Few gardens survive the death of their creator. They will be changed by those who follow them, who will garden in their own way, with their own enthusiasms, likes and dislikes so that the vision of the creator gets gradually fudged and eventually lost. This is a criticism regularly levelled at National Trust properties in the United Kingdom; that the gardens are managed to a corporate formula and lack individuality. There is some truth in this criticism, almost an inevitable truth and while a visit to such a garden may well be very enjoyable there is a certain disappointment of not seeing it in the hands of the original gardener.
Altamont Gardens, outside Ballon in Co. Wexford, was the creation of the late Mrs. Corona North and is now in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW). It is almost twenty years since Mrs. North passed away (7th February, 1999) and it is to the great credit of those who garden Altamont now, particularly Head Gardener, Paul Cutler, who worked with Mrs. North, that Altamont is still in the spirit of its creator. Were she to walk into her garden today I believe her reaction would be one of delight that her garden was being kept so very well. She would recognise it as still quite clearly her garden – dare I say, now a little better maintained – and certainly still loved and tended and her special plants still growing well.
Altamont merits several visits each year and, while I love it in all seasons, I especially love to visit for the snowdrops in February. The annual Snowdrop Week is now a well established event in the Irish gardening calendar and one which is loved by the many visitors who attend and this is very easy to understand. The gardens are so well prepared for the event – they are immaculate, to be honest – so the visitor immediately feels appreciated and welcome and the gardeners give of their time so very generously to give guided tours of the snowdrop collection. (And it’s free! – where else would you have it!)
The annual Snowdrop Gala, organised by Robert Millar (Altamont Plant Sales – in the walled garden at Altamont) and Hestor Forde, blends perfectly with events in the garden so visitors can go to the plant sales area afterwards and take home some choice snowdrops for their own gardens. Robert has the best selection of snowdrops on sale in the country along with a selection of other choice plants – hellebores would be a feature at this time of the year.
This year’s Snowdrop Week runs from the 12th to the 18th of this month but I dropped in to the gardens recently to have a preview and a leisurely and quiet walk around the snowdrop collection. The gardeners had obviously been busy, very busy, for the gardens have been perfectly prepared for the event and the snowdrops are looking marvellous. My fancy was tickled by one snowdrop – Galanthus ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ – for I was given a snowdrop under this name many years ago by a gardening friend but when I grew it on I found that it was a more common snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and I have never managed to locate ‘Bill Baker’s Green Tipped’ since. It was nice to see it in the flesh as I have only grown a label with that name on it for over twenty years.
Two snowdrops took my fancy in Robert’s plant sales: Galanthus ‘Hercule’ and Galanthus ‘Byfield Special’. Both are snowdrops with connections and this, as well as their intrinsic beauty, is what attracts me. The latter was found by Andy Byfield who gardens in Devon and with whom I have exchanged snowdrops and is what I would call a good garden snowdrop – it is attractive, big and grows well. The other is one grown and named by Mark Brown in France, another with whom I have exchanged snowdrops. The story of the name is that Mark brought plants to a snowdrop lunch in England and, because it is a big leafy plant, a friend exclaimed that it looked like a leek. The French word for a leek is “poireau” and so, with Agatha Christie’s hero in mind, the snowdrop was named ‘Hercule’.
Take a walk around the garden!
Best wishes to the gardeners at Altamont and to all those visiting for the Snowdrop Week. I’m sure it will be the success it has been for many years now.