England and Ireland – Gardens Galore

Written by Rebecca Finneran | Horticulturist | Michigan State University | Extension, Kent County.

Don’t think for a minute that I can tell you everything I want to tell you about my garden travels over the big pond this summer. Just looking back at the slides takes my breath away. Ireland’s enchanting green countryside is home to dozens of historic estates with castles, many of which have gently intriguing gardens. England on the other hand, is home to a bazillion historic places that drip with flowers and foliage arranged in many different styles. Three gardens come to mind that made our whole tour group gasp with delight, Powerscourt, County Wicklow, Ireland, Wisley, The Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden, Sussex England, and Sissinghurst, a National Trust Garden in County Kent.

The Irish by far are more laid back in their garden style than the English. Garden’s ramble on and never seem to run out of space. Powerscourt is a fine example of the pleasure the Irish take in combining formality with the grandeur of the Irish countryside. The castle was built around 1300 and was in the possession of the Poer (Power) family where it gets its name. Many notable Irish families held the property such as the O’Tooles, FitzGeralds, and the Earls of Kildare. The owner who most influenced the grounds surrounding the castle was Richard Wingfield, who’s descendants remained at Powerscourt for over 350 years. In the late 1600’s a magnificent mansion was built around the shell of the earlier castle and is what exists today. Although the garden was originally laid out by a German-born architect, additions and alterations continued on for nearly a century.

In the early 1800’s Powerscourt became home to a wonderful collection of trees. The collection was coined the owner’s “American Garden” as it contains many North American specimens. I felt right at home (and down-right smart) with the many beautiful conifers that I recognized.

In the original garden design, Powerscourt designers laid out a series of terraces that complimented the natural terrain of the land. The terraces are framed by level berms and formal stonework. In the center, they become a tapestry of crisp annual beds and glorious roses.

The most memorable part of Powerscourt for me (besides the incredible lunch I ate) was the walled garden. This was the closest thing to what I had imagined would be the typical English mixed border, only better! The tone is set as you enter the garden through massive iron gates with golden leaves embedded into the design. Dating back to 1740, the walled garden is the oldest garden feature and the longest herbaceous border in Ireland. Today it is noted for the ever-changing displays of perennials and creative shrubs along it’s expanse of walkway.

I had been warned by my colleagues that Wisley would be one of the finest gardens public or private, I would ever visit and it was. Wisley’s plant collections alone would rank them as one of the top gardens in the world but what I saw at Wisley was wonderful creativity, contemporary plant combinations (not as stuffy as some in England) and careful attention to enrichment for a gardener’s mind. It is truly a source of garden inspiration.

Since the editors of this paper have allowed a finite amount of space for this article, I will have to focus on just my favorite garden areas at Wisley. I gravitated right away to the home demonstration gardens, which were a wonderful display of how-to’s for budding gardeners. A mouth-watering array of over 50 vegetables is displayed encompassing a range of growing situations including raised beds and containers. The goal is to show how small spaces can be used to grow healthy produce for families in urban settings.

The rock garden and alpine Meadow were an inspiration. Garden designers took advantage of a north-facing hillside to create this garden which flows gently into a large pond. My colleagues found ourselves speaking Nemo’s “whale” to the koi (big goldfish) and of course they understood (guess you had to be there.) In my opinion, most rock gardens run out of gas in mid-summer but this one had a wonderful blend of shrubs, perennials and grasses to carry interest throughout the growing season.

Created with the needs of the average home gardener in mind, the “model” gardens are a catalog of practical design ideas. There are ten gardens that typify an English home garden plot. Designers range from professional to Wisley’s staff and students. They feature year-round enjoyment as many have creative or colorful arches, pergolas and sculpture. Some of these gardens were completed within the last five years and already have become very popular with visitors.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Sissinghurst epitomizes what English gardens are all about. It occupies an ancient site and the building remains tell a story of days gone by. On this site there once stood a moated manor house belonging to a family called de Saxenhurst. The only remains of this building dating back to the middle ages is the moat. The Elizabethan home on the property today was built by the Baker family during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The remains of the once glorious structure succumbed to disrepair after the civil war and was used by the British government for French prisoners-of-war. The inmates and guards essentially demolished two thirds of the building. In 1930 the famed Vita Sackville-West fell in love with Sissinghurst who immediately purchased and started reconditioning it.

