Sunday 21 December 2014

Gardening Leave: a summer guide to Ireland's gardens

Fragrant and romantic, Ireland is blessed with myriad magical gardens, and now is the perfect time to experience them.

Tanya Sweeney

Published 17/07/2014 | 13:15

Garnish Island
Powerscourt estate

The sun is out (for now), the evenings are balmy, and Ireland's gardens are in full bloom. No better time, then, to take a romantic summer break at home. Whether you're looking for the backdrop to a magical proposal, or just want to stop and smell the roses, there's no shortage of places in Ireland to show your love (and show it off).

In South County Dublin, the Airfield Estate in Dundrum is a perfect antidote to an afternoon of shopping (airfield.ie, Overend Way, Dundrum, Dublin 14, Tel 01 969 6666). Its urban farm has just reopened its doors after an €11m revamp, and within Airfield's elegant walled garden lies a charming new tea garden. Petting baby animals and a cuppa ... what's not to like?

A walk around the Italian Gardens at the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry is the perfect summer afternoon. They don't call it the Garden of Ireland for nothing; cast your eye towards the Sugar Loaf Mountain beyond Powerscourt Gardens and enjoy one of the best views in Ireland. See powerscourt.ie for further details.

The nearby Mount Usher Gardens in Ashford, Co Wicklow are laid out along the banks of the River Vartry, and it is a wonderland for those who love trees, shrubs and flowers. And, after all the green-fingered action, recharge at the ever-popular Avoca Garden Café. See mountushergardens.ie.

The Festina Lenta (translation: 'Hasten Slowly') Gardens in Bray are perhaps a little less well-known, though it's a true feast for the eyes. It's one of the few walled gardens in Ireland that is preserved just as it was in the late Victorian period. There, you'll also find an allotment and equestrian centre, where it's possible to avail of pony camps and private horseriding lessons. See festinalente.com, Old Connaught Avenue, Bray, Tel: 01 272 0704.

And, proving that Wicklow really does boast an embarrassment of blooming riches, the National Garden Exhibition Centre is in nearby Kilquade. Take a walk though 20 separate gardens designed by the country's best-known landscapers and designers, with more than 15,000 plants and flowers on display. See gardenworld.ie, Tel: 01 281 9890,

Those with a nose for the exotic should make their way to Bantry Bay in Cork, where Garnish Island is in full bloom. Accessed by boat from the pier in Glengarriff, the island's 15-hectare garden boasts a clock tower, Greek-style temple and even a Martello tower. Thanks to the island's own micro-climate, rhododendrons and exotic azaleas reach a dazzling crescendo in June, while heathers steal the show in the autumn. Glengariff also boasts Bamboo Park – 13 acres of different types of bamboo, palms, tree ferns and other tropical plants – as well as a colony of harbour seals. See garnishisland.com.

Elsewhere in balmy West Cork, the endlessly romantic Drishane House in Skibbereen is open on selected dates during the summer. The estate has paths through 18 acres of informal woodlands and gardens with rare plants (think tulip trees and Ginko). See drishane.com, Tel: 028 26126

In Clonakilty, the Lisselan Gardens is spread over 30 acres and laid out in Robinsonian style of the early 1850s. The gardens are replete with eye-catching features, from an azalea garden and rockery to a Japanese maple tree and several garden statues. Meanwhile, the walled gardens there grow logan berries, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries. See lisselan.com, Tel: 023 883 3249)

In nearby Dunmanway, the Aultaghreagh Cottage Garden is a real feast for the eyes. The picture perfect gardens, owned by Christine and Les Wilson, have vivid flowers laid out in hot and cold colours with a secret walled garden hidden inside. The couple bought the old cottage and acre in 1997 when it was just a field, and have created and tended to the garden since then. This labour of love is definitely worth catching. See aultaghreaghcottagegarden.com, Tel: 023 885 5307).

Several Irish hotels are worth checking into not just for the hospitality, but for their stunning gardens, too. Hunters Hotel in Rathnew, Wicklow (Newrath Bridge, Rathnew, Tel: 0404 40106, hunters.ie) is every inch the country house hotel. Nestled within two acres of award-winning gardens right on the banks of the River Vartry, Hunters offers perfect escapism.

You'll find no shortage of beautiful sights, with Mount Usher, Powerscourt, Russborough and Avoca all nearby.

Kerry has no shortage of breathtaking scenery either, but the beautiful lakeside Ard na Sidhe Country House on the shores of Caragh Lake in Killorglin (ardnasidhe.com, Tel: 066 976 9105) takes some beating. The hotel is an intimate medieval-style house set amid 32 acres of hidden pathways and secret glades, with a spectacular rock garden as its central feature.

Anyone looking to get their hands a little dirty should make their way to Connemara in Galway, where Cashel House (cashel-house-hotel.com, Tel: 095 31001) offers gardening packages for guests. Ciaran Burke from the 'Garden School' teaches guests how to grow plants and vegetables and prune shrubs; guests even get to take home plants from the Cashel House's stunning gardens.

Stretching across Meath and Louth the Boyne Valley Garden Trail is less than an hour's drive from Dublin (boynevalleygardentrail.com). On the richly historic walkabout, there are 11 different gardens to explore, including the rose garden at Hamwood House, the octagonal garden at the Battle of the Boyne Visitor's Centre and the Sonairte Eco-centre and gardens. Other trail members include Killineer House and Gardens in Drogheda and the beautiful 19th-Century cottage garden at poet Francis Ledgewidge's Museum in Slane.

Over in Carlow, you'll find one of Ireland's best-developed garden trails with a delight for every season. On the Carlow Garden Trail (carlowgardentrail.com, Tel: 059 9130411) there are 16 different gardening attractions including the award-winning Arboretum Garden Centre in Leighlinbridge (arboretum.com, Tel: 059 972 1558), which features Rachel's Garden Cafe.

Elsewhere on the trail, Duckett's Grove, a 19th-Century gothic revival house, has two walled gardens. The Upper Walled Garden, hedged with boxwood, is planted with historical varieties of shrub roses, a collection of Chinese and Japanese peonies, a great variety of hardy and tender perennials and choice flowering shrubs.

The highpoint of the Carlow gardening calendar is the Carlow Garden Festival (July 25-August 4t), which is manna from heaven for serious gardening types. Expect a packed programme, including Carol Klein of BBC 'Gardeners' World', famous planter June Blake and Matthew Jebb (director of the National Botanic Gardens), as well as a number of walks, talks and workshops.

For more information on Ireland's garden-themed escapes, log onto discoverireland.ie.

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