One of the wettest and most benign places to garden on earth, Ireland (Éire) is cradled by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, so in its gardens you will often find surprisingly tropical-style planting. Many of Ireland and Northern Ireland's famous gardens surround historic castles but there are also wonderful contemporary gardens as well as many private garden open during the spring and summer months.
Garden Travel Guide to Ireland (Éire)
– written by Chantelle Leenstra, Garden Atelier, and Catherine Stewart, GardenDrum
NOTE: Although Northern Ireland is separate to Ireland and part of the UK, it is included in this guide as, from a garden tourist’s perspective, Ireland and Northern Ireland would be considered together for travel purposes.
Why Ireland is a wonderful place to visit gardens
Older Irish gardens often contain many historic and horticultural treasures, as the country has a rich history and was also a hotbed for planthunters in the day. There’s follies and fancies a plenty, stately homes of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, glens and gullies that sew themselves so well into the surrounding environment that you can barely detect that they’ve been designed by a person, productive edible gardens and contemporary gardens trumpeting Ireland’s horticultural savvy with joy and dynamism.
You’ll also find several privately owned castle gardens in Ireland which have survived the changing times and indeed are flourishing thanks to embracing a healthy commercial spirit; sometimes mashing together several ideas to attract a broader range of visitors. Luckily at many of these places such as Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre which is still run by the Earl of Rosse (aka the Parsons family), this has been carried out with care so as to not undermine the spirit of the gardens.
Climate of Ireland
If you’ve never been to Ireland before, you’re probably envisaging gardens growing somehow, despite the extreme weather right? Well, not quite! Despite being at the same latitude as the pine forests of Siberia and prairies of Canada, Ireland has a mild, moist climate capable of hosting plants from regions as diverse as the subarctic regions through to the subtropics. A bit like Yunnan in China, Ireland is blessed with an unusual confluence of good fortune that’s practically heaven for plants.
This fortune comes thanks to the Gulf Stream, or North Atlantic Drift; the tail end of which wraps around this lucky country. In several spots, things are practically balmy – such as Garnish Island, Malahide Castle and Dereen, accounting for the flourishing of especially tropical species in these locations. Across Ireland though, tourists are often surprised by the presence of ‘palm’ trees. While these are actually extremely hardy New Zealand cordylines, you do find a range of subtropical species growing in areas of Ireland including Australian tree ferns and Japanese bananas. However cool climate plants such as Rhododendrons are still very much in their element across the country. And even cooler climate plants can flourish in areas such as Burren in County Clare, which is on a 365 square km limestone plateau carpeted with alpine flowers such as gentians, edelweiss and orchids.
Best Gardens to visit in Ireland and Northern Ireland
Best gardens to see in and around Dublin, and eastern Ireland
Dublin and environs
• Dillon Garden – sadly, this garden is permanently CLOSED since September 2016 as it has been sold.
• Iveagh/Everleagh Garden in St Stephen’s Green Park, Harcourt Street, Dublin – a hedgerow maze, lawns, rockeries and rooteries, fountains a cascade and grottos. Now the home of many live concerts and comedy festivals.
• National Botanic Gardens – only 3 km from the centre of Dublin, this sixteen hectare garden contains the National Herbarium, 20 000 plants and historic wrought iron glasshouses. Entry is free and the gardens are open all year round, with a restaurant, exhibition centre and study hub from which courses for children and adults are run.
Gardens to visit in the eastern counties of Ireland
• Altamonte Gardens, Co. Carlow – formal and informal gardens on sixteen hectares with lawns, sculpted yews, arboretum, bog garden, ice age glen and riverside walks. Entry is free.
• Japanese Gardens at the Irish National Stud, Tully, Co. Kildare – this garden was designed by Japanese master horticulturist Tassa Eida and his son Minoru and attracts 150 000 visitors each year. The Japanese theme continues at this home of the Irish National Stud, with regular Ikebana workshops and the like.
• Larchill Arcadian Garden, Kilkock, Co. Kildare – an ornamental farm and landscaped garden constructed in the 1750’s and later falling into a disrepair which was ironically its protector; as by the time the de las Casas family purchased the estate in 1994, they were able to restore this garden to its original, unadulterated glory without the confusion of sorting through past ‘improvements’ that some gardens endure progressively over time. Includes gothic follies, an artificial lake, farmyard, Ireland’s largest collection of rare breed livestock grazing the land, a wildflower meadow, and formal walled gardens.
• Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford – gardens surrounding a 19th century castle designed by Daniel Robertson (who designed the gardens at Powerscourt) and now part of the Irish Agricultural Museum. A lovely established parkland, but gardens-wise some may find this garden less dynamic than other estates.
• JF Kennedy Memorial Park and Arboretum, New Ross, Co. Wexford – 252 hectares encompassing 4500 species of trees and shrubs from all temperate regions of the world, and planted in botanical sequence. There are also 200 forest plots grouped by continent, a lake, and an Ericaceous garden with 500 different rhododendrons, azaleas and heathers, dwarf conifers, ground covers and climbing plants. Another feature is a road providing access and panoramic views at the summit of Slievecoiltia at 271m.
• The Bay Garden, Camolin, Co. Wexford – created by Frances and Iain MacDonald since 1989, this grass and perennial garden is another recommendation of Jane Powers as an example of contemporary Irish garden design rooted in the traditions of late 20th and early 21st century Ireland.
• Hunting Brook Gardens, Lamb Hill, Blessington, Co. Wicklow – designed around the remains of a Neolithic settlement complete with standing stones within the Wicklow Mountains, this garden is the work of horticultural hot-stuff Jimi Blake. An internationally renowned plant guru, Blake spends several months of the year travelling the world looking for new plants. The signature plant of the gardens is the birch-like Aralia echinocaulis, which he found in Hubei province in China, but it also features a Salvia Blake found in Australia in 1999 called ‘Jimi’s Good Red’, and Lysimachia barystachys ‘Hunting Brook’ with red stems which he also found in China. NB. Sister June Blake’s renowned garden is minutes away.
• June Blake’s Garden, Tinode, Blessington, Co. Wicklow – a contemporary country garden and another essentially Irish garden recommended by Jane Powers, who commends June Blake for her ‘intelligent dynamism that transcends ordinary gardening’. NB. Brother Jimi Blake’s renowned garden is minutes away.
• Corke Lodge, Bray, Co. Wicklow – architect Alfred Cochrane’s wildly theatrical garden with gothic ruins and shaggy topiary, this house and garden pioneered current trends in historical restoration of country houses.
• Killruddery House and Garden, Bray, Co. Wicklow – a grand living, working house, with gardens and a farm. It has been home to sixteen generations of the Brabazon family, the garden’s creation going back to 1682. Today the grounds host weekend farmers markets, garden talks, a film festival and even the Hell and Back run every year. One of Monty Don’s top 10 favourite gardens in the world.
• Mount Usher Gardens and Arboretum, Ashford, Co. Wicklow – Another of Monty Don’s top 10 favourite gardens like Killruddery, this garden includes 5000 species of plants, beautiful trees, shaded winding paths and a small pet cemetery, all with the powerful presence of the artfully manipulated River Vartry running through the site.
• Powerscourt Estate Garden, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow – Ireland’s most visited garden, Powerscourt is 18ha of grandeur including an Italian garden, Japanese garden, pet cemetery and statuary, as well as Ireland’s highest waterfall. Just 35 mins from Dublin. Aspects of the original design date back to the 1740’s when architect Richard Cassels (of Leinster House fame) designed a series of terraces and a circular pool to set off the entrance to the Palladian mansion he created for Viscount Powerscourt. The garden entrance is now through the house, which has been transformed into a shopping complex and garden centre with Avoca’s Terrace Restaurant.
• Victoria’s Way, Roundwood, Co. Wicklow – a unique nine hectare sculpture park created by owner Victor Langheld, who designs each piece before commissioning its creation in India. The tallest sculpture is almost 5m tall, and each sculpture is made of either black granite or bronze.
• Loughcrew Estate Gardens, Oldcastle, Co. Meath – 2.5 hectares of 17th and 18th century gardens, encompassing St Oliver Plunkett’s family church and tower house, Ann Meldon Hugh sculptures, expansive lawns, an adventure centre, coffee shop, and organised walks.
• Dunmore Country School, Co. Laois – a kitchen garden on a half acre block based on the traditional French ‘potager’ or country garden. Creators Isabelle and Tanguy de Toulgoët moved to Co Laois in 1995 and have since been producing almost all the vegetables and herbs they need each year onsite, where they also run regular horticulture courses. This is one of the gardens recommended by Irish garden powerhouse Jane Powers, for de Toulgoët’s ‘partly biodynamic, wholly organic and utterly French’ gardening style which she finds madly interesting.
