It's hard to believe 15 years have passed since the Carlow Garden Festival took its first baby steps with just a handful of garden experts as part of its line-up (amongst them the late, much-missed Dick Warner) and no real budget or funding to speak of.
It has since progressed in leaps and bounds to become one of the must-go-to events of the horticultural calendar, with this year's festival taking place over nine days (Friday, July 21st- Sunday, July 30th) and featuring a total of 20 garden experts, many of whom are flying in to Ireland specially for the occasion.
Among them is the well-known British author and BBC Gardener's World presenter Monty Don, who'll be formally launching the 2017 festival with a talk at the Arboretum Garden Centre on the creation and evolution of his own Herefordshire garden, Longmeadow.
Such is Monty’s star power (and his huge popularity amongst lady gardeners in particular) that all 800 tickets for this particular event have already sold out.
But not to worry, as there are a host of other great speakers lined up with talks on a truly diverse range of garden-related subjects.
These include plant-hunting in Myanmar (Mount Stewart's head gardener Neil Porteous in Burtown House & Gardens on Sunday 30th July); growing food for flavour (the British botanist, TV presenter and author James Wong in Kilgraney gardens on Thursday, 27th of July); nature-friendly gardening (award-winning Irish garden designer and author Mary Reynolds at Shankill Castle on Wednesday 26th July); growing roses (garden writer, broadcaster and rosarian Dermot O' Neill at Rathvilly Garden Centre on Sunday 23rd July); the changing role of botanic gardens (Dr David Rae of Edinbugh's Royal Botanic Gardens at Burtown Gardens on July 30th ); and designing with plants (the British TV presenter, author and garden designer Joe Swift).
Swift is just one of a trio of expert gardeners who’ll be giving talks in the charming walled garden/nursery of Altamont on Friday 28th July.
His fellow speakers on this occasion will be the British plantsman, author and explorer Roy Lancaster and the Carlow-born gardener and planthunter Paul Smyth who works at the world-famous Welsh nursery Crûg Farm Plants.
Jane Fearnley- Whittingstall, the Chelsea gold-medal-winning British garden designer, author and mother of food campaigner/cook/author Hugh, is yet another well-known gardening personality who will be taking part (Newtownbarry House, Saturday, 22nd July).
I'll also be taking part in my role as flower farmer, giving a talk /practical demonstration on how to grow and use your own cut flowers (Delta Sensory Gardens, Thursday 27th July), while other Irish garden experts participating in this year's festival include Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook Gardens, nurseryman and garden designer Oliver Schurmann of Dublin's Mount Venus Nursery, Laois horticulturist and garden writer Mary Keenan of Gash Gardens, John Anderson, head gardener at Windsor Castle, and garden historian Terence Reeves Smyth.
A love of gardening often cross-pollinates with other hobbies/interests so if garden-inspired art is your thing, then the festival is also hosting a drawing class with Melissa Doran, illustrator of the bestselling Irish children's book Naturama (Leighlinbridge, Friday 21st July) as well as a plein-air painting class with artist Gethyn Gibson in the picturesque gardens of Kilgraney House (Tuesday 25th July).
While this is by no means the entire list of talks/ tours/ workshops (see carlowgardentrail.com for full details), suffice it to say it’s quite some line-up for an Irish gardening festival that began life with the modest aim of promoting Carlow’s loveliest gardens to the public.
"We've been described as the gardening equivalent of Electric Picnic [the eclectic arts and music festival held in Laois every year], which I think sums it up pretty well", says nurseryman Robert Miller, one of the festival's chief organisers since its inception.
With an ever-increasing number of visitors to the festival making the trip from Britain as well as further afield, he says t its success has far surpassed the organisers’ original expectations.
"We're very appreciative of the fact that Carlow County Council were hugely supportive from the word go in terms of funding as well as marketing. I think that's what's really helped us to 'grow' it into an event that now attracts an international audience."
Top tips for those heading to this year’s Carlow Garden Festival
While many of the festival's talks/events are free and require no pre-booking, others are ticketed and/or come with an admission charge so do check availability before heading off. Tickets can be pre-booked in advance via the website of Carlow Garden Trail (carlowgardentrail.com )
Dalkey Garden School is also running two coach tours to this year's festival. The first is on Tuesday 24th July to Hardymount Gardens, where speakers are Paul McDonnell and John Anderson while the second is on Friday 28th July to Altamont Gardens (see above for list of speakers).
Each trip departs from Mornington Garden, Saval Park Road in Dalkey at 9am and costs €70 including tickets to talks and admission to gardens. See dalkeygardenschool.com for details/ booking information. Do make sure to wear comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing (sturdy, waterproof clothing and footwear) as many of the talks include garden tours.
Tempted to combine your trip to this year’s festival with an overnight stay in a charming hotel/guesthouse?
Top Carlow get-aways include the 4-star Kilgraney Country House in Bagenalstown (kilgraneyhouse.com) and the 4-star Step House Hotel in Borris (stephousehotel.ie). Both are also excellent places to dine as is the Sha-Ro bistro in Clonegal (sha-roe.ie), Clashganny House restaurant near Borris (clashganny.com) and Burtown's The Green Barn in nearby Co Kildare (burtownhouse.ie). Pre-booking for all these venues is recommended as demand for rooms/ tables will be high during the festival
This week in the garden
The ornamental climber known as wisteria benefits from a twice-yearly routine prune to keep it in shape as well as to encourage a good display of its late spring flowers., with the second pruning carried out around this time of year after the flowers have faded. Use a sharp secateurs to cut back young, ‘whippy’ growth to 5-6 leaves and cut away any new growth that might otherwise obstruct gutters/ drainpipes.
Now is also a good time to prune established plum trees as winter pruning leaves them vulnerable to infection from damaging diseases including the dreaded silver leaf. Regular pruning encourages a good crop of fruit, helps prevent disease and results in a well-shaped tree. The exact method of pruning will depend on whether you’re growing your plum tree as a bush, pyramid, fan or cordon (for a a detailed step-by-step guide, see the RHS website (rhs.org.co.uk). Always pick a dry day to carry out pruning and use a sharp, clean secateurs or pruning knife.
Harvesting of early potatoes is now in full swing, freeing up plenty of space in the allotment/ kitchen garden. If you’re not planning on immediately filling this freed-up space with follow-on crops, then don’t make the mistake of leaving it for weeds to take over. A better alternative is to sow a fast-growing green manure such as Phacelia, red clover or buckwheat to enrich the soil, or simply to add a layer of homemade garden compost/ manure capped with some strong black plastic sheeting. The latter is a good short -term measure to prevent weed seeds from germinating and protect soil structure.
Dates For Your Diary
Saturday, July 22nd (10am-4pm), Botanical Plaster-Casting Workshop, with Deirdre Crofts at Dalkey Garden School, using fresh plant material to create botanical plaster plaques, €80 includes lunch and materials, see dalkeygardenschool.com – Also Saturday 22nd July (1.30pm-5.30pm) – Sunday 23rd July (10am-5.30pm), the RHSI Annual Sweet Pea Show will be held in the Teak House, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, see rhsi.ie