Saturday 24 March 2018

From acorn to oak

The Robinsons have created an award-winning garden at their Donegal Demesne

Lady Heather
Robinson with her
husband Sir Gerry
in their garden in
Donegal and below
their home at
Oakfield Park, near
Lady Heather Robinson with her husband Sir Gerry in their garden in Donegal and below their home at Oakfield Park, near Raphoe

Dermot O'Neill

When Lady Heather Robinson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she used her beautiful garden as a retreat to help her get through the hard days post-surgery and the gruelling chemo-therapy that followed.

Thankfully, she is in full remission now but her garden still provides an exceptional haven. I was there recently when invited to open a charity fundraising day in aid of the Marie Keating Foundation and the Donegal Alzheimer Society at Oakfield Park, the Donegal home Lady Heather shares with her husband Sir Gerry near Raphoe.

They moved there in 1996 and the estate now covers over 100 acres, with extensive lawns and beautiful trees.

Surprisingly, there are no oak trees, which were cut down in the 1930s. However, Gerry, an enthusiastic gardener, plans on replanting the estate with oaks.

The couple explained that gardening is one of their greatest pleasures. I was most taken with the walled garden, which was full of colour and scent.

When the couple moved in, it was just a green field with some walls surrounding part of it. Over the past few years, the couple have created their own paradise, dividing the area up with hedges and planting colourful herbaceous borders. In the centre, there's an attractive rill -- a small channel of water between paving -- through which water circulates around the entire walled garden.

There are beautiful borders planted with a wide range of old-fashioned, cottage garden-style plants, including several old roses. One that filled the air with scent was Rosa rugosa 'Rosarie de l'Hay'. An extremely easy variety to grow, it is very resistant to disease.

This old-fashioned rose is also widely available and doesn't take a huge amount of care.

Delphiniums add a real country feel with many shades of blue, from sky to rich cobalt. These are punctuated around the walled garden, helping to add continuity. The head gardener, Mark McConnellogue, spends a lot of time deadheading and staking plants to keep them looking in top condition for as long as possible, along with regular feeding.

On one side of the walled garden, the Robinsons have built a large greenhouse which is packed full of plants, including an impressive collection of large cacti and succulents, and super specimens of agaves. Sir Gerry is very proud of these, and explained how he had seen them growing en masse on a trip to Mexico, where they are used in the making of tequila.

I told him about one large cactus which has the common name of Mother-in-law's Seat, to which he responded he knew just the person for it!

Lady Heather has planted lovely old-fashioned Dianthus -- members of the carnation family -- along the edges of some of the borders. These have a sweet scent of cloves and make a marvellous flower for cutting -- perfect for small posies.

These are happy in regular, well-drained garden soil and not too difficult to grow once they get some sunshine.

Irish Independent

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