That’s All, Folks

I often look around our series of outdoor rooms and think of the quote from Goethe ‘…architecture is frozen music…’ and wonder if I am being a bit fanciful in wanting to describe our gardens as ‘nature’s orchestra’?


Those huge trees that provide the permanent backdrop to the garden layout are the bass section, the larger shrubs the cello and saxophone, the climbers and creepers the violins, the brightly flowered annuals the bravura brass, and the more delicate plants the flute and viola.

I can hear this lily playing 76 Trombones as I march past.


Percussion is provided by the rustling of the eucalyptus trees, while the fountains represent the tinkllng of the zylophone or a ripple on a keyboard. Lady Edith’s all important fragrance is the melody, starting low in the spring, swelling in the summer months and dying away in the autumn, when crunchy leaves take over the cymbals – we can choose the rhythm with the regularity of our footsteps.

Huge pots represent the tympanies.


Noah raises his arms to conduct the whole ensemble and the creatures of the ark, the herms and topiary figures are a quietly appreciative audience.



But, I’ve indulged my fancy for too long and alas, this year’s concert is over. This is my last blog of the season and I want to say a big thank you for all those ‘likes’, to those who got the jokes, and to Paul, Jonny, Lisa, Louise, Kenny, Barbara, Rachel, and Lesley for their patient help with queries about those pesky plants that kept blooming so fast I couldn’t keep up with them. I’ve loved Neil’s marvellous, inspirational, garden walks – will he ever be finished planning? Don’t think so! And a special thank you to Jill who allowed me to fill in for her (we miss you), thank you for the opportunity to learn lots of wonderful things about flowers, and to do a little extra volunteering!

I’ll sign off with another quote, this one by Ralph Waldo Emerson – ‘The Earth Laughs in Flowers’. Certainly a walk round Edith, Lady Londonderry’s Land of Heart’s Delight cannot fail to lift your spirits and bring a smile to your face.


Job Done.


The family and other animals

On the garden highlights tour today I was asked about the plaques set into the Italian Garden wall where the pets’ names are recorded. Animals, both real and imaginary, have always played an important part in the life of the family. Birds, dogs, and horses are all commemorated in the grounds and in various paintings in the house. Look out for the darling one of Lady Mairi as a child with her dog in the Sitting Room. Creatures from the Ark Club are also in evidence in the Italian Garden; spot the cheetah, the rabbits and the alligator, together with orangutans on pillars, kittens, and in the Shamrock Garden, animals fashioned in yew by our gifted topiarists.


In Lady Edith’s fairytale book, The Magic Inkpot, Cruncher the cat, the Stewart dragon, dachshunds, golden retrievers, bats, a wise owl, and bees accompany the children on their adventures. Lady Helen’s doves get a mention too. In times past, on garden open days dog shows were popular, and as a child Lady Mairi ran a small menagerie to be enjoyed at a small charge for charity. Until recently, the screeches from her pet cockatoos just a corridor away from the house tour route raised many a smile, and startled visitors asked, ‘Is that the ghost?’. In relation to practical matters in the gardens, Lady Edith in 1938 took delivery of 72 tree frogs in an attempt to naturally contain the snail menace. Lizards and green terrapins were also on her shopping list, and King Fuad’s gift of pink flamingos provided an unusual and picturesque sight at the lake.

On Jubilee Terrace the white stag holds sway and the swans and ducks are valued occupants of the lake area.



Horse racing was important, the family hunted and attended point to points and Lady Edith played in a ladies’ polo team. Lady Mairi had received a bequest of horses in her father’s will and estabished at Mount Stewart the first bloodstock stable in Northern Ireland. Her filly, Northern Gleam (see the memorial in the Pony Wood) won the 1953 Irish 1,000 guineas, and Fighting Charley took the Ascot Gold Cup two years in a row.


Polemarch was a very successful racehorse, famously winning the St Leger in 1921, at 50-1, and featuring with his proud owner the 7th Marquess on family Christmas Cards that year. Polemarch’s portrait is in the Entrance Hall with his jockey Joe Childs, who later rode for George V. Polemarch was eventually sold and went to stud in Argentina.