Gardens to visit in the southern counties of Ireland
• Mount Congreve, Kilmeaden, Co. Waterford – 28 hectares of intensively planted woodland and a 1.6ha walled garden. Over two thousand rhododendrons, six hundred camellias, six hundred conifers, three hundred Acer cultivars and two hundred and fifty climbers.
• Kilfane Glen and Waterfall, Stoneen, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny – an upper garden surrounding the house (closed to the public) but where visitors can admire contemporary artworks commissioned by the Kilfane Trust, a woodland path and a romantic lower garden with a very sweet cottage orné with thatched roof, waterfall, hermit’s cave and meadow.
• Rothe House and Garden, Parliament Street, Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny – this charming late 16th century garden was once the home of a wealthy merchant. The garden has been recreated from archeological evidence unearthed during 2008 showing the original garden layout and the seeds and pollen of plants that grew in the garden. Open daily.
• Annes Grove Garden, Castletownroche (near Mallow) Co. Cork – set in a wooded limestone gorge, this quintessentially Irish, early 20th century garden has a great atmosphere of gothic romance. There are rhododendrons, a river garden, walled garden, wildflower meadow and lily pond, all with the River Awberg running through the gardens. Described as a ‘wild romantic glen’ and the only garden to be mentioned in Arthur Young’s Tour in Ireland published in 1776. NOTE: Annes Grove Gardens is currently closed (late 2016) due to storm damage and expected to reopen in late spring 2017.
• Ballymaloe Cookery School Gardens, Shangarry, Co. Cork – a productive garden created on the bones of an early nineteenth century garden, this is the creation of Irish celebrity chef Darina Allen. Supplying ingredients for the cooking school, the grounds include a herb garden, fruit garden with peach, apricot and olive trees, a potager, a yew maze, water garden, arboretum, tree house and shell grotto. Guided garden tours available.
• Bantry House and Garden, Bantry, Co. Cork – like Powerscourt, Mount Stewart and Kilruddery, Bantry House with all its drama and gorgeous views gives us a glimpse into the lifestyles of the Anglo-Irish wealthy ruling class of yesteryear. This garden can get misty – very atmospheric.
• Blarney Castle and Gardens, Blarney, Co. Cork – includes a poison garden, fern garden with over eighty varieties of fern, ice house, arboretum and pinetum, herbaceous borders, bog garden with large groups of Gunnera manicata (arguably the plant species with the largest leaf in the world) and Irish Garden. Plus of course, that famous stone to kiss for the gift of eloquence!
• Garnish Island Gardens (Inacullin Gardens), Garnish Island, near Glengariff, Co. Cork – described by the Irish Arts Review as ‘one of the most important gardens in Europe’. An island garden accessed by ferry, this is an Italianate Arts and Crafts garden created within a warm, humid microclimate. Within this walled garden there is an Italian tearoom and Grecian temple from which visitors can catch very fine views across the bay and toward the Caha Mountains on the mainland. The gardens include a Martello Tower dating from 1805, a Grecian Temple, clock tower and walled gardens. Take the Garnish Island Ferry from the Main Pier in Glengariff.
• Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms, Killarney, Co. Kerry – 19th century Victorian house on the shores of Muckross Lake, surrounded by Killarney National Park. The extensive formal gardens were prepared for a visit by Queen Victoria in 1861. Later additions by the Bourn Vincent family include a Sunken Garden, Stream Garden, Rock Garden. The three fascinating Traditional Farms give an insight into agricultural practices through the ages.
Gardens to visit in the western counties of Ireland
• Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre, Birr, Co. Offaly – this garden is home to an abundance of rare plants collected by the Earls of Rosse on their travels around the world over the last 150 years. It contains the world’s tallest box hedges, the world’s oldest suspension bridge, the first Dawn Cypress in Europe, over 2000 species of plants, rivers, a lake and waterfalls, not to mention some truly beautiful trees. Recent plant hunting expeditions by the current Earl and Countess include Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, New Zealand, China and Bhutan. Another great Irish garden recommended by June Powers.
• Caher Bridge Garden, Ballyvaughn, Co. Clare – a gorgeous little 1 acre garden nestled around a restored riverside cottage on a site that used to be dense hazel and blackthorn scrub, and the design still blends sensitively into the surrounding environs. Plenty of unusual plants including large collections of snowdrops, daffodils, hostas, daylilies, crocosmia, woodland plants and ferns. Open by appointment only.
• Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, Bunratty, Co. Clare – built for the house in 1804, the this beautiful walled Regency garden is protected from westerly winds. Restored by the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Program, the planting reflects the way the garden would have been by the inhabitants.
• Kylemore Abbey Walled Garden, Connemara, Co. Galway – a 3.5 hectare Victorian walled garden built 1867 – 1871, this garden is a popular favourite, with guided tours of the grounds and abbey, a gothic church, children’s play area and dining areas.
• Limericks People’s Park, Pery Square, Limerick City, Co. Limerick – a small but well loved city park with a café, playground, floral borders and statues, and a Sunday market.
• Boyce’s Gardens, Loghill, Co. Limerick – award-winning gardens overlooking the River Shannon. Sunken garden, perennial borders, water garden and rockery, rose garden, edible garden, meditation garden, pergola walk, and artist’s studio. Open daily May-October.
• Knockpatrick Gardens, Foynes, Co. Limerick – 100 year-old, 3 acre garden overlooking the River Shannon, now owned by Tim and Helen O’Brien. Garden rooms include large mature trees, pools and water features, roses, climbers, primula path. Open April to October.
• Terra Nova Gardens, Dromin, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick – a half acre garden or woven pathways, colourful perennials, well-designed spaces and quiet green corners. Open March to mid September by appointment.
Gardens to visit in the northern counties of Ireland
• Salthill Gardens – Mountcharles, Co.Donegal – a contemporary garden 180 metres from the sea, with an intimate atmosphere within 100 year old stone walls as well as lovely meadows. As Jane Powers describes the garden ‘The vernacular earthworks are an important part of this Donegal garden. There is a stone arch built onto the south-facing wall that backs one of the vegetable areas, so that you can sit in the shallow alcove and admire the dark, sumpruous corduroy of the ridges on the other side’.
• Glenveagh Castle Garden – Churchill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal – a late 19th century castellated mansion built as a hunting lodge with walled garden, Italian terrace and Tuscan garden and a lake. Startlingly beautiful walks can be taken through the remote wilderness of the National Park which juxtaposes nicely with the lushness of the gardens.
• Oakfield Park, Raphoe, Co. Donegal – an 18th century restored deanery around which a 4.5km narrow gauge railway with diesel & steam train conveys passengers daily. The gardens encompass formal gardens, walled gardens, ponds, lakes, a lakeside Nymphaeum, tea rooms, heritage trees, sculptures, woodlands and extensive walks and trails.
• Donegal Garden Trail – features over 25 private gardens open by appointment, as well as a selection of regularly open gardens during the spring-autumn season
Best Gardens to see in Northern Ireland
• Mount Stewart, Co. Down, Northern Ireland – a grand, playful and witty garden imbued with a strong sense of its charismatic owner, Lady Edith Londonderry who took full advantage of the unusually mild climate of Strangford Lough to experiment to her heart’s content from 1921 onward. There are formal areas, wooded areas and lakeside paths lined with Rhododendrons, Irises and Gunneras. The walled garden includes a sunken garden based on a Gertrude Jekyll plan, shamrock garden, Italian garden, Spanish garden and Mairi garden. There are also 30m high Tasmanian Gums and endlessly climbing roses. One of Europe’s best, Mt Stewart also happens to be one of GardenDrum editor Catherine Stewart’s favourite gardens in the world. Allow a day to make your way around the garden.
• Rowallane Garden, Saintfield, Co. Down – an informal plantsman’s garden featuring a walled garden, summer wildflower meadow filled with rare orchids, and pleasure grounds full of many rare and exotic specimens sent back from China and the Far East by plant hunters Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward. The design of the garden incorporates the natural landscape, effectively blurring the boundary between garden and nature and includes locally-bred cultivars of Viburnum, Hypericum and Chaenomeles. This garden also includes shrub roses, fuschias, Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia), and the national collection of large-flowered penstemons. The rock garden features a large outcrop of local rocks, as well as primulas, heather and dwarf shrubs. The rhododendrons and azaleas are also spectacular from mid-fall to late summer.
• Castle Ward Garden, Strangford, Downpatrick, Co. Down – set around an extraordinary building that mashes classical and gothic architecture, the Sunken Garden is in Victorian style with formal garden beds.
• Seaforde Garden, Co. Down – historical 18th century walled garden, restored during the 1970s. Hornbeam maze, National collection of Eucryphias, drifts of spring bulbs, tropical butterfly house. Open Monday-Saturday, Easter to end September.
