Bay of blooms

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GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS  Three-year-old Arlo McLoughlin explores Ed and Eriko Hopkinson’s Orchard Cottage garden, on the Clew Bay Garden Trail.  All pics: Linda McNulty

Clew Bay Garden Trail comes up roses

Ciara Moynihan

The summer has finally arrived, and Clew Bay is blooming. So many of us have found comfort, joy and escape in our outdoor spaces this year. Parks, beaches and mountains have become our playgrounds, while gardens are oases of calm, gently humming with life.
Whether you’re a gardener looking for inspiration, or you just enjoy admiring gardens in all their variety, the Clew Bay Garden Trail has become an annual must-do. Last year’s event fell foul of the pandemic, but this year it is back – and more beautiful than ever.
The 2021 trail, which opened on June 20, boasts seven gorgeous gardens, each one very different from the next. Every weekend up to August 8 will see different gardens throw open their gates to visitors, with many opening more than once.
‘Coill an Chúir’ (‘Red Kite Wood’) at Sandyhill, Westport, opened this year’s trail. Oliver Whyte Jr’s native wildlife garden began life in 2016 as conventional grazing land. An emerging habitat, it consists of young native trees, wildflower beds, ponds, rewilding grasslands and an orchard. Locally sourced flora gently nod in the breeze, with native ‘weeds’ doing their bit to help the ecosystem recover.
The following weekend, the trail visited Ed and Eriko Hopkinson’s amazing ‘Orchard Cottage’, a charming two-acre garden surrounding 19th-century cottages in a sheltered spot in Carrowholly, near the shores of Clew Bay. The garden has been lovingly nurtured for 25 years by Ed and Eriko, who embrace organic and wildlife-friendly principles, and it shows. It contains an ancient but still productive orchard, stone-flagged terraces, many unusual plants (including old varieties of rose), a wildlife pond and a new woodland area.
Many will know Chris Smith through Westport Country Market, where he sells his delicious produce. Last weekend people grabbed the chance to see his organic herb and vegetable gardens at ‘Western Herbs and Veg’ in Clogher, just outside Westport, and learn from a master. This one-acre site has three polytunnels, a glass lean-to and two ponds, all in a pleasant setting with plenty of eye-catching shrubs and perennials.
Drimbawn Garden in Tourmakeady was also open last weekend, and green-fingered types enjoyed exploring this landscaped paradise. Originally designed by Ninian Niven in the 19th-century, it boasts an arboretum, flower gardens, vegetable gardens, an orchard and woodland gardens.    

Valuing variety
This weekend it’s the turn of June and Ken Bourke and their wonderful gardens at ‘Hammerbeam’ in Knappagh, Westport. This country farmhouse garden was established in 2015 on what’s described as a ‘challenging site’. A natural stream flows through the garden, colourful perennials, shrubs and roses are planted in borders and terraces. Paths lead to the various features: a mature larch tree, box hedge parterre, orchard and a glasshouse filled with plants. A polytunnel for vegetables is a new addition.
Last Friday, June told The Mayo News that she’s is really looking forward to welcoming faces familiar and new next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, between 1pm and 5pm. June is one of the founding members of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, and she is thrilled that it has become so firmly established in just ten years – an event that will be marked with a Clew Bay Garden Trail 2022 calendar, raising funds for Mayo Roscommon Hospice.
“It started off with myself and (fellow Westport woman) Mairead Bourke having a chat,” she explained. “We were always into gardening and loved visiting gardens, and we thought it would be a nice and appropriate add-on to the Westport area. We knew that there were so many nice gardens around, and people who genuinely like gardens. Visiting other people’s gardens is just such a pleasurable activity! And also a great way of gaining knowledge about gardening, by sharing tips and meeting like-minded people.”
The trail has attracted curious tourists from all over the country and overseas, with June noting that her garden saw visitors from Switzerland, France, Germany in recent years. It’s become a firm favourite with Clew Bay residents too, she said.
“The trail has been great for say local people who might like to establish a garden, who have maybe built a new house. They can go and visit these gardens and they can check out what plants do well in this area, what grows well around Clew Bay and in and around Westport. This helps them avoid wasting lots of time and money on plants that just won’t survive.
“They get to talk to the gardeners too, who can tell them ‘go for this hedge, rather than that’ or ‘I tried those flowers and they failed, the wind got them’. It’s a really good way to get tips and advice from other gardeners.”
June believes that one of the trail’s most valuable assets is its variety. “This year we have everything from Olly White’s native wildlife garden to the other end of the spectrum, ‘Drimbawn Gardens’, which are beautiful formal gardens on a large estate. We have ‘Gort na Gréine’, Wendy Stringer’s garden in Knappagh. She’s such an expert on birds, bees and moths… it’s wonderful to have her.
“Then we’ve Chris Smith and his veg – he has 30 years experience as an organic grower. That’s invaluable. Marty McElgunn has a beautiful garden (‘Speckled Meadow’) out near Brackloon Woods. He’s really developed into the woodland there, and brought water into his garden.”

