The Alpine Garden at Lissadell
by Rachel O’Sullivan
The Alpine Garden is located on the shores of Sligo Bay with views over Rosses Point, Strandhill and Knocknarea, with the Ox Mountains in the distance. It is a 1.6 acre walled garden dating back to the 1760s. The original function of the garden was to serve as a kitchen garden to the first Lissadell House, which was located adjacent to the southeast wall of the garden. The house was demolished in the 1830s and at this time the function of the garden changed to become purely ornamental. The various gardeners in Lissadell have all left their mark on the Alpine Garden; some of the changes made over the years are still evident today. The gardener with the strongest impact was Sir Josslyn Gore Booth (1869 – 1944). His interest in alpine and rockery plants led to the creation of walls, beds and rockeries perfectly suited to growing these plants. He also had a strong interest in roses, shrubs and herbaceous perennials, and utilised all of these in the garden. Nearly all of the features present in the garden today date back to the time of Sir Josslyn or before. The topography of the garden is quite undulating, very unusual for a walled garden. The lower portion of the garden comprises a series of large rockeries constructed of local stone. The rockeries cover an area of approximately 0.6 acre and follow the natural uphill slope of this portion of the garden. More rockeries are located at the top of the inclination, as well as the ‘Daisy Walk’ and an old Escallonia macrantha hedge. The ‘Daisy Walk’ is so called as the path is bordered with the profusely flowering Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana. The beds on either side of the path are narrow herbaceous borders. Old iron arches still survive here and provide structure over the path. The path leads down a hill towards the three interlinking ponds, bordered on both sides by vibrant herbaceous borders. The slope rises again from this valley towards a sloping lawn, containing sixteen island beds, and two revetment beds. A fernery survives along the northeast-facing wall.
Following the death of Sir Josslyn, the garden was abandoned around 1955. Nature was allowed to run its course until the estate changed hands in 2003. Numerous Ash, Willow and Sycamore had seeded in the garden from the surrounding woodland and become established. Ivy, brambles, bindweed, and butterbur had taken hold also. People from the local area who visited the garden during the years of neglect all describe it as an impenetrable jungle. The initial clearance work in the garden concentrated on the removal of many of the self-sown trees. Some were removed completely but in many cases the stumps were left behind, as to remove them would have caused untold damage to the rockeries and pond walls. Much of the undergrowth was cleared also.
I began work in the Alpine Garden on April 2nd 2007. At this stage the majority of the clearance work had been completed. Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook in Blessington had designed and planted some of the beds in 2006. The long borders on the lower side of the pond were very well established by summer 2007 with a mix of shrubs and herbaceous perennials, giving a lush, tropical feel to the borders.
The top rockeries had been planted with a large selection of alpines, perennials, shrubs and conifers, all seemingly very happy in their new home. The ‘Daisy Walk’ and adjacent borders contained a range of herbaceous material, all well settled and standing up to the elements. The various cultivars of Dierama pulcherrimum standing proud on a raised rockery at the top of the hill are particularly eye-catching when in full flower. Jimi’s lasting legacy at Lissadell comes in the form of the many Echium pininana and Geranium palmatum that we happily allow to self-seed around the garden.
Pat Curneen and myself, Rachel O’Sullivan, are the two full time gardeners in the Alpine Garden. Pat has worked at Lissadell since 2005 and had previously been based in the walled Kitchen Garden, but began working in the Alpine Garden in April 2007. The first task to be undertaken was to plant up the rockeries. Carl Dacus of the Dublin School of Horticulture and Brian Wood of Murphy and Wood Garden Centre in Dublin were on board to help with the sourcing and layout of the plant material. On the day we began work on the rockeries, there were some 2,500 alpine and rockery plants waiting to be planted, all lovingly picked out by Carl and Brian. Carl was on site with us for three days of that first week so it was full steam ahead! On hand to help out with the planting were Nova Gadsby, Tadgh Murphy, Isobel Cassidy and Eddie Walsh. The rockeries are quite large and form a network of hills and valleys, with a series of narrow paths meandering through them. They were contructed by hand over a three-year period, between 1907 and 1910, using stone sourced from the local area.
