At the end of November I spent a week in Northern Ireland, working in the beautiful gardens of Mount Stewart, near Newtownards, County Down. As in the gardens at Tresco Abbey Mount Stewart benefits from a soft, mild climate; the protection afforded by the Gulf Stream enables a great many tender and exotic plants to be grown outside. However, winters at Mount Stewart are much colder than those experienced on Tresco, so many of these plants are lifted, potted up and stored in a cold greenhouse over winter to be planted out in late winter the following year. This was the major job I was involved in whilst I was working in the garden in late November; I lifted numerous Salvia species from the Mairi garden and elsewhere, and removed and potted up plants including acacias, pelargoniums, Metrocideros excelsa and Magnolia cathcartii from the huge, ornate stone pots on the south terrace and around the visitor centre. I also spent a day working in Mount Stewart’s nursery, helping to pot up a range of bulbs, moving tender plants inside and pruning over some of the plants already housed inside, including the rather unusual standards of Pelargonium ‘Paul Crampel’. The rest of the time was spent cutting back herbaceous plants and forking over cleared borders to tidy them up for the winter.
To give you a little history about the gardens, Mount Stewart has been in the hands of the Stewart family since 1744 when Alexander Stewart made purchase and built a small country house, Mount Pleasant, on the shore of the beautiful Strangford Lough; it has been extensively modified and added to by subsequent generations of the Stewart family. Rich in history and infused with symbolism and intrigue, the gardens at Mount Stewart owe much of their charm to Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry (1878-1959). A famous society and political hostess, Lady Londonderry transformed the grounds at Mount Stewart with the help and guidance of some of the best horticultural minds of the day, including Gertrude Jekyll. Around the mansion Lady Londonderry created extensive formal gardens, taking advantage of the garden’s sub-tropical climate and growing all manner of tender and half-hardy plants betwixt and between the more traditional British garden stalwarts. The formal gardens comprise: the Italian Garden, with a series of flower beds edged not with the traditional box but rather more creatively with crimson berberis and golden thuja; the Spanish Garden, featuring a little summerhouse surrounded by great arches of cypresses and a central rill of water; the Mairi Garden, named after Lady Edith’s youngest child, with beds laid out in the shape of the Tudor Rose and a fountain and lead statue of Lady Mairi at its centre; the Shamrock Garden, celebrating Lady Edith’s Celtic ancestry with a central topiary harp and hand-shaped flower bed representing the red hand of Ulster; and the Sunk Garden, with formal beds based on a Jekyllian design and surrounded by a raised pergola adorned with plants such as roses, vines, clematis, and the more unusual Lardizabala.
There’s also the DoDo Terrace which features – quelle surprise – tall plinths topped with statuary dodos. At the top of the steps leading down to the Italian Garden is a sculpture of an Ark, commemorating the Ark Club, which was founded by Lady Edith during the Second World War to give light-hearted relief for those involved in the politics of war. On columns around the Italian Garden are a curious range of statuary birds, beasts and mythical creatures, each an effigy of a member of the Ark Club: Winston Churchill is represented as Winston the Warlock; Nancy Astor as Nancy the Gnat; Princess Helena Victoria as Victoria the Vivandière; Arthur Balfour as Arthur the Albatross; and Lady Edith herself as Circe the Sorceress, presiding over them all. There is much still to be found beyond the formal gardens, from the picturesque lake and extensive collection of Rhododendrons to the family burial ground, Tir Nan Og, or ‘The land of the ever young’.