Friday 23 March 2018

A tour of third best garden in the world

Fergus Dunne, Derek Whelan, Ken Griffiths, Dermot Leacy, Michael Byrne (Head Gardener), Alex Slazenger who keep The Powerscourt Gardens in pristine condition.
Fergus Dunne, Derek Whelan, Ken Griffiths, Dermot Leacy, Michael Byrne (Head Gardener), Alex Slazenger who keep The Powerscourt Gardens in pristine condition.

I've visited the magnificent Powerscourt Gardens dozens of times, if not more, since childhood, but never with the fountain of knowledge that is head gardener Michael Byrne giving the tour.

That honour is usually reserved for horticulturists and other experts in the field, as well as, naturally, the occasional world leader.

A matter of days before we met, Michael had brought President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina around the grounds.

'I wouldn't have any interest in politics or anything like that, but it turned out we had so much in common,' said Michael, adding that the President was extremely interested in the trees, was very relaxed and stayed more than two hours rather than the allocated one.

He also happily chatted to and shook hands with other visitors to the gardens, even congratulating a happy couple on their engagement, however, he laughingly told people, 'I don't do selfies!'

Powerscourt has recently been named the third best garden in the world by National Geographic, an accolade they only found out about when it was brought to their attention by a visiting American tourist.

The judges came and went without anyone knowing a thing about it until the list was published.

A native of Blackrock in County Louth, Michael is more or less self taught but his knowledge and passion for his art would rival that of any other horticulturist.

In a previous life he worked in finance, but the great outdoors claimed him soon after the start of that particular career.

A team of just five people, the rest of them from the area, manage the grounds, and Michael gives his staff due credit for their trojan work all year round.

'There's nothing else of this scale and grandeur in Ireland,' said Michael, who is as proud of Powerscourt, as he should be.

As well as being head gardener, he acts as a some-time tour guide, historian and ambassador for the facility. Visitors stopped him occasionally as we made our way around the different gardens, to ask questions or simply compliment him. 'It's a real credit to you,' said one visitor from England.

Some of the trees there are 300 years old, most of them around 100 years old, and some brand new – like the Cedar of Lebanon planted by President Higgins.

One of them, planted by the Slazenger family, is exactly the same age as me, almost to the day. It's a fair bit taller though it has to be said.

While I didn't catch the name of the tree planted in the 1960s by style icon Jackie O, I had to take a star-struck snap with my phone and also noted that back then she was still known as 'Mrs. John F. Kennedy.'

While he picked out 'favourites' at every turn, some of the trees Michael pointed out included the Californian Redwoods, Japanese Red Cedar, and the multi-stemmed Devil's Horn Cedar.

Many of them come with historical importance, some because of who planted them – the Prince of Wales in 1911, Princess Margaret, Mary Robinson, The Slazenger Family – and others because of their country of origin, rarity or healing properties.

The different scents drifting across the grounds are powerful, from eucalyptus to rose.

Michael is keen to point out that Powerscourt is not state-funded, yet still managed to rival the likes of Kew Gardens and Château de Versailles in France, the two top gardens in the world.

The team is small and there is always something to be done. Much like the reporter who can no longer simply read a newspaper, Michael can't cast an eye over this jewel in Wicklow's crown without figuring out what has to be tackled next.

He lives on-site, and while it's a 'paradise,' the remit of the five men is massive, including the waterfall and golf club and parking areas, and very much a labour of love, with early mornings, late evenings and long winters.

As we walk, he picks up tiny bits of litter here and there and pulls weeds if he spots them. Mind you, some of the flowering weeds are as pretty as any legitimate resident of the beds.

The different gardens are each breathtaking in their own way. From the formality of the Italian gardens and English rose gardens, to the Japanese and walled gardens, and within the walled the renowned herbaceous border with 1,000 varieties of flowers and shrubs.

'It's a photographer's dream,' said Michael of this particular feature, adding that it's important for the vista to have the larger plants at the back with the flowers cascading down towards the front of the display.

This artistic attention to detail is everywhere, not least in the thousands of fragrant rose blooms throughout the grounds, not to mention the gates, sculptures and water features each one a thing of beauty.

One thing neither the team nor the Viscounts can take credit for is the location. On top of everything else, Powerscourt enjoys spectacular views of the Wicklow Hills.

'You can't tell where the gardens end and the landscape begins,' said Michael, who said he has visited hundreds of gardens and never seen anything like it.

The seeds of this great location were sewn back in the 18th and 19th centuries with the Wingfield family, the Viscounts of Powerscourt and their work. Today it's thanks to the owners the Slazenger family that it's still thriving and accessible to the public as well as the otters, foxes, badgers and other wildlife sharing the gardens.

Meanwhile, the 'Spitting Man,' in the formal Italian garden stands sentry, with the motto 'Horas non numero nisi serena.'

I only mark the sunshine hours.

Bray People