A leafy slice of heaven by the Vartry
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF ENJOYED A STROLL THROUGH THE CHAMPION TREES AND SHRUBS OF MOUNT USHER IN THE COMPANY OF HEAD GARDENER SEAN HEFFERNAN, HEIR TO A HORTICULTURAL TRADITION WHICH DATES BACK TO THE 1860S.
SEAN Heffernan is the latest in a long and distinguished line of head gardeners, appearing on the roll after such luminaries at Charles Fox, Michael Gaffney and John Anderson.
The burden of responsibility he has inherited of caring for 20-plus acres of trees, shrubs and flowers lies lightly on his shoulders as he rolls up to the gates of Mount Usher in Ashford.
With its inspired location on the banks of the Vartry and its legacy of plants from all over the world, the place is simply too wonderful to allow anyone be downhearted.
‘It is stunning – I still come in every day and say that,’ confides Sean who first arrived to work here as assistant head gardener eleven years ago before taking over as the man in overall command.
The job is not without its challenges, not least a commitment to create beauty without the use of chemical sprays, which means that much energy goes into hand weeding these extensive grounds.
The decision to ditch the chemicals was made by the American born Madeleine Jay who bought the place in 1980 when she stepped in to save the garden from property developers and then devoted the remainder of her life to this horticultural masterpiece.
Mrs Jay died early this year at the age of 94 and her pet project is now under the control of Avoca Handweavers, whose Donald Pratt has taken a particular interest in the garden.
Sean Heffernan is not happy to describe the spray free regime as organic (a much overused term in his view) but feels that his health and the health of the platoon of gardeners under his leadership is the better for it.
Besides, the style of this riverside paradise is ‘ Robinsonian’ which is more free-wheeling in spirit than the more rigid discipline of the English garden from which Ireland’s William Robinson rebelled in the 1870s.
So no one here in Mount Usher minds unduly if the odd dandelion pokes its head up above one of the lawns until the mower comes along to put manners on it.
‘Is that wild garlic?’ one passing tourist asks Sean. He confirms that the white flowers are indeed the blooms of wild garlic, which he commends as perfect ingredient for a good Irish style pesto, though it would be regarded as a weed in some stuffier quarters.
Still, it is a matter of pride that unwelcome invaders such as nettles and ground elder are kept relentlessly at bay to allow free rein to the thousands of species which are encouraged to thrive.
‘William Robinson bucked against the formal Victorian way of doing things,’ muses the head man. ‘He hated symmetry – and he hated bedding plants or tropical plants that had to be thrown into the bin.’
Instead of delicate specimens unable to cope with the Irish winter or Irish rain, the selection
THE ORIGINAL GARDEN HAD NO OVERALL PLAN AND IT NEVER HAS HAD ONE SINCE... IT IS STUNNING – I STILL COME IN EVERY DAY AND SAY THAT
process here for the past one and a half centuries has favoured hardy plants which come back year after year.
Visitors, who come flocking to Ashford in ever greater numbers, are invited to explore the resultant wonderland on foot, to amble along the azalea walk, or totter through the eucalyptus grove, or potter on the river path.
The trails through the flora are a maze served by four footbridges across the river, with something to admire at every turn, mostly under the shelter provided by magnificent trees.
Sean Heffernan curates a garden which was first established on a relatively modest scale in the grounds of an old water-powered textile mill.
The initiative was taken around a century and a half ago by Edward Walpole, member of a family of successful Dublin business tycoons who made their original fortune in the linen trade.
The grounds at Ashford were extended bit by bit and Mount Usher House was built in the 1920s, on the far side of the Vartry from the public entrance.
And all the time, the Walpoles were adding to the selection of trees on their property, imported from far afield to create an intriguing arboretum of national importance.
Even in early summer, there are exotic patches of autumn-style reds and oranges, provided by Japanese maples whose leaves catch the Irish sunlight to provide a splash of breath-taking beauty.
The general effect is never boring, always unpredictable: ‘ The original garden had no overall plan and it never has had one since. It evolved as they acquired more land.’
Sean does not expect any further additions to the 22 acres where 5,000 different species of plant are on view to all.
Though he trained to meet the Royal Horticultural Society standards at Airfield House in Dundrum, he has to admit that he would not be able to name all 5,000.
They are transplanted to County Wicklow from all over the world, with China, Chile, North America, Australia and New Zealand particularly well represented.
The head count includes the biggest tulip tree in Ireland, not to mention the country’s best Chines fir and Mexican blue pine, all part of the far-sighted Walpole legacy.
The blue pine, for instance, was planted back in 1909.
Mount Usher is home to several national collections, notably the eucryphia (the Latin flows readily from Sean’s mouth), flowering trees from the Southern Hemisphere.
They are concentrated in an area on the east bank of the river, next to the nothofagus collection, another selection of imports from the far side of the world.
The scale of the garden and the intensity of the planting, along with the warren of paths, mean that it is possible to accommodate coachloads of visitors without ever feeling overcrowded.
They are helped to make the most of their tour by maps which point the way to specimens of particular interest, each one numbered.
Even the names are a joy – Number 8: a Corkscrew Hazel (planted 1924); Number 20: a Japanese Umbrella Pine (1888); Number 42: a Weeping Brewer Spruce from California or Oregon (1928); Number 51: a Greek Strawberry tree (1928).
Some are spectacular: to catch the azalea walk in full bloom is an eye-popping experience.
Some are thundering big trees while others are small shrubs.
Aside from the growing attractions, there are the man-made features, including the weirs on the river.
They are the work of Thomas Walpole, engineer son of Edward Walpole, who is also responsible for the quartet of pedestrian suspension bridges.
Everywhere in this outrageously beautiful place there are surprises. A strong smell of honey assails the senses and Sean breaks out in a mischievous smile. Meet Euphorbia Mellifera, the honey spurge shrub.
He patrols the croquet lawn where the grass is too lush for a decent game of actual croquet and the palm walk where two lines of trachycarpus palms frame a view of Mount Usher House.
He acknowledges the genuine interest taken in the garden by Avoca’s Donald Pratt, whom he describes as very generous and supportive – as well as being a natural showman.
‘Since Donald took it on numbers have doubled,’ muses Sean, who wonders whether the good food served in the café at the garden gate may be a factor in the growing popularity…
Here is another surprise, complete with proper Latin botanical names, a couple of oaks that could not be more of a contrast and neither remotely resembling the familiar Irish oak to untutored eyes.
On one hand is Quercus Glauca, its long narrow leaves designed to shed the water of a South East Asian rain forest.
On the other is Quercus Alnafolia which has round waxy foliage intended to retain all possible moisture in the heat of Mediterranean summer.
They grow happily side by side in Mount Usher.
Head Gardener Sean Heffernan strolling through some of the riotous colour on display at Mount Usher.