History of Gardening in Ireland

A drop line chronology

Most Irish people take for granted much of what is so special about Ireland because it is so very familiar to them. Because our ancient garden heritage goes back to our earliest settlers and permeates all of our history to the present including the food on our plates, the layout of our towns and villages (shaped by the necessity of providing gardens.) In other words the very essence of what it is to live here, most might be surprised to learn just how central it is to all of Irish cultural heritage.

Ireland and Gardening – A Timeline

Prehistoric (c4000 BC – 500 BC)

Neolithic peoples 6000 years ago brought the art of growing plants at the same time as the builders of places like Newgrange and it has been here since.

We know little of the plants that were grown by them but in addition to crops such as barley and wheat, numerous other plants appear in their diet. It presumed that a lot of these plants would been cultivated by them.

Celtic Iron Age (c500BC – 400AD)

In the Celtic Iron Age (c500BC – 400AD) onions, wild leeks, sorrel, nettles, and watercress were cultivated - some transfer of knowledge and plants is presumed to have taken place by trade from Roman Britain up to the year 400.  We also have evidence of the cultivation of apples and these have been central to our diet ever since. Under ancient Irish Brehon Law, a tenant who lost his land for any reason had to be compensated for any apple trees he may have planted.

Early Christian Period (800 to 1160s)

In written accounts the lubgort or vegetable garden was a constant; these were areas on ridges on the side of hills, which were manured in the autumn and planted in the spring with a variety of vegetables. A vegetable called cainenn possibly a member of the onion family was widely cultivated, the bulbs and stems were eaten raw or placed in a stew. Immus (celery) were grown extensively. Foltchep a kind of onion chive or leek were also grown. Meacan and cerrbacan believed to be carrots and parsnips were also cultivated. A type of wild cabbage and kale were also cultivated.

Celtic Christian Ireland prior to the Norman invasion

With the coming of Christianity in the 5th century there came the transfer of the ancient art of gardening from the Roman classical world that was highly sophisticated. The Celtic Christian monasteries grew a wide range of herbs and vegetables in the lus gort and were acknowledged to be experts in gardening in continental Europe.

7th Century Saint Fiachra The Patron Saint of Gardening is Irish

The 7th century Irish saint who is the patron saint of gardening. He lived in a hermitage in Co Kilkenny and left to go to Meaux in France due to having become famous for his skill with herbs. Here he made a famous garden in built an oratory, a hospice, and cell for himself, he died in 670. His relics are in Meaux Catherdral. In France & Italy there is an annual festival celebrating gardening on his feast day at the first harvest either at the end of August or on the 1st of September.

The Normans, 12th century onwards

The Cistercians and other continental religious orders from 1100’s onwards came to Ireland with further gardening skills and a wide range of plants and herbs. The office of herber and gardener were important ones in the life of the monastery. We have compressive lists of the plants grown at this period and these have been used to recreate the garden at Grey Abbey in Co Down.

14th Century

The Oldest Gardening Book in English is actually 14th Century Irish.

The oldest copy of a book written in Hiberno English and the oldest gardening book in the English language comes from Ireland in the 1300’s. “The Virtues of Herbs of Master Jon Gardener”  one of the Kildare Poems was composed in Geraldine Ireland and is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

“All the herbs of Ireland, Here thou shalt them know every one.” - Strawberry Tree Press reproduced it in facsimile in 2002.

Pre 17th Century (pre Cromwellian) Gardens

Gardens for food and herbs were widely cultivated by the Old English and Irish aristocratic families in medieval Ireland but with the 16th century Elizabethan Munster Plantation all sorts of new plants were introduced from around the world especially from the Americas.

Sir Walter Raleigh of Armada fame is said to have cultivated the first potatoes here and smoked the first tobacco.  His stately Elizabethan house, Myrtle Grove, built mid 16th century, was later the residence of the Warden of the College of Youghal and still stands. Another Munster historic garden is that at Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. The Upper Garden is a complete example of the 17th century walled garden first constructed here by Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork, in about 1605. It is probably the oldest continuously cultivated garden in Ireland.

1700 onwards – The Landscape Garden

in this period gardeners moved their art from within the confines of the garden walls out into the wider Landscape Park. Outstanding examples of these parks survive to be enjoyed throughout the island around many of our great houses. The driveway of Powerscourt Co Wicklow with its wonderful beech trees and views across the landscaped, wooded valley to the Charleville House Park and the Sugarloaf Mountain is a good example. From this period we also have significant heritage of walled gardens (originally for the production of fruit and vegetables) and other garden buildings along with ornamental follies, as at the Casino at Marino, Dublin and the Swiss Cottage, Cahir, Co Tipperary and the layout of Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Nurseries – 1740’s on

Today Ireland has a major export trade in garden plants with many varieties originating here.

Noteworthy among these are Rose varieties that a visit to either the Rose Garden in St Anne’s Park Dublin or The Sir Thomas and Lady Anne Dickson Park, Belfast will testify.

