Visiting gardens is a popular pastime and many people delight in the wonderful range of both public and private gardens across Ireland that are open to visitors every year.

But have you ever wondered how these beautiful places are created and who tends to them? Who are the people responsible for those sweeping lawns, majestic specimen trees, exemplary kitchen gardens and glorious, multi-coloured herbaceous borders?

The often-unsung heroes behind some of our most beautiful gardens are the head gardeners who spend their working lives developing and nurturing such gardens for our enjoyment. Some will have come into their role with a professional qualification in horticulture while others may have started in a junior role and progressed through their career as an apprentice or through gaining on-the-job experience. Many will have evolved as a hybrid of both.

Head Gardeners’ Symposium 2023

A few weeks ago, I attended the Head Gardeners’ Symposium 2023 at Coollattin House in Co. Wicklow. This event brings together professional gardeners from across the country and provides a valuable networking forum for them to share experiences, ideas and challenges. Around sixty head gardeners travelled from all over Ireland; representing a range of gardens from public to private, large to small, and both historic and contemporary.

Some of the gardeners from larger properties - for example, those run by the Office of Public Works - are part of a team, but some smaller, privately-owned properties may only have one gardener. In several cases, the gardens are vast, made up of many hectares of lawns, meadows, woodlands, borders, water features, kitchen gardens, walled gardens, glasshouses and more.

One thing which struck me, as I recognised various faces around the room, was the enormity of the collective wealth and diversity of hands-on practical gardening knowledge and experience contained within that space. Amongst those present were the custodians of several of our most prestigious gardens and landscapes. And yet, one of the great challenges of our multi-billion-euro horticulture industry is the common perception that a career in horticulture is a job of low skill and intelligence.

Too often, this unfortunately results in pay levels and employer and public attitudes that are disproportionately low to the responsibilities, qualifications, skills and abilities of head gardeners and other horticultural professionals. The reality is that there are few other professions where the knowledge and skills needed to effectively carry out the job are so wide.

As one of the speakers, Michael White, former curator at Mount Congreve Gardens in Co Waterford, put it, the job description for a head gardener requires not just a good interest and knowledge of plants along with the multitude of gardening and growing skills, but also allied skills in managing public relations, human resources, health and safety, budgets, machinery operation and maintenance, creative design, construction, engineering, tour guiding, plumbing and everything in between.

A further insight into the role was given by Claire McNally, head gardener at the National Trust’s Rowallane Gardens in Co Down, in her thought-provoking presentation outlining the difficult decisions she regularly faces to resolve tensions between conservation of plants in a historically significant garden landscape and the new extremes in weather and growing conditions arising from climate change.

Historic garden consultant and plantsman Neil Porteous also addressed the gathering, introducing a selection of less familiar plants from various parts of the world that offer potential to adapt and grow in the changing and more challenging growing conditions emerging in Irish gardens.

Gardening and horticulture in Ireland are, without doubt, in a very dynamic phase and for our head gardeners there are new and ever-increasing challenges in continuing to deliver and maintain beautiful gardens for our enjoyment as visitors. However, for young people who might be considering a career in horticulture, despite the challenges and ill-informed perceptions, there are few careers that offer such a diversity of employment opportunities or that give such satisfaction.

Revamping a 1980s legacy

Energised by my day spent rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s finest gardeners, I returned to my own garden with renewed gusto to finally tackle some long-planned renovations of a few tired sections of borders. My late dad was fond of the heather and dwarf conifer trend during the 1980s and, despite falling out of fashion, this duo continues to be of value, especially considering the winter months ahead. However, one such legacy planting in a corner of our garden was long overdue a revival. Most of the original heathers are now removed, having become sparse and leggy from over-maturity and a period of neglected pruning.

The majority of the conifers are being retained for structure and vertical interest and I have begun reinterpreting the heather and conifer theme with a modern twist. To restore ground cover between the conifers, I am creating a tapestry of foliage textures using mostly winter-flowering heathers, which are lime-tolerant, alongside the fine, linear leaves of ornamental grasses and contrasting with ferns and larger-leaved perennials such as epimediums and bergenias in the shadier spots.

No two leaves of Cotinus obovatus share the same pattern of their magnificent autumn colouring.

This low-level planting is being punctuated with small shrubs, such as hydrangeas, leucothoe and sarcococca. The new heathers have been planted in bold drifts and amongst them is my favourite Erica carnea ‘Myretoun Ruby’. From January to May, it is smothered with an abundance of ruby-red, urn-shaped flowers that provide valuable nectar for early bees.

As I work away on revamping this border, I am relishing being immersed in the slower pace of the garden at this time as it has its final fling before winter sets in.

Glossy, purplish red leaves of Leucothoe ‘Zeblid’ are a pleasing contrast to the fine-textured, yellow-green foliage of the winter-flowering heather Erica carnea ‘Foxhollow’.

There is still much to enjoy — the leaves of Cotinus obovatus are glowing in a pyrotechnic mix of golds, reds, oranges and yellows while the now fiery orange leaves of the Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, infuse the air with their mouthwateringly sweet aroma, reminiscent of burnt sugar. Feathery plumes gently sway atop the leafy stems of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ and elegant spires of Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ are packed with purple-blue blooms, resembling delphiniums.

The scented, bottle-brush flower spikes of Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’ are just starting to emerge, Barbie-pink nerines shimmer like fireworks, and myriad colourful Michaelmas daisies will flower well into November.

This Month’s To-Do List

  • Prune tall roses and top-heavy flowering shrubs, such as Buddleja, Lavatera and Anisodontea, to half their height to prevent wind rock, which damages roots. Defer their final hard cut until spring.
  • Reinvigorate established clumps of early-summer flowering herbaceous perennials by dividing them in autumn while the soil is moist and still warm. Also, cut back deciduous hedges, like beech.
  • Regularly rake or use a leaf blower to keep lawn areas free of fallen leaves and pile them into mesh bags to make leaf mould.
  • Clean bird boxes, feeders and birdbaths thoroughly in readiness for winter. Mary Keenan and Ross Doyle run Gash Gardens in Co Laois, which are open to the public. Visit for more information.
  • Garden club events nationwide

    Check out listings in The Irish Garden magazine, local newspapers, club websites and social media.

  • Saturday, 11 November 2023 Gardening skills workshop: Soil Life and Gardening for The Future, RHSI Bellefield, Shinrone, Co Offaly from 9:45am-3:30pm. Pre-booking essential via
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