Airfield’s grand design
After a three-year revamp, the gardens at Airfield in Dundrum are ready to open
The new gardens at Airfield estate in Dublin. Photograph: Seanandyvette
Kitty Scully and Colm O’Driscoll, the new head gardeners at Airfield estate
It has been three years since Airfield, the 38-acre estate and working farm in the heart of Dundrum in Dublin, closed its doors to the public as part of an ambitious, multi-million euro redevelopment plan.
Central to that plan, was the renovation of Airfield’s much- loved garden, which had been open to the public since the mid-1990s.
A place of billowing box hedges, stately Irish yews and barely contained flowerbeds reminiscent of a Beatrix Potter drawing, much of it was the work of Airfield’s owners, the Overend family, who lived, farmed and gardened here for more than a century. In particular, both garden and working farm were the life’s work of the “Misses Overend” – sisters Letitia and Naomi – who established Airfield’s not-for- profit charitable trust in the mid-1970s, generously bequeathing the estate to the people of Ireland.
And what a legacy it proved to be. Following Naomi’s death in 1993, the gardens continued to evolve under the expert eye of Jimi Blake and his successor Emer O’Reilly.
Charmed by Airfield’s quaint air of rural tranquillity and informality, the public began visiting the estate in ever-increasing numbers. Young families held summer picnics in the meadows, fed the ponies, rambled through the orchard, inhaled the perfume of the roses that grew with sweetly scented abundance in the walled garden, and paused to stroke the vintage cars (another lifelong hobby of the sisters) that sat in one of the farm’s outbuildings.
Volunteers helped out with garden maintenance while schoolchildren, as part of Airfield’s Green Fingers Club, grew fruit, flowers and vegetables in their own dedicated plots.
So it was perhaps inevitable that the trust’s decision to redesign Airfield’s gardens met with some public trepidation, dismay and even criticism. Despite its assurances that the redevelopment was necessary to keep Airfileld going, and that any any changes would respect the legacy of the Overends, there were those who worried that the sisters’ original intention of preserving the house, gardens and farm was being overlooked, that the essence of Airfield would be irrevocably lost, and its charmingly idiosyncratic personality would fall prey to the march of “progress”. The subsequent appointment of English garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd (rather than an Irish designer) to carry out a large part of the redesign caused a few more raised eyebrows, despite the fact that it followed a public selection process, which began in 2012 with an open invitation to all qualified landscape and garden designers to apply.
Lennox-Boyd, say those responsible for the selection process, was chosen for her willingness to immerse herself in the history of the estate, her great knowledge and experience of designing both ornamental and food gardens, and her almost forensic attention to detail.
Having been given a sneak preview of the gardens before their formal reopening to the public next week, I can say with all honesty that I think the trust and those involved in the redesign and redevelopment of the estate have done a very fine job. The planting is in its infancy, the landscaping of some areas not quite complete and, yes, the more higgledy-piggledy areas of the original garden that gave it some of its unique charm no longer exist, but the bone structure of a great garden is clear to see.
This is especially true of the new three- acre food garden, where Lennox-Boyd has designed a vast, ambitious and exciting contemporary space in what was once a farm field.
Here is where expert food grower Kitty Scully, one of Airfield’s two new head gardeners and a name already familiar to Irish gardeners through her writing and television presenting, will work her wizardry. Already Airfield’s four polytunnels and its state-of-the-art heated propagator are full of young vegetable seedlings, many of which will be transplanted out into the food garden in the weeks ahead.
Outdoors, its beds, some of them edged with rustic willow panels supplied by Carlow craftsman Pat Quinlan, are already quickly filling up with traditional food crops, while more will soon be stocked with cut flower crops and armies of lofty sunflowers.
There’s a new espalier fruit maze planted with heritage Irish apple varieties, a damson tree walk, sculptural wave- shaped beds where a variety of cereal crops will grow, an experimental vineyard, competition beds where visiting schoolchildren can have a go at building wigwams or whatever else takes their fancy, and even a “fairy ring”.