It was obvious that great thought was put into the design and construction of the rockeries. The overall layout of each of the rockeries consists of numerous planting pockets. The soil type is mainly a sandy loam, but in some pockets it is evident that the soil type was changed to suit the plants to be grown. In some areas extra grit has been added, while in others the soil was quite heavy. A peat loam was evident in certain places. Some clearance work had to be carried out before planting could begin. Wild garlic had become prolific through the rockeries so as much as possible was dug out. Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica) had colonised one whole rockery, so the decision was made to ignore that rockery for the moment, as repeat spraying would be necessary to clear it. The aim of the initial planting was to give quick cover and quick colour, so plants that would fulfil this were used in large numbers, such as species and cultivars of Campanula, Helianthemum, Gypsophila, Aubretia, Geranium, Armeria,Dianthus and Lampranthus. Shrubs and grasses were used to provide permanent structure in the rockeries.
April 2007 was a very dry month so regular watering was necessary until the plants could become established. Further planting was carried out in July of the same year, using slightly more unusual plants to increase the diversity of plant material. Plants have been added to the rockeries on a regular basis since then. As some of the more robust plants became too large, they were removed to make space for more choice alpines. Carl visited some specialist alpine nurseries and provided us with a lovely selection of plants not widely seen in Ireland. The rockeries now hold approximately 300 species and cultivars of plants, a mix of alpines, perennials, shrubs and conifers. A very large range of spring flowering bulbs have been planted in the rockeries over the last two years, including many varieties and cultivars of Iris reticulata, Tulip, Narcissus, Crocus and Muscari. Brian Duncan provided us with many beautiful miniature Narcissus bulbs, all of which are planted throughout the rockeries and will flower for the first time at Lissadell in Spring 2009. One of these miniature Narcissus is actually a bulb that was originally bred by Josslyn Gore Booth at Lissadell, called Narcissus ‘Mite’.
A shale mulch has been used on the rockeries. The shale provides three benefits: it allows for better drainage around the alpines; it conserves moisture in the soil; and it helps to suppress weeds. It also improves the overall appearance of the rockeries. We have met with some problems during the time since planting took place. Horsetail (Equisetum sp.) has become dominant in portions of some of the rockeries and despite our efforts it does seem to be spreading. We believe that this weed was possibly lying dormant under the soil and once the soil was cultivated and loosened the horsetail came to the surface and thrived. This is being treated chemically, but it will be a long slow process. The Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica) took repeated spraying but is now nearly eradicated; just a few plants are standing their ground against us. Bindweed is present in some places also. This has been treated over the past two summers and is getting ever weaker. A very invasive species of Oxalis is spreading through the rockeries, and unfortunately roots through everything in its path, so this will be difficult to ever remove fully. It seems to be quite resistant to chemical treatment, and as it roots into every nook and cranny it is impossible to remove it all by digging.
The southeast section of the rockeries contained an area that had previously held a protective frame of some sort. Two rectangular concrete frames remained at ground level, surrounded by dry stone walls of large cut stone. This structure had been built into one of the rockeries. The walls were in very poor condition with many of the stones having shifted out of position. Tadgh Murphy carried out extensive repair work on the walls, rebuilding them from the ground up in many places. The frames were in such bad condition that they were beyond repair so it was decided to remove them.
This sheltered area provided the perfect location for a crevice garden. The aim of crevice gardening is to provide a suitable habitat to plants that naturally grow in deep cool crevices. This feature would allow us grow an even larger range of plants. We began work on the crevice garden in October 2007 with the help of Jimmy Currid and Stephen MacSweeney. The soil from the frames was dug over and much of it was removed. We found a lot of the stone needed within the estate and the remainder came from a quarry in Manorhamilton. The stones were laid in rows running in a southeast direction, so that we could fully utilise the aspect. The spaces between the stones were back-filled with a mix of grit and soil. The plants required are specialised for these growing conditions, and were sourced by Carl in Aberconwy Nurseries in Wales.
