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Winter Wander

A visit to the Gardens of Mount Stewart in the depths of winter.

A leaden sky accompanied by a fine mizzle - the sort of day that in summer in the west of Ireland they might call "soft". But this is the 14th of December, cold and damp and the type of day that encourages you to stay indoors by the fireside. But forget the fireside for once. Go and visit one of the gardens that stays open to visitors in December. I was heading to the National Trust property at Mount Stewart on the Ards peninsula, outside Newtownards in County Down, Northern Ireland.

The garden at Mount Stewart lies at the easternmost point of the Ards peninsula. It was created in the 1920's by Lady Edith Londonderry, who bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1955.

The formal garden designs are inspiring and have influences from Ireland, Britain and Europe. To the south of the house, the Italian garden features parterres, edged with low clipped hedges of heather, berberis and hebe and overflowing with herbaceous plants. The Spanish garden has five metre tall arched hedges of Cupressus leylandii surrounding an oval pool with eight rills leading off. The Shamrock garden contains symbols of Northern Ireland in horticultural form - an Irish harp in clipped yew and a Red Hand of Ulster in a bedding scheme of red begonias .
The mild climate ensures the survival of many tender plants such as Clianthus pucineus, tree ferns and olive trees, and adds a subtropical feel to many of the plantings in what is truly one of the greatest gardens in Ireland.

In December, however, the gardens take on a more subtle appearance. Gone are the heady displays of herbaceous perennials, and the formal gardens are closed to the public because of the treacherous conditions underfoot on the terraces ; the mild and wet micro climate encourages moss growth. But don't let this put you off. Glimpses through the closed gates leading to the formal gardens reveal the stark forms of statuary against a perfect backdrop of clipped yews and the Cupressus leylandii. The effect of the statues and columns is more striking in winter. Now they are contrasted solely against the evergreens and the bare branches of trees and shrubs rather than against the lush vegetation of summer that sometimes seems to envelop them.

Elsewhere, however, the gardens around the lake yield up treasures both subtle and dramatic. The gardens hold the national collection of phormiums and these are dramatically silhouetted in the winter garden, especially when seen against a backdrop of the pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana.
The phormiums also form the counterfoil to late flowering lace cap hydrangea, the soft blues, mauves, and plums of the hydrangea contrasting effectively with the steely blue-green formal foliage of the phormium.
The lake itself forms the perfect reflective surface for the orange stems of willow emerging from the bare branches and evergreens of the mature woodland planting surrounding the tower of Tir na nOg, the burial ground of the Londonderry family.

Look closer at the bare branches of the smaller shrubs and trees by the lakeside and you will find a vast community of thriving lichens glowing in the fading winter light.

On exiting the garden, turn around a corner and you are stopped in your tracks by the electric blue of a salvia, possibly Salvia guaranitica. This is flowering in midwinter at a height of six to eight feet, the blue-black tall, branching stems carrying spikes of the familiar sage flowers:upper lip hooded, lower lip slightly curved and spreading.

A perfect memory to take back with you to the fireside.
Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007