In the case of the latter, according to Lennox-Boyd, the intention was “to take a less serious approach to the design by introducing classical historic aspects of the Irish landscape in a more contemporary way”.
At one end of this vast new food garden stands a handsome new education centre called “The Kitchen”, one of several new buildings within Airfield, where a host of workshops, lectures and demonstrations will take place throughout the year, while just down the path is Airfield’s swanky new farmyard and milking parlour, where visitors can learn about traditional country skills. Meanwhile, all of the produce generated by the garden and dairy will go towards supplying Airfield’s new waterside restaurant.
“It will be a real-life, living example of ‘from farm to fork’,” explains Scully, “and one that underscores what’s always been the core role of Airfield, which is to be both recreational and educational.”
By comparison, Lennox-Boyd’s work on the ornamental garden, which will tended by gardener Colm O’Driscoll, is an altogether more traditional design that meets the brief to respect Airfield’s long history, and is distinguished by the elegant, grand country-house style for which she – herself the owner of Gresgarth Hall, a rather grand English country house – is best known.
Airfield’s formal avenue of Florence yews, its fruit trees, hornbeam hedges, and much of the ancient box hedging that delineated the space back in the Overends’ days, remain. In the walled garden immediately below the house, the original design has been simplified.
Donegal quartz paving and smart pebble paths (the landscaping was expertly executed by Sam Feeney Landscaping) now divide the shallow terraces up into a series of rectangular lawns, while the planting is a restrained and very artful – if, to some peoples’ eyes, overly traditional – mix of herbaceous perennials, climbers and shrubs, using a romantic palette of silvers, blues and berry colours. Given a few years to mature, I think it should look beautiful.
Other new ornamental garden spaces designed by Lennox-Boyd include a tea garden next to Dudley’s Field and an entrance garden where visitors can “orientate themselves and make plans for the day”.
Not all of the newly designed gardens are Lennox-Boyd’s work. Irish landscape architect Dermot Foley, who has been involved in the project since 2009, is responsible for the planting that now weaves its way through the new car park and close to its entrance pavilion, as well as other smaller sections within the gardens.
He describes his approach as “one of integrating new and old . . . an attempt to recognise the small scale, idiosyncratic and characterful spaces and materials of Airfield, while at the same time adding a new layer of identity to accompany the changing uses and visitor numbers”. (These are expected to rise to 200,000 annually.)
In the car park, this task has been cleverly executed using a wide palette of plants, with a range of native trees and hedgerow plants predominating along the edges furthest away from the complex of new buildings.
But as you move closer to the entrance pavilion, there’s a subtle, continuous shift in planting style towards the use of non-native, more “gardenesque” trees, shrubs and perennials, including magnolias and the decorative handkerchief tree, Davidia involucr ata . Many of the perennials were chosen for their propensity to self-seed, which should further soften the hard landscaping and allow nature to gradually take its own firm hand in the design process.
If I have one quibble, it’s with regard to the panels of ornamental pebble that seem unwilling to stay put, lending this area a slightly untidy air.
Allowing nature to not only take its own firm hand in the design process but to take its time, is something that visitors to the gardens would do well to be mindful of in the months ahead.
Despite the retention of its mature trees, specimen shrubs and formal hedges, both Airfield’s reinvented ornamental gardens and its new food garden need time to put down proper roots, to grow, to flourish.
Until then, look on it as something akin to a newborn baby, its most distinctive features not yet fully realised or, in some cases, not yet obvious. It will take time and the careful ministrations of head gardeners Scully and O’Driscoll, hopefully helped by a skilled team of under-gardeners, for that to happen. But the process – and that, after all, is what gardening is all about – will be a fascinating one to watch.
Airfield estate formally re opens to the public on April 9th with a programme of events and activities next weekend for adults and children. For details as well as admission costs, see airfield.ie.