Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Green-fingered JOHN TREW highlights our ‘growing’ attractions…

NORTHERN IRELAND’S Gardens are the finest in the world, and we should be doing more to exploit them as tourist attractions. Whether you believe it or not, our temperate climate, soil and excellent growing conditions for plants originating across the globe — from the Himalayas to Southern Africa and beyond — are the envy of visiting horticulturalists worldwide who are in awe of our gardens, both public and private.

On the recent BBC NI TV series, modestly titled ‘Greatest Gardens’, the two Dubliners who hosted the programme, Dairmud Gavin and Helen Dillon, agreed that “Northerners show far better gardening skills than Southerners and work harder for perfection”. It’s the only statement ever made by Mr Gavin that could change my opinion of the Stage Oirishman and his ‘bad-boy of garden design’ posturing that used to irritate me so much.

This summer, make a point of visiting as many gardens as you can, as well as recommending the tourists you encounter to do likewise. I commend a number of initiatives that make it easy to choose the very best among the scores of colourful opportunities available within a couple of hours’ drive of our capital’s most visited outdoor attraction, BELFAST BOTANIC GARDENS, which is the perfect starting point for any tour.

It is, appropriately enough, the No 1 stop on the ANTRIM GARDEN TRAIL, a splendid recent initiative involving nine of the County’s most rewarding destinations. Check out their website or find their free NI Tourist Board map-folder at local TICs, Garden Centres etc to help in planning your route which takes in many of my own favourites including: BALLYROBERT COTTAGE GARDEN (which is the hub of the initiative), ANTRIM CASTLE GARDENS, BENVARDEN, GLENARM CASTLE, CARNFUNNOCK and my latest discovery, KILCOAN GARDENS.

Kilcoan is a fascinating mix of cottage gardens and a commercial cut-flower enterprise, overlooking Larne Lough on one side of Islandmagee and close, on the Irish Sea side, to THE GOBBINS PATH (due to become one of Ulster’s greatest attractions… some day).

I chatted recently to its inspirational creator Cherry Townsend in the aromatic atmosphere of her huge Herb Garden that could keep every herbalist and chef in Ulster supplied with everything from borage and basil to lovage and lemon balm (well, lots of mint anyway). She gardens organically so the bumble bees were abundant, as were the tenants of a big ‘bug-hotel’ providing ideal habitats for various kinds of creepy-crawlies. When I praised her use of an cabbage-looking border plant with green-purple blooms, Cherry immediately rushed off to one of her potting sheds and brought me back a generous envelope of Cerinthe seeds. In return, I will publicise her Summer events — for full details ,Tel: 07703519564, visit July 29 and Aug 15, Afternoon Tea and Garden Tour £14; July 25 and 26 — Guided Tour £6 (no need to book); July18, Aug 8, Sept 5 — Flower Arranging Workshop £35.

Ulster Garden Scheme lets us in on secret worlds

THE NATIONAL TRUST is behind one of Ulster’s most popular horticultural institutions, the ULSTER GARDEN SCHEME (UGS) which allows us to peek behind the hedges into some of the most delightful private gardens when they are at their best, from May to August. Brochures are free from the usual outlets and up-to-date details are at

Gardens are usually open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with plant sales and charity teas a big bonus in many of them. Frankly, after an hour trying to find some of the rural locations in spite of the usually excellent UGS yellow signage, a cup of tea and a home-made traybake is more important than the gardens! Before I mention a few forthcoming highlights of July and August, I want to pay tribute to the kind people who spend weeks of backbreaking toil and — sometimes substantial amounts of money — preparing for the invasion of the critical Green Fingered Brigade!

My wife Karen and I are regulars at UGS Open Days, averaging five or six visits a season, and have sometimes noted the fresh plantings ( complete with new Dobbies price tags ) in some showy gardens, as well as the expected evidence of last-minute lawn mowing and weed-extermination in them all.

We would do the same, god help us, if we would ever have been subjected to such pressure, so let me pay high praise to all gardeners prepared to open up to the public. Deserving of honourable mention already this season is the quarry garden developed over 50 years by the late Dr Magill of Downpatrick, now nurtured by the Galloway family; it was outstanding. Their freshwater swimming pool located in a sheltered sun trap was very tempting on a hot afternoon (May 23, remember it?). Thank you, Michael and Geraldine! And I nearly forgot to mention - the alfresco afternoon teas were provided by the local Alzheimer Society.

I would also praise my old friends Fionnuala and David Cook for opening up their characteristically quirky, amusing and stimulating small garden in the middle of Loughbrickland village. Although their lives are less frenetic than they used to be ( e.g. when David served his communities brilliantly as the first Alliance Lord Mayor of Belfast), preparation requires a high level of commitment.

