This Saturday (17th) is the Comber Earlies Festival which started me thinking about our local spuds.   An Irish legend says that wrecks of the Spanish Armada contained potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.   Was this the beginning of the Irish love affair with patatas fritas, or was it in 1589 when Sir Walter Raleigh first planted the potato at his Irish estate near Cork?  The story goes that he made a gift of the plant to Queen Elizabeth I and the local gentry were invited to a royal banquet that featured the potato in every course.  Unfortunately the cooks hadn’t seen this strange foodstuff before and assumed you ate the poisonous stems and leaves. These promptly made everyone deathly ill, the strange new vegetable was banned from court, and Tayto nearly didn’t make it onto the carpet at Aldergrove.

Where are we going with this, I hear you ask?   Well, this is an excuse to show you a photograph of our potato plant,  Solanum Crispum, one of 1400 species of the Chilean Potato Tree.  It is a cousin of the kitchen potato as well as being related to the eggplant and tomato families.  The lovely purple flowers appear in summer followed by berries which taste so appalling that even the birds reject them.  Find it in the Peace Garden.


Never let it be said that I ignore trivia or fail to pass it on to my mates, so here are more quiz winning facts.  The earliest known recipe for potato chips is in William Kitchiner‘s 1822 cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, a bestseller in England and the United States; its recipe for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” reads “peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping”.  

Also did you know that spuds were the first vegetable to be grown in space?   So that Martian Mash TV ad was true and you can find some of the Cadbury’s Smash puppets in the National Media Museum in Bradford. And, finally, based on 2010 statistics, China is the leading producer of potatoes.  They serve their fish and chips with sugar – a new version of sweet and sour perhaps?   Think I’ll stick to Champ – with scallions and country butter, it’s a mash made in Heaven.





Our lovely warm spell of weather has meant that lots of visitors are enjoying ice cream and lollipops, and so my blogging thoughts turned to ice and snow.   And I remembered that we have an hidden historical gem on Rhododendron Hill, namely the remains of the old ice house.


Repairs were done during last winter and the whole area has been worked on by the gardeners, together with a group of German students tidying up the steps, so access is safer.



The roof had been recycled years ago to provide a topping for the old dairy, a pretty little building waiting for renovation.


Icehouses were an integral part of a large estate with supplies of ice being sourced from ponds and lakes and stored underground with layers of straw or sawdust for insulation. Some ice was even brought to the UK by ship from Scandinavia or as far away as  Newfoundland.  Prince Albert was said to prefer his ice to come from New England (visions of a large iceberg being towed across the Atlantic).

Before electrical refrigeration became common, cold boxes were used to keep food cool and you can see an example in the old Dairy.  A block of ice would be put inside, food stored on the shelves, cool air would circulate and the drainage outlet at the bottom would allow the melt to be directed into a tray underneath.

In this way the primary purpose was for the preservation of dairy produce and meat, but ice could be used for drinks, desserts and the making

of sorbets and ice cream.  Mount Stewart’s Still Room has some lovely pewter ice moulds in the shape of fruits that produced spectacular desserts for dinner parties.


Imagine these bombes being opened to reveal a beautiful ice-cream pear or strawberry, perhaps with fruit inside – mmmm Yummy!



Charlie is back.  No, not the 1660 Restoration of the Monarchy –  our own Charlie the Cheetah has been repaired by Brian Bennet of Cliveden Conservation, just one of the Refurbishment, Renovation and Replanting tasks carried out recently.   You can see what a good job Brian has done with our big cat by the before and after pictures below.


Other work has been going on as well.   Lindsay of Mansion Landscapes has been working in the Spanish Garden restoring  the broken tiles and steps, and using the original lime recipe for infilling between the stones.


As well as all the repair work, the gardeners are hard at work putting in new species.  At the far end of the lake visitors will be noticed the arrival of fencing around the rockery area.  This is to guard new planting that will concentrate on South African species, so something colourful to look forward to there.


