30 years a-growing in Kildare

As head gardener of an historic house, now a popular wedding hotel, Tony Hanlon has seen many changes in his beloved garden

Tony Hanlon, the head gardener for more than 30 years at Killashee Hotel in Kildare is a quiet, stocky figure with compassionate eyes and shoulders broadened by a lifetime hauling wheelbarrows. "A gardener will never see the lifespan of a garden," he says, looking out over the box-hedged lawns towards century-old giant redwoods and beech trees. "The previous gardener left it in trust to me, and I now serve my time, until I leave it to the next gardener, hopefully in as good a state or better than I found it. My hope is that he, or she, will carry on what I continued here."

A smile cracks readily over his cheeks and up towards deeply etched laughter lines. There’s a silent strength to him, common among gardeners of the past. A rootedness that is reassuring. “My father was a market gardener and I’ve been growing since I was seven. It’s how we made our living. We had two acres and we survived on that, with no machinery or draught animals. Come winter we’d dig farmyard manure into the ridges and cover it over, and by spring it would be well decayed and the land was ready for another bounty.”

Hanlon’s eyes glaze over, remembering a distant world: “The farmyard manure would be decaying the whole time,” he says, “and that’d encourage worms and birds who would break down the organic matter over the months so that when you came to dig in the spring it would be the finest soil, like sugar. Those ridges were never walked on, and only ever lightly dug.”

We fed 160 people every day from two acres of cabbages, carrots, turnips, runner beans, celery and potatoes

Now, as head gardener of an ostentatious 141-room hotel with a driveway sweeping up to a distinguished 19th century manor house and vast concrete wings of conference rooms, leisure centre, spa, etc, Hanlon’s focus is on creating romantic backdrops for wedding parties; ensuring there are colourful blooms for the blushing brides of February and November, as much as June. The hotel caters to visitors to the surrounding stud farms, the designer outlets of Kildare village and the Punchestown racecourse – many of whom expect the meticulously-manicured, almost artificial, gardens they see on television, but Hanlon remains remarkably true to his more humble traditions.

“My father didn’t use chemicals and nor do I. To be honest, we couldn’t afford them. Our neighbours would have wintered cattle in sheds and come the spring we’d always get a load of manure when the sheds were cleaned out – real good stuff that was already decaying. Using chemicals or any type of pest control will damage the environment eventually. If we keep using them we’ll destroy the wildlife and then we’re all in bother. A garden needs wildlife, it’s all part of the natural system. When this estate was laid out there would have been a lot of wildlife here, and it’s our duty to maintain as much of that as we can.”

Elite school

For almost half of Hanlon's life as the estate's head gardener, Killashee House was a private boarding school, Our Lady's Bower, run by the La Sainte Union of nuns who were self-sufficient in vegetables, fruit, eggs and even had some pigs. "It was my responsibility to grow the food to get them through the autumn and winter. If I neglected my duties they wouldn't have been able to afford to go to the shop and buy them, as finances were tight. The first day I started here the principle, Sr Jarlath, said, 'We'll leave it in your hands, Tony. Do as you see fit.' And I made sure not to let them down.

“We fed 160 people every day from two acres of cabbages, carrots, turnips, runner beans, celery and potatoes. We had an orchard too, with fruit gardens of gooseberries and greengages, and polytunnels for lettuces and soft fruit. Anything left over in a bumper year was shared with local people. The boys from fifth and sixth class would help with the harvest. Eleven and 12-year-olds – they were delighted to get out. I’d dig the potatoes and they’d pick them. We’d do 20 or 30 drills in a day. I remember once there was no getting the good of the big fellas, they were firing more potatoes than they were picking, so I had to go up for Sr Jarlath and she brought down a chair and sat on the headland for most of the day as we worked, and there wasn’t a word out of anyone.”

Our Lady's Bower was an elite preparatory school favoured by the families of the bloodstock industry – the Magniers, Mick Kinane and Dermot Weld all sent their children here. They regarded the harvest labour as part of an overall education. "Sure, they learnt the value of the crops from when you plant them in the spring to when you harvest them in autumn. We'd explain to them all about the plants and trees, and how we'd collect up all the leaves and keep turning them through the winter to make leaf-mould to feed next year's plants. Leaf-mould is fantastic. Better than any fertiliser nowadays. It's still what I use today. I think it's a shame that this tradition of children being fed directly from the land is gone."

It’s seems a shame too that the hotel is no longer growing food on its 280 acres of land. Menus in the hotel’s restaurants make no reference to local food provenance or to any organic suppliers, but Tony sees the potential: “Back through the centuries an estate like this would have been self-sufficient, even down to the timber for heating the house and for providing wood for renovations and new windows. They would have had wild gardens here and the vision would be to recreate them in the future. There’s no reason we can’t be self-sufficient here again, but it would require a lot of work.”

We had daffodils in full bloom on November 20th last year. That worries me

If Hanlon's vision is to be achieved his bosses will need to be indulgent, which they may be. The hotel was bought out of Nama by Tetrarch Hospitality (previously Brehon Capital) in 2014, impressed by the 160 weddings that were being hosted annually. The group now owns seven hotels, including Mount Juliet, Powerscourt Hotel, Dawson Hotel and the Clonmel Park Hotel, and are building more. Two of the chief executives Michael McElligott and his sister Ciara lived locally and knew Hanlon from long ago. One of their first acts upon acquiring the property was to buy him a new tractor.

“They are very understanding and leave the running of the place to me, they never interfere. If I need anything I can just go and buy it. It’s all for the good of the place.”

Climate change

For Hanlon, growing food sustainably without pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertiliser is not about following current culinary trends, but addressing climate change. “I can see the changes myself every year now. We had daffodils in full bloom on November 20th last year. That worries me. If this continues the plants that you and I know now won’t last. Every one of us will have to change the way we think about the environment and be more conscious of it. We’ll all have to do our bit, or 20 or 30 years down the line we could be in serious trouble. Storms seem to be getting more frequent here and worse. I remember going back over the years here it was always after Christmas before we had a bit of a storm. In January and February you might have only one night’s storm, or maybe two or three at the very most, but the year before last we had frequent storms way before Christmas. They were constant, one after the other, nearly. The environment is changing and we’ll all have to play our part to keep the thing going. If we don’t we’re all in bother, like.

“Give it another 10 or 12 years and definitely you won’t be able to grow some of the plants that we grow here now. The seasons are becoming warmer over the winter. You’ll have plants blooming in November and December that shouldn’t bloom until April and May. If I live another 10 years just imagine the changes in farming, in gardening, in everything. I have my fears for the future. ”

This clarion call from the gardener of one of Ireland’s premier hotel chains is all the more poignant considering that the hotel industry in general is not known for its commitment to sustainability, apart from those self-serving notices to re-use our towels and resist requesting changes of bedsheets. While some high-end restaurants and boutique cafés are making laudable progress in switching to locally sourced and sustainably grown food, we have far to go to implement Hanlon’s vision of a truly self-sufficient hotel growing their own crops that are nourished on local compost and leaf-mould. Nevertheless, the vision is a brave and relevant one. Hanlon’s perspective, after a lifetime of observing the seasons and the soil, is vital and valuable – we ignore it at our peril.