Shake off the winter blues with a snowdrop hunt

Many Irish gardens are filled with one of the best and earliest-ever displays of snowdrops. Photograph: Moment/Getty

If you’re an experienced gardener, then you’ll already know that plants have surprisingly scant regard for the calendar year. Instead seasonality is an ever-fluctuating quality in any garden, mainly because the timing of a plant’s life cycle in any particular year – its growth pattern, its flowering period – is subtly shaped by a combination of many different elements, not least of which is the weather. By which I mean both recent weather patterns as well as those of previous seasons. 

So, for example, it’s not just as a consequence of this wet and (and up until very recently) almost frost-free winter but also last year’s long, dry, hot summer and exceptionally mild autumn that so many Irish gardens are presently filled with one of the best and earliest-ever displays of snowdrops.

Nor is it just snowdrops that are putting on such an exceptional and exceptionally early show. Golden aconites, cyclamen, crocuses, narcissus, hellebores, early rhododendrons, camellias, daphne, sarcococca, witch hazel and winter honeysuckle are some of the other bright and beautiful stars of the late winter/early spring garden that have been in bountiful bloom in many Irish gardens for several weeks. But don’t just take my word for it. Instead see them for yourself by paying a visit (or two) to any of the gardens listed below over the coming weeks. There are, I promise you, few better ways of shaking off those winter blues.

ALTAMONT GARDENS

Cyclamen coum flowering in an Irish garden. Photo Credit Richard Johnston
Cyclamen coum flowering in an Irish garden. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Of all the Irish gardens open to the public this month, Altamont in Co Carlow is probably best known for its vast collection of snowdrops, many of which date back to the days of its late owner, Corona North.

The main 40-acre garden – home to extensive woodlands, river walks and a large, ornamental lake – is now managed by the OPW, while its walled garden is home to one of the best small garden centres in the country, run by Robert Miller.

Altamont will be celebrating snowdrop month with guided tours of the main gardens by head gardener Paul Cutler (from 2pm, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout February) and of its walled garden by Miller (2pm every Saturday throughout February). It’s also possible to book group tours (minimum 10 people) by contacting the OPW.

Altamont Plant Sales, Miller’s treasure trove of a garden centre, is also one of the best places to buy some of the loveliest varieties of the aforementioned late winter-flowering plants, which he sources from specialist nurseries both here and abroad, including Avon Bulbs, Christies Specialist Nursery, Ashwood, Harvingtons, Coosheen Plants and Kilmurry Nursery. And if you’re unlucky enough to get caught in a sudden downpour during your visit, then Altamont’s walled garden is also home to a small, thriving cafe where you can enjoy a light lunch or afternoon tea.

Altamont Gardens, Ballon, Co Carlow, 8.30am-4.30pm, admission to guided tours €3, call 059-9159444 or email pauline.dowling@opw.ie for advance booking of group tours; carlowtourism.com, altamontplants.com

BURTOWN HOUSE

Burtown House, in Co Kildare, owned by the Fennell family, has 12 acres of country gardens that are famed for their spectacular, massed displays of snowdrops and aconites.

As the former home of one of the country’s most distinguished botanical artists, the late Wendy Walsh, Burtown is celebrating snowdrop month this year by hosting a two-day snowdrop-painting workshop (Saturday, February 9th, and Sunday, February 10th) with the award-winning Irish botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. (See its website for booking details.)

Visitors to the garden can also enjoy a delicious lunch at the Green Barn, Burtown’s new restaurant, run by owners James and Jo Fennell. It uses fresh, seasonal, organic produce supplied from its walled kitchen garden by head grower Dermot Carey. Both gardens and restaurant are open to the public from February 2nd, with booking for the Green Barn in advance strongly recommended.

Burtown House & Gardens, Athy, Co Kildare, open from February 2nd, Wednesday-Sunday (10am-5.30pm), email info@burtownhouse.ie  or call 059-8623865 to make a restaurant booking; burtownhouse.ie

BLARNEY CASTLE

A yellow-flowered form of Helleborus x hybridus. Photograph: Richard Johnston
A yellow-flowered form of Helleborus x hybridus. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Blarney Castle is fast becoming known as the home of one of Ireland’s most exciting large gardens, due in no small part to the work of its talented head gardener, Adam Whitbourn, and his team. As part of his ongoing development of the castle’s 60 acres of gardens and parklands, Whitbourn has recently overseen the creation of a series of decorative winter borders, which are being filled with a collection of heritage Irish snowdrops, hellebores, winter aconites and drifts of cornus and rubus.

The gardens are also known for the mass planting of native snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) that flower along the length of the castle’s front avenue at this time of year as well as its huge display of early-flowering daffodils (the exceptionally early variety best known as Narcissus “Rijnveldt’s Early Sensation”, now in peak bloom). This is also one the best places to see many kinds of shrubby late-winter/early-spring-flowering plants, including different varieties of sweet-smelling witch hazels (hamamelis), daphnes, camellias and some of the earliest-flowering species of rhododendron.