And we’ve had to say a sad goodbye to an old friend, the ash tree beside the lake.   Dying off and becoming a hazard, the decision was made to fell it.  However, we have a new seat – perfect for selfies!


On the other side of the lake a new tree has arrived,


This is a Planera Aquatica or water elm.  Native to North America, it will tolerate damp or boggy areas which means it will feel quite at home beside the lake.  The twigs are brown and hairy with tiny white flowers in Spring and interesting irregular shaped nuts.  It will grow to about 15 metres tall.


And finally, the red tulips have gone from the Shamrock Garden and the Tuesday gang, Fiona, Celia and Alison, were busy last week planting salvias and begonias, all in the Red Hand’s signature scarlet.




Spring in My Step

The other day I heard a radio discussion about the beneficial influence of beautiful places on those who are depressed or despondent, and I thought “How like our own dear Mount Stewart”.  Recently returning from a lovely holiday featuring sun, sea and sand I flew over the crumpled green eiderdown of Ulster’s fields contemplating the daily grind that awaited, until I remembered how fortunate I am to work here.  I knew the moment I drove in through the gates my spirits would lift; its the Best Place for taking you out of yourself.

I also realised how very lucky we are to live in a country with seasons.  In the Far East it is either hot, or hot and wet, and there is none of the wonderful fresh Spring smell of emerging buds and those delightful citrusy colours that we get here at this time of year.

So, I couldn’t wait to get back to see what had been happening in the gardens while I was gone.  Certainly the place looks fantastic, tidy edges, pruned shrubs, hardly a weed to be seen, the gardeners have been busy. OK, some of our more tender plants are still in their winter woolies but I was amazed to see how much colour there was and the camera was red hot.


The lake walk is so pretty just now, and the swans are nesting too.


Spring-like green and white, even the Skunk Cabbage looks fresh, but don’t sniff – it lives up to its name!


The fiddleheads of the ferns are about to burst.


A beautiful peachy pink rhodie to add to the reds and whites.


Standing under this Magnolia Stellata is like being in a snowstorm.


My fave rhododendron, Loderi King George, with huge clusters of sweet smelling bells.


The Jetty has been prettied up with a coat of preservative, adding an architectural detail to the lake.


The topiary has been trimmed and has a nice sharp outline against the sky.


And the white tulips are like little lanterns lighting the corners of the Sunk Garden.


So, I hope you’ll agree with me that Mount Stewart deserves the accolade of a Best Place as, guess what? There is currently a competition for Northern Ireland’s Best Place. Launched on 6th April by the Royal Town Planning Institute, members of the public can nominate their Best Place.  A panel of judges will collate a top ten and you can then vote for your favourite.  Closing date for nominations is 2nd June and you can nominate by emailing northernireland@rtpi.org.uk, making sure you clearly mark it Northern Ireland Best Places in the subject box.   Let’s get Mount Stewart House & Gardens on that list!




Thought I might sneak in a little festive blog seeing as how it is the season of goodwill and all, so I had a dander round in the interval between our Christmas Caroling at the north front portico and went to check up on the formal gardens. The gardeners have been doing their own version of wrapping with most of the tender stuff being sheltered from any possibility of harm.


With the mildish conditions we have had so far this winter there are still plants in bloom and plenty of colour to be found.


Our lovely myrtle tree has black berries which look great against the terracotta red bark.


Dried flower heads have a star-like charm.


Don’t miss these magnificent Mahonias in the Shamrock Garden with flowers like corn on the cob, bright yellow and plenty of them.


The birds were enjoying seasonal red berries in the Mairi Garden.


Is our framework Formorian playing “Joy to the World?”


Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year to all our visitors.




At our property update meeting last week it was lovely to hear how well our various events had gone throughout the season and to learn about more exciting days to come leading up through Christmas, and the spring and summer months next year.  As this is the last blog of this season I thought I would leave you with some of our lovely autumnal colours.

