Belfast Telegraph

Not so secret gardens - Need inspiration for Belfast Telegraph gardening competition?

Meet the green-fingered experts happy to open their gates to the public.

Flower power: Hilary and Jim Rafferty in the garden of their Ballymena home
Flower power: Hilary and Jim Rafferty in the garden of their Ballymena home
In full bloom: Sam Harrison turned a football pitch into a gardener's paradise
Final preparations: Clodagh Reid and garden designer St John Bowers get Unicarval ready for the grand opening
Hilary and Jim Rafferty by a mill pond

By Linda Stewart

When it comes to each other's homes and gardens, most people would confess to being a little bit nosey sometimes. As if the popularity of television shows such as Ground Force and Changing Rooms wasn't testimony enough to our desire to create our own ideal personal space, green-fingered enthusiasts in Northern Ireland can often spend a small fortune over a lifetime on sprucing up their lawns and beautifying their begonias.

While most of us can only boast a relatively modest patch to call our own, some gardening enthusiasts take their floral fantasies to a whole new level, dedicating themselves to creating truly jaw-dropping outdoor spaces.

And for those of us whose gardens fall sadly short of perfection, there's the chance to muse on what might have been, thanks to the National Trust staff who have persuaded owners of some of the most remarkable gardens in the province to throw open their gates to the public as part of the Ulster Gardens Scheme.

Some owners will open their gates for one or two days every few years to share their private garden with visitors, while others make their green space available all summer long, every year, as part of the By Appointment scheme.

"Some years ago, a group of like-minded gardeners decided to support the work of the trust by opening their own private gardens to visitors with all proceeds going to specific projects within National Trust gardens in Northern Ireland," explains Trevor Edwards, who volunteers with the scheme. "And so, from this simple idea the Ulster Gardens Scheme was founded.

"On the day, visitors are greeted at the entrance by members of the committee, offering a sunny smile, even when sunshine isn't particularly evident.

"Other members of the team produce hundreds of plants each year to sell at the gardens. Regular visitors can be seen making a beeline for the plant stall early in the day to snap up some of the rare and unusual plants which can often be found."

As the scheme kicks off again this weekend, we speak to three gardeners who will be showing off their beloved creations this spring and summer.

Retired consultant Hilary Rafferty (74) and retired art teacher Jim Rafferty (76) created their garden at The Mill House, in Glenwherry near Ballymena from former farmland. They have two daughters, Shona and Emma, and three grandchildren. Hilary says:

"We're here just over 20 years and when we moved up there wasn't any garden except for a small patch at the front of the house. It was farmland with cattle and that was all there was.

There is an old mill on the site which is about 300 years old and it stopped working in 1962 – we just use it now to keep stuff in. There are two large mill ponds and a mill race. There is also the Glenwherry River and it is the reason why we moved here, for the site.

The house was smaller than the one we had but we wanted a bigger garden and we loved the river.

We reopened the mill race, which had been filled in by the previous owner. The river flooded pretty often and we filled up the banks so it wouldn’t flood the garden.

There is a lot of rhododendron, more than 150 different varieties. It’s not just a spring garden — it’s a lovely year-round garden.

We have rhododendron down one side of the garden and the other side is mixed planting round the pond which has terraced edges because the banks are so steep.

We have a lot of silver birch, Betula jackmondii, which is one with a very white bark and it looks particularly nice in winter.

We’ve also planted a beech woodland with bluebells and a Sitka spruce woodland and we’ve just finished putting together a fernery. You get so used to it that you don’t see it.

We had some people out yesterday from a gardening club and they seemed to think it was a very tranquil place. I don’t find it so — I find it hard work!

The largest pond has a jetty and we can go out on the pond in a little boat.

We’re both retired, me 10 years ago and my husband 12, and we’ve always been interested in the garden. The bones of it were laid many years ago when we moved up here, but this is how we spend our time now, really.

We have lovely wildlife up here. We have otters which get at our fish, we have kingfishers, dippers, grey wagtail and long-tailed ducks nesting here.

There are pheasants in the garden and we keep bees as well. We also planted some buddleias to attract the butterflies.

This is the very first time our garden has been opened properly to the public and it’s a bit daunting. But we are getting a lot of work done that we had put to the side for a while.

We got into this by accident. We were looking at a garden that was open near to us and we got talking to two National Trust people about gardening and they suggested we open up the garden as part of the scheme.”


‘Nearly all of our plants are from cuttings’

Tony and Clodagh Reid, both in their 60s, moved into Unicarval House in Comber, 27 years ago. They have three children, Michaela, Gareth and Justin. Clodagh says:

“Unicarval is named after the surrounding townland which translates as ‘the land of the bog of sacred tree’. Which particular tree that was is unknown but there is a legend that tells that there will always be a house/family here as long as there is an evergreen oak (and there is).

The house has grown considerably over the two centuries but the facade we see today is Georgian, dating to around 1760.

John Cummings bought the land from the Earl of Clanbrassil in 1673 and built the original house. Since then Unicarval has belonged to only six families. Each has added to the house and garden according to their need or the tastes of the times.

In the rebellion of 1798 Unicarval was the scene of a siege in which the owner, Mr Cummings, was mortally wounded. The garden covers nine acres and there is a wealth of mature rhododendron, deciduous and evergreen trees, sadly many of which are reaching the end of their life.

The structure was there when we moved in about 27 years ago but we’ve added to it with a lot of underplanting and clearing out a lot of the older mature poplars that were planted in the 1930s and created an area for rhododendrons, azalea and camellia.

The garden is in a frost hollow but with the trees there’s enough shelter that the plants do well. We’re not into formal gardens —we’re into natural and woodland gardens. In spring we have a lot of snowdrops and crocuses and thousands of hellebores.

