THE GARDEN AT Kells Bay in Co Kerry is the best kind of garden. It is heavy with character, and is well furnished with vistas and vignettes, adventurous walks, watery interludes, and sundry other curiosities. You don’t need to know a single thing about plants to enjoys its pleasures.
If, however, you are botanically-inclined, it is rather mind-blowing. Its 17 hectares of moist, mossy, rocky terrain are home to one of the most impressive collections of southern hemisphere plants in Ireland and Britain. There are plenty of superlatives and rarities to keep the record-collectors and anoraks busy. Ireland’s largest palm tree, a Jubaea chilensis, was planted here three years ago, having travelled from its native Chile in a temperature-controlled 40-foot container, via the Panama Canal. It can be seen lording it over the new (and still raw) succulent garden outside the tearoom. The world’s rarest palm tree, Juania australis, from one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, is a few minutes away, as are some fiendishly rare ferns – Blechnum cycadifolium and Thyrsopteris elegans – from that same archipelago. Indeed, the garden is peppered with species that will have most plantspeople’s eyes out on stalks. Ferns feature heavily: there are more than a hundred varieties, from the miniature, ground hugging Blechnum penna-marina to the colossally-plumed Dicksonia antarctica.
The owner of this southwestern paradise is Billy Alexander, who is well-known to Irish plantspeople through his nursery, Dicksonia Direct, which deals in ferns, palms and other hardy exotics. The demesne at Kells Bay, although it is dripping with select and sought-after leafy things, lacks the blind pride of some collectors’ gardens – where specimens are displayed like trophies on a shelf, with no regard for aesthetics. Instead, Alexander’s aim is to plant his species, whether rare or not, in a naturalistic manner, so that they look as if they have sprung up of their own accord. The experience for the plant lover is a bit like passing a series of famous people on a busy street: it’s exciting and delightful to find such A-list individuals milling about in the throng.
Alexander, who bought the property in 2006, lives in Dublin, where he works part time as an assistant bank manager. He commutes each week to Kerry, spending three days as “head gardener” at Kells Bay. He joins a succession of owners who have maintained the place as a Robinsonian garden (after William Robinson, the Irish-born gardener and writer, who espoused and preached “wild gardening” in the 19th and 20th centuries).
It was the first owners, the Blennerhassetts from Tralee, who set the tone back in the 19th century, when Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett began to make the gardens. He put in a drive, some paths and a walled garden. His most dramatic addition, however, was the planting of a tree fern forest, using Dicksonia antarctica, which had been newly introduced from Tasmania and from the southeastern edges of Australia. Now, more than 100 years later, several generations of Blennerhassett’s tree ferns cover nearly three hectares. As Billy Alexander explains: “We claim this to be the largest colony of naturalised Dicksonia antarctica in the northern hemisphere, and no-one has argued with us, yet.”
The atmosphere in this forest is primeval, with hundreds of dark, bristly, moss-glazed pillars topped with elaborate, antediluvian fronds. The green murkiness is penetrated by shafts of watery light. Birds (long-tailed tits, among others) flit through the canopy overhead, dropping plaintive tsee-tsee-tsee calls into the still air. Underfoot, the ground, piled up with decades of tree-fern fibre, is bog brown, and the feel is bouncy and shock-absorbent, like an old-fashioned, sprung dance floor.
Tree ferns have sown themselves all over the estate – into crevices in walls, so that they look as if they are buttressing up stone structures; and into the banks of the lively stream that courses through the property. The moisture in the air (1.8 metres of rain falls per year) ensures that the sheltered areas act like a vast propagation unit.
Ferns are not the only plants that have set up home here: the alien invader, Rhododendron ponticum, originally planted by Irish landowners as an ornamental and as game cover, has spread, smothering everything in its wake. The Forestry Service stepped in with funding, and commissioned Coillte to remove the noxious interlopers. Coillte also project-managed the installation of new paths, and the restoration of old ones.
The paths – around three kilometres of them – ramble widely across the terrain, dipping down to the riverside, and up again to take in views of Dingle Bay and the sudden slope of Mount Foley. They pass a new pond, shaded by a giant gunnera clump; a bamboo glade with over 50 varieties; some recently planted single-species groves of tree ferns (including Dicksonia fibrosa and Cyathea dealbata), and a 700-metre-long channel that brings water to the new waterfall at the entrance. There is much to see, and much to ponder on. Billy Alexander’s garden is still a work in progress, but it is an ambitious and audacious one – and a carefully considered one, too. This is a space that I’m watching with interest, and I urge you to also.
Kells Bay Gardens are open until the end of October. Admission: adults €6; special rates for families, seniors and children. Location: just off ring of Kerry (see signpost on N70, 13 km after Glenbeigh, travelling from Killarney). Tel: 087-777666; kellsgardens.ie
Saturday October 2nd: Gardening seminar, Fota House, Carrigtwohill, Co Cork. Keynote speaker is Helen Dillon with “Dig it up and throw it away!”; other speakers are Brian Cross and Oliver Schurmann; plant sales and guided tour of garden. €50 (does not include lunch). Booking essential, tel: 021-4815543; fotahouse.com