The Casual Gardener: Open season for gardeners

For more than 50 years the gates of the north's finest private gardens have been opened to the public to raise funds for garden heritage projects. John Manley reports on the Ulster Gardens Scheme

Dawn and Ken McEntee's secret Hillsborough garden which is open on the weekend of June 24 and 25 Picture: Brian Webb

SOME may regard it as a nosey parkers’ charter, while others see it as an opportunity to get a glimpse of how the other half lives. For the majority, however, it’s a chance to savour a shared passion with a bit of socialising thrown in. The Ulster Gardens Scheme – that’s a six county ‘Ulster’ by the way – has been a summer mainstay for the past 57 years. On selected weekends between now and mid-August, it sees the gates of some of the north's best private gardens flung open to the public.

The scheme’s approach and ethos is quite simple – charge a small entrance fee, sell some plants and raise money to help preserve our garden heritage by supporting specially-selected National Trust projects.

What the visiting gardener gets in return is the opportunity to see how others interpret their space through landscaping and planting. Sometimes what you see is a joint effort between husband and wife, other times it’s one person’s idea executed by a team. But whoever’s garden it is, the hand-picked selection means there’s always something interesting to be seen – at the very least a plant or feature that’ll inspire, and at best a jaw-dropping garden that visitors leave with a mixture of awe and envy.

This year there are seven gardens open on specified days and a further 16 that open for visitors who make an appointment. The list has been selected by a committee of volunteers who’ve been working throughout the close season planning this year’s programme.

The committee secretary is Margaret Gray, who’s been involved with organising the scheme since 1974. She says the committee members hear about potential gardens by word of mouth and that there’s no set criteria beyond a garden having extra special appeal.

Other members of the team spend their time producing hundreds of plants to sell at the garden openings, often offering visitors the opportunity to find some rare and unusual plants.

So far this year the Ulster Gardens Scheme committee has allocated around £13,000 to National Trust gardens in Northern Ireland. It’s helped fund various planting schemes at Rowallane and Castle Ward in Co Down and Downhill in Co Derry, as well as the purchase of roses for the Lady Edith rose garden at Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula and soft fruit bushes for the walled garden at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh.

The first of this year's openings – the Co Down garden of Lady Augusta Nicholson – takes place today and tomorrow. Ballyalloly House near Comber is six acres of rare shrubs, mature trees, herbaceous plants and many other horticultural delights. It was originally designed by the late Hugh Armitage Moore of Rowallane and features a lawn sweeping down from the house to a large pond and damp area at the bottom of the garden. It's previously been described by one admiring visitor as "Powerscourt without the formality". Head gardener Adam McMurray will on hand to answer questions.

Other gardens that will be open over the coming weeks include Lorna and John Reid's near Holywood Co Down (Saturday and Sunday May 27 and 28), which is described as a "true plantsman's garden"; Lord and Lady Anthony Hamilton's Killyreagh in Co Fermanagh (June 17 and 18); Dawn and Ken McEntee's secret Hillsborough garden (June 24 and 25); Hugh Jackson and Judith O’Keeffe's prairie-style Glenwherry garden (July 24/25); the Pages' mature Bushmills garden (July 29/30 ); and this year's openings conclude on Saturday and Sunday August 12-13 at Andrew and Heather White's Summerhill garden in Tandragee.

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