Safety first
Of course, opening a garden trail in the summer of 2021 presents new challenges for members, who have had to incorporate pandemic-related public-health considerations into their planning. “We had to put a lot of thought into it before we decided to go ahead,” June revealed. “We have been advised by the powers that be that really it’s a very safe thing to do. Some people will probably out a one-way system in place, and perhaps the usual tea and coffee might be a little bit different than other years.
“Most of our gardens are reasonably big, with plenty of room and space. It’s as safe as you can get really. Visitors know to keep their social distance from others, and in the gardens that have been opened so far it has really worked. Everybody has been happy with how they’ve been conducted.
“We’ve taken all the guidelines into consideration and we’ll be following all the guidelines that are in place. We’ll have hand sanitiser there, and the tea and coffee offerings for those who would like to enjoy them will be done in a safe manner.”

More gardens welcome
The Clew Bay Garden Trail is always interested in new gardens, and the members would be delighted to hear from anyone interested in joining the trail and having people visit their garden. The Clew Bay net is wide, and gardens based anywhere within are welcome – from Mulranny to Clare Island, Louisburgh to Newport.
“We’d love to encourage people to come forward, because sometimes people are reluctant. You know, we’re probably all the same, thinking ‘Oh I don’t think my garden is good enough’. But we really would like if interested people got in touch,” June said. “When we do get to hear about a garden, one or two of the committee members might just go and have a very casual and informal look at the garden. Then we may or may not make suggestions. We do a little safety audit on every garden too – there might be just a little hand rail needed or steps or something. Then we usually say to the gardener, ‘It’s probably  a good idea to take a year to get the garden the way you might like it and be ready for, say 2023, or maybe even 2022’.
“A lot of people did a lot of work last year, and we’re open to all kinds of gardens – they don’t have to be a massive flower garden, you know, it could be a vegetable garden, it could be a wildlife garden, it could be a fruit garden.… It doesn’t have to be like Drimbawn!”

Personal perspectives
June is keen that visitors understand that the trail’s gardens are personal projects. “I always say to people, they’re our gardens, they’re not show gardens. And if you’re a visitor, you may or may not like them all, but they’re our gardens. And every garden is different, and every garden is personal. I mean, I like blue flowers while another person might not like blue in the garden.
“But it would still be a very rare time that you’d visit a garden and you wouldn’t take away something – it could be a plant you really like and want to get or it could be a garden plan that you like, it could be a seating area you like.
“Some of the gardeners have plants for sale too. I know I do, I have lots for sale! So if you see a plant you like, very often the gardener might have a piece of it. And these plants are usually well hardened off, because they’re outdoors all the time, and they’re used to the west!”
Gardening has helped many of us get through the last 15 months, and June is passionate about the benefits it has brought into so many people’s lives.
“When there were times when you couldn’t do a whole lot else, your garden was like a haven. And the garden work had to be done, regardless.
“It was almost like everything just carried on as normal here at my house, because I was doing my garden and kept busy. I think for anyone who was gardening, it was a great help during lockdown days.”
June and Ken have five grandchildren, all girls, and already the young ladies are showing signs of greening fingers. “They love being in the garden, and actually the eldest, who is seven, already loves this gardening thing. She’s got her own peas growing in the tunnel and all.” A new trail member in the making.
 
For more on the Clew Bay Garden Trail 2021 programme, find the Clew Bay Garden Trail page on Facebook, or visit www.clewbaygardentrail.ie (where directions to each garden can also be found).

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