The Casual Gardener: Carlow gardens lead trail of success

The annual Carlow Garden Festival has intimacy, a splash of celebrity and some trusted perennials…

Monty Don's 2017 appearance is singled out as a Carlow Garden Festival highlight – he's back on August 3. Picture by Marsha Arnold

IMAGINE Glastonbury, only for gardeners, and in Ireland rather than England. It might look something like the annual Carlow Garden Festival.

From humble beginnings back in 2002 when it was a series of workshops and talks by mainly local gardeners, it has grown into a 10-day international extravaganza, attracting some of the biggest names in horticulture. It still retains a intimate atmosphere, however, endeavouring to enable as much interaction as possible between guests and visitors.

It was conceived around the Carlow Garden Trail, a collection of 19 different gardening attractions spread across the county.

“The objective,” says Robert Miller, chairman of the trail and owner of Altamont Plant Sales, “was to heighten awareness of this valuable cultural heritage and tourism resource through the organisation of a dedicated 10-day festival featuring many of the locations on the trail.”

Robert believes the county's large number of acclaimed public and private gardens stems from a combination of “temperate climate and good soil”.

Carlow boasts public gardens of note at Altamont and Duckett's Grove and many private gardens, such as those at Hardymount, Borris House and Huntington Castle, Clonegal.

Award-winning garden centres like Arboretum and Rathwood, and a number of forest parks give the festival experience another dimension, says Robert.

“The backdrop of the big houses, with the original descendants of the family still living in the properties, is a real selling point for many visitors,” he says.

“And on top of all that we have some of the best-presented towns and villages in the country, where community involvement is paramount and visitors really enjoy travelling through these places, admiring the planting schemes on display during the 10 days of the festival.”

The festival is backed from Carlow Tourism and that support is adequately repaid with more than 2,000 visitors last year, spending in excess of €250,000.

“The vast majority of attendees are from outside Carlow, drawn from all over the country,” says Eileen O'Rourke of Carlow Tourism, adding that over the past three years she's noticed a considerable increase in the number coming from north of the border.

Among the festival's many highlights over the years, Monty Don's 2017 appearance is singled out, with some 800 people gathering to hear a talk by the Gardener's World presenter at Arboretum Home and Garden Heaven in Leighlinbridge.

Monty returns to the festival on August 3 for what is expected to be a sell-out appearance. He'll be giving an insight into the customs and wonders of Japanese and Paradise gardens.

Elsewhere, countless gardening experts and personalities from across Ireland and Britain will take part in a series of workshops, garden tours, specialist talks, Q&A sessions, films, and long-table lunches at venues on Carlow Garden Trail.

Among the expected highlights is the return of Neil Porteous, head gardener at Mount Stewart, who'll be walking and talking his way through Altamont Gardens' fine plant collections and ancient oak woodland.

Renowned herb specialist Jekka McVicar makes her Carlow debut, sharing an extensive knowledge of growing and designing sustainable herb gardens.

There's a culinary flavour also to the talk at Shankill Castle by Aaron Bertelsen, vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter in Kent. Visitors can enjoy a garden-to-table feast thereafter, celebrating summer produce from the on-site walled garden.

Other big draws include Alys Fowler, Dermot O'Neill and Dan Pearson, internationally renowned landscape and garden designer.

:: For more information and booking info on Carlow Garden Festival (Saturday July 27 – Monday August 5) visit

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