Also included must be a huge range of vegetables such as potato varieties that were raised here and are now grown all over the world. The Irish Garden Plant Society and The Irish Seed savers Association are both dedicated to keeping this priceless heritage with us Plandaí Oidhreachta – Irish Heritage Plants exhibition of works by the members of the Irish Society of Botanical Artists which is currently touring the country has been put together to celebrate including some of the outstanding newer ornamental varieties. The exhibition is also published as book by The Irish Society of Botanical Artists and will be on sale at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.

Food Growing

A definition of an Irishman historically would have had to include that of vegetable gardener with vegetables forming the majority of the diet and most of the population cultivating them. Many restaurants are promoting ‘from fork to table’ menus and an increasing number of gardens are being created with the aim of supplying them. Marlfield Co Wexford and Longeuville Co Cork are good examples of these and well worth visiting.  

Irish Garden Design 19th and 20th Centuries

William Robinson 1838-1935 born in Ireland is the considered to be the father of the modern garden style used in much of the world today. He pioneered the use of integrated permanent planting schemes based on the use of hardy plants in sustainable mini ecosystems. He is famous for promoting the modern cottage garden style, the herbaceous border, the wild garden and the English flower garden. Outstanding examples of his wild gardens are to be found at Mount Usher in Co Wicklow and Annesgrove in Co Cork, his influence is also evident in the herbaceous borders of Powerscourt and the National Botanic Gardens which he visited and frequently wrote about. His ideas also influenced the planting schemes of later gardens such as Mount Stewart, Heywood and Glenveagh and many others produced by later generations of gardeners.  More formal aristocratic “gardens of the gods” from this period such as Powerscourt, Co Wicklow  and Bantry House Co Kerry are also rated among the best in the world offering something uniquely Irish in their combination of classical Italianate formal garden style with the backdrop of the Irish soft green landscape and lush growth to produce a combination that is both world class and very Irish. In addition the same mix of elements are evident in the wonderful gardens of the Gulf Stream such as at Garnish by Harold Peto and at Fota in Co Cork. It should also be mentioned here that Ireland holds many gardens by non Irish, internationally famed designers such as Sir Edwin Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll; at Lambay Co Dublin, The War Memorial Gardens, Dublin and Heywood Co Laois, and Lanning Roper at Glenveagh Co Donegal.

Heritage Garden Restoration 20th Century

Starting in the 1980’s grant aid coupled with an increase in visitors has seen the revival of numerous sleeping beauty’s that are open to the public. The list is a long one well know examples include Kylemore, Co Galway and Birr Castle Co Offaly.  In fact practically every county has more than one historic garden that has opened its doors to the public since then.

Botanic Gardens and Plant Explorers 19th – 21st Centuries

Augustine Henry, Birr Castle, Blarney Castle and more recent expeditions

Ireland has been to the fore in the sciences of horticulture and botany for centuries. The premier institution The 200 plus year old National Botanic Gardens in Dublin has not only as been involved in the education of botanists and horticulturists for centuries it has close links with historic plant explorers such as Augustine Henry 1957 -1930 whose work on the Chinese flora resulted in ‘The wealth of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs which adorn gardens in all temperate parts of the world today”

Elsewhere Bernard McMahon (for whom the plant Mahonia is named) was born in Ireland but had established a nursery and seed shop in Philadelphia by 1802. He advocated the introduction of American natives in our gardens and published “The American Gardeners Calendar” the first American book on gardening that remained in print until 1857.  To him can be credited a huge range of the plants we grow today. Described by Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the USA) as his gardening mentor at his great estate of Monticello His influence continues to shape gardens on both sides of the Atlantic.   

This tradition of plant exploration continues with many of the gardens open to the public hosting significant collections of introduced species. Some of them very new to science and collected on expeditions sponsored or participated in by the gardeners themselves; Malahide Castle Co Dublin (Tasmanian and Chilean flora), Birr Castle (Chinese) are good examples, and a recent expedition from Ireland was collecting plants in the mountains of Vietnam for Blarney Castle in the last year.

21st Century

Ireland and Irish people continue to be greatly involved with gardens and gardening.  Most Irish urban houses have front and back gardens and most Irish people greatly enjoy them. In addition there are numerous leafy and beautiful parks and gardens throughout our cities and towns, something that is often remarked upon by visitors.  One of the most popular shows on Irish TV is Super Garden, which is about a competing to select a best amateur garden designer to be sponsored to construct their garden at the annual Bloom Garden Show in Dublin’s Pheonix Park.

National community effort is involved in our Tidy Towns and Spring Clean Campaigns which literally sees 100,000’s of ordinary individuals volunteer to keep their neighborhoods pristine and beautiful and in addition most actually garden them as well tending plants and managing wildlife.

Ireland has also produced R.H.S Chelsea Annual Show medal winners such as Diarmud Gavin, Paul Martin and Mary Reynolds and examples of their work and numerous other talented designers such as Jimi Blake’s remarkable garden at Hunting Brook Co Wicklow can be visited. There are also many local, seasonal Flower and Garden Shows in various parts of the country as well as the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland Show at their garden at Russborough House each year.

John Ducie