Poppies & Pipers

Edith, Lady Londonderry, agreed wholeheartedly with Gertrude Jekyll’s adage – ‘Paint while you plant, and as you work, design’, and so she set to work and painted with her trowel, especially in the Italian Garden. Her gardening diaries show colour washes of orange, red, magenta, purple, vivid blue, and peach sweeping across from the sunrise on the east to sunset on the west. This week the gardens are surely at their painted and designed best with vigorous growth and colour in every bed. The vivid orange of the poppies, pink senecio, the little daisies on the steps, make for a Kodak moment every time you turn your head.


In the sunshine today with the air buzzing with insects, the scent of the roses, giant gunneras fringing the Dodo Terrace, and red nasturtiums against the dark yew trees, it was hard to decide just which shot through the viewfinder was the absolute best.


Tall white alliums and tinkling of the water spouts and fountains lent a cooling frisson to the whole scene and I thought of the many summer garden parties on the lawns, held for charity in Edith’s time with groups of tables and chairs and delicate china teacups held with extended little fingers, music playing in the background. It must have been enchanting and the perfect excuse to wear that darling muslin tea dress with a Gatsby girl cloche hat in summer straw. One could have one’s fortune told, visit Lady Mairi’s menagerie, watch the holidaying Spanish royal children help with the fashion show, and imagine staying for the weekend in that long, low, grey mansion to be awakened in the morning by Her Ladyship’s Piper on the terrace, and a maidservant with early morning tea. Hmmmmmm….if only.


Ok, one can dream, but the good news is that nowadays tea and cake can be enjoyed in our newly refurbished tea room (you may find the  lemon drizzle rather yummy).


Double Meaning

Every so often you come across a new word, useful in completing The Times crossword, on wet days playing Scrabble, or just in our gardens to show off to the visitors. Our Garrya elliptica evergreen shrub offers such a word, dioecious, from the Greek dioecy ‘two households’, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Although both produce catkins, the male catkins are considered more attractive, a trait this plant shares with peacocks, stalk-eyed flies, and David Beckham. Where is this wondrous plant? Well, otherwise known as the Silk Tassel Bush which should give you a clue, it is the large shrub to the right of the gate leading from the Italian Garden into the Lily Wood. A popular plant with visitors, it was introduced to Britain in 1828 by Scotsman David Douglas from the Pacific North West of America and named after a deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Nicholas Garry.


An edible climbing plant which is also dioecious (and delicious at the same time) is our Kiwi fruit vine, just coming into bud at the moment. It’s a plant with an interesting pedigree. Discovered in 1900 by plant hunter Ernest Wilson in China, hence Chinese Gooseberry, it was taken to New Zealand by Miss Isobel Fraser, headmistress of Wanganui Girls’ School and re-named Kiwi Fruit. Then the fuzzy brown skinned fruit was exported to California after the Second World War and known as Melonette. The largest producer is now Italy where they stick to Kiwifruit. Our vine is quite productive with the fruits ripening in early autumn, and the story goes that Edith, Lady Londonderry, never one to waste produce, harvested it and had the fruits made into jam. It was set on the table every day, but according to Lady Mairi, no-one ever ate it.


Another of our trees which fits the description of dioecious, is the Ginko biloba, a living fossil. It was able to withstand the Hiroshima bomb and six are still growing at the site of the blast, consequently in Japan the tree is now known as the Bearer of Hope. It is the national tree of China and they clearly understand its virtues as a herb. The list of uses is very long, supposedly because individual trees can live for up to three thousand years; using ginko leaf extract for asthma and bronchitis was described in 2600 BC. The leaves are said to be effective in treating freckles. But be warned, the nuts are probably not to be safely consumed, and will interact with some medicines, so don’t try this at home! The leaves are a nice fresh green shade and such a pretty fan shape, find it in the Lily Wood.



Tuesday Bluesday

Yesterday I decided to find as many blue things in the garden as I could. So here you are!

First, to set the scene, Pride of Madeira floral spikes in the terrace below the house.


Next, the tiles in the Spanish Garden Summerhouse. Sourced from Jerusalem and showing a porcelain aviary of birds, with lots of blue accents. We believe the maker is still in business and why not? Who wouldn’t love these?


