Garden designer finds inspiration in the poetry of WB Yeats

A show garden for the upcoming Bloom festival is a tribute to WB Yeats

It’s not easy bringing a show garden to life. Ask those who’ve succeeded, and they’ll confirm that it requires steady nerves, patience and time, along with wheelbarrow loads of energy, determination and resourcefulness.

So much can go wrong on that long and exhausting journey from a design sketch on paper to the reality of the finished garden. Sponsors may drop out or contractors get poached, plants may come into leaf/flower too early or too late, or be damaged in transit. The weather conditions, especially during the build, are another unquantifiable.

And so it’s no surprise to hear that for Sligo-based gardener, writer and designer Lorely Forrester, who will be building her first Bloom show garden later this month, the long months of preparation have been a rollercoaster.

“Nerve-wracking. By the time it’s finally built, I think I’ll have chewed my fingernails back down to my elbows,” she says.


Forrester’s wild and watery large Bloom show garden is an ode to William Butler Yeats, whose deep connection to Sligo began in his childhood (this year’s cultural festival Yeats2015 celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize winning poet). In particular, it’s an evocation of his famous poem Lake Isle of Innisfree, in which Yeats speaks with such deep yearning of a peaceful “bee-loud glade” by the edges of a lake where “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow”.

As someone whose own deep-rooted connections to Sligo began many years ago, with regular visits to her in-laws’ holiday cottage on the edges of Lough Gill, Yeats’ lifelong love of this wild and windswept coastal county resonates strongly with Kenya-born Forrester. “For many years my family and I lived and worked in London, and yet there was always this deep pull back to Sligo. And so I can relate to Yeats’s feeling of longing, to his sense that this was his spiritual home.”

Forrester, her husband (the artist and printmaker Rob Forrester) and their young family finally moved to Sligo in the early 1990s, after buying an old rectory that came with an overgrown walled garden.

As someone who has gardened since her early childhood – “I think I have some chlorophyll in my veins” – she was soon hard at work, clearing away the overgrowth to replace it with an elaborate formal potager filled with flowers and vegetables. Her green-fingered credentials established, Forrester became a founding member of the Secret Gardens of Sligo garden trail, which has been hugely supportive of her Bloom project.

Its members, including the gardener and artist Saffron Thomas, are just some of the many Sligo residents lending her a helping hand. Others include Senator Susan O’Keeffe of Yeats2015, who first suggested to Forrester the idea of creating a Yeats-themed Bloom show garden, Lucy Brennan of Sligo Co Council Parks Department, Jack Cunnane of Western Plants Nursery, Niall McAllister of QuickCrop, and a host of talented artists whose work will form part of the finished garden, such as the muralist Nik Purdy, the ceramicist Colin Scott, the textile artist Mary Cronin and Forrester’s husband.

One anonymous donor has even agreed to supply a gnarled apple tree. Given the time of year, it will hopefully be laden with blossom, but even so, Forrester feels it will be appropriately suggestive of Yeats’s “golden apples of the sun”.

As for the process of designing the show garden, which is being sponsored by Glen Dimplex, Forrester describes it as “an imaginary look inside the poet’s head. I want to give visitors the sense that they are stumbling across a private space, a little woodland clearing on the island”.

That private space sits by the shoreline of a lake fringed with trees, including willow, birch, alder. Along with the rough and simple cabin of which Yeats wrote, there will be a small vegetable garden filled with beehives (an traditional skep as well as one of the hives introduced by the Congested Districts Board at around about the time the poem was written). And, of course, the poet’s beloved “nine bean rows”.

Elsewhere, the planting will be gently naturalistic. Along with natives such as the strawberry tree (Arbutus) and bugle (Ajuga), it will consist of wild ferns and grasses, cow parsley, foxgloves, even weeds such as Rhododendron ponticum and ground elder. The exception is the ‘WB Yeats rose’ being launched in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth, a long-flowering scarlet floribunda evocative of the poet’s “Red rose, proud rose … Rose of all my days”.

Bred by the internationally-respected rose breeder Colin Dickson in Co Down, it’s already been awarded a gold medal by the Royal National Rose Society in the UK as well as a Certificate of Merit from the Hague International Rose Trials.

But breeding a rose of such quality takes many years as well as a tidy sum of money. Working in conjunction with the Yeats Society, The Secret Gardens of Sligo group hope to fund its launch by public donations (see for details). "Whether they give a fiver or €5,000, we'd love people to be able look back in the years to come and know that they were a part of creating a living legacy for one of Ireland's most famous poets," Forester says.

To see this very special rose in flower, visit what promises to be a very special show garden at this year’s Bloom.

Bloom takes place in the Phoenix Park Dublin from Thursday, May 28th-Monday June 1st, see You can follow Lorely Forrester's journey to Bloom on her blog,


Plants growing in glasshouses and polytunnels need regular watering and liquid feeding at this time of year, a time-consuming chore if you’re bustling back and forth from rainwater barrels with watering cans. Make the job easier and faster by using a water butt pump ( Attached to a garden hose, it delivers enough pressure to deliver the water straight to the plants, a watering can or an under-cover-tank. My version of the latter is a large, lidded dustbin in the glasshouse where the water remains nicely tepid (the way plants like it) and into which I plunge watering cans as required.

Remember that it's not only house gutters that are suitable for rainwater barrels. Lenehans Hardware stock rainwater guttering kits suitable for most glasshouses (from €20,, while Mr Middleton stocks a Rainsaver Shed Gutter Kit (€62, Some knacky gardeners have even devised clever ways of harvesting rainwater from polytunnels (see for details)

Outdoors, you can direct-sow seed of beetroot, carrots, chard, peas, turnips, runner beans, parsnips, radish and spinach as well as many flowering annuals including Calendula, Nasturtium. Under cover, you can sow seed of courgettes, squash, French beans, sweet-corn, kale, scallions and lettuce, as well as hardworking flowering annuals such as Cosmos, Ammi and Nicotiana for transplanting outdoors later.