As Kylemore Abbey’s German-born head gardener, Anja Gohlke, explains, the restoration was a complex, challenging task that took 5 years to complete, made all the more difficult by the fact that no original drawings or maps had survived. “Archaeologists and historians had to rely heavily on late 19th-century photos along with a few bills of sale and local folk memory. It took 2 years just to uncover the original pathways.”
But it’s not just in the hard landscaping details that the restoration has been as historically faithful to the original as possible. Restoration of the living landscape—the shrubs, flowering perennials, bedding plants, fruit trees and bushes, and even the varieties of vegetables grown within the 19th-century walls—has also remained historically true to Kylemore’s Victorian past.
This often leads Gohlke on lengthy horticultural treasure hunts as she searches out obscure seed catalogs and nurseries for appropriate Victorian varieties. Among her favorite suppliers are Chiltern Seeds and Thomas Etty. The latter is a small independent supplier based in Somerset in the United Kingdom that specializes in heritage seeds and bulbs for period gardens (see their website for copies of original catalogs of eminent Victorian seed merchants, including Suttons, Kernan, and Vilmorin).
“Over the years, we’ve carried out a lot of research into finding historic varieties that are as productive, floriferous, and disease-resistant as possible,” explains Gohlke. “For example, in the vegetable garden we grow a late-Victorian variety of beet called ‘Detroit Globe’, because it’s tasty and reliable. Other classic Victorian vegetable varieties that do well here include leek ‘Musselburgh’, bolt-resistant lettuce ‘Webb’s Wonderful’, runner bean ‘Painted Lady’, and carrots ‘Autumn King’ and ‘St. Valery’. We’ve had great success with heritage varieties of fruit; things like the ‘Victoria’ plum, the apple ‘Court of Wick’, and a gooseberry called ‘Careless’ that lives up to its name in terms of being very undemanding!”
Even the potatoes grown in typical ridges—or what are also known in this part of Ireland as “lazy beds”—are Victorian varieties, such as ‘British Queen’, ‘May Queen’, ‘Shamrock’, and ‘Epicure’, with Gohlke and her crew saving a certain amount each summer to plant out as seed potatoes the following spring. As for the rest of Kylemore’s vegetable plants, these are raised in the restored propagation glasshouse each spring before being transplanted out later in the season—a useful way of speeding up growth, given Ireland’s cool, damp climate and short summers.
As Kylemore’s historic walled garden showcases the complex bedding schemes beloved of the Victorian era, it also falls to its gardeners to raise the thousands of bedding plants—wallflowers, forget-me-nots, petunias, marigolds, salvias, snapdragons, and calceolarias—from seed in the nearby glasshouses. Finding suitable varieties isn’t always an easy task. “Many of the heritage varieties are lost, or aren’t quite as vigorous as they once were,” explains Gohlke. “For example, I’ve only been able to track down one petunia, a pink-flowering species called Petunia integrifolia. To make sure that we can continue growing it at Kylemore, we save fresh seed every year.”