A leafy slice of heaven by the Vartry


Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

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


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.

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