Fionnuala Ardee's Blog Head Gardener
Head Gardener

Ask the Head Gardener

Daragh Farren has been Head Gardener at Killruddery for over 20 years.

Here he responds to a series of questions generated by people curious to hear his point of view. You are welcome to Ask the Head Gardener in a Question Form we have placed below.

Head Gardener Questions – November 2020

This months questions all come, to our delight, from renowned Garden Designer; Marian Boswall

What made you want to work at Killruddery as Head Gardener?

The first time I was ever in Killruddery was a very grey and dreary Sunday morning in January more than 20 years ago. At this time, Killruddery was open to only a very limited extent, and, if I’m honest, it’s debatable whether from the point of view of it’s presentation, it should have been open at all. I didn’t know very much about Killruddery then, but over the following days that would change – I knew the position of Head Gardener was to be filled in the coming months, and although I was happy in my then job, I did feel a need for a role of greater challenge and responsibility. The garden that morning had an atmosphere about it, almost ghostly in the low fog that was refusing to clear. The potential to make a big impact here was obvious to me, and the real tell tale sign of any gardeners instincts twitching: my hand kept travelling to an imaginary side pocket, looking for a secateurs that wasn’t there…

What’s my earliest gardening memory?

My Mother is from a farming background and has always been a keen and skilled gardener. When we were very small, she grew a lot of vegetables in our Dalkey garden, and of course would at times try to enlist our help. My earliest garden memories involve this…although, it was my younger brother lending a hand.

When did you know you wanted to be a gardener as a profession?

Tough to pinpoint… I ‘fell into’ doing a course – it sounded ok to fill some time… I discovered maybe a little more ability than I expected, and crucially a flair for remembering long latin names and an aptitude for plants… I think it gathered pace pretty quickly from that point, and a couple of years later I was sitting the entrance exam to the Botanic Gardens.

What training did you follow?

I did a small number of practical exams, pretty low level as far as the Fetac system is concerned, but serving to fuel my interest. I also had a part time position in a garden centre, before my 3 years at Glasnevin. I’ve fairly recently topped up with a separate course at TU Blanchardstown focusing on Historical and contemporary Parks and Gardens. I loved every minute of it, and was fortunate to get the opportunity to take part.

Who were or are your greatest gardening mentors?

Well, 2 come to mind immediately, but I feel their own modesty may prevent me from identifying them. I’ve been lucky over the years to work with and alongside great people, generous with their time and their broad and long acquired knowledge, not always directly plant or garden related, but always useful. Passing knowledge person to person is important – not everything can be learned from a book or a video. As far as household names are concerned, I really like the work of Dan Pearson, Piet Oudolf and Christopher Lloyd to name but three that may serve to inspire.

What are your plans for the Garden over the next year?

I feel there’s quite afew areas that require re visiting – it’s hard to keep up with certain types of jobs through a busy Spring and Summer – we end up largely in maintenance mode without sufficient time for small amounts of work and upkeep in slightly less obvious parts of the garden. I also hope to progress the remedial work on the angles – now heading into year 3 of probably 5 or 6. There’s a couple of small areas to be planted, and several areas where a slight ‘freshen up’ is required due mostly to the occasional gap opening up.

What’s your favourite place to work in the Garden?

That’s a difficult one…it really depends on time of year to some extent – any garden changes so much seasonally…different plants maybe at their peak, of course the light is different in certain parts at particular times. If I had to pick, I’d go for the Rockwood.

Which is your favourite season at Killruddery?

Always Spring for me – bulbs, fresh growth, life everywhere. In more recent times I find myself enjoying and appreciating Autumn more than in my younger years – I think this Autumn has been really spectacular, one of the better of recent times. I’m lucky enough to live in a location that shows Autumn at it’s very best.

Which is your second favourite garden after Killruddery?

I love Heligan in Cornwall and was amazed by Chatsworth. The Botanic Gardens in Singapore is probably the most colourful and polished garden I’ve ever seen, but to pick an Irish garden, I love Altamont.

Where else nearby should a first time visitor to Killruddery visit?

Well, after a trek round the Gardens at Killruddery, lunch at the Grainstore cafe would I’m sure be welcome. Feeling revitalised, Mount Usher is a beautiful garden, Kilmacurragh is not to be missed, and of course Powerscourt is a huge attraction.

What do you look for when hiring a new person to your team?

I look firstly for interest. Of course experience matters, and a person in our role must be physically fit. A crucial factor, which is based on nothing tangible, is how a person will be as a fit for our close team, and for Killruddery as a whole. This is a big consideration. There has also been occasions where an individual is in a sense, over qualified. This sounds absurd I know, but is based on a person being one in a relatively small group, and the dynamics within. I also like to get a sense that a potential team member understands how special Killruddery is, and the privilege it is for a horticulturaly inclined person, to have the opportunity to work somewhere like Killruddery.

What bit of advice would you give to someone starting out on a career in gardening?