Once planted up, the crevice garden was mulched with fine shale. Most of the plants have established very well, though some appear to be quite appealing to slugs. Carl planted the surrounding walls with plants suited to growing in gaps between stones. These have settled in very well and really help to soften the wall.
Saxifraga paniculata ‘Cockscomb’ is one plant doing particularly well in these conditions. The crevice garden and walls now contain more than 100 species and cultivars of suitable plants.
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At the highest part of the garden, two revetment beds run parallel to the back wall of the garden. These beds are essentially raised terraced beds with sandstone retaining walls constructed in 1905. The beds are approximately 75 metres long by 3 metres wide. In the early part of the 20th century the revetment beds were planted with herbaceous plants while the retaining walls held alpine plants suited to growing in these conditions. In April 2007 they were heavily infested with weeds and carpeted in many places with Geranium nodosum. These were dug out by hand, the soil was rotovated and manure was dug in. It was decided to create rose beds in the revetment beds. Brian Wood of Murphy and Wood Garden Centre in Cabinteely, Dublin, developed a planting plan incorporating a mix of Hughes and David Austin roses. The beds contain a double row of shrub roses, with a row of climbing roses trained on steel obelisks running down the centre.
A row of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ softens the edges of the beds and provides great colour for the whole summer. The top bed also contains a row of climbing roses growing against the wall. A side bed running perpendicular to the revetment beds was also planted with a double row of shrub roses, all in various shades of pink, with a row of Nepeta to the front. Most of the roses are performing very well and repeat flower through the season.
The open sunny nature of the location means that fungal problems are minimal. Sawfly became a major problem during the summer of 2008, and the abundance of bees, butterflies and ladybirds made chemical treatment very difficult. There are more than 270 roses growing within the three beds so deadheading at the height of summer is a very time consuming process. Proper pruning and training of the climbing roses is very important and is an on-going commitment. Mushroom compost was used as a mulch on these beds initially. It greatly improved the quality of the soil, but we found that weed seeds readily germinated in it. We now use cocoa shell, which has proved much more suitable. In keeping with the original function of the revetment walls, the top retaining wall was planted with alpines in the winter of 2008. The plants used were taken from the rockeries in the garden.
A number of borders were present in the garden and most were in need of planting. The borders first needed to be cleared of excessive weed growth, and the soil was rotovated. The soil in the garden is a light clay loam and is very fertile. The soil had been worked for many years so the quality and structure was perfectly suited to planting. The fact that the garden was colonised by deciduous trees for nearly fifty years meant that leaf mould has naturally been incorporated into the soil over time, greatly increasing fertility. Brian Wood created the designs for the borders, and he, along with Carl Dacus, kindly sourced the plants for us. Carl was again on site to assist in the planting of these beds. The first border to be designed and planted was the long border running along the southeast wall. This border is approximately 80 metres long by 3 metres wide. The design incorporates both shrubs and perennials to give as long a season of interest as possible. Planting took place in July 2007 and the plants quickly settled in thanks to a damp summer. Many of the perennials provided a great show in their first year. We lost some plants during strong winds in the winter of 2007, as the lower half of this border is very exposed to the prevailing southwesterly winds. Those that survived are still going strong. Polygala x myrtifolia x oppositifolia ‘Bibi Pink’ andTeucrium fruticans are particularly good performers in this border, both consistently flowering for most of the year. A specimen of Arbutus unedo was planted at the top of the hill in 2008. Most trees would find it hard to grow in such exposed conditions, but the strawberry tree should thrive in this mild, windy spot.
A bed behind the freestanding peach wall was also planted in July 2007. The planting scheme for this bed incorporated many structural plants, including Dasyliron and Beschoneria, which add a tropical feel to this part of the garden. The plants are given the space they will need to develop and in time should fill out nicely. Two specimens of Romneya coulteri were planted in this bed, but unfortunately both disappeared.
Two borders, approximately 20.5 metres long by 2.75 metres wide, run along the lower wall of the garden, the sea wall. These beds face north so get very little sun, especially during the winter when the sun is quite low. The layout of planting in both beds mirror each other, and the plants used are proving quite shade tolerant. Shrubs dominate the planting scheme with favourites like Escallonia ‘Gold Ellen’ and Hypericum x inodorum growing very well. Herbaceous perennials have been used towards the front of the borders to provide additional summer colour. Two specimens of Solanum laciniatum have been trained on to the wall and have grown exceptionally well since planting, reliably setting fruit both years.