The latest four-legged favourite in the gardens is Poirot, our Mouse Experience Assistant, complete with handsome moustache. Patrolling mostly around the entrance area, this furry feline insures against any possible mouse shortage by being especially nice to the reception staff. I think he knows they have a pet shop’s worth of cat groceries stashed behind the counter, but so far he has missed the goldfish in the Spanish Garden pond. Of course, being Belgian, Poirot maintains his favourite dish is Chocolate Mouse.


Ruby’s a Gem

Sciurus Vulgaris doesn’t sound like a very elegant name for one of our favourite rodents, the Red Squirrel. Mount Stewart is a haven for these cute little creatures and if you come into the grounds of the estate early in the morning you are guaranteed to see them zigzagging along the hedges and walls near the Sunk Garden. Smaller than their grey cousins and weighing up to 350g, reds live in twiggy nests called dreys, hidden high above ground in tree trunk holes. Their double jointed ankles enable them to scamper up and down trees and walls with ease. The babies are called kittens and are fed by their mothers until their teeth begin to develop at about 10 weeks. As their teeth keep growing they need to keep gnawing, not only on nuts but all sorts of things like flower roots, birds’ eggs, and bulbs (sorry gardeners), and some even go for electrical wiring. Recently in England a few people noticed that soap was missing from their bathrooms. Squirrels living in the tree-lined street were caught red-handed but made a clean getaway.

ruby red squirrel

This is Ruby Red, our friendly in-house squirrel although we don’t really want her inside as she was once discovered eyeing up the books in the Sitting Room. The children love meeting her when she helps with our brilliant Education Programme for Schools. Jenny Ferguson, who was up early enough to capture this photo of Ruby admiring the garden, would be pleased to take a booking for your school. Or just book the family in for a guided walk along our Red Squirrel Trail on Saturday 26th September, and take part in squirrel related activities. Don’t think this involves chewing anything unusual.

Not everyone will be aware that the original French version of the Cinderella story had her slippers made from squirrel pelts (vaire) instead of the glass version (verre). Pelts were also used as currency in Russia and Finland, useful to know for a Trivia Quiz? Oh well, maybe not.

Our squirrels help in forestry and conservation by hiding nuts and seeds in underground larders but then forgetting where some of them are, and so another tree is inadvertently planted! Red squirrels don’t hibernate but will relax and have a duvet drey day if the weather is too bad to go looking for nuts, something we have in common, zzzzzzz.


Eclectic Aesthetics

Some seventy or so keen gardening souls were welcomed by Lady Rose in the Central Hall for the start of our brilliant Eclectic Garden Seminar last weekend. Speakers Richard Wheeler, Ken Cox and Diarmuid Gavin kept us enthralled on both days with the history of visiting 18th century houses and gardens, trekking in the Himalayas in search of new plants and planning award winning gardens for Chelsea. Subjects included were certainly diverse and included the difficulties of travelling by post chaise, being arrested as a spy, and finding tasteful alternatives to regimented lobelias. We were urged by Richard to look at our surroundings through, ‘the medium of beauty’. Ken invited us to visit the wonderful gardens of Scotland, and Diarmuid inspired us to consider doing something different and unexpected, especially if we ever considered competing at Chelsea! In between we undertook our own treks round the house with Louise, the garden with Neil, and up to the nursery with Alan, all in lovely weather, no rain until it was time for the group photo!

Central Hall

Beautiful flower arrangements adorned the Central Hall.

Diarmuid Gavin

Diarmuid sets up his slide show.


Neil explains his plans for the future of the garden.


Alan expounds on the different methods of looking after his tender little seedlings, potting on during the winter, and the new greenhouse under construction.

Neolitsia aff.polycarpa

One of the lovely plants in Alan’s polytunnel, Abutilon pictum.

All in all, a very enjoyable and worthwhile weekend and we look forward to next year. Thanks also to the Tea Room staff who looked after us so well, providing tea, coffee and delicious shortbread, as well as a very tasty Sunday Lunch.


Heading for the Fall

When in Rocky Mountain National Park, you are surrounded by conifers, Douglas-Firs, Lodgepole and Limber Pines, all much the same shade of green, and so when I arrived back at Mount Stewart, my eyes picked up immediately our famous Irish Forty Shades of Green. We are so fortunate to have a great variety of trees, all shapes and sizes, and colours.


The lake shores at the moment are wonderfully coloured, and here and there in the gardens there are hints of autumn.


Our Myrtles, with their beautifully coloured bark, are in flower, tiny white blossoms profuse along the branches.


