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.

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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.


Plumbing with Dahlias?


I’ve never been able to grown Dahlias successfully, don’t know why. They take a look at my garden and decide not to thrive, something I have in common with Kew Gardens when presented with seed by the chatelaine of that other Mount Stuart, the Marchioness of Bute. These South American plants come in a variety of extraordinarily vivid colours (except true blue and black) and have an interesting history in Mexico where they have been nominated as the National Flower. The Spanish physician Hernandez described them being used by the Aztecs to treat epilepsy, and we read that the stems of the huge Dahlia imperialis were used as water pipes. The local name variously translated as water cane, water pipe flower or hollow stem flower. Named after the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, the tubers are still cultivated as a food source, tasting somewhat like potato.

The awful weather has devastated our crop of Dahlias in the Italian Garden at the moment, but don’t despair, they are quite resilient and will come back soon. As there are very few to take photos of, it is just as well I was a Blue Peter fan in my young day. Here are some I prepared earlier.

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Dahlias became very popular with lots of varieties being grown and there are now some 30 species and over 20,000 cultivars. No cottage garden is complete without them. Marie Antoinette was a fan, as was Claude Monet. Dahlia Societies were started, Dahlia Balls were held, and Bedrich Smetana, the Czech composer, wrote the Dahlia Polka. In the mid 1800s a London newspaper offered a prize of £1 to the first person to produce a blue petalled flower. The reward has yet to be claimed.


The Insect Effect

Today I met a ladybird called Keith. She was tiny, smaller than a grain of Basmati rice, too miniscule for my point and shoot camera. With lovely colouring of yellow and black, a visiting gentleman’s hand had provided a landing strip for her and he presented her to me for identification. We discussed whether he had discovered a new species, in addition to the 5,000 already identified worldwide, and what it should be called. So in the tradition of naming plants and creatures after their discoverer, we called her Coccinellidae Keith. Ladybirds eat other insects but she was so small she was in danger of being eaten herself. I think she was too minute to be the invasive Harlequin Ladybird which is also yellow and black and poses a danger to our native species. Will check and report if necessary.

We then had a discussion on how useful a bug’s life is; some only live for a day, others only a season, and all are in danger of being eaten by the next size up. They each have a job to do in the bigger scheme of things, even if they are considered pests in the garden. I was asked by a visitor what use are snails and had to go and do some research. To my astonishment I discovered that besides providing birds with food, snail slime is used in cosmetics – however was that discovered? And are we worthy of it? I went home and looked again at the ingredients of my moisturiser. Snail mucus was also used medicinally from Ancient Greek times to the Middle Ages to relieve gastrointestinal ulcers, and to sooth sore throats. Mmmmm, think I’ll stick to honey and lemon.


Unlike at home where my hostas are like Mr Doiley’s paper napkins, slugs and snails at Mount Stewart seem to leave them alone, can’t see a single hole in this lovely bunch. Snails in turn are eaten by birds and are considered a delicacy by ducks and frogs.


The Kiosk family of housemartins await their escargot take-away.

And finally, the insect we love to swat – the wasp. This is a mistake because not only does it make a mess of your Woman’s Weekly but the dead body releases a chemical that signals other wasps to come to the rescue, so you end up with one dead and ten paramedics. It makes more sense just to share the jam in your Victoria sponge and let the flying scavenger move on to the next table. In the gardens at the moment we have two types of wasps, Vespula vulgaris, the homegrown or common one, and a visiting one Vespula germanica. They eat smaller insects like ants, aphids and caterpillars and flies, and also do some pollinating, therefore, apart from annoying picnickers, they are valuable members of the eco system. The two types are almost indistinguishable apart from the fact that vulgaris nests high up in roof spaces or holes in walls, and germanica likes to be at ground level. The common wasp depends for food on prey which disappears in winter, but germanica prefers species which are not affected by the cold and so their nests survive the winter and are also slightly bigger.