• Botanic Gardens, Belfast – established in 1828. Large rose garden, elegant curvilinear iron Palm House, Tropical Ravine (currently under restoration)
• Glenmount, Dundonald (Belfast) – garden of Nick Burrows – a young, quirky and idiosyncratic garden around a 230 year-old farmhouse. Open May-September by appointment.
• Ballyrobert Gardens, Ballyclare, Co Antrim – a RHS Partner Garden open daily March-October (except Sundays). Extensive plant collection, nursery, 6 acres of gardens carefully designed to blend into the surrounding countryside.
• Richardson’s Walled Garden, Greenmount Campus, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, Antrim. Dating from the 1820s, this garden is part of the Horticulture Development Centrewhich has over 18 hectares of landscaped grounds
• Glenarm Castle Walled Garden, Glenarm, Ballymena, Co Antrim. Open daily from St Patrick’s Day on 17 March to mid-October. Glenarm has one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens. Spring bulbs, summer perennial borders, fountains and sculpture.
• Benvardin Walled Garden, Dervock, Ballymoney, Co Antrim. 2 acre historical walled garden with kitchen garden, parterres, rose garden, orchard, vinery and hothouses. Open June-August (except Mondays)
• Kilcoan Gardens, Islandmagee, Larne – open April-September, Wednesday-Sunday. Cottage garden, orchard, perennial beds, meadows, old rose collection, willow arch and prairie border.
• Downhill Garden and Mussenden Temple, Downhill Demesne, Co. Derry – walled garden, forest trails and a stone temple built on the Bishop’s estate in 1785, right on the edge of a clifftop – a magical setting for a very beautiful building.
• Florence Court Kitchen Garden, Enniskillen – 1930s style kitchen garden surrounding a Georgian-period home, maintained by the National Trust. Home of the ‘Florence Court Yew’, reputed to be the parent stock of all Ireland’s fastigiate yew trees. The nearby Crom Estate has two yews grown together (one male, one female) dating from the 17th century that forms one of Britain’s 50 Greatest Trees.
• Ulster Garden Scheme – private gardens open during the May-August season. Some are open on selected dates, others by private appointment.
• The Argory garden, Moy, Dungannon, Co. Armagh – 320 acre park-like estate surrounding an 1820s Irish gentry home. Spring bulbs, riverside walks, lime allée, courtyards.
Ireland and Northern Ireland Garden Festivals and Garden Shows
• 23rd Annual Sieve Bloom Walking Festival, 29 April – 1 May 2017. A sociable walking weekend with 6-13km walks exploring the flora and fauna of the Midlands with local guides, candlelit dinners, traditional Irish music and a walkers BBQ at the end on Saturday. Suitable for families.
• Allianz Garden Show Ireland, early May. Located at Antrim Castle Gardens in Northern Ireland, this show includes a professional garden design competition with 20 entrants, garden talks including an appearance usually on the Saturday night by patron Monty Don, tea dances and jazz, exhibitors, a scarecrow avenue and edible gardens created by primary school children. A shuttle bus departs from Antrim town centre.
• Antrim Garden trail, Northern Ireland, during May. Around 7 selected gardens are open during the festival
• Bloom in the Park, early June (June Bank Holiday Weekend). This event was originally launched in 2007 by Irish government agency Bord Bia as a promotional vehicle for horticulture. Based on RHS Chelsea Flower Show and RHS Hampton Court Palace show formats, the fair stretches across 70 hectares in the heart of Phoenix Park in Dublin. Ireland’s largest horticulture, food and family festival, this aims to be more than a traditional garden show, bringing together world class Irish food, drink and horticulture industry. One can find Ireland’s top chefs and cooks giving food demonstrations, over 120 different Irish food and drink producers at stalls, full size garden designs displayed, sculptures, botanical art, craft displays, open farmyards and children’s entertainment.
• Midlands Home and Garden Festival, July 2017. The largest garden festival in the midlands, this is located at the house lawn at Belvedere House in Co. Westmeath. There will be over 300 exhibitors with garden and home equipment, Dutch flower sellers, a continental food market, organic food village, dog agility and bee keeping displays, free seminars and fairy village for children.
• Wicklow Garden Festival, April-September. Every summer, over 30 public and private gardens in county Wicklow (and neighbouring counties) open their doors to visitors. This celebration of Wicklow’s gardens includes guided tours, gardening workshops, arts and crafts and poetry reading.
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