Have you ever seen the Red Hot Pokers such a vibrant orangey red?


And, good news for all schoolchildren, the conkers are nearly ready! Although you should really wait a year to let your conker harden before entering a competition, you can speed the process by soaking the nut in vinegar, baking it, or varnishing with clear nail polish. A coating of hand cream helps to ward off chips and grazes. In North Belfast we collected them from underneath the trees in Alexandra Park and called them cheesers, but apparently this only applies to those with straight edges, caused by twin or triplet nuts. A fat darning needle heated over the gas ring made a hole and a long strong cord was inserted with a good granny knot to hold it fast.


Conkers (from the French Conque when they played with snail shells) was first recorded as a game using Horse Chestnut seeds in the Isle of Wight in 1848, and is still popular. The 2014 World Championships in Southwick, Northants, attracted contestants from 15 countries. An idea for a new annual event at Mount Stewart?


A Change of Scene

Australian garden blogger, Richard Briers, says, A garden is a thing of beauty and a job forever’ – and the good news is that this is not bad news, it just means you’ll never get the sack. What works if things are not working is to stop and try again. Edith, Lady Londonderry, changed things around in the garden. If a plant didn’t grow where first placed, she would have it planted somewhere else. Hence the roses being moved up to the Dairy, where, when we have funds, new planting will take place, the Rose Garden will be restored and the Walled Garden will also be redeveloped.

As our regular visitors know, things are always changing at Mount Stewart. Our entrance gate has changed once or twice. Neil is carrying out plans for a new Fernery and a Himalayan area, the Sunk Garden’s hedges are being replaced, and sometimes a tree has to come down for safety’s sake. So, in a garden, work is never finished, and while we try to keep to Lady Edith’s diaries and ideals, sometimes things just have to be done a little differently.

Shamrock Garden

In days gone by the Shamrock Garden was paved, now it is graveled and the right Red Hand was once a left.

Gas Works

The Gas Works complex was an integral part of the estate for about 50 or so years before it was superceded by the installation of electricity.


The urn on the Broad Walk previously stood in the east end of the Italian Garden.

Water pump

The water supply for the house was at one time pumped from the lake up the hill by horsepower. The turning circle, on the rise to the left of the jetty, is now a seating area with a elevated view of the lake. In later years, a hydraulic ram did the pumping job more efficiently – perhaps the horse got cranky?


Rock Groups

Some of our newer staff members, having obeyed the instruction to park up beyond the tractor shed, have wondered about what looks like a fenced off Megalithic burial chamber. Well that is exactly what it represents. It is made up of a collection of Cist stones, discussed in a paper of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1861 which refers to an essay of 1828 by S.M. Stephenson of Greyabbey. The stones originated in a field near the Temple of the Winds and were part of an ancient cemetery. A large cairn, which stood in the way of 1786 drainage works, was removed and some of the rubble used in the project. In the process workmen found a number, probably sixty or seventy, of smaller examples, some with cremated fragments of bone and heart-shaped pottery vessels, a group of which is housed in the Ulster Museum. In 1935, the larger stones were moved to make way for a landing strip, and in 2008, through the generosity of the Lady Mairi Bury, they were moved to the present site. Their reconstruction gives a glimpse of how the original Cists must have looked.


Other interesting stones turn up in the lake area. You may or may not have noticed that we have two stones from the Giant’s Causeway in the gardens, reputedly brought here by the 1st Marchioness and condemned by Edith, Lady Londonderry as ‘a most reprehensible habit’ and so it is, but perhaps in 1800 conservation hadn’t quite caught on. By coincidence I was visiting Dunmore House in Donegal last weekend and spied there a few of what looked suspiciously like Causeway stones in its garden, so maybe it was fashionable to have some as stepping stones or little seats or just a ‘feature’ in days of yore. What souvenirs do you have in your garden? – I must admit to having some petrified wood from the Sahara in mine.

2 3

A natural rock feature is also to be found at the other end of the lake, almost hidden by the profuse and colourful Beschorneria yuccoides. You might pass it by when following your garden map and wonder where the Rock Walk is supposed to be. This outcrop marks the boundary of Strangford Lough about 8,000 years ago when sea levels were much higher, so if you dug down below the path you might find the remains of an ancient cobbled beach. Above is a grassy terrace with a panoramic view of the lake, just perfect for photographs.