Ballintubbert Gardens and House near Stradbally, Co Laois is the venue for the inaugural Festival of Gardens and Nature. The two-day festival is the brainchild of historic garden designer Catherine FitzGerald, custodian of Glin Castle, and Minnie Preston of Ballintubbert House, which is an established wedding and events venue.

Stage and screen star John Hurt was the instigator for the restoration of much of the garden in the 1990s, guided by Irish designer Arthur Shackleton, who will speak at the festival along with his son, Edward.

Catherine FitzGerald has a well-established landscape design business. She divides her time between the UK and Ireland with her husband, actor Dominic West (who many will know from The Crown) and their four children.

Actor Dominic West will talk at the Festival of Gardens and Nature about creating a natural swimming pool

“The festival came about because Minnie and I love going to the Kells Bay Southern Symposium run by Billy Alexander down in the Ring of Kerry, where he has restored an amazing garden of tree ferns and sub-tropical planting,” says Catherine.

“It’s a wonderful two days with extremely knowledgeable gardeners, landscapers and plant explorers. People from the Botanic Gardens like Seamus O’Brien and Neil Porteous are supporting us, and speakers are coming from as far as America, Canada, all experts in their fields.

“I’m also a fan of the Northern Ireland Heritage Garden Trust, who have marvellous annual conferences. But again, it’s for people who are very involved in either working in that field or are very knowledgeable already.”

Minnie Preston and Catherine FitzGerald, organisers of the Festival of Gardens and Natures

Broad appeal

While Catherine knows that the Festival of Gardens and Nature will appeal immediately to a specific audience, her vision is to also aim it at a wider demographic and younger people.

“We enjoy these weekends so much, but we can also spread the word to people who are just becoming interested in this field, and becoming more aware of environmental issues,” she says.

Biodiversity and environmental issues are keystones of the festival and part of their mission is to get visitors to engage more.

“You can have a beautiful garden and be gardening for biodiversity,” she says. “With traditional gardening, you might be treating your lawn with chemicals, and using weed killer on your paths. What comes to mind is a less rigid way of gardening. Maybe leaving some parts of your garden wild and trying to introduce species of wild flowers and try more composting. That led us to ask Tom Petherick to contribute to the festival, who is an expert on biodynamic gardening.

“It also made us think about the relationship between cooks and gardeners. Rory O’Connell has come on board and another vegetable gardener, Kitty Scully of Home Grown (and writer in Irish Country Living). We wanted to make it interesting for people who are into productive gardening.”

Kitty Scully, from Home Grown, will cover organic gardening

Diverse speakers

The festival brings together a diverse group of speakers from the worlds of contemporary garden design, horticulture, historic gardens and nature conservation. “Even floristry,” says Catherine. “That might not be what people consider gardening, but it’s represented and so creative.”

Shane Connelly, born and raised in Northern Ireland, has a florist business inspired by a strong environmental conscience. The fabulous field maples lining Westminster Abbey Connolly used for Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding are emblematic of his style.

“He will host a talk with New York’s finest florist Emily Thompson; if you look up her work it’s absolutely extraordinary. It’s very much that aesthetic of keeping things wild, floral design inspired by naturalism. She has a massive following in the States, so that was a bit of a coup.”

Ballintubbert House with Copper Beach, Co Laois

Historic gardens

Catherine is well known for her work in the gardens at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down and at Glenarm, Co Antrim, which won the 2023 Historic Houses Garden of the Year Award.

“I’m passionate about how to do gardening that respects the past while keeping things vibrant and fresh,” she says. “Sometimes you see gardens which are becoming fossilised. Things can lose vigour. You’re walking around feeling rather depressed. But, plants are changing, styles are changing. Neil Porteous and Colm O’Driscoll, who have done a beautiful job at Lismore Castle, are joining me for a session on historic gardening.”

This is a festival aimed at gardeners and nature lovers at all levels. The programme will include informal conversations as well as more structured talks accompanied by images . A useful ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ style panel will answer audience’s gardening dilemmas on Sunday morning.

Garden spectacular

The event aims to be as entertaining and relaxed as it will be informative and inspiring. Johnny Flynn, actor and singer, will perform from his latest album on Saturday; there will be guided garden tours and floristry and foraging workshops; plus, lots of opportunities to buy plants and flowers, and food and drinks supplied by artisanal food trucks.

“It’s meant to feel like a festival rather than a conference. It’s less serious, more fun,” Catherine says. “We hope people will feel the sessions are lively and vibrant and like-minded souls can meet each other and find new inspirations.

20 to 21 April, open Saturday from 10am to 7pm and on Sunday from 10am to 5pm.Tickets available on Eventbrite. See

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