Magnolia central

THE GARDEN AT Mount Congreve is immense, sprawling across 70 or 80 acres of the 700-acre estate

THE GARDEN AT Mount Congreve is immense, sprawling across 70 or 80 acres of the 700-acre estate. Just a few miles west of Waterford, on the edge of Kilmeaden, it is set among rolling, dark green fields, and overlooks a bend in the River Suir. The climate is mild, thanks to the river, and to the nearby sea.

“We’re only four miles from the sea as the crow flies,” according to Ambrose Congreve, who sits in the library, a comfortable room in the Georgian house. The walls are insulated by hundreds of leather-bound books, while the unmistakable cherry-coloured buckram covers of an old Burke’s Peerage peep out from a table behind his chair. Cigar smoke curls deliciously through the afternoon air. “Would you like one?” he offers, when I ask if it’s a Cuban cigar that he’s smoking.

I’m tempted, but don’t want to be distracted during these precious minutes after lunch. The cigar is Cuban, of course: “They’ve never been able to replicate that. The Montecristo people tried to do it in various places, but they were never able to replicate the conditions of soil and climate in Cuba.”

And soil and climate are something that Mr Congreve knows about. He has spent much of his 103-year life being preoccupied with the subjects. And, he has the best of both. The climate, for Ireland, could not be better: during last winter’s terrific chill, the temperature didn’t fall much lower than minus four degrees – making it a crucial 10 degrees warmer than the coldest parts of the country. The soil, meanwhile “is acid, between four-and-a-half and five pH. It is the optimum pH for growing plants.”


Plants, if you are a Big House gardener, consist mainly of woody specimens, particularly acid-lovers such as rhododendrons, magnolias and other Asian and North American species. The second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century were the heyday of plant hunting, especially in China, where many of the most spectacular trees and shrubs were collected. Certain country demesnes in Britain and Ireland, with their moist air and low-pH soil, furnished exactly the right conditions for these exotic beauties. Mount Congreve was perfect, not only did it have the soil and climate, but it had shelter. “I was very lucky that my ancestors had ringed the place with shelter belts: a lot of oaks and beeches and conifers.” The estate had a willing gardener in the young Ambrose Congreve. His family, who also had a house in London, had returned to Ireland after spending the first World War in Scotland, where the unreasonable amounts of snow painted a grim memory. “I haven’t wanted to go to Scotland ever since.”

Back in Waterford, the 11-year-old found the gardens to his liking, and by the time he was 16, he had met the man who was to shape his gardening career, and whose name, nearly 90 years later, he still invokes every few minutes. “I fell under the influence of Mr Lionel de Rothschild,” he says, with some reverence. His mentor, a member of the famous banking family, and often described as “a banker by hobby, but a gardener by profession”, had started his own garden at Exbury, in Hampshire, a property that he acquired in 1918. “He never mentioned it, but I know he had 100 gardeners. And there were another 100 or so who came in from the estate. And that didn’t include contractors. So he made this garden in a very short space of time. It was quite extraordinary. He bought other people’s gardens and transplanted rhododendrons as tall as this room. I would say that in the mid-1930s he was the best gardener in the world.”

He was also a generous gardener, and he plied his young protegé with plants. During the 1920s and 30s, lorryloads of enormous magnolias, rhododendrons and other choice specimens rolled across the Irish Sea from the English garden. The older man taught Ambrose Congreve a thing or two about planting as well: plants, he advised, should be arranged in large groups of the same variety. So, for instance, if you fancy the highly scented rhododendron ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’ (and you do, if you live in Ireland – because it is too tender for most English gardens), you don’t plant one or two of it, you plant a multitude: perhaps 20, or 50, or even 100. That way, the visitor is astounded by the sight of a seemingly endless swathe of the pink-flushed white blossom, and knocked on the head by the overwhelming fragrance. It’s an experience that is not easily forgotten. “I mean, even quite ordinary things like Clematis montana,” explains Mr Congreve, from within his cloud of cigar smoke, “if you put 10 together on a wall, it is really quite spectacular. That’s the secret of it.”

The most audacious example of this modus operandi at Mount Congreve involves some quite extra ordinary things: namely tree magnolias. On either side of a broad walk that commands a view of the River Suir, there is a gathering of no less than 200 of them, planted by Ambrose Congreve and his long-time garden director, Herman Dool, now deceased.

“We planted a hundred Magnolia campbellii, and also a lot of other magnolias as well, sargentiana robusta, and sprengeri. I’m proud of our plantation. It is said to be the biggest in the world.”

Besides this mighty assembly of magnolias, there are others – more than 200 varieties – elsewhere in the gardens, as well as over 2,000 species and cultivars of rhododendron, 600 camellias and 300 Japanese maples. The list (yes, there is one), goes on for 120 closely-spaced pages – making this one of the most important collections of acid-loving plants in the world.

Mr Dool was at the helm of Mount Congreve for more than 40 years, and was awarded the Orange Order of Nassau, the Dutch equivalent of a knighthood, for his work. His successor, Michael White, was presented with a Waley medal by the Royal Horticultural Society – a body which also conferred a life-long vice presidency on his employer. Accolades, like everything else at this remarkable Co Waterford garden, are prolific. For his services to horticulture, Ambrose Congreve also holds a CBE, and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. He won 15 gold medals at Chelsea Flower Show in the years after the second World War, and the garden itself was declared a “Great Garden of the World” by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Despite its magnificence (its owner calls it a “folie de grandeur”), Mount Congreve is not well known in Ireland, as access was limited until recently. But all that will change soon – and the sooner the better, as far as Ambrose Congreve is concerned. For he is giving the garden to the State, and the people of Ireland will be able to freely admire the exceptional collection of plants that has been amassed here since the beginning of the last century.

The gardens at Mount Congreve are currently open to the public 9am to 4.30pm on Thursdays, March 1st to September 30th, adults only (no children under 12). Admission free