A Reflection on The Carlow Garden Festival 2015

It was a week of garden celebration and enjoyment, of gardening experts, gardening celebrities and enthusiastic followers travelling and gathering and sharing in plants and gardens. This was the Carlow Garden Festival, a week crammed full of events, talks, guided walks and garden visits which seems to grow and grow in its success year on year with greater and greater numbers attending.

The house at Altamont Gardens where conservation work has begun and the fabric of the house has been safeguarded.
The house at Altamont Gardens where conservation work has begun and the fabric of the house has been safeguarded.

It was impossible to be everywhere, to attend all events, so I was forced to pick and choose the occasions where I might attend and I choose very well. No doubt, I could have enjoyed other events also but I cannot imagine I would have enjoyed them any the more.

Altamont Gardens never fails to attract nor to satisfy; it has always been the most delightful garden, a quintessentially Irish garden fitting into its surroundings so perfectly comfortably that one can stroll from garden to ice-age glen, to river bank without feeling the jar of change and on to pasture land and back to lake and find all lie so happily together, so perfectly at ease.

The double herbaceous borders in the walled garden at Altamont
The double herbaceous borders in the walled garden at Altamont

A visit to Altamont invariably brings sad thoughts to mind. I recall the days of Mrs. Corona North, her great love for her garden and her great struggles with the financial demands of maintaining both it and the house and that it is only now after she has passed it into the hands of the state that the gardens are once again thriving and looking as she has always wished them to be. The Office of Public Works with Paul Cutler, the Head Gardener, who worked with Mrs. North for many years, has performed that extraordinarily difficult task of taking on a person’s garden and continuing to maintain and develop it in a style and manner which is very much that of Mrs. North. It is sad that it was only in her death and in her passing on her garden that her vision was maintained but I’m sure she would be delighted to see it now. It is very heartening to see the gardens continue to develop – as they must for no garden can stand still – and to witness such developments as the snowdrop collection and the very successful Snowdrop Week, a wonderful example of how a garden may progress while still remaining loyal to the vision of its creator . The double herbaceous borders developed by Assumpta Broomfield have matured very well and are a great attraction to visitors while the garden centre developed by Robert Millar, has become one of the best places to visit for interesting and top-quality plants.

The central axis of the garden at Altamont, edged with box hedging and filled with roses.
The central axis of the garden at Altamont, edged with box hedging and filled with roses.
The iconic yew arches on the central axis at Altamont Gardens
The iconic yew arches on the central axis at Altamont Gardens

Of the three events that I attended during the Carlow Garden Festival, two of them were at Altamont which I like to imagine was because I was attracted more by the garden than by the various gardening “personalities” who were providing similar guided walks in other gardens. The cult of the personality is strong, very strong and while it is something I view with a certain degree of distain it must, in fairness, be credited with attracting the large numbers to so many of the events of this past week and to giving a big boost to garden related business in the Carlow area.

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The lake at Altamont

Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, and Roy Lancaster, plantsman and author, both conducted walks of the gardens at Altamont during the week and both were excellent with the events very well attended and certainly enjoyed by the enthusiastic gardeners who were there. One aspect of both speakers’ presentations impressed me greatly. There is no doubt that both of these men have probably forgotten more about plants than I have ever known yet it was obvious, and confirmed to me later, that both had visited the gardens in advance, taken note of what was of particular interest to them, and had prepared for the event so that their talks were well organised, well delivered, very informative and very entertaining. I have attended such events previously where it seemed the “celebrity” felt their mere presence should be sufficient for our enjoyment and entertainment and that a few off the cuff light and frivolous remarks would satisfy the audience, an approach I feel is hugely disrespectful to people who have made the effort to attend and who have come with great interest and hopes of learning something applicable to their own gardening. Matthew Jebb and Roy Lancaster displayed a deep knowledge of their subject, a passion for it, professionalism in preparation and a respect for their audience and I admired them greatly for this. Such a great garden with two such speakers made for two marvellously enjoyable occasions.

The magnificent Sweet Chestnut at Hardymount
The magnificent Sweet Chestnut at Hardymount
The greeting to the walled garden at Hardymount
The greeting to the walled garden at Hardymount

The other event we attended was at Sheila Reeves Smyth’s Hardymount Garden near Tullow.  Though not as large a garden as Altamont, Hardymount has its own charm and interest and a visit there is always enjoyable.  The walled garden is compact and full both with plant interest and a range of strategically placed statuary. At the front of the house is a most magnificent example of Sweet Chestnut, a specimen gauged to be two hundred and fifty years old.  Anna Pavord spoke to an audience of more than two hundred people in a marquee on the front lawn and her hour long talk, without illustration or prop, had the audience engaged and attentively enjoying the occasion from beginning to end. She has been the gardening correspondent for The Independent newspaper for many years but is better known here in Ireland as the author of several highly regarded books. Indeed, she has a long list of books to her credit but “The Tulip”, “The Naming of Plants”, “Bulb” and “The Curious Gardener” are her latest and best known and the story of “The Curious Gardener” provided the subject matter of her talk at Hardymount.  Refreshments, a raffle for plants and a walk around the garden completed the afternoon very pleasantly.

How well the eye is lead by the clever placement of this statue at Hardymount
How well the eye is lead by the clever placement of this statue at Hardymount
The Gardener's Rest at Hardymount
The Gardener’s Rest at Hardymount

Now, I can only look forward to the2016 festival but the gardens are there all year round.

Paddy Tobin

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