows that set up home in her garage and to just admire and appreciate what is all around.
The garden isn’t the finished article yet — no garden is — a garden like this is developing through every step of the voyage and will travel with Iris ’til the end.
I can’t think of a better charity to support and I can’t think of a nicer way to support Marymount on next Saturday September 12 from 12 – 6pm than by enjoying this garden.
It’s very easy to find and will be signposted from the roundabout outside Halfway on the main Cork to Bandon road.