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‘We call Mount Congreve Ireland’s global garden because there are 10,000 different plants here’

Horticulture students learn the craft of gardening in the beautiful woodlands and kitchen gardens of Waterford estate

“Connecting with nature.” “Trying something different.” “An appreciation of history.” Ask a new generation of gardeners just why they want to embark on a course in horticulture at a country house estate and those are the kinds of answers they will give you.

The Irish Times Magazine has travelled to Mount Congreve in Co Waterford, a country house estate which has set up a horticulture school in its beautiful grounds. We are here to meet the first batch of students as they complete what is Ireland’s first full-time course in horticulture in a country house garden.

The remodelled original Georgian house and its 29 hectares of gardens overlooking the river Suir are managed by the Mount Congreve Trust, as its last owner, Ambrose Congreve bequeathed the house and gardens to the state following his death in 2011.

Since it opened to the public in 2023, following a €7 million restoration project, Mount Congreve has attracted visitors for its garden tours, while also welcoming guests to stay in the renovated self-catering gate lodges. It also draws in walkers and cyclists from the popular Waterford Greenway, which runs along the perimeter walls next to the river Suir.


Today, though, the focus is on the students who have spent the last months getting their hands dirty deadheading flowers, pruning trees and weeding borders. Prospective students for the 2024 course are also here to get a taste of the one-year syllabus and to walk the lands to view the stunning collections of magnolias, rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas.

“We need a new generation of gardeners. The average age of gardeners here is 54,” says Ray Sinnott, horticulturist and estate manager of Mount Congreve, when asked about the decision to start the course. He jokes that everyone wants to be a gardener when they visit Mount Congreve in the summer months but it’s not quite as attractive when the rain is pelting down, like on the day we visit.

About 45 people have turned up to hear about the QQ I Level 5 (Leaving Certificate equivalent) horticulture course run with the Wexford and Waterford Education & Training Board in Mount Congreve Gardens.

Horticulturist and course leader Gerard Mullen says that he has wanted to run a horticulture course in this country house garden for years. He is thrilled that so many people have turned up to hear about the programme, which, unlike other horticulture courses, starts in the springtime.

“We begin the course in April which is the start of the growing season and later there are work placements in gardens, nurseries, food production [facilities] and garden centres which allow students to discover which areas they would prefer to work in,” says Mullen. The course can act as a stepping stone into third-level courses in horticulture at the nearby Kildalton Agricultural College in Co Kilkenny, run in collaboration with the southeast Technological University.

Reviewing the 16 students who completed the first horticulture course at Mount Congreve, Sinnott says there was a mixture of backgrounds.

“We had more women than men, quite a lot of career change students and ages from 22 to 58,” he says.

Agnes Bakonyi was one of the students on the first course. “During the summer, it was magical. Not so much when it was raining,” says Bakonyi, who is originally from Hungary and has been living in Ireland for 18 years. “My family are winemakers in Hungary and I thought I was the black sheep of the family, coming to work in banking in Ireland but now I’m coming back to my senses,” she says, with a laugh.

Her ambition is to study plant science at Kildalton Agricultural College. “I worked in Grantstown Nurseries on my placement. I love the science behind growing tomatoes. I want to work in a laboratory and discover something that will save the planet.”

Charmaine Walsh gave up her long-term job in Shaws Department Stores in Waterford City to take the leap into horticulture. “My children are teenagers now. They are more independent. I’ve always liked the outdoors. I found the theory challenging but there was an incredible bunch of people and we all learned from each other,” she says.

Niall Cullen took redundancy from his job as a factory-based electrical engineer to do the course. “I’d had enough of working indoors. I loved producing vegetables from seed to harvest. We grew corn, brassicas (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc), onions and artichokes in the kitchen garden. I’d like to be a craft gardener. I find it very satisfying and absorbing to clear and replant beds and watch the transformation that occurs.”

Listening to the feedback from the first batch of students are people like Des Brennan, a retired accountant who is keen to move into horticulture. “I left my job early for health reasons. I’ve always maintained a garden myself but I want to get more knowledge about plants and garden design.”

Dubliner Ciara McElwee is just back in Ireland, living in Wexford after working for nine years in the hospitality industry along the world-famous Camino walking trail in northern Spain. “Years ago, I never would have thought that I’d do something like this but the older I get, the more I realise how much I like the outdoors and connecting with nature. Doing this course for me would be the antithesis of an office job. I visited the gardens last Saturday and saw information about the course and have signed up. It’s nice to follow your instincts.”

Dylan Hearne is doing his Leaving Certificate and is checking out the course for the future. “I’m more drawn to working in a garden like this than in an agricultural college. It has a nice history to it,” he says. His mother Barbara adds that QQI Level 5 horticulture courses offer students an alternative route to third level than through the CAO system.

Martina Acosta, who is originally from Uruguay, has been working in ecommerce in Ireland for about five years. “I spend my days working at a computer from home in Waterford city. I used to live in the countryside. I miss being outdoors which is why I want to do this course,” she explains.

Sinnott says that Mount Congreve Gardens are a great space in which to work. “It’s the feeling you get from being in these gardens with all the collections and exotic species. It’s great for the gardeners here to pass on their knowledge and have people who are receptive to learning so the knowledge can be transferred on to the next generation.”

He believes the presence of former owner Ambrose Congreve remains in the gardens. “He left a wonderful legacy behind,” says Sinnott.

A passionate gardener and Gatsby-like figure, Ambrose Congreve set about transforming the woodlands surrounding the family home in the 1960s after visiting Exbury Gardens in Hampshire.

An avid plant hunter, he travelled the world to source plants from every continent to grow in this acidic soil. “We call Mount Congreve Ireland’s global garden because there are 10,000 different plants here. We have over 400 magnolias, 700 camellias, 700-800 azaleas. We have an Australian Wollemi pine which was considered extinct and was then rediscovered in the Blue Mountains. We have a Chilean fire bush [Embothrium Coccineum] and we have the largest collection of Japanese Acers in Ireland,” says Sinnott.

Gardening staff who remember Ambrose Congreve recall how he would travel around the estate on his horse (and later in a golf buggy), assiduously checking what was going into the ground and quizzing the gardeners on the names of the plants.

By densely planting hundreds of rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias and azaleas, he always wanted something to catch your eye from ground level to the upper canopies in the foreground and beyond. Up to 100 gardeners were employed at one point to carry out this work. Congreve died at the age of 104 while on way to his beloved Chelsea Flower Show.

And now one of the plans for 2024 is to put a gardens museum in the Bothy House, next to the walled garden, to celebrate his 60-year project to put these beautiful gardens in the southeast of Ireland on the world map. As the second group of horticulture students settle into their course in these illustrious surroundings, it’s good to see that his knowledge and love of plants will be carried forward to a new generation of craft gardeners.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment