10 Best: Secret gardens
Get to know your cedars from your sycamores in Pól Ó Conghaile’s top green havens
The castle gardens
Johnstown Castle, Co Wexford
Johnstown estate is the gardening gift that keeps on giving.
Fifty acres are wrapped around a 19th-century castle and pleasure lake — a thick mix of tree and shrub species from both wild and formal settings.
Say hello to the strutting peacocks, before popping into the Irish Agricultural Museum in the old farmyard, where displays include carts, ploughs and farmhouse kitchens.
The Gothic-style castle is sadly closed to visitors, but the sunken Italian garden and ornamental displays in the walled gardens, the Devil’s Gateway, make up for it.
Details: Free. Tel: 053 917 5347; discoverireland.ie/gardens.
The movie star
Killruddery Gardens, Co Wicklow
By now, Killruddery House is due an honorary Oscar. ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ and ‘The Tudors’ are just a few of the productions to feature scenes filmed around the Earl of Meath’s home, and ‘Camelot’ is shooting here as you read. The gardens are pretty cinematic too, with highlights including twin 187m- long ponds, an 18th-century Sylvan theatre enclosed within a bay hedge, and a café set in the old ornamental dairy. Grab a bowl of soup from the kitchen, kick back and enjoy views stretching to the Little Sugar Loaf.
Details: €5/free. Tel: 087 419 8674; killruddery.com. Open weekends from April
The adult arboretum
Woodstock Gardens, Co Kilkenny
Originally developed in the High Victorian style, Woodstock Gardens are the subject of an ongoing restoration by Kilkenny County Council.
A walled garden, flower terraces and the longest monkey puzzle avenue in Europe were a good hand to start with, but now they’ve been boosted by the addition of tearooms, descriptive markers and a playground. The highlight is the fully mature arboretum.
In a country smothered by Sitka spruce, it’s enthralling to see fully grown weeping beeches, sky-high Noble firs and sprawling cedars in all their adult splendour, with lower branches worn smooth by resting bottoms.
The gardens overlook the River Nore valley, too. A stunner.
Details: Free (with a €4 parking barrier charge). Tel: 056 779 4939; woodstock.ie.
The stop to shop
Mount Usher, Co Wicklow
On a recent visit to Mount Usher, I was disappointed to find a sign saying the gardens were “sleeping”. Last Sunday they woke up. This Robinsonian gem is internationally renowned (last year, it was voted the best garden in Ireland to visit by BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’ magazine), with rusty-red Japanese maple, Himalayan magnolia and a dainty Wedding Cake Tree just some of the highlights spotted along the Vartry River.
Afterwards, lose another few hours moseying through the café, deli, boutique, interiors shop and garden centre run by Avoca in the courtyard.
Details: €7.50/€3. Tel: 0404 40205; mountushergardens.ie.
The island oasis
Garinish, Co Cork
Some of Ireland’s best gardens are also its bestkept secrets. Garinish Island is a case in point.
This tiny treasure is squirreled away in Glengarriff harbour and home to a project begun more than 80 years ago by Anna Bryce and the Edwardian garden designer Harold Peto.
Ornamental plants from all over the world are found here, thriving in a strangely subtropical micro-climate. Garinish re-opens on April 1, and is reached by ferry (€12/€10) from Glengarriff.
There is a self-guided trail and coffee shop, and the rhododendrons and azaleas should be at their best in May and June.
Details: €4/€2. Tel: 027 63040; heritageireland.ie.
The yin and yang
Irish National Stud, Co Kildare
Yes, the Irish National Stud trades on horses. But it’s also home to two very different gardens.
The ornate Japanese Gardens trace the journey of life with a series of 20 stops (the “tunnel of ignorance”, the “hill of ambition” etc) and Zen-like curiosities including rocks from Mount Vesuvius and 200-year-old bonsai trees.
If you prefer plants that aren’t manicured to the millimetre, head for the space dedicated to St Fiachra, the patron saint of Irish gardeners, nearby. The lakes, rocks and monastic beehive huts in the four-acre nature enclosure echo the wild Irish landscape.
Details: €11/€6. Tel: 045 521251; irish-national-stud.ie.
The city slicker
Farmleigh, Co Dublin
As a taxpayer, you own the pleasure grounds at Farmleigh. So why not pay them a visit? The house, bought from the Guinness family for €29.2 million, is closed until St Patrick’s Day, but the estate is open year-round.
Features of the Victorian and Edwardian gardens include a fountain lawn, an apple orchard, a walled garden and a Dutchstyle sunken garden dating from 1907 and featuring three descending brick terraces leading to a pool and ornate marble fountain. Afterwards, slake your stroller’s appetite at the Boathouse Café. It’s all in the Phoenix Park.
Details: Free. Tel: 01-815 5900; farmleigh.ie.
The garden trail
Think of green-fingered gems in Ireland, and southerly counties generally come to mind. Donegal has a thing to say about that, however. “A modest garden contains, for those who know how to look and wait, more instruction than a library,” is the quote by Henri Frederic Amiel on the Donegal Garden Trail website, ushering visitors into escapes such as Glenveagh National Park to the kitchen gardens of Rathmullan House.
After, you can eat too, with dishes such as Bavarois of garden beetroot with smoked eel and garden chard in Batt’s Bar.
Details: Tel: 074 915 8188; rathmullanhouse.com; donegal gardentrail.com.
The hallowed turf
Kylemore Abbey, Co Galway
Kylemore Abbey is arguably the most iconic sight in Irish tourism. But did you know that one of the finest walled gardens in Ireland is found here too? The six acres were created by Mitchell Henry as the abbey was being built from 1867, and come divided into distinct kitchen and flower gardens full of whiffy herbs and ornamental beds. But further surprises await.
This is the only Irish garden built in a bog. It uses original Victorian plant species.
The Benedictine community tending the gardens use its vegetables and herbs for meals in the Abbey, too.
Details: €9/€7. Tel: 095 52000; kylemoreabbeytourism.ie.
The daffodil day trip
Altamont Gardens, Co Carlow
Carlow’s garden trail has grown into one of the best in Ireland, and Altamont is its flagship. Restored from a dilapidated state by the late Corona North, today’s OPW-run affair makes for a vibrant visit in spring.
The spring snowdrops are a highlight, but Altamont is also home to super-sinewy yews, a romantic, lily-spotted lake and some sweet riverside walks. Any day now, their daffs will be popping up , there’s a surprising windowed-end wall on the shadowy ‘Dark Walk’, and you can buy plants from the sales area next door.
Details: Free. Tel: 059 915 9444; altamontgarden.com.