The Casual Gardener: Carlow's floral fiesta

Ireland's sunny south east is set to host a 10-day feast of gardening fun. John Manley checks out the Carlow Garden Festival

The Shankill Castle gardens are among the many locations being utilised in the Carlow Garden Festival

CO WICKLOW has a long-standing reputation as ‘the garden of Ireland’ but its mantle is facing a challenge from neighbouring Carlow. Once renowned for growing onions – from which the 'Scallion Eaters’ nickname for its natives derives – Carlow has shown over the past decade or more that its floral repertoire extends far beyond the allium family.

More rustic and less crowded than the commuter-heavy coastal county, Carlow has become home to Ireland’s premier garden festival, which gets under way next Saturday July 23 and runs for a further nine days.

The organisers have gathered together the veritable ‘gardeners’ Glastonbury’ of a line-up, with leading horticultural figures from both sides of the Irish Sea talking shop against a backdrop of some amazing locations.

With significantly fewer corporate name-checks and less reliance on the temporary wow factor of show gardens, the Carlow festival feels more authentic than the bigger garden shows held on both sides of the border. The festival is made up of a number of events spread over different locations on different days, and while a commercial element remains, Carlow Garden Festival’s programme appears more about creating a memorable experience than generating footfall.

Some of the events are free, while others have an admission charge ranging from to €5 (with light refreshments included) to €25 for a Diarmuid Gavin-Helen Dillon doubleheader.

As the publicity material states, the Carlow Garden Festival "offers an opportunity to obtain practical advice from instructive workshops while exploring the diversity of the county's acclaimed Garden Trail" – a collection of 21 different gardening attractions, ranging from "great old gardens that have been lovingly restored and maintained throughout the years, to smaller gardens and award-winning garden centres".

So what exactly can visitors see and hear at the various events taking place across the county – and indeed at the one or two staged in neighbouring counties Kildare and Wexford?

The aforementioned appearance by garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, accompanied by Helen Dillon and Carmel Duignan, takes place in Arboretum Home and Garden Heaven garden centre, Leighlinbridge, on the festival’s opening night. ‘A Romp in My Garden’ sees gardening’s gregarious enfant terrible discuss the acclaimed Harrods British Eccentrics’ Garden which he created for this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. He’ll subsequently be joined by Dillon and Duignan, with who Gavin collaborated on the Silver Gilt medal-winning garden, for complementary insight into the conception, creation and execution of a high-end show garden.

Helen Dillon returns to the festival twice later in the week, appearing at both Shankill Castle and Borris House.

Continuing the Chelsea theme, John Massey from Ashwood Nurseries, which won both a Gold Medal and the coveted RHS Diamond Jubilee Award this year, will be part of a full day programme in Altamont Plant Sales in Tullow. He’ll be joined for the masterclass by RHS judge James Alexander-Sinclair and west Clare gardener Carl Wright.

Other highlights include an extensive series of garden tours featuring Mount Stewart head gardener Neil Porteous, parks superintendent with the Republic's Office of Public Works Hugh Carrigan, who offers an insider's view of Carlow's Altamont Gardens, and June Blake, who takes in the Meadows Gardens in Myshall and Lucy’s Wood in Bunclody, a new addition to the garden festival for 2016.

Two tree trails in Huntington Castle and Newtownbarry House can be enjoyed in the company of the infinitely knowledgeable Thomas Pakenham, author of The Company of Trees and Meetings with Remarkable Trees. Other contributors over the course of the 10-day festival include Daily Telegraph gardening columnist Mary Keen, botanist John Grimshaw, designer Gordon Ledbetter and RTÉ gardening contributor Dermot O'Neill.

:: The full Carlow Garden Festival programme is available at


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