A new border was dug out in the lawn sloping up from the ponds during the summer of 2007. It was thought that this part of the garden looked slightly unbalanced, so the new border was added to provide a balance to the border planted by Jimi Blake. It measures 55 metres long by 3 metres wide. The planting plan for this bed allowed for the fact that we did not wish to block the sweeping view up over the lawn to the roses in the revetment beds at the top. This border contains a range of herbaceous perennials and specimen shrubs. Clumps of Stokesia laevis ‘Purple Parasols’ attract great attention while in full flower, while Chrysanthemum ‘Mei Kio’ provides great late colour.Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ and Melianthus major add structure to the bed. One of the Melianthus flowered for the first time in autumn 2008 and continued flowering through the winter.
Cocoa shell is used as a mulch throughout most of the herbaceous borders. It has proven very successful at suppressing weeds. We apply it directly to the soil, without the use of a weed suppressing liner. Weed seeds so not seem to germinate as readily in it, and where they do the loose nature of the mulch allows the seedlings to be easily pulled out. Blackbirds, thrushes and robins seem to love foraging through it, but as it is easier for them to move about than bark chippings even the larger birds don’t create the same mess. Cocoa shell is quite high in nutrient so it should prove beneficial to the soil in time. In the very exposed parts of the garden it does tend to blow around during the winter, but in most places it sticks quite well. It is a very lightweight material to work with, so it is perfect to use in a garden where access with wheelbarrows can be difficult. We top up the mulch once a year with a light coating to keep it looking fresh.
A fernery measuring 18 metres long by 2.5 metres wide survives in the northeast corner of the garden. It has been planted with a wide range of hardy ferns, Helleborus niger cultivars and spring bulbs. Galanthus, Fritillaria,Narcissus and Cyclamen provide spring interest. Anemone nemerosa naturalised in the fernery over the years of neglect, and this provides a vibrant carpet of blue and white in spring.
The Alpine Garden of the early 1900s had numerous island beds in the lawn. Photographs from the period show many circular, rectangular and kidney-shaped beds containing roses, Magnolia x soulangeana, Romneya coulteriand Meconopsis cambrica, among others. In 2007 these beds were covered over by the grass lawn but the lighter shade of the grass made their location and shape very evident. Pat dug sixteen of these beds out again during the summer of 2007, seven rectangular in shape and nine circular.
There was a huge volume of stone present in each bed. The stone had been graded for drainage purposes, with the smallest sharpest stone at the top and the largest rounded stones at the base. Most of the soil had been leached out of the beds over the years. It was necessary to remove large amounts of stone from many of the beds before planting could commence. The height of the beds was then built up using excess soil from the rose beds. This was very time-consuming as the rose beds are on a raised height over the lawn. The only possible way to complete this task was for Pat to fill a wheelbarrow with soil on the rose beds and tip the contents into my empty wheelbarrow waiting on ground level, which I then emptied into the beds in the lawn. The planting of these beds was a hotly debated topic for a while with many discussions on possible planting ideas. Eventually we decided to use a mix of architectural standards and hardy plants that would definitely stand up to the elements. Some of the more experimental plants used include two specimens of Magnolia stellata and two quarter-standard Callistemon citrinus. Neither was expected to perform very well in these windy conditions but so far neither had been inadvertently affected. We have used Phormium in three beds, as we know these will thrive in the conditions given, and one specimen of Grevillea rosmarinifolia that is also doing very well. We have used shell as a mulch on these beds. The shell is given to us by a local business that harvests mussels and oysters from Lissadell Bay. The shells stand out well against the colour of the lawn, and when present in a thick enough layer do seem to suppress weeds quite well. The smell of fresh sea shells on a warm summers day raised a few eyebrows and wrinkled a few noses, but provided a welcome diversion to the flies, keeping them away from the gardeners for a while.
