The secrets behind bloomin' lovely gardens in Greyabbey
The National Trust Ulster Gardens Scheme gets under way for 2016 this weekend with the public getting the chance to visit some stunning private grounds in Greyabbey. Linda Stewart meets two green-fingered women.
The gardens at Greyabbey House look like they've evolved over hundreds of years - but people might be surprised to learn how recently they were planted.
Daphne Montgomery says the gardens had virtually disappeared when she arrived in 1965 after her marriage. The masses of laurel she describes blocking out the view on one side of the house have vanished without trace to leave a stunning vista of rolling parkland, while the bramble-infested slope at the front has been transformed into a mature southern hemisphere woodland garden that looks like it has been there forever, or at least since the days of the Victorian plant hunters.
Daphne and husband, Bill, both 76, who have four grown-up children - Hugo, Rose, Frances and Flora, and eight grandchildren, both adore the surrounding greenery.
The house itself oozes history, but the planting is surprisingly young, and yet they have become a firm fixture on Northern Ireland's garden tourism trail.
"My husband's family has been on this site since 1606. This is the third house on this site and it was built in 1762," Daphne explains.
"We restored the garden, which is two orchards, a walled garden with vegetables, two borders and the most important thing would be the southern hemisphere garden.
"The garden has camellias and magnolias but it's not a spring garden - it comes into its own in June, July, August."
Daphne says the gardens have been transformed with the help of gardener Jerome Convery (52) who has been at Greyabbey House for 30 years.
"My parents had a lovely garden and I was always quite keen - but until you have something of your own you don't really check in," Daphne says.
"The first thing we did was take away the laurels that were planted between the house and the park - you couldn't see the landscape beyond.
"We gradually made the shrub rose border, then the hot border and the vegetable garden. Then the beech hedge garden - that was our son's idea. He designed the hedges and the sunken garden.
"He will take over, so we've tried to get it so the garden is up and running for him and his family."
This week, the team, including a French landscape design student, were busy making the most of the sunshine.
While the Ulster Gardens Scheme opening isn't until June, the garden needs to be visitor-ready much earlier because the first three tours are scheduled for the start of May.
"We have booked groups of 20 people or more - gardening groups, historical societies. On the second weekend we have a group of 15 from Harvard, brought by historian Patrick Bowe, and we have the woody plants group coming from RHS Wisley," Daphne says.
"Because we have the groups, it's good because one hits off the other.
"We're working like mad. We are always chasing the clock.
"We're cleaning out the beds, edging, splitting plants which have got too big, sowing veg, planting potatoes, tying in fruit trees on the walls."
Daphne's pride and joy is the southern hemisphere garden which is home to the very rare Nothofagus alessandria, which came from the late Patrick Forde in Seaforde, two kinds of gunnera which have colonised the boggy part, a Berberis valdiviana from Chile which is now covered in vivid yellow blossoms, and a South African Beschonaria yuccoides, which is on the verge of opening huge exotic flowers.
Some of the plants are being hosted for Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, so that if anything happens there, cuttings can be secured from the plants at Greyabbey.
"This is unique - no one else has a space like ours devoted to southern hemisphere plants," Daphne says.
"In a funny way, some of the most interesting plants in the southern hemisphere gardens are also the most grotesque. We have this woody plant for the RHS and it's the ugliest little thing you ever saw - Grisellina jodnifolia."
Meanwhile, the shrub rose border will be at its peak when the garden opens.
The sunken garden will be lined with spectacular Echiums - towering blue flowerheads that are beloved of bees.
Daphne insists she doesn't spend nearly as much time in the garden as she would like.
"My best days are in my garden. It's a pleasure, a little bit of worry - if you are working towards a group, you want to get it done," she says.
"It's pleasure, planning and seeing it grow.
"Two men have been very generous - one is my husband Bill and one is my gardener, Jerome, who has become a true expert in this particular field of gardening. It's not everyone who would know the Latin name of virtually every plant in the garden."