What a couple of years. What a month. What strange, sad, confusing times we’re living through. But at least there’s always gardening to cheer our spirits and remind us that nature prevails. As many of us look forward to celebrating Easter with family and friends this weekend, here are five lovely ways to share the joy of plants with others.
April is the month of tulips, those spring-flowering bulbs with blooms so beautiful that legend has it they near-bankrupted the rich merchant class of 17th-century Holland. At the peak of what came to be known as tulip mania, a single bulb of the scarlet-and-white streaked variety known as ‘Semper Augustus’ (now extinct) is reputed to have sold for more than 5,000 guilders, enough at the time to buy several paintings by Rembrandt (now that’s an investment that would have paid off handsomely).
Those fleshy bulbs are a lot more affordable now, but the sight of a massed display of tulips in full spring bloom still inspires awe, especially if it’s been designed with artistry by a master gardener with an eye for colour and form.
That’s exactly what you’ll find at June Blake’s gorgeous country garden near Blessington in west Wicklow, which reopened this month to the public after its winter break (open every Wednesday-Sunday, see juneblake.ie). Well-known for its dramatically beautiful tulip displays, the garden is celebrating its annual festival, A Month of Tulips, with free talks by Blake every Saturday and Sunday at 2pm for the rest of this month.
Also in Wicklow, artist TJ Maher's little jewel of a garden, Patthana, near Kiltegan, is another must-visit for tulip lovers, with a reliably sumptuous seasonal display for visitors to enjoy. It opens to the public on Sunday, April 24th, May 1st, May 8th and May 15th with a free talk by Maher on tulips at 2pm on each of these dates (patthanagardenireland.com).
Visit a plant fair
The Irish Specialist Nursery Association’s series of plant fairs are traditionally among the highlights of the Irish gardening year with fantastic stalls by many of the country’s leading small specialist plant nurseries. Taking place just as the gardening season goes into full throttle, its Easter fair is always one of the best with lots of expert plants people to chat to and oodles of tantalising plants for sale.
This year's show is being held this weekend (April 16th-17th) at the Irish National Stud, Japanese Gardens, Co Kildare. See irishspecialistnurseriesassociation.com for details.
Celebrate with Kylemore Abbey gardens
Twenty-one years have passed since the Victorian walled garden of Kylemore Abbey in Galway threw open its gates to the public following its award-winning restoration by the community of Benedictine nuns who continue to manage this heritage estate to this day. To celebrate its coming-of-age, Kylemore Abbey is hosting Stepping Through the Gate: Inside Ireland's Walled Gardens, an exhibition of work by four Irish artists, Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse, that's inspired by famous Irish walled gardens.
Commissioned by the Irish Georgian Society and curated by the writer and broadcaster Robert O’Byrne (the exhibition first showed at the society’s headquarters in Dublin last autumn), some of the other great Irish walled gardens that feature in the exhibition include those of Burtown in Co Kildare, Heywood in Co Laois, Glin Castle in Co Limerick, Kilmacurragh in Co Wicklow, Lismore Castle and Tourin, both in Co Waterford, Altamont in Co Carlow, and Anne’s Grove in Co Cork.
The exhibition continues until the end of this month (access is included with admission to the gardens) with many of the artworks also for sale and proceeds going to the Irish Georgian Society and the Kylemore Trust (kylemoreabbey.com).
Plant some seeds for ‘Pledge to Plant’
This month the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF), the national charity that addresses dying, death and bereavement in Ireland, launched its 2022 Pledge to Plant initiative. First launched last year when it went on to raise more than €40,000 for the charity, Pledge to Plant is the brilliant brainchild of Kathy Whyte, whose own mother received exceptional at-home care from nurses provided by the IHF during the last days of her life.
Whyte’s initiative invites individuals, groups, communities, schools and businesses to sow/raise/grow some plants over the coming months with the aim of gifting them to family, friends and colleagues this coming June. In return the recipient then makes a small financial donation towards the Irish Hospice Foundation to help raise vital funds for the services it provides. Everyone who registers on the IHF’s website to take part in the PTP initiative receives a free support pack that contains hands-on gardening tips and some complimentary packets of seed.
This year the foundation plans to invest over €1 million in its Nurses for Nightcare service, which delivers care into the homes of those facing their final days. For more information or to register for this innovative nationwide initiative, see hospicefoundation.ie/pledgetoplant/
Woodland gardens to visit
From carpets of bluebells to clouds of magnolias and rhododendrons, woodland gardens are another glorious highlight of April with many coming into magnificent bloom just in time for Easter. Examples include the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh in east Wicklow (botanicgardens.ie), home to one of Ireland's best known historic rhododendron collections, which is under the expert care of its head gardener and curator Seamus O'Brien. He was recently awarded the prestigious Loder Rhododendron Cup by the RHS for his work in promoting and conserving this genus of plants.
Other great historic Irish woodland gardens open to the public over Easter include subtropical Derreen (derreengarden.com) and Muckross (killarneynationalpark.ie), both of which are in Co Kerry; Mount Stewart, Rowallane, and Castlewellan's walled garden, all in Co Down (nationaltrust.org.uk, nidirect.gov.uk); Mount Usher (mountushergardens.ie) and Powerscourt (powerscourt.com) in Co Wicklow; Howth Castle in Dublin (howthcastle.ie); Birr Castle (birrcastle.com) in Co Offaly, and Garinish Island in Cork (garinishisland.ie).
Meanwhile, for a contemporary take on woodland planting, pay a visit to Hunting Brook, the garden of the designer and broadcaster Jimi Blake in west Wicklow (huntingbrookgardens.com), or to Caher Bridge, the garden of plantsperson Carl Wright (pre-booking essential, call 065 7076225).
This week in the garden
Late spring is a good time of the year to take softwood cuttings of tender perennial plants such as pelargonium, argyranthemum, fuchsia, salvia, dahlia, helichrysum, penstemon and osteospermum. Just make sure to keep them somewhere bright but frost-free (an electric heated propagator is very useful for this purpose) and to use a good quality, free-draining cuttings compost lightened with plenty of horticultural grit or vermiculite.
This is the month to prune hydrangeas by using a clean, sharp secateurs to cut any of last year’s flowering stems back down to just above a strong pair of buds, while leaving any new stems that didn’t flower last year unpruned and intact (the latter will have a plump green bud at their tip).
While you’re at it, cut out any damaged, distorted or spindly stems. Very bushy, overly mature plants will need more intensive pruning. In this case, cut the thickest, oldest stems near the centre of the plant right back to the base to open it up and encourage new growth. But avoid pruning climbing hydrangeas until later in the summer after they’ve finished flowering.
Dates For Your Diary
Saturday, April 23rd: RHSI Annual Plant Sale, Laurelmere Cottage, Marlay Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16 (11am-4pm), see rhsi.ie.
Saturday, April 30th: The Alpine Garden Society's Annual Show takes place with competitive exhibits across a wide range of classes and rare alpines and other plants for sale, Cabinteely Community School, Johnstown Road, Cabinteely, Co Dublin, (1.30pm-4pm), see alpinegardensociety.ie.
April 29th-May 1st: Garden Show Ireland. A festival of flowers, food and fun, with talks and contributions by many well-known gardeners including Diarmuid Gavin, Klaus Laitenberger, Geoff Stebbings and flower farmers Aisling and Andy McCormick of Sow Grateful, plus flower arranging displays by members of the Northern Ireland Group of Flower Arrangement Societies (NIGFAS), Antrim Castle Gardens, Randalstown Road, Antrim, see gardenshowireland.com.