The Gardens evolved somewhat later but essentially Vita and her Husband Harold both had a love for things green. With Harold’s building know-how and classic style, several walls were reconstructed and interesting views were created that allowed as he put it “a combination of expectation and surprise.” (Sounds like my garden-I expect to see lilies but am surprised when the deer eat them!)

Vita filled the spaces Harold created with a vast array of plants creating thematic spaces throughout. The garden rooms contain a white garden, cottage garden, lime walk, moat walk and “nuttery”, herb garden and more.

The center of the original estate held a double tower with flat roof between the two columns. It was here that Vita created her lovely gardens and did a fair amount of writing as well. The tower provides guests with an exquisite view over all the garden rooms below. I wish that all gardens had this type of vantage-point. From the ground below, one can become lost easily because of the huge plant lined allees, hedges and walls in the garden.

As it is many times in England, it was pouring down rain during the brief time we were at Sissinghurst. It seemed to me that the rain only better emphasized the grandeur of the spaces and colors. I was impressed with the vivid colors and interesting plant combinations.

Sissinghurst belongs to the National Trust as do many famous British gardens. If you have a chance to visit, I suggest you explore the website dedicated to the National Trust-UK as you will probably find a garden nearby anywhere you go.

Something we all found hilarious proved that old saying, one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower (well-something like that.) American gardeners go to great lengths to grow the butterfly bush (buddleia) while this plant can be found in England and Ireland squeaking out of every eaves trough and vacant lot in town!

If your are heading across the big pond in the future or even if you’re not, I suggest you get on line and search some of these websites out. The gardens are simply amazing! Hope you get to see it for real sometime.

If You Go…
On a quest to see great gardens of England and Ireland, my journey took me to some great gardens and what garden tourists would call “other stuff.” One such pit stop was the sheep herding demonstration at the Kells Sheep Centre in Kerry, Ireland. At first I was b-a-a-alking at attending, thinking, “Oh boy, it will be just another euro-grabbin,’ commercial tourist attraction,” but was way out to pasture in my thinking.

Kells Sheep Centre owner and dog trainer, Brenden Ferris has won awards from shepherding competitions all over Ireland. On an island that has twice as many sheep as humans (about 7 million), that are raised on farms that are hundreds of green, hilly acres, it became apparent why the dogs are so useful.

Ferris explained that each dog has a unique set of whistle commands that the other dogs will not respond to and each whistle command is coupled with a voice command for the dogs when they are within earshot. Therefore, each dog has about twenty or so commands they have to learn. Two dogs can move large numbers of sheep over wide areas all day long. Well-paired dogs can separate sheep by age, markings and sex. One dog can bring the desired sheep quietly and slowly towards the shepherd while the other dog moves the unwanted ones back to the mountains. It was truly fascinating! Ferris has 21 breeds on display at the centre including the famous but rare Jacobean variety (Jacob’s Sheep) that was written about in the Bible. Jacobean wool is prized by people who do hand-spinning, as the wool is extremely soft and a pleasant color. My favorites were the long, curly-haired guys called the Lincoln longwools.

Everything we learned about agriculture in Ireland is true here. Farmers have to farm three times as many acres just to squeak by. A whole family could have supported themselves on a two hundred-acre farm but are now are being pushed up to a thousand acres. Ferris also explained that Irish wool once was a major source of income for the farmers, but with synthetic fibers taking the forefront in the mall, it now costs more to shear the sheep than they are paid for the wool. Think about that this winter and buy more wool!

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