Among the forthcoming UGS attractions of Mid-Summer is the prizewinning urban garden of Roz and Victor Henry open in NEWTOWNARDS on July 4&5. With its showy African agapanthus blooms, banana trees and ginger lilies, it is truly an urban jungle in the nicest sense. No teas at the house, but plenty of plants for sale in aid of this National Trust scheme.

In contrasting style, the gardens of the Wards at Tattykeel House outside OMAGH on July 18 &19, have a distinctly traditional country garden feel, with lots of conifers, shrubs, roses and perennials. Kathleen Ward operates a craft studio which adds interest to visitors. Teas and plants.

After July, the UGS programme has only one more garden open this 2015 season, but it’s a really a must-see! Mrs E G Wilson’s traditional country garden welcomes visitors on August 1 & 2 at Dawlish, 70 Limehill Road LISBURN. It was a medal-winner in the Belfast Telegraph's Bloomin’ Marvellous competition last year for the quality of its ornamental trees and shrubs in particular. Teas and plants.

Would I open to the public? No way!

WE HAVE BEEN flattered in the past by family and friends who have suggested that we open Trew Acres to the public. Alas, now that I have developed far-less-fatiguing pastimes than daily digging, weeding, pruning,mowing, cutting, lopping, spraying, mending and so on, there is not a dandelion’s chance in hell.

That said, I am still proud enough of our own small patch of Ulster’s Horticultural Heaven, to welcome occasional invited guests for a half-hour tour. The wildlife pond is looking particularly good this year and is so popular with kids that I bought a Young Explorer’s net and observation bucket; imagine — if every one of the million tadpoles in its plant-filled waters was to complete its life-cycle, our lawn would be a foot deep in fornicating frogs instead of buttercups, moss, daisies,dandelions,moss, sorrel, trefoil,plantains, moss and speedwell — plus the occasional blade of grass.

I must say, depending on the time of year, we have individual plantings that evoke a “Wow!” from the fellow-plantsman who regularly comes to our house. He likes the soup-plate-size (but infrequent) blooms of our mighty Magnolia Grandiflora which is,frankly, a waste of space;and he is going to order for himself the amazingly bountiful ‘Avalanche’ daffodils, known in Holland as ‘Seventeen Sisters’ because that’s the number of blooms per bulb. The clematis ‘Josephine’ framing our front door has already produced over 50 saucer-size light-purple rosette blooms this year; I found it in a little nursery in the Mournes. Our other ‘stars’ of 2015 have been the best-ever show of tulips, headed by the blousey blooms of red/white Parrot tulips; Raspberry Ripple heuchera; and the Swiss chard veg I recently chatted about to my gardening GP, Dr Reid, while he lanced — and painstakingly drained — the massive abscess in my writing arm so as I could finish Trew’s Travels on time.

World-class gardens near and far

MY PERSONAL FAVOURITE garden at the moment is the imaginatively refurbished BANGOR CASTLE WALLED GARDEN which is just across the carpark from the busy AURORA AQUATIC CENTRE. It is an equally excellent attraction on the growing list of world-class Visitor Attractions now in the Tourism Portfolio of the new Ards and North Down Council. This newly amalgamated council is also home to Ireland’s finest Gardens at MOUNT STEWART,the fabulous National Trust property near Greyabbey. What a great story to tell the growing global market for green tourists!

Bangor’s Walled Garden is now complete with a great café run by the nice people who also operate the restaurant/café in the NORTH DOWN MUSEUM which is another great family-day-out attraction. The cafés are good for traybakes but their fresh muffins are exceptional. The National Trust’s ROWALLANE GARDENS at Saintfield have a much more mature Walled Garden, which always has exciting displays going on since Avril Milligan took over as Head Gardener.

Further away, Karen and I have enjoyed some of the other finest gardens in the world,such as the SINGAPORE ORCHID GARDEN, ONTARIO BOTANIC outside Toronto, EDEN PROJECT in Cornwall, EDINBURGH BOTANIC and its out-station in Galloway, LOGAN BOTANIC. Because we once spent a stimulating week visiting twelve Gardens of the Loire Valley, we have fond memories of meeting the French owners/designers of two outstanding properties, Henri Cavallo in the formal gardens of CHATEAU DE VILLANDRY, and my friend Patricia Laigneau, saviour/inspirational spirit of the quirky CHATEAU DU RIVEAU Gardens; we still exchange Christmas Cards and emails.

I have never spent a more delightful time as a travel journalist, as I wrote here in the double-page spread about the trip… Happy Days!

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