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Welcome to Paradise: How Lady Dunleath of Ballywalter is inviting gardening lovers to join her new club

Passionate horticulturalist Lady Dunleath of Ballywalter Park is passing on her love of all things green through her new venture, The Paradise Gardening Club. She explains all to Lorraine Wylie

Glorious gardens: Lady Dunleath
Glorious gardens: Lady Dunleath

The exact location of the Garden of Eden remains a mystery. But the mention of fig trees in Genesis chapter 3 suggests that the Garden's orchards were planted somewhere a lot warmer than Northern Ireland.

As the story goes, Adam and Eve used fig leaves from Eden to make aprons. Today, the Ox restaurant in Belfast uses them to make ice-cream. The culinary ingenuity is impressive, but the fact that the exotic fruits were grown at Ballywalter Park is practically miraculous. With its damp and drizzle, Northern Ireland is better known for hardier crops such as spuds, but thanks to the efforts of Lady Dunleath and her team at Ballywalter Park's walled gardens, we can now enjoy our own home-grown taste of paradise.

Situated on the eastern shores of the Ards Peninsula, Ballywalter Park has been in the Mullholland family for over 170 years and is currently home to Brian and Vibeke Mullholland, known as Lord and Lady Dunleath.

Everything about the estate, currently around 1,300 acres, is either of architectural, historic or horticultural import. The house, a fine example of Italianate palazzo style architecture, was built in the mid 1800s for the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, Andrew Mullholland.

Within the grounds at Ballywalter, mature woodlands give way to open pastures and scenic walkways. A variety of plants and shrubs, including the beautiful rhododendron, an evergreen introduced in the early 19th century, add to the setting.

Over the years, Lord and Lady Dunleath have opened their doors to the public, providing interested parties with a tour of the manor, as well as accommodation. The historic site has also attracted film and television production companies, with the house providing a location for scenes based around Europe.

The grounds and demesne have doubled as a variety of sites, including First World War trenches in Flanders, a graveyard and even a picnic spot for Hitler.

Now, Danish-born Lady Dunleath, known to friends as Vibse, is about to launch a new project called The Paradise Gardening Club, which will be held in one of Vibse's favourite places.

"The Walled Garden here at Ballywalter Park is my personal paradise," she tells me. "I absolutely love it. I'm very passionate about gardening, so this place is a perfect location to hold The Paradise Gardening Club. Our excellent gardening team have spent years restoring this garden to its former glory and I want to share it with other green-fingered enthusiasts!"

She leads me though an entrance-way known as the Cart Gate and into the Walled Garden beyond. There's a sense of timelessness about the place that even the dreariness of the weather can't dispel. I follow her into the newly-refurbished potting sheds, where plants and gardening tools line the shelves and the scent of freshly-dug earth hangs in the air.

"We plan to begin each session of The Paradise Club here in the potting shed," Vibse explains. "We'll have coffee and a chat before moving on through our schedule which will be hosted by myself, our head gardener, Anna Hudson, and club secretary, Lisa Camlin. Over the months, we'll have some wonderful guests to talk on specific topics.

"It's very exciting because, in February, we have Jilly Dougan coming to talk to us about growing and harvesting herbs. As anyone who has ever tried to cultivate herbs will know, they are not easy. But Jilly, who works with the Hastings Group, is an expert and will give us some valuable tips. As we move through the gardening calendar, we will have other notable speakers to share horticultural knowledge. Our aim is to get the best out of what the Northern Ireland weather has to offer!"

Gardens come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the earliest examples of walled gardens are found in Persia (Iran) and date as far back as 4000 BC. Their symmetrical design, four quarters separated by paths with a pool or well-head at the centre, became the traditional layout. The Walled Garden at Ballywalter Park is an incredible example of horticultural practices during 18th century Britain.

Lady Dunleath in the picturesque grounds of Ballywalter Park, on the eastern shores of the Ards Peninsula
Lady Dunleath in the picturesque grounds of Ballywalter Park, on the eastern shores of the Ards Peninsula

"We have the original plans of our Walled Garden and they are laid out in the same design as the Persian gardens," says Visbe.

"Interestingly, the word 'Paradise' is taken from an old Persian language known as Pashto. I thought it a very apt name for our club. Here at Ballywalter Park, our Walled Garden is very unusual because we have almost all of the original 18th century glasshouses. The garden really was the supermarket of the 18th century and, contrary to popular belief, people had far more choice than we imagine."

She continues: "You see, the great thing about a Walled Garden is that it creates a microclimate, so you can force things early and grow them later. Our ancestors used to heat the walls of the glasshouses, as well as the walls of the garden. Creating a microclimate was very important to them as they depended on the produce from the Walled Garden, simply because there was nowhere else to get vegetables.

"Back then, to be able to extend the growing seasons would have been a matter of life and death. I think it's very exciting that we are able to have such a unique setting for our Paradise Club. Members will be able to explore the impact of a walled garden on produce, as well as discuss the historical importance of gardens of this nature."