The three interlinking ponds in the Alpine Garden were once a long canal that is shown on the 1837 Ordnance Survey map of the area. In the early part of the 20th Century the canal was divided into three separate ponds connected by stone channels. The ponds lie in a natural valley in the garden and run in a northeast / southwest direction. The ponds have a total length of 55 metres and are approximately 3 metres wide. The source of the water feeding the ponds comes mainly from a natural underground spring and the water enters the top pond from beneath an ornamental bridge. The water has a high Calcium content and leaves a natural tufa-like deposit on stone it comes in contact with. In 2003, when the garden was opened for the first time in nearly fifty years, the ponds were completely silted up and had created a marsh. Lysichyton americanus (skunk cabbage), Iris pseudacorus(flag iris) and Caltha palustris (marsh marigold) had created a dense mat of vegetation, thereby compounding the problem.
The lower two ponds were dredged and the water finally found its correct balance. In 2007 the top pond was still very silted and the lower two ponds were very overgrown with algae, oxygenators and rushes. The top pond had become more of a bog garden so we dug out channels to create islands, thus allowing the water to run freely. Large amounts of skunk cabbage, flag iris and marsh marigold had to be removed by hand – not an easy task – as these were the main cause of the problem. This pond needs regular maintenance to keep the level of silt down, so that the watercourse does not block up again. The two lower ponds require regular clearance to remove algal growth and to keep the growth of oxygenators in check. We used barley straw in the summer of 2008 to try control the growth of algae in the ponds. This was very successful for a period, but despite replacing the barley straw with fresh straw the algae came back as profusely as ever. It seems the only way to control it is to regularly skim it off the surface of the water. In July of 2007 we planted the two lower ponds with eight cultivars of water lily, includingNymphaea ‘Escarboucle’, N. ‘Rose Arey’, and N. ‘Attraction’. Some of these have performed very well and some are yet to flower. Some may find it difficult to compete with the oxygenators and so do not grow as well as they should, or maybe they just need extra time to settle in. Deep water aquatics such as Nuphar luteum and Nymphoides peltataare thriving in the lower pond, while Stratiotes aloides, the free-floating water soldier, has multiplied ten-fold in the middle pond. The quality of the water in the ponds must be of a good standard as every year there are a number of frogs that come to the ponds to spawn, producing copious amounts of tadpoles. A visiting duck does her best to reduce their numbers, but there are still plenty of baby frogs hopping around the garden for the summer months.
The walls of the ponds are constructed with stone and tree roots growing too close to the walls have done severe damage. One section of the wall in the lower pond had collapsed above water level and this was re-built in 2008. The two side walls of the middle pond have both buckled under the strain so it may only be a matter of time before there is a serious leak in the pond. A border runs adjacent to the ponds on both sides. These are planted with a large range of Primula, such as P. florindae, P. japonica, P. viallii, P. denticulata and P. veris. A large selection of P. japonica cultivars from Timpany Nurseries has been planted in the border alongside the bog garden. A number of clumps of Arisarum (mouse plant) have survived the years of neglect at the lower end of the ponds and provide a point of interest every year. The remainder of the pond borders are planted with a mix of shrubs and perennials. Horsetail has become a serious problem in some parts of the borders so we have had to remove plants before it reaches them.
There are three separate lawns in the Alpine Garden, two of which are bisected by paths. The seed that had been used to sow the lawns was very coarse and more suited to meadow or pastureland. The grass had not been regularly cut so the lawns were in very poor condition with patchy growth and poor colouring. We had two options open to us – to remove the grass present, cultivate the soil and re-seed the lawns; or to try to work with what we had and improve on it. As the garden was due to be open in early May 2007 we decided that the best option was to leave the grass as it was and try to work on it over the coming year. With all the planting work going on simultaneously it was difficult to find the time needed to devote to the lawns. I mowed them once a week when possible, and the regular cutting allowed finer grasses to develop within the lawns. A balanced fertiliser was applied in Spring 2008 and this greatly promoted the health and growth rate of the grass. Over the course of 2008 the quality of the lawns greatly improved. Regular cutting and feeding will be the key to maintaining the lawns.
