Recently, I had the opportunity to visit some of the great gardens of Ireland as a guest of Tourism Ireland. It was both eye-opening and confirming of many notions that I had of the Emerald Isle as I had never been there before.
To say that Ireland is green is an understatement. But then, as my travelling companion and fellow gardener, Denis Flanagan, says, this is a country that is full of understatements. From the moment that we arrived in Dublin, one rainy Monday early this fall, we were impressed by the demeanour of the people, apologizing for the wet weather every step of the way, as if they had some control over it. When we arrived at our expected location to tour a garden, the head gardener inevitably apologized for the state of the grounds: “A month ago things looked so much better,” said Sean Connolly of Mount Usher Tree Trail in County Wicklow. The predominant sentiment sounded very Canadian, to be truthful. We spent much of the week apologizing to each other.
Our first stop was the home and garden of the great Irish gardener Helen Dillon. Some people have suggested that Helen Dillon is the ‘Mark Cullen’ of Irish gardening. If there is even a morsel of truth to that statement, it is a very generous compliment to me. Helen is the preeminent garden designer, writer, and broadcaster in the country. She lives a few minutes from the heart of Dublin on an old street featuring three-story, historic stone homes. The approach to Helen's home set us up for four hours of enchantment and adventure. Her front yard is dominated by a grove of carefully placed mature white birch creating a cathedral-like environment. It makes you ‘hush up’ as you approach the door, with expectations that something big is on the other side.
Once indoors, we were lead directly to the large sitting room at the back of the home where large, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal an extraordinary garden of great proportion.
The design of Helen's garden is a colourful combination of an Italian theme featuring garden statues, a monstrous arbour in the back-ground with a long series of water ponds and water falls that are set in a perfectly rectangular stone design. The water features are framed by a blowsy, intense combination of dahlias, flowering perennials, and shrubs much like an English country flower border.
Helen's impressive garden is matched by her equally powerful and enthusiastic personality. She speaks with such passion about Irish gardens that she barely takes a breath – I didn’t want to interrupt her out of fear that I might miss something important. Like the answer to my burning question about what Irish gardeners can teach Canadians (more on that later).
Helen opens her garden to the public for seven months of the year (March through September) and prefers that you book your viewing time ahead.
Details at www.dillongarden.com
Mount Usher Gardens
The sign at the road says it all: "Mount Usher, voted Best Garden to Visit in Ireland. BBC Gardeners World.” Driving up to the main entrance the moniker seemed somehow misplaced as the parking lot and entrance is very modest. I found myself wondering why this particular garden had been recommended to us. Once we passed through the garden gate, however, a whole new world was revealed. Here we found over 12 ‘champion’ trees – ear-marked for their size and cultural significance in a country where cultivating trees is an obsession. Each of these trees is the biggest and most significant of its kind in the country. For each tree species there is only one tree in Ireland that can attain the ‘champion’ designation. Each was ‘photo worthy’ and amazing in its own right.
The 22-acre garden features an azalea walk, 30-foot rhododendrons, 2,200 mature trees and shrubs, an extensive rock garden and a typical English country perennial border, which, as Sean says, “Tourists have come to expect in a show garden.” I recommend Mount Usher to anyone who enjoys Irish history (the garden was established over 150 years ago), a quiet country setting (just a few blocks from a busy urban area), and shopping. They have created a ‘street’ of shops that line the walk on your way into the garden from the parking lot. Plus you will find the obligatory ‘café’ that all self-respecting public gardens in this country maintain. For details go to http://www.mountushergardens.ie/
In terms of the eternal question that I like to ask while exploring gardens abroad, “What can Canadian gardeners learn from the Irish?” I will summarize the answer this way based on the many experienced Irish gardeners that I met while visiting.
Honour the past: preserve and maintain the symbols and artefacts that helped to shape our culture over the years and place those reminders in places of honour and prevalence.
Be generous, courageous, and modest in your use of plants as permanent celebrations of life.
Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.