Eighteenth century country manors usually reflected the owners wealth and social standing. But the numbers in the household dictated the size of the garden. Compared to Queen Victoria's 22 acres, Ballywalter Park's Walled Garden of 2.8 acres might seem a little on the smaller side. Yet it produces more than enough to keep the Dunleath family happy.

"We grow quite a wide variety of fruit and vegetables," Vibse explains. "It all depends on the season, but among other things, we have, leeks, potatoes, artichokes, red veined sorrel, brassicas and, if the carrot fly doesn't interfere, we also have carrots. Thanks to the glasshouses, we can grow a lot of lovely exotic fruits, including apricots, kiwi, white peaches and nectarines. I can even have enough almonds to do my Christmas cakes. We also have lemons and a 200-year-old fig tree."

Lady Dunleath at home in Ballywalter Park
Lady Dunleath at home in Ballywalter Park

Is this the same tree that inspired Stephen Toman, chef at Belfast's Ox restaurant, to make fig flavoured ice-cream?

"Yes, we supply Ox restaurant with a variety of produce," Vibse confirms. "Stephen likes to use things that are in season. He's always coming up with new and exciting ways to incorporate flavours in his dishes. He used the leaves from our fig tree to infuse an ice-cream that proved a great success at his restaurant.

"Last year, the team at Ox came down here several times to get a feel for how long it takes from seed to harvest. They planted tomatoes and some brassicas one of the days. Stephen seems particularly fond of artichokes, although edible flowers are big at the moment!"

Intrigued, I decided to ask the co-owner of the Michelin starred restaurant about his relationship with the team at Ballywalter Park's Walled Garden.

"We've been working with Ballywalter Park for a few years now and enjoy a great relationship with everyone there," he says. "Lady Dunleath's knowledge of food and gardening is amazing. In fact, I think she's forgotten more than I'll ever know! She's very interested in the whole process of food production and even came down here and did a service with us.

"Nowadays, there tends to be a disconnect between where food originated and the end product. I want to be part of the education process and teach young chefs coming up to take pride in their work and have respect for their produce.

Stephen Toman, chef at Belfast’s Ox restaurant
Stephen Toman, chef at Belfast’s Ox restaurant

"Every week, I send a couple of the team down to Ballywalter to harvest what's on offer. I find it's a real buzz to take the best in season and create a dish around it. It took a few attempts to get the fig ice-cream right, but it worked quite well in the end. It's always exciting to see what's coming next!"

Lady Dunleath remembers her time in the Ox kitchen well. "I did indeed do a shift on a Saturday night for 70 covers and I loved it," she says.

"It was like a high adrenaline ballet in a kitchen where nobody can shout because it's open to the customers!"

The Paradise Gardening Club sounds fascinating - but do members need any horticultural experience?

"No, I think the only skill you need in a garden is to enjoy being outside," Lady Dunleath smiles. "The Paradise Gardening Club is for anyone who has an interest in the garden. It is for all levels of skill.

"Our monthly talks will give budding gardeners a sound knowledge of the subject as we'll cover everything from sowing to taking cuttings, as well as an introduction to the seasons. The seasons are hugely important for the success of any garden.

"We'll also encourage individuals to swap plants and seeds. Like any other club, Paradise members can look forward to an annual outing to a garden of note. At the moment, it is still too early to know all the possibilities for our club. But we do have ambitious hopes for the future and, who knows, we might even think about introducing other events such as a pop-up restaurant or floristry courses!"

As the launch date of the Paradise Gardening Club draws closer, it's hard to believe that, just a few months ago, Vibse and her team feared it would never get off the ground.

"Back in September 2018, Storm Ali partially demolished one of our beautiful glasshouses!" she recalls. "It's so rare to have any glasshouses from the 18th century that it was a real disaster for us. Not one of our glasshouses escaped unscathed. But glasshouse number seven, dating back to 1730, was unbuttoned by the wind and partially destroyed! Fortunately, things are getting back on track and I'm so pleased we are able to go ahead with our Club."

In an era when obesity is a major issue, society's appetite for processed, sugar-laden produce is beginning to wane. As more restaurants turn to local suppliers, the taste for home-grown, natural food is growing fast. Perhaps as individuals, we could all have a go at growing our own. I asked Vibse to suggest a vegetable any novice would find easy.

"One of the easiest things to grow is carrots," she says without hesitation. "Get a pot, some soil and some carrot seed. Read how deep the seed should be sown and make a pretty pattern in the soil. I usually make a spiral. Now sprinkle the seeds into the pattern and carefully cover in soil, water and otherwise follow the instructions. The seeds will germinate in the pattern you made. Fingers crossed you don't have carrot fly!"

  • The Paradise Gardening Club begins on Saturday, January 19 at 10am. For further details, email: paradisegardeningclub@gmail.com

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