A visit to the Gardens of Mount Stewart in the depths of winter.
sky accompanied by a fine mizzle - the sort of day that in
summer in the west of Ireland they might call "soft".
But this is the 14th of December, cold and damp and the type
of day that encourages you to stay indoors by the fireside.
But forget the fireside for once. Go and visit one of the
gardens that stays open to visitors in December. I was heading
to the National Trust property at Mount Stewart on the Ards
peninsula, outside Newtownards in County Down, Northern Ireland.
The garden at Mount Stewart lies at the easternmost point
of the Ards peninsula. It was created in the 1920's by Lady
Edith Londonderry, who bequeathed it to the National Trust
The formal garden designs are inspiring and have influences
from Ireland, Britain and Europe. To the south of the house,
the Italian garden features parterres, edged with low clipped
hedges of heather, berberis and hebe and overflowing with
herbaceous plants. The Spanish garden has five metre tall
arched hedges of Cupressus leylandii surrounding an oval pool
with eight rills leading off. The Shamrock garden contains
symbols of Northern Ireland in horticultural form - an Irish
harp in clipped yew and a Red Hand of Ulster in a bedding
scheme of red begonias .
The mild climate ensures the survival of many tender plants
such as Clianthus pucineus, tree ferns and olive trees, and
adds a subtropical feel to many of the plantings in what is
truly one of the greatest gardens in Ireland.
December, however, the gardens take on a more subtle
appearance. Gone are the heady displays of herbaceous
perennials, and the formal gardens are closed to the
public because of the treacherous conditions underfoot
on the terraces ; the mild and wet micro climate encourages
moss growth. But don't let this put you off. Glimpses
through the closed gates leading to the formal gardens
reveal the stark forms of statuary against a perfect
backdrop of clipped yews and the Cupressus leylandii.
The effect of the statues and columns is more striking
in winter. Now they are contrasted solely against the
evergreens and the bare branches of trees and shrubs
rather than against the lush vegetation of summer that
sometimes seems to envelop them.
however, the gardens around the lake yield up treasures
both subtle and dramatic. The gardens hold the national
collection of phormiums and these are dramatically silhouetted
in the winter garden, especially when seen against a
backdrop of the pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana.
phormiums also form the counterfoil to late flowering
lace cap hydrangea, the soft blues, mauves, and plums
of the hydrangea contrasting effectively with the steely
blue-green formal foliage of the phormium.
lake itself forms the perfect reflective surface for
the orange stems of willow emerging from the bare branches
and evergreens of the mature woodland planting surrounding
the tower of Tir na nOg, the burial ground of the Londonderry
Look closer at the bare branches of the smaller shrubs and
trees by the lakeside and you will find a vast community
of thriving lichens glowing in the fading winter light.
exiting the garden, turn around a corner and you are
stopped in your tracks by the electric blue of a salvia,
possibly Salvia guaranitica. This is flowering in midwinter
at a height of six to eight feet, the blue-black tall,
branching stems carrying spikes of the familiar sage
flowers:upper lip hooded, lower lip slightly curved
A perfect memory to take back with you to the fireside.