I have always had a deep grá for Ireland’s wonderful walled gardens. My first gardening column for this paper followed the restoration and weekly calendar of sowing, growing and harvesting in the OPW-managed Ashtown Victorian walled garden in the Phoenix Park. More recently, and in partnership with my husband, I’ve established a small organic cut-flower farm in another Victorian walled garden in Co Wicklow.
Each time that I unearth a fragment of 19th-century pottery while digging its soil, or carefully wire a climbing plant to one of the antique nails that stud its honey-tinted, old brick walls, I am reminded of all the gardeners who came before me. So it was with delight that I heard of the upcoming "Walled Gardens Study Day" organised by the Irish Georgian Society in collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and Wicklow Co Council, which takes place in Russborough in Co Wicklow early next month (see Dates For Your Diary below).
According to Terence Reeves-Smyth, one of the expert Irish garden historians who will be speaking at the event, Ireland has about 8,000 walled gardens. Some date from as far back as the early 1600s and have survived the passing centuries in varying degrees of repair. Among the oldest is at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford, built in the early 17th century. Privately owned by the Devonshire family but open to the public, it contains many of the quintessential features of an historic walled garden, including formal paths, beautiful, Paxton-designed glasshouse, a billowing double herbaceous border and fruit trees.
Ireland's largest historic walled garden is probably that of Shane's Castle in Co Antrim, which covers a 10 acres. Although now in semi-ruin, it was once famed for its opulence, a poignant reminder of which survives in the shape of its restored Camellia House, designed by John Nash.
Shane’s Castle’s garden is just one example of the many Irish walled gardens that survive as shadows of their former selves. Others have been lost to housing developments, or turned into car parks, or simply bulldozed into the ground. Indeed, one of the focuses of the upcoming “Walled Garden Study Day” will be to share information on how these glorious Irish gardens can be best conserved or sensitively restored for future generations, a subject on which well-known Irish horticulturist and garden historian Finola Reid is passionate.
Part of the challenge, of course, is maintenance. These gardens were designed in a very different era, when materials and skilled labour were cheap. It takes time and knowledge to fan-train a pear tree, or to keep glasshouse-grown plants watered and happy.
Yet another is the sheer size and scale of the average Irish walled garden, which can typically be counted in acres. As the seasoned Irish garden consultant Daphne Levinge Shackleton, points out, "a challenge . . . or an opportunity for anyone with a walled garden is the oceans of space to be filled". Her clever solution (albeit not one for traditionalists) is to forego those classic flower borders and vegetable patches in favour of annual flower meadows, also known as "pictorial meadows", like those used to such great effect in both Airfield's gardens in Dundrum and in the Ashtown walled garden in the Phoenix Park. These hugely floriferous, annual meadows give months of summer colour on a grand scale, especially if you choose one of the better mixes. Amongst Levinge-Shackleton's favourites are the UK supplier Sarah Raven's Jewel Cut Flower mix and her Crimson & Carmine mix. To extend the season, she suggest sowing these meadows among small shapely trees and spring-flowering bulbs.
At Virginia Park in Cavan, chef Richard Corrigan has has employed the services of expert organic food grower Dermot Carey, whose speciality lies in bringing these historic spaces back to full productivity. Most recently, Carey has been working his magic on the charming walled garden of Burtown House in Co Carlow, owned by the Fennell family, with the delicious produce going straight to its restaurant's kitchen. Others, such as Santry Court in Dublin have been put to imaginative use as community gardens, or turned into educational and therapeutic spaces such as the RHSI-managed Russborough and Festina Lente both in Co Wicklow, all proving that these wonderful historic gardens still have so much to offer.
SOME GREAT IRISH WALLED GARDENS TO VISIT
Kylemore Abbey in Co Galway, kylemoreabbey.com; Ashtown walled garden, Phoenix Park, Dublin, phoenixpark.ie; Glenarm Castle, Co Antrim, glenarmcastle.com; Rowallane, Co Down, nationaltrust.org.uk; Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, malahidecastleandgardens.com; Lismore Castle, Co Waterford, lismorecastle.com; Festina Lente, Bray, Co Wicklow, festinalente.ie; Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, powerscourt.com; Fota, Co Waterford, heritageireland.ie; Bealieu, Co Louth, beaulieuhouse.ie; Glenveagh, Co Donegal glenveaghnationalpark.ie; Benvarden, Co Antrim, benvardin.com; Altamont, Co Carlow, heritageireland.ie; Burtown, Co Carlow, burtownhouse.ie.
THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN…
If your summer pots are beginning to look a little wan, refresh them by cutting back any dead flowers or foliage before carefully removing one or two of the tattiest bedding plants to make room for something that will add a welcome splash of vibrant autumn colour. Dahlias, sedums or rudbeckias are all good candidates.
Late August is the best time to divide bearded irises, a process that should ideally be carried out every 4-5 years in order to prevent the plants from becoming too congested.
Using a sharp knife, carefully cutting away each “fan” of leaves so that they still have a section of rhizome (a type of modified underground stem) attached. Trim back the leaves so that they’re about 15cm tall and shorten the roots a little before transplanting shallowly into a sunny well-drained spot.
The Royal Horticultural Society has more instructions on its website, see rhs.org.uk.
This is also a good time to plant these beautiful summer-flowering perennials.
Specialist stockists of the lovely Cedric Morris range include Wexford-based Camolin Potting Shed , camolinpottingshed.com.
DATES FOR YOUR DIARY…
Friday, September 2nd Russborough House, Blessington, Co Wicklow, "Ireland's Walled Gardens Study Day: a celebration of their history and conservation", an event hosted by the Irish Georgian Society, the RHSI and Wicklow Co Council. Speakers include Daphne Shackleton, Finola Reid, Klaus Laitenberger, Belinda Jupp and Susan Roundtree, tickets €90 (€80 for IGS and RHSI members), see igs.ie.
Saturday, September 3rd and Sunday 4th The fourth Ballymaloe Garden Festival features workshops, talks, walks and demonstrations by a host of experts including Ballymaloe head gardener Susan Turner, organic kitchen garden expert Dermot Carey, Mount Stewart's head gardener Neil Porteous and garden designer Catherine Fitzgerald. All events included in €8 admission, see gardenfestival.ballymaloe.ie.