The Casual Gardener: Kilcoan Gardens a blooming marvellous cottage industry

Cherry Townsend of Kilcoan Gardens is one of the two ‘farmer florists’ displaying their wares and knowledge in the Artisan Flower Pavilion at the Allianz Garden Show Ireland. She tells how a pastime developed into a cut flower business on the family’s Islandmagee farm

Cherry Townsend of Kilcoan Gardens – one of my favourite flowers would be phlox, which loves our heavy clay
Cherry Townsend of Kilcoan Gardens – one of my favourite flowers would be phlox, which loves our heavy clay

Where does your interest in gardening come from?

We never had a garden when growing up as our farmland surrounded the house but then, about 21 years ago, my mum decided to make a cottage garden in front of the house, inspired by the late great Geoff Hamilton. As I was off work on maternity leave, I began helping her. After returning to work, I helped at weekends and soon realised that I had fallen in love with gardening.

When and why did you decide to develop a business growing flowers?

About 10 years ago I decided to develop my love of gardening further and start growing cut flowers. As I was self-taught, I basically learnt along the way with plenty of mistakes – nothing beats experience. In the early stages, I also read every gardening book I could get my hands on – Rosemary Verey and Christopher Lloyd were both true inspirations and of course now, there is a wealth of information available online.

What are the rewards and challenges from being an organic grower, and how does your approach differ from a non-organic grower?

The challenges of organic growing are not really that different from non-organic. It really helps to know your soil and try not to fight nature – I have a heavy clay soil and therefore, in order to grow annuals, that prefer a lighter, drier soil, I grow in raised beds. I also grow a small quantity of a wide variety of plants whereas a large quantity of one plant (monoculture) is more liable to attract pests and diseases.

What are your favourite flowers?

A difficult choice to make but one of my favourites would be phlox, which loves our heavy clay. They are sweetly scented, insect friendly and don’t need staking in our windy garden. I have added quite a few old varieties over the past year and I’m really looking forward to cutting them this summer. I also love the scented, old fashioned roses which add a touch of luxury to a bouquet.

You run courses at your garden – what do you teach?

I run both gardening and flower arranging courses at Kilcoan. The ‘grow your own cut flowers’ course is a little bit of both where you can learn how to grow some flowers for cutting in your own garden – just a small patch of the right varieties can fill your home with beautifully scented flowers all summer long….and you will also feed the bees and butterflies at the same time. I will be giving free demonstrations at this year’s Allianz Garden Show Ireland.

Do you have a vegetable garden?

I do have a vegetable garden at Kilcoan with a mixture of mainly salad crops, peas, beans and some root veg. The edible flowers of calendula, nasturtiums and chives add colour and also bring bees to help pollinate the other crops. Hoverflies also act as both pollinators and pest controllers – companion planting is essential when growing veg organically. I also grow some soft fruit – there is nothing nicer than eating a bowl of your own home-grown strawberries in mid-summer.

Is your garden open to the public?

The gardens are open to the public (including our recently planted woodland walk with views towards Scotland and the Glens of Antrim) from April to September, Wednesday through to Sunday 12 noon – 5pm. Garden Entry £3.50, Children free. Further details on the website

:: The Allianz Garden Show Ireland takes place from May 4–6 May at Antrim Castle Gardens. A three-day family-friendly festival features flowers, food, crafts, music, dedicated kids zone and lots more. You can follow the show on Facebook and Twitter or visit