Even by the standards of the Victorian era, the 19th-century walled garden belonging to Kylemore Abbey in County Galway, Ireland, is, at 6 acres, far larger than most. As for its location—a stretch of peaty bogland overlooking Diamond Hill, surrounded by deciduous woodlands and the wild, cloud-stained skies of Connemara—there can be few as dramatic. So, too, is the story of its creation. Built in the 1860s at the height of the British Empire by the wealthy British industrialist and member of Parliament Mitchell Henry as a present to his beloved wife, Margaret, Kylemore’s walled garden once formed part of a 15,000-acre historical estate.
At its heart was the Henrys’ home, a vast baronial-style castle perched by the edge of Pollacappul Lake.
Back then, Kylemore’s walled garden was a secret universe, hidden behind high walls and, as was the tradition of the time, far out of sight of the house. Those walls served a double function, keeping out unwelcome visitors and offering protection from cold easterly winds and the prevailing westerly gales of the Atlantic, which are a feature of Connemara’s wet and windy climate.
Within, the Henrys built a wonderfully productive garden manned by an army of gardeners (the work provided local families with employment at a time of deep economic depression) and filled with fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers (including one of the longest double herbaceous borders in Ireland) as well as 21 glasshouses heated by no less than 5,000 feet of hot-water pipes.
But the idyll was shattered forever when tragedy struck the family in the shape of Margaret Henry’s death in 1875 from a fever contracted during the couple’s travels in Egypt. Soon after, a heartbroken Mitchell Henry left Kylemore. He eventually sold the estate in 1903. As the era of the “big house” finally came to an end along with that of British rule in Ireland, Kylemore’s walled garden fell into a slow decline.
By 1920, a community of Benedictine nuns fleeing war-torn Belgium had purchased Kylemore Castle, where they established a well-known boarding school known as Kylemore Abbey. Over the ensuing decades, the nuns fought valiantly to preserve its Victorian walled garden. In particular, a green-fingered nun by the name of Sister Benedict took it under her protective wing, before the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme finally enabled the walled garden’s award-winning restoration in the mid-1990s—a 20th-century phoenix plucked from the ashes of history.
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.”
The walled garden’s double herbaceous border, which forms the main axis of the garden and is ablaze with color in midsummer, uses perennials popular in the Victorian era, such as asters, geums, potentillas, and lilies, which Gohlke propagates from division as required. Even the restored vinery grows only Victorian grape varieties, including the flavorsome ‘Black Hamburg’ and early ‘Buckland Sweetwater’.
As for the success of this remarkable restoration project, it can be measured by the vast numbers of visitors, from Ireland and abroad, who have flocked to the gardens since Kylemore reopened its freshly painted doors to the public in 2000. But one visitor in particular—Sister Benedict, the nun who fought so hard for its restoration, now in her 80s and still as fit as a fiddle—comes faithfully every day. Proof, if it were needed, of how the relationship between a garden and those who care for it can be unique and enduring.
We recommend historic and romantic Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara. Overlooking the Atlantic (next stop, New York!), it offers a warm Irish welcome and delicious fare, as well as comfortable, cozy rooms.
Given Kylemore’s mild but damp climate and the relatively short growing season, the process of seed saving can be challenging; some plants don’t set seed in time for it to ripen properly before the onset of autumn. Head gardener Anja Gohlke and her team have had success saving the seeds of nasturtiums (‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Empress of India’), calendulas (‘Orange King’), snapdragons (‘Brighton Rock’, ‘Defiance’, and ‘Night & Day’), and Calceolaria mexicana. They also harvest seeds of heritage varieties of sweet pea, such as ‘Senator’, ‘America’, ‘Painted Lady’, ‘Black Knight’, and ‘Dorothy Eckford’. “We grow each variety on its own separate wigwam, about 15 meters away from any others, to avoid possible cross-pollination,” Gohlke says. “So far, it seems to have worked.” Heritage vegetable varieties that Gohlke has found particularly suitable for seed saving include the red-and-white-flowered runner bean ‘Painted Lady’ and the climbing, purple-podded French bean known as ‘Cosse Violette’.
Renvyle House Hotel photograph by Ethne Clarke; All others by Richard Johnston
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014