When it all gets too much, retreat is the answer. And while Ireland’s wild landscapes and winding rivers are the perfect salve to stress, the island’s centuries-old walled gardens provide a refuge of a different sort.
Hidden within chunky stone walls on vast estates, these lush gardens are survivors of the Big House era, which flourished from the early 1800s right up until the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, these tall walls have a strong aesthetic value to passing garden lovers. But they still retain their original and very valuable function: to raise the temperature of the garden and provide a more protective environment for the plants within.
Of the hundreds that still exist today, many have been painstakingly and lovingly restored. Their crumbling walls skillfully rebuilt and re-pointed; their old glasshouses repaired or reinstated; their pebble paths uncovered; their flower borders expertly replanted.
In short, a keen gardener’s eye candy in action, so here are few of my favorites…
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You could never start a conversation about Ireland’s great walled gardens without mentioning the magnificent six-acre walled Victorian garden of Kylemore Abbey in County Galway. Restored to its former glory in the late 1990s, it’s famed for its magnificently isolated location and the rugged beauty of the surrounding Connemara landscape.
The garden is also governed by a strict rule: every variety of plant growing within its walls must be one that was cultivated by Victorian gardeners. Even the potatoes grown in raised “lazy beds” by head gardener Anya Gohlke are varieties that were typical of the period, such as Epicure and Langworthy.
Rooms to a view
The walled garden of Glenarm Castle in County Antrim has been in the process of restoration for the last decade. Designed as a series of interlinking rooms, it features a variety of fruit and flower gardens; a fragrant herb garden; a handsome kitchen garden; a series of formal water rills, ponds, cascades and fountains; and even a very contemporary, spiral-shaped landform.
It’s also home to what is possibly the most perfectly manicured stretch of lawn on the whole island, all meticulously maintained by head gardener James Wharry and his brother Billy.
Restoration to former glory
South of Glenarm, in the neighboring county of Down, you’ll find the historic walled garden of the National Trust-managed property Rowallane, which was created in the 1860s by Reverend John Moore. There are spectacular splashes of herbaceous plants, shrubs and bulbs and the grand house was one-time home of noted 20th-century plantsman, Hugh Armytage Moore.
Meanwhile, in the heart of Dublin city is the Phoenix Park’s Ashtown Visitor’s Centre, where you’ll discover a boldly beautiful and impeccably maintained Victorian walled garden, which has also been under restoration for the past number of years.
Maintained by Office of Public Works, Ashtown's two-and-a-half acres contain a vast double herbaceous border and a series of formal beds that are used to grow a rich variety of fruit, cutting flowers and vegetables, while its walls are trained with plum, cherry and pear trees.
Grand houses and castles
In the rural midlands of County Carlow, you’ll find a walled garden hidden within the magical Altamont. This is where the gifted and knowledgeable young nurseryman Robert Miller has created a series of intricately planted herbaceous borders.
Over in nearby County Waterford, take a look at the fairytale turrets in the historic walled garden of Lismore Castle, which has been in the private ownership of the Devonshire family for generations.
A grand old lady of the horticultural world, much of the present garden’s layout, as well as the venerable glasshouse, is the work of Sir Joseph Paxton, the eminent Victorian architect, engineer and gardener.
Slipping into a secret walled garden is like entering another world – a Victorian fantasy rich with surprises. It’s nature tamed. And, who knows, it may well inspire you to produce horticultural gems at home, even on a far smaller scale.
Fionnuala Fallon's book, From the Ground Up: How Ireland is Growing its Own, charting her garden journeys in Ireland, from kitchen gardens to city gems, is available now.