Then a blue gum tree, here’s the label, look for it when you are in the Shamrock Garden.


Into the Lily Wood to see our beautiful Meconopsis, just look at that lovely shade of blue with yellow centres.


Drawing lots of visitors’ attention this week is the most vivid shade of the delphiniums bursting out in the Sunk Garden, just singing against the green lawns, you can spot them immediately you go onto the terrace.


And of course our blue bordered information board telling you where to find what is currently in bloom.



Everyone’s Cup of Tea

My ‘Furthest Visitor of the Day’ today came from Tokyo. I found a very pleasant couple sitting on the bench on the little island with the Japanese Lantern. They said it made them feel at home, and loved our little bridges and the Pagoda. I explained that Edith, Lady Londonderry, our gardener extraordinaire, had visited Nikko, Japan, in 1904 and had brought these items back. They told me that the Ishidoro or stone lantern was in the style of an Oribe Lantern designed by Lord Furuta Oribe (1544-1615) a feudal lord and leading tea master in charge of Kyoto’s Fushimi Castle. He had the greatest influence on the tea ceremony, tea house architecture and tea garden landscaping. The visitors were intrigued to learn that there was a blend of tea called Lady Londonderry Tea.

Stone lanterns were used to create ‘floating light’ on the water and so ours is appropriately sited beside the lake. You can see the traditional half moon cutout design facing east and on the opposite side is a full moon facing west.

stone lantern

Pagodas are built in odd-numbered tiers and ours has five. From bottom to top they represent the five elements, ie. earth, water, fire, wind, heaven or sky. The finial is also separated into five sections.


Visiting Japan in January of this year, I had the pleasure of seeing many mature Ashoka trees which we are growing on for planting in the gardens at the moment. I also had a remarkable ‘taken-aback’ moment in our hotel grounds – a gardener down on hands and knees painstakingly removing blades of grass from the moss lawn. When I chatted to him saying that at home it was the other way around, he said that in Japan moss is regarded as an essential element – a symbol of harmony, age and tradition. I hope our Japanese visitors felt that we had these attributes at Mount Stewart too.


Sayonara, till the next time.


Elm Hunt Stumped!

This being Waterloo Week, I came across an article about Wellington’s Elm, the tree under which he stood during the battle. Unfortunately most UK elms have gone the way of Lord Uxbridge’s leg, lost, not to cannon fire, but to Dutch Elm disease. At Mount Stewart there were some young elm trees planted about three years ago, grown from regenerating tissue from the odd elm that showed some resistance to disease. I went up to Rhododendron Hill this morning to have a look for the saplings but couldn’t see the trees for the wood. Will try and trace them through our GPS system. Watch this space….


Our trees seem to be as popular with visitors as our flowers. Most are in leaf, with just the odd late riser still in its underwear. They give structure, shelter, and shade to the garden and some have interesting back stories. Not many people know that our statuesque Bay Trees have been around the courtyard since 1923 when they arrived, already 50 years old, wrapped up like huge brollies, trundling across the gravel on horse and cart. It cost just £99.18s.0d. for the lot when Lady Edith ordered them from L P Hartmann of Brussels. Our gardeners keep them trimmed beautifully in their umbrella shape, and I’ll let you into a secret – they do keep you dry on a wet day!

Extract from Lady Mairi's diary showing Bay trees from Belgium at Ghent station, part of the photographic collection at Mount Stewart, County Down. The Bay Trees bought by Lady Londonderry for the garden, were over 50 years old and they were the largest bay trees ever to be moved.

Extract from Lady Mairi’s diary showing Bay trees from Belgium at Ghent station. The Bay Trees bought by Lady Londonderry for the garden, were over 50 years old and they were the largest bay trees ever to be moved. ©NT/A and C Photography


A favourite of mine is the Cedrus Deodar, sacred to Hindus as the Tree of God, national tree of Pakistan, and remarkable in several ways. If you have asthma, sit under it during the morning and it has beneficial effects. Build a bridge and it won’t rot, store food in a cabinet made of its wood and insects are repelled. A half mile boulevard of Cedrus Deodars  in Altadena, California is called Christmas Tree Lane. The trees have been lighted annually as a Christmas Holiday display since 1920, and it is on the United States National Register of Historic Places. A nice detail for our American visitors. Find it on the right hand side of the path as you go towards the lake. I call it the Friendship Tree because you can shake hands through the hole in the trunk.