During the re-development of the Alpine Garden we have been extremely lucky with the quality of the soil. The texture, structure and fertility of the soil have meant that the plants have become established very quickly. In some cases, particularly with some of the plants in the rockeries, the growth rate was phenomenal. Some found it hard to believe that the plants were in the ground only a short time. The soil, having been left undisturbed for so long was technically virgin soil and all the nutrient that had built up over the years was just waiting to be used. We know that this nutrient level will balance out in time and that the day will come when we will have to start feeding some plants, but for now the soil is doing a fantastic job.
The garden and its staff have faced and are still facing a number of challenges. The invasive weeds present have all been mentioned before and all that can be done to alleviate this problem is consistent treatment, by hand where possible and by chemical where not. We have never liked using chemicals in the garden, especially when wildlife is so abundant, but in some cases it is the only practical solution. We have seen signs of honey fungus in the garden, some shrubs like Choisya ternata, Genista fragrans, Genista hispanica and Perovskia atriplicifolia have died with no apparent reason. There have been signs of a white fungus beneath the bark of many of these so it may be that honey fungus is the cause. If this is the case there is very little that can be done, other than to remove the infected material and only replant with shrubs that are not susceptible to honey fungus.
Over the last eighteen months slugs and snails have become a significant problem in the garden. We have tried to reduce the plants in the garden that are particularly appealing to them, but those that remain unfortunately have to be protected by slug pellets. We don’t use these in the herbaceous borders as there are too many birds foraging there but luckily there are not many susceptible plants in the borders. So we concentrate the use of pellets on plants in the rockeries that really need protection, fortunately there are not too many.
As stated previously some parts of the Alpine Garden are very exposed to the elements. The plants used in these places need to be very tolerant of strong winds and salt-laden air. Staking is very important with some of the taller plants to prevent them from being up-rooted. On a windy day there is nowhere in the garden that escapes so it is necessary to have the garden tidied up well before windy weather arrives. For this reason we cut down most of the herbaceous perennials in late autumn. Even the deciduous grasses like Miscanthus x giganteus, whose stalks are usually left on until spring, need to be cut down or they end up in all parts of the garden.
All the work in the garden must be done by hand. The width of the gates and the interior paths make it impossible for any machinery to fit into the garden. Therefore all work must be done manually. This makes some jobs very laborious, especially when wheelbarrows with heavy loads have to be pushed long distances (often uphill) out of the garden. We have been happy enough to do this however as in a garden like this machinery can often do more damage than good.
Another issue we have encountered in the garden is drainage. With the lie of the land, water naturally flows down from the field above the garden under the wall and into the revetment beds. From here it would flow down one of the paths, eroding a channel down the middle and taking the pea gravel from the path with it. We had to dig a drain behind the wall to divert this water away. During heavy rainfall water flows from the woods through the main entrance into the garden and down along the pathways. Water also flows down from the lawns on the paths. We have had to create a network of gullies along the edges of the paths to reduce the damage. This water is all diverted into the ponds. The large lawn at the top of the garden between the ponds and the revetment beds holds a lot of water during heavy rainfall. In some places it becomes saturated. When digging out the beds in this lawn, Pat discovered that there was a network of old stone drains running diagonally across the lawn at regular intervals. Many of these have become blocked over the years, but some still function and feed water into the ponds. We replaced one such drain that had blocked up with a land drainage pipe beneath the lawn. This seems to have remedied the problem. The herbaceous border at the base of the lawn was prone to water logging as a result of the water running off the lawn, so we created a drain at the base of the lawn to divert the water away from this area.
Despite the challenges it is very satisfying to stand back and see the results of the work that has been put into the garden. The plants continue to thrive as the garden slowly matures. The most enjoyable part is hearing the positive comments from a person seeing the garden for the first time. It is a very special garden and deserves to be recognised as such. The mild climate of the local area allows many plants to begin flowering early in spring and extends the season of interest into late autumn. The scope of the garden continues to grow with naturalistic planting taking place in the margins of the adjacent woodlands. Thousands of spring bulbs have been planted throughout the woods to add to the natural beauty of the woodland walks.