Blarney Castle, Blarney, Co Cork, open Monday-Saturday (9am-5pm, last admission 4pm) throughout February. Discounted admission available by booking on blarneycastle.ie

WOODVILLE WALLED GARDEN

Snowdrops flowering in an Irish garden. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Snowdrops flowering in an Irish garden. Photograph: Richard Johnston

The lovely Woodville Walled Garden in Kilchreest, Co Galway, is also celebrating snowdrop month with an illustrated talk next Saturday, February 9th, from 2pm – Making the Best of Snowdrops in the Garden by Maurice Parkinson, a distinguished galanthophile, chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and owner of Ballyrobert Gardens in Co Antrim (which itself is home to a collection of more than 200 different varieties of snowdrops). Parkinson’s talk, which will include a practical demonstration of how to propagate snowdrops, will be followed by a guided tour of Woodville’s own large collection of snowdrops by its head gardener, Marie Kelly, who will also be giving guided tours of the garden every Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout February.

Woodville Walled Gardens, Kilchreest, Co Galway, open daily throughout February (11am-5pm), €12 admission to talk and tour on February 10th , booking essential. Call Margarita Donohue on 087-9069191 or email woodvillegardens@gmail.com to book; woodvillewalledgarden.com

BELLEFIELD HOUSE

Galanthus ‘St Pancras’ at Bellefield gardens, in Co Offaly. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Galanthus ‘St Pancras’ at Bellefield gardens, in Co Offaly. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Landscape architect Angela Jupe’s passion for snowdrops has led to the creation of one of Ireland’s loveliest and largest collections (more than 300 varieties) of these dainty late-winter/spring-flowering bulbs, which grow in vast swathes in the large country gardens surrounding her Georgian farmhouse, Bellefield House, near Birr in rural Co Offaly. Jupe’s garden also provides plenty of inspiration when it comes to combining snowdrops with other pretty, low-growing late-winter-flowering bulbous plants such as cyclamen, winter aconites, irises and crocuses, which she plants beneath the skirts of late winter-flowering shrubs such as witch hazel and daphne and intermingled with a wonderful selection of hellebores. 

Bellefield House & Gardens, Shinrone, Co Offaly, angelajupe.ie. Because of the exceptionally early display of snowdrops this year, Bellefield Garden is open to the public only until February 10th (11am-4.30pm), admission €5 in aid of Roscrea RSPCA

OTHER GARDENS

Galanthus ‘Ronald Mackenzie’. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Galanthus ‘Ronald Mackenzie’. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Other Irish snowdrop gardens to visit this month: Ballyrobert Gardens & Nursery (154 Ballyrobert Road, Ballyclare, Co Antrim) is holding two snowdrop open days: Saturday, February 16th, and Saturday, February 23rd (garden tours at 2pm and again at 3.15pm), 048-93440101, ballyrobertgardens.com.

Coosheen (15 Johnstown Park, Glounthane, Co Cork): the gardens of the galanthophile and nursery owner Hester Forde and her husband, Patrick. Please contact Hester for details of opening times before setting out, as these will vary: 086-8654972, hesterforde@gmail.com.

Shankill Castle (Paulstown, Co Kilkenny), 059-9726145, shankillcastle.com.

Huntington Castle (Clonegal, Co Carlow), 053-9377160, huntingtoncastle.com.

THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN

Get garden tools sharp and ship-shape for the busy months ahead. Start by cleaning them with a wire brush and a damp cloth. For large handtools such as spades and shovels, sharpen the bevelled edge of their blades with a flat metal file, then wipe their metal heads down with an oily rag. With smaller cutting tools, use a sharpening stone or a tungsten carbide sharpener (such as the Swiss sharpener available from fruithillfarm.com).  Finish off by wiping wooden handles with an old cloth soaked in boiled linseed oil. This is also a great time to get lawnmowers, strimmers and other garden machinery professionally serviced before the rush of spring.

Start chitting early varieties of seed potatoes by placing them in shallow trays or egg cartons and then putting them somewhere bright and cool but frost-free (ideally about 10 degrees). These seed potatoes will be ready for planting out into the garden from mid-March. Chitted varieties of early potatoes can also be planted out in the polytunnel until March to give you a tasty and very early crop. Just remember, on frosty nights, to protect emerging shoots with a layer or two of horticultural fleece.

As long as the soil isn’t frozen or waterlogged, keep weeding and hoeing beds in preparation for planting later this spring. Adding a generous mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost to freshly weeded beds will help to maintain fertility and protect soil structure as well as to suppress weeds, but again, don’t apply to soils that are frozen or badly waterlogged but instead wait until March, when temperatures should improve.

Seed potatoes: start chitting early varieties. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Seed potatoes: start chitting early varieties. Photograph: Richard Johnston

DATES FOR YOUR DIARY

Tuesday, February 5th, 8pm: Northridge House, St Luke’s Home, Mahon, Cork, Veg on the Edge, a talk by organic gardener and broadcaster Kitty Scully on behalf of the IGPS, irishgardenplantsociety.com.

Thursday, February 7th, 8pm: Artane Beaumont Family Recreation Centre, Kilmore Road, Artane, Planning for the Future, a talk by horticulturist Christopher Heavey on behalf of Dublin Five Horticultural Society, admission €5;

Saturday, February 23rd: The Crown Plaza Conference Centre, Northwood, Santry, Dublin 9, the Garden & Landscape Designers Association 2019 seminar, Gardening on the Edge; Rewilding Green Spaces, with guest speakers Dusty Gedge of the UK, Irish environmental consultant and wetland specialist Féidhlim Harty, American landscape architect Kevin Sloan, and Monique and Thierry Dronet of Jardin de Berchigranges in northeast France. Tickets from €55 (students), €85 (full members, friends of the association), €100 (early bird non-members), €110 (non-members), glda.ie.