I have been fortunate enough to visit Ireland a few times now and each time discover more of the world’s great gardens; places you just have to check out if you make it to the Emerald Isle. I would like to share with you three of the best.
One of the most remarkable gardens you are ever likely to visit is called Seaforde Gardens. Seaforde Gardens is a demesne, a piece of land situated alongside a 400-year-old manor in County Down about an hour from Belfast. The garden features a tropical butterfly house and a simply stunning walled garden, along with a truly remarkable collection of trees.
The 400-year-old walls must have seen some amazing things over time. These gardens were all about high productivity in the day and their produce was in part the reason the walls existed, as it was valuable and at risk of being pilfered. The walls also protected the garden from the strong breezes by creating a microclimate. Today, the soil is rich with manure and as productive as it would have been back then. Originally, the southern part of the garden was a flower garden. Adding flowers to the household was considered a luxury and sign of affluence amongst the upper class society.
There are many plants here that would be considered tender in Ireland’s climate, such as a southern Australian icon, Dicksonia antarctica, the man tree fern, but are growing here. These are placed with a variety of rare plants collected in the Far East in a tradition the Irish aristocracy was famous for; collecting rare and unusual plants from the farthest reaches of the globe and taking advantage of this part of the country’s mild climate.
The heart of the garden is a 40-year-old feature maze created using hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) hedges. If you love a good puzzle, then this design provides a confusing, intricate network of winding pathways; specifically with one or more blind alleys challenging you to find the right way out.
Another absolute highlight of this garden is the tropical butterfly house. This contains hundreds of free-flying exotic butterflies, as well as parrots, reptiles and other exotic creatures, even some weird bugs. It’s certainly not a historic relic like the gardens, but it is a highlight.
If you happen to find yourself in Northern Ireland between April and October, add this next stunning attraction to your itinerary. Glenarm Castle is one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens and is an absolute pleasure to explore. The estate was once a deer park and is now an organic farm producing some of Ireland’s best organic beef and lamb. The Glenarm River is a popular fishing spot and winds through the farm’s 1,000 acres.
There are many attractions here to discover, including some terrific statues and artworks designed by Angela Sykes, such as the Madonna and Child interpretation she finished when she was just 16 years old.
The first castle to be built on this site was constructed in 1260 by a Scottish settler, but it’s been home to the McDonnell family for 600 years and they still own the estate. The walled garden was a necessity back when it was created to supply the family with fresh fruit and vegetables and keep it safe from thieves. The current walls were built in the 17th century but there’s evidence there was a similar walled garden there before.
Today the garden is absolutely beautiful and the McDonnell family still live in the castle, making it an absolute privilege to walk through these stunning grounds. The garden was once overflowing with fruit such as apple, quince and pear and a wide array of vegetables, but today is an ornamental garden. The yew hedge is simply brilliant. Planted in 1820, it circles the herb garden providing a brilliant symmetry and balance to the landscape. The herb garden is wonderfully fragrant and the four capitols had origins from the Earl Bishop’s palace in County Derry.
The only remaining productive food supply garden is the kitchen garden, which still provides the family with organically-grown fruit and vegetables. The vegies looked amazing and it must be a chef’s paradise to be able to source produce just 10 metres from the kitchen.
The glasshouse here allowed the family to enjoy exotic fruits such as nectarines, apricots and grapes and provided a chance to propagate early season vegetables and herbs. I love espaliered trees and the espaliered ‘Discovery’ apples that line the top wall of the garden provide a highly ornamental effect in the summer and into autumn, when their foliage starts colouring up just before harvest.
The most exciting place in the garden is the ‘hot border’, a brilliantly designed herbaceous border garden featuring a wide range of herbaceous plants that thrive in summer but die down and rest in winter. The ‘hot’ refers to the flower colour selection here of yellow, orange and red, such as tulips and dahlias.
Mount Stewart Gardens
I shouldn’t say this because I’m measuring in fractions, but my favourite Irish garden would have to be Mount Stewart Gardens. Here is substantial garden covering almost 100 acres that is part of the grounds of Mount Stewart House. It has recently reopened after having undergone a massive restoration. A huge amount of time and money has been spent to bring back the elegance and charm of the house when it was home of the 7th Marchioness of Londonderry, Lady Edith, in the early 19th century. The neo-classical residence that exists today is a result of the family’s success as linen manufacturers and marrying later generations to other wealthy members of society.
The Stewart family has owned Mount Stewart Gardens since 1744 and started an arboretum initially using plants collected world-wide. In the day, sponsoring one of the great botanical plant hunters was something nobility did to further society. The garden features collections of plants from the far reaches of the globe, including Australia and New Zealand. Enormous Tasmanian blue gums frame the garden and the cabbage trees, or Cordylines, are enormous and the biggest I’ve seen outside of their homeland New Zealand. There are so many plant features here, but the fuchsia standards provide a hint at the moderate climate the garden experiences.
The early 20th Century saw an intensive garden development begin where they added the shamrock garden, a classic Irish garden, and the sunken garden with its stunning special design. Intensive plantings were added soon after. They increased the size of the lake using the labour of returned service men from World War I and later added a Spanish garden with a small hut. The Italian garden, the dodo terrace, the menagerie, the fountain pool, walks in the lily wood and the rest of the estate followed. As you can imagine, the investment must have been huge – and then there was the maintenance.
The family’s wealth, or at least income, wasn’t what it originally was by the mid 20th century and they gave up the gardens in 1957 to the National Trust. This was done with the understanding they could remain living in the residence until the end of the family line. In 1977, Lady Mairi Bury gave the house to the National Trust and they operate the property under the name Mount Stewart House, Garden and Temple of the Winds. Lady Mairi Bury was the last Londonderry family member to live at Mount Stewart, and the last member of this Anglo-Irish family to live in Ireland when she died at Mount Stewart on 18 November 2009, at the age of 88.
The winter of 2014 was one of the coldest the region had experienced and the gardens suffered significant frost damage. Unfortunately, some of the more fragile plants died and had to be removed and replaced with hardier species.
This is a place you just have to come and experience for yourself, as it is widely considered one of the very best garden and historical house experiences you can have in Ireland. Just 30 minutes out of Belfast, it’s easy access too, making it a terrific day trip. There’s a coffee shop and great gift shop for those looking for something uniquely North Irish.
Check out Mount Stewart House and garden on The Garden Gurus here.
About the Author – Trevor Cochrane
Trevor is a born-and-bred proud West Australian who grew up on a dairy farm in Mundijong, just outside of Perth, WA. He launched the media company Guru Productions in 2002 that has since produced over 750 episodes of television telecast on Channel 9 nationally and is now seen in over 100 countries across the globe in 14 different languages. In the years since creating The Garden Gurus he has filmed and produced over 50 hours of international travel shows, food and wine programs, local WA food program Our State on a Plate and the Destination WA travel series. All Guru Productions projects appear on Channel 9 and WIN Television, as well as nationally on the popular digital TV channel 9 Life. Trevor’s passion for gardening has seen him write four books and regular columns for the The Sunday Times and The West Australian Newspaper.