Come and see us – the gardens are still amazing and the mild weather has helped some of our more tender plants to stay in bloom

12    The Sunk Garden is still a riot of colour and the misty sunshine this morning gave it a really seasonal air.


An evergreen climber from Chile that is an old hand in the garden has flowered early, its little purple and white blossoms peeping out between luxuriant hanging tendrils.  Don’t think it will be quite warm enough to produce the sausage-like fruits that are such a delicacy in Chile, but we keep hoping!   It’s a Lardizabala biternata or Zabala Fruit and is listed by Lady  Edith in the 1956 edition of the garden guidebook so has been growing on the pergola for at least sixty years.  Find it at the north west corner.   Much admired by the keen gardeners who attended the recent Burma Fundraiser.

4     We have lots of colourful fungi too at this time of year, how about these for a tasty omelette?  Perhaps not, as I am sure  you are aware what looks like something edible may be poisonous, so best be on the safe side and buy mushrooms from your local costermonger.

Some plants are edible.  These nasturtiums look great in a salad, both peppery leaves and flowers, and the asters would look great in a vase on the table.  These make a great show under the yew trees in the Italian Garden.


The Pergola looked so nice today in the sunshine I couldn’t resist taking yet another photo.

The Lake is just gorgeous at the moment, take your camera and have a walk around.


Up by Tir Nan Og there is still plenty to see too.  Have a look at this rather special Schima Khasiana from China, a member of the tea family, still in bloom.   One of my favourites, I call it the fried egg plant.


Really sorry to say another season has come to an end. My thanks to Lindsay and Lauren for their help in posting the blogs, and to our (award winning) gardening team who exhibit great patience in answering my many questions.  So, time to wrap up and take a break.   As you can see from this skelfie, I’ve been working my fingers to the bone.




Our wonderful garden team at Mount Stewart was recently nominated by Peninsula Mowers (an agricultural machinery repair and training company in Greyabbey) as an exemplar in staff training and development, and we won!  A total of 17 awards in different categories were presented to Northern Ireland’s businesses and individuals who are outstanding in their field.  After seeing off stiff competition from some of the biggest and best in Northern Ireland, we picked up the prestigious ‘Farming Life and Danske Bank’ LANTRA (land based industries) award for ‘Commitment to Staff Training and Development’.

Garden Manager, Paul Stewart accompanied by members of the Mount Stewart gardening team attended the presentation ceremony featuring keynote speaker, Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Michelle McIlveen, at Belfast’s Ramada Hotel.


Representatives from Peninsula Mowers of Greyabbey and LANTRA, and garden team members Paul, Neil, Anna, Rachel, and Jonny looking very clean and tidy.  No wellies or garden gear here, don’t they clean up well?

Garden Manager Paul has arranged and devised a number of training programmes ranging from back to work placements, training and employability skills for the long term unemployed to bespoke heritage garden apprenticeships working in partnership with the local South Eastern Regional College, Peninsula Mowers, and other gardens in Northern Ireland. Most of these initiatives have largely been funded by a wide variety of external bodies and supporters such as the Pilgrim Trust and Ulster Garden Villages.


Paul with John Henning, Danske Bank, Paula Smyth, LANTRA, Graeme Huston, Johnstone press.  Afterwards he spoke of his pride in the team at Mount Stewart.  Paul said “A trained and engaged workforce who are on board with our vision is essential in developing our business and being the best we can be in all that we do. The staff have bought into this vision and have been instrumental in mentoring and developing our trainees, volunteers, less experienced members of staff and indeed each other. They are a great team and we are very proud to achieve this award. Recognition for staff development like this can only help the reputation of National Trust in general and Mount Stewart in particular as an employer of choice in Northern Ireland.  They are a very professional and multi-talented bunch and this award is recognition that they are leading the field in Northern Ireland in terms of people development in the land management industries.”

Photos courtesy of LANTRA.

Of course we can always use more volunteers – why not join our award winning gardening team – all you need is an interest in plants and a good sense of humus.