Northern Ireland has several impressive gardens worth visiting. Here are some suggestions, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
THERE ARE ALWAYS chance moments in every gardener’s life that, for one small reason or another, forever change the way they garden. In my case, one of them came last summer during a visit to the privately owned gardens of Benvarden in Co Antrim. Exploring its one-and-a-half-acre, meticulously restored walled kitchen garden, I was struck by the neat rows of vegetables that stretched out before me like a vividly coloured, edible patchwork quilt. Feathery carrots and plump red onions grew alongside giant leeks, fat cabbages, tall lines of golden sweetcorn, tidy drills of floury “Queens” potatoes, kohlrabi the colour of amethysts and tall wigwams of scarlet runner beans in fiery flower.
All in all, it was a glorious sight, but yet the more I explored the garden, the more and more I became puzzled by the fact that there wasn’t one single weed to be seen. No dandelions, no creeping buttercup, no chickweed, no docks, no scutch, no groundsel, no fat hen, not even hairy bittercress (the bane of almost every vegetable garden). It was pristine.
And then I spotted Benvarden’s head gardener, Billy McMath, hard at work among the rows of vegetables, like a modern-day Mr McGregor (but much sunnier-natured). He was hoeing. Or rather, as I soon discovered, he was swoeing.
Forget the mattock, the Dutch hoe, the draw hoe, even the much-trumpeted oscillating hoe; I promise you now that they are all as nothing compared to the tool known, rather strangely, as a swoe. Swan-necked, bevel-bladed on three sides, sharp as a razor and light as a feather, with a long handle and a small stainless steel head so manoeuvrable that it can be manipulated into the tightest of corners – this, I discovered, was McMath’s secret weapon against the weeds. And now it’s mine too, for I bought my own swoe the next day and am rarely without it in the garden.
Nearly 70, McMath learnt his craft the traditional way, training under Northern Ireland’s former parks superintendent Albert Harbison. His great horticultural skills are in evidence everywhere at Benvarden. He told me with pride that over the two decades he’s worked there, he’s used a swoe with such devotion and regularity that he’s worn several of them out. Even with his latest model (his third or fourth, he wasn’t quite sure), he’s had to have the steel head welded back on to the neck a couple of times – a measure of how much use he gives it, rather than of its poor design.
Later that afternoon, while its head gardener took a long-overdue lunch break, I enjoyed a mug of coffee and home-made scones with Benvarden’s owner, Hugh Montgomery, in the cobbled stableyard outside its well-stocked tea-rooms. He showed me black-and-white photographs depicting the gardens in the 1930s and in the war years, when its walled gardens (it has two) were turned into a market garden to supply the American airforce bases stationed nearby. We talked of the period of neglect that followed, and of the lengthy restoration that he and his wife Val (both are very keen, hands-on gardeners) began roughly two decades ago.
The rest of the day was spent exploring Benvarden; its second walled garden, its woodland walks, its shady water garden. Almost every step of the way I was reminded of many other gardening lessons learnt long ago and yet somehow half-forgotten. That a rose garden in full summer bloom produces a perfume unlike anything else on earth; especially when that scent is contained within high garden walls. That a simple stone fountain trickling down into a small pond filled with plump goldfish will always enthral. That a box parterre filled with sweetly scented lavender is always a classic combination, particularly when you top it off by placing a silver pear tree at its centre. That there will always, always be a great difference between a garden that is carefully maintained, and a garden, like Benvarden, that is lovingly maintained. That – and this, along with my swoe discovery, was probably the most important lesson of that day – some gardens have atmosphere, while others, for whatever indecipherable reason, just don’t.