For many gardeners the sight of spring-flowering bulbs or borders brimming with colour in mid-summer is all the affirmation they need. Now and again, however, it's nice to get some credit for your toil. For the Earl and Countess of Antrim – Randal and Aurora to their friends – the recent award for Glenarm Castle Walled Garden is recognition, if any were needed, that their labour of love for the past two decades has been well worth it.
The 200-year-old coastal Co Antrim garden, home to the annual Tulip Festival, recently secured the Historic Houses 2023 Garden of the Year Award, the first time since 1984 the UK-wide accolade has been given to a garden on this side of the Irish Sea. Sponsored by auctioneer Christie's, the awards are designed to recognise the most spectacular gardens with both outstanding horticultural and public appeal.
Originally dating from the 1820s, when its role was to provide seasonal produce for the adjoining castle, the four-acre walled garden "wasn’t much more than crumbling walls and a few grazing sheep" at the turn of the millennium.
"It was my husband Randal’s decision to restore the walled garden when he took on Glenarm Castle in the mid-1990s," says Aurora.
"At that stage he just wanted to rescue it from a state of terminal decline."
Back then there was nothing plant-wise apart from two circular hedges – a yew hedge dating back to the 1820s and a beech hedge planted in the 1950s by Randal’s grandfather.
The project gathered momentum in the early 2000s, with notable input from Nigel Marshall, the former head gardener at Mount Stewart in Co Down, who created the herbaceous borders that occupy the bottom half of the garden.
"Once these had been created, it spurred us on to restore and redesign the rest of the garden and it was at that point that we enlisted the help of garden designer Catherine Fitzgerald who created a series of ornamental garden ‘rooms’ which make the garden so distinctive today," says Aurora. Others who've had past input include Belfast City Council's former head gardener Reg Maxwell, and presently plantsman and garden consultant Neil Porteous.
"I feel I have learned a lot from them via osmosis and certainly know what I like when it comes to plants and garden design etc," says Aurora, adding that while not a professional gardener, she's "always appreciated lovely gardens".
The owners are especially proud that "there's always something lovely and colourful for visitors to see".
"From the incredible tulip displays when we open in spring to the wonderfully bright herbaceous border full of wonderful dahlias, lilies and hydrangeas in the autumn," says Aurora.
"We have a very small garden team and so I am very proud of the way they manage to maintain it to the standard that they do."
The only disappointment she highlights in their endeavour is a circular mount built to capture a spectacular view across the glen to the south and over the North Channel: "We used the wrong soil to begin with so it collapsed, so we had to start again with that particular feature."
Like all enthusiastic gardeners , Aurora contends "gardens should never stand still" and so the Walled Garden will continue to evolve.
"We also want to create more of a horticultural spectacle in our Woodland Walk so that it ultimately becomes a proper extension to the Walled Garden in due course," she says.