We dug a pond and it is now full of frogs and newts. It’s shallow and more like a bog garden at one end and deeper at the other. In summer we get a lot of damselflies and dragonflies and the frogs come in their thousands. We tend not to cut the grass around the pond too much and we allow the cow parsley to grow because some of the butterflies like it, as well as the insects and bees.

We normally cut the grass between the trees but there are ducks and pheasants nesting there at the minute. We don’t like disturbing the area.

It’s not a pristine garden — if there are a few weeds we don’t tend to worry, just let them grow and get on with it.

Like all gardens there is a certain amount of upkeep — even just cutting the grass is a big job as the whole garden covers nine

acres. But it’s not overly expensive — we have minimised the expense.

We've been helped over the years by St John Bowers, who holds a degree in landscape architecture and garden design. His input and knowledge has been invaluable.

We’re very interested in propagation and nearly all the plants are our own, grown from cuttings. We can generate a lot of plant material very cheaply in that way.

The trees would be our first love in the garden. We have two lovely copper beech in the middle of the garden and a lot of old oaks and sweet chestnuts.

Because it’s so natural and there’s so much wildlife in it, we had four or five species of raptor at one stage — sparrowhawk, long eared owl, barn owl, merlin and buzzard.

This is the first time we’ve opened our garden to the public, so we’ve been getting the paths sorted out and doing a bit more of a tidy-up than normal.”


‘My favourite plant is a weeping juniper I grafted in the 70s’

Retired forester Sam Harrison (74) created his garden at Beechgrove, close to Castlewellan Arboretum, his former charge. He has two children, Mark and Donna, and seven grandchildren. He says:

“When I came here in 1983, I inherited a football pitch and an old nursery. Having looked after the arboretum at Castlewellan, I enjoyed the challenge of creating something different.

I started with a blank canvas and it’s still a work in progress. It’s safe to say it’s like a jigsaw puzzle — there are nice soft curves and no straight lines. I don’t like straight lines where you can see everything at one glance. You can plant double the amount of plants that you could on a straight line — it adds planting space.

I travel to nurseries all over the place looking for unusual stuff. It’s an old estate with very mature trees and honey fungus is a big problem in the garden. So I'm now into bamboo because I read that they’re fairly resistant to honey fungus — I now have quite a good collection of bamboo which adds a Far Eastern feeling.

I have a big fish pond with koi carp and it’s covered in a net, but the heron has good eyesight and there are lots of holes in the net.

I also have a nice teahouse which I designed myself from old galvanised hot water pipes from the arboretum greenhouses. It’s the only place where you can’t see telegraph poles or TV aerials or power lines and I just switch off in there.

I recently acquired a colony of bats in there and I find their droppings on the ground every morning. Just before dusk they move slowly to the edge before taking off.

The jay is my residential forester — it picks up chestnuts and other nuts and buries them.

I also have a little nursery area with a greenhouse and I do a lot of propagation.

I’m proudest that I’ve been able to keep the centre of the garden grassed and open. All these ‘rooms’ are appearing round the sides and I have these vistas across the lawn to certain things.

Trees usually mean something to me — they were given to me or I found them somewhere interesting. The latest addition to my collection is a plant I saw at Mount Usher — a Metasequoia variety called Goldrush. It’s the most vivid golden colour and it’s beside a purple-leaved plant, a combination that works well in my garden.

The most attractive plant I have in the garden is a weeping juniper which I grafted myself when I went into forestry in the early 1970s up in the arboretum. It has moved from Newcastle to Castlewellan to where it is now. It’s really attractive — like curtains of foliage that come straight down.

After the arboretum was opened by the Forest Service in 1969, I was headhunted from Gos

ford Forest Park and they sent me all over Northern Ireland and the Republic, Scotland and England to gain experience and I came here in 1971 to become arboretum forester. I stayed here until around 1990 when I was promoted to head forester for Castlewellan and Tollymore.

I retired 14 years ago and I’ve been here ever since, doing different things all the time.

I’m divorced but there’s a lady in my life called Esther and she has brought a woman’s touch to the garden, introducing plants like hostas.”


When to visit

Open Garden Scheme dates 2014:


Tomorrow & Sunday, 2-5pm

Mr and Mrs Tony Reid, 88 |Ballyrainey Road, Comber, |Newtownards, BT23 5JU

Saturday, May 31, & Sunday, |June 1, 2-5pm

Mr John and Mrs Ann Buchanan, 28 Killyfaddy Road, Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, BT45 6EX


Saturday & Sunday, June 7-8, |2-5pm

Mr Sam Harrison, Beechgrove,|12 Castle Avenue, Castlewellan, Co Down, BT31 9DX

Saturday & Sunday, June 14-15, |2-5pm

Mr and Mrs J Rafferty, |The Mill House, 140 Ballynashee Road, Glenwherry, Ballymena, |Co Antrim, BT42 3EW


Saturday & Sunday, June 19-20, |2-5pm

Mr and Mrs D I Page, Billy Old |Rectory, 5 Cabragh Road, |Castlecat, Bushmills, Co Antrim, BT57 8YH


Saturday & Sunday, August 2-3,|2-5pm

Mr and Mrs Maurice Parkinson, Ballyrobert Cottage Garden, |154 Ballyrobert Road, Ballyclare, Co Antrim, BT39 9RT

Saturday & Sunday, August 9-10, 2-5pm

Mr and Mrs Mervyn Warrington, 48 Comber Road. Ballyminstra, Killinchy, Co Down, BT23 6PB


Ulster Gardens Scheme Review Evening

Thursday, November 20, 7.30pm, at the Old Courthouse, Antrim

Full details available at, the Facebook page at, or follow the scheme on Twitter at @UlsterGdsScheme

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