Some of our trees are quite tall and wide. We have tall and spindly Eucalyptus, Turkey Oak, Cork and Lime, and of course many Redwoods. Have a look at Monumental Trees Mount Stewart to find the measurements, otherwise you’ll need a very long tape measure.


Grass – a Flower Bed in Waiting

Last week was a learning week for me what with the Bothy meeting, and Jonny’s walk n’ talk garden update on Thursday morning. Jonny started the five of us off on the Fountain Walk where we inspected the reinstated macrocarpa archways. According to the old guidebook, visitors were admitted through the turnstile to the fountain area to start their tour along the Macrocarpa Arches Walk, a design idea taken from various gardens in Spain and Portugal. Other new planting had been carried out here too although the addition of clay soil was proving slightly troublesome to plants which are more used to our sandy loam mixture. The Mairi Garden was being tidied up with new white roses Susan Williams-Ellis, being planted. Old Rose in character and sweetly scented, as per Lady Edith’s custom, these will contribute to the blue and white scheme for this garden, (Susan Williams-Ellis was a founder of Portmeirion Pottery, their most famous range being the Botanic Range). The summerhouse is looking good with the roof clearly visible and the rampant lion holding fast to the flagpole. It would be nice if we could entice some white doves into the dovecote.

mairi garden

Feeding the grass in the Italian Garden has produced quite a lush velvet surface at present, the yew trees are to be trimmed, bare patches that have been cleared of weeds are ready for planting with whatever Alan is cooking up in the Nursery. The bananas have been planted in the beds after overwintering under cover. In the wild wood, Johnny explained the process of preparing our wildflower areas that are so popular with visitors. The method is not to mow an area for a while and wait to see what grows. A helping hand with some seed is sometimes needed but we hope that if the soil is not too rich then wild flowers will pop out and have a look at their surroundings and decide they like it enough to grow and multiply. This increases the numbers of bees and butterflies and is helpful to birds like tits who need 100 caterpillars a day to feed each chick – with a brood of around 10, well, you can do the sums. So it looks like wildflowers can be combined with more formal areas, they appeal to visitors, and it is an all round good thing to do.



How it works

On Friday last I went to my first gardener’s meeting in the Bothy. Work in the gardens is detailed for the forthcoming week and guess what – it consists of weeding, watering, fertilising, and pruning, just on a larger scale than I have to do with my two square yards at home. Organisation of volunteer activity (lots), and tackling problems like slippery steps and walkways and eradicating Japanese Knotweed were also on the agenda. We have a new gun with a guarded hypodermic needle which we hope will scare this pernicious weed silly and make it go away. It certainly scared me. At least the weed is under control at the moment with our use of Glyphosate which biodegrades and has a very good environmental profile. It will be interesting to see how the new weapon works.

Now for the good news – Alan has lots of little nursery plants ready for hardening off (see how I’m picking up the lingo) and planting out in the garden, so expect to see an explosion of colour as the season goes on. Gentiana for the south terrace, Fuschia standards for the Italian beds, Geraniums, and the big pots all to be planted soon. Where is summer, by the way, has anyone seen it? There’s also a Bramble Bash planned for Thursday of this week – not sure if that comes under good news or not.

Ruth from Reception came along to tell us how important membership of the Trust is in raising funds for the house and garden, and I did my bit about visitor engagement and helping everyone to have a good day out. All in all, a useful insight into the diversity of jobs undertaken to make Mount Stewart the centre of excellence that it is and the debt we owe to all our hard working staff and volunteers.

Meeting over, Lisa departed with an armful of gorgeous three foot high white lilies for the indoor flower arrangements – should be spectacular. You can see them around the lake in full flower at the moment.


Gone to pot! The contents of these are now in the Sunk Garden! We have a great team and would welcome more volunteers, just contact Jenny Ferguson, our Volunteer Co-ordinator, and tell her what day you would like to spend in the wonderful surroundings of Mount Stewart House and Gardens. Alternatively, your can find out more about volunteering on our website.