Experience is key, this takes time and application. In my estimation, if you are interested and receptive, people are exceedingly generous with their time and knowledge. I suppose there’s almost a ranking of certain types of jobs – you progress, trying lots, layering up your experience and knowledge as you go. You maybe surprised where and from whom you might learn the most useful of lessons or techniques. People who work in jobs of this kind usually (not quite always) have interest and passion, how great it is to work at something that can make you feel like this…those 2 factors will bring you a long way.

To read more about Marian Boswall

To ask your own questions see Question form below – We will be delighted to hear from you!!



ASK THE HEAD GARDENER – September 2020

Q: Top 3 garden tools also useful in a domestic setting

DF: Tough one…limiting to 3, you’d be looking for dual or multi use ideally…

First is a weeding knife. They are short, sturdy tools, one handed operation, consisting of a strong, broad, slightly curved blade, usually with a slightly sharper edge on one side. These have pretty much entirely replaced trowels for us, and for me at home in my own garden. They do the job of a trowel – weeding, small amount of digging etc., only they do it much better and are significantly more user friendly. They often have a series of ruler like measurements on the blade – especially helpful for bulb planting for example. Most will also be useful for cutting through small roots and many have a little v shaped notch on the tip of the blade – you’ll know you’re getting good with it when you find yourself using the notch to pick up weeds or other debris…

A spade has to be in there – digging, stripping turf, mulching, gathering loose material in the absence of anything better, maybe even cutting edges alongside a path, border etc. I’d pick spade above a shovel in this limited scenario – I think it would double up and act as a substitute more so than the shovel.

Not necessarily fitting neatly into the tool category, would be a wheelbarrow. A huge labour (and body) saver. Personally, I recommend ones constructed of strong PVC. If you’ve been used to a metal one and you upgrade, you won’t believe the difference. A good wheelbarrow can help transport anything around your garden with ease – plants, stone, compost, soil, children…

Q: How is knowledge transmitted from one generation of gardeners to the next

DF: This is something that the horticultural industry has been pondering for the entirety of my involvement in it.

There are the courses that are known to all, but at present there are probably fewer of those than in the past. There are many hobby type courses available all round the country that can be informative to a certain point, but even with well run and well compiled courses, experience really is a key factor. Horticulture is an industry full of people who love what they do, personally, I’m not sure I could do anything else with the same enthusiasm and happiness. In Killruddery, I would say we have a vague hierarchy of jobs that over time, people are introduced to. All jobs and tools require technique and have quirks that only present themselves ‘on the ground’ and are overcome by time and application, as well as tips, pointers and mentoring. It’s very challenging – a staff member new to jobs or equipment takes a lot of time to learn to any reasonable level jobs that may appear simple and to attain appropriate speed. The backdrop against which we operate is one of always having a very challenging workload, and therefore, these things are difficult and require a lot of juggling – time is a huge factor. If I was to greatly condense, and provide a fairly incomplete answer – training, time & experience, patience & mentoring.

Q: What and where is the tallest tree in the Garden?

DF: The tallest tree in the garden is an Abies alba (Silver fir), located near the forecourt, close to the Acacia melanoxylon. About 5 years ago, it was measured at 127 feet – about 38 metres. It’s thought to have been planted as long ago as 1780, and has been largely dormant, as far as further upward growth maybe concerned, for about 20 years.

We also have on the estate (outside the garden) a Eucalyptus gunii, apparently the 3rd tallest Eucalyptus in Ireland. It’s located close to the new pedestrian path.

Q: How long does it take to mow the lawns?

DF: This is a less than straightforward question. For much of the year, a fair amount of the lawn areas are mowed twice weekly, and there are numerous differences in turf around the garden, meaning we have hugely varying maintenance regimes. The grass is very important here – it’s the foil for everything, the back drop to all the views and vistas – it needs to look good, and as a French formal garden, it’s a key component of the gardens presentation.

Keeping it simple, a ball park tot up suggests about 30 hours plus per week mowing everywhere once.

Some caveats: this doesn’t include travelling time (surprisingly high), machine preparation time, machine cleaning (after every use), swapping over equipment etc. It also doesn’t allow for the areas we do approximately every second week, purely from a time management point of view – most of the grass banks for example. We also try to stretch out a little, some of the slightly slower growing areas. These things are heavily influenced by weather and ground conditions, and by the mowing regime particular to each part of the garden – for example greater flexibility is possible in areas where we cut by rotary rather than by reel. So, a very rough estimate.

Q: What are the best wildflowers to encourage butterflies?

DF: Reliable, easily available and easily grown wildflowers are rapidly becoming more desirable, for a host of good reasons. Some of the best options include poppies, corn flowers, cowslips, ox eye daisies, a variety of scabiosas as well as things like foxgloves. These will all attract a range of visitors – butterflies, bees and birds. In Killruddery, the place I see most butterflies and bees is our ‘hedge’ of Verbena bonariensis, growing along the stone wall leading to the ticket office. Things like the Verbena have a flower with an open structure – its worth remembering that this is a factor when planting to attract wildlife, it simply means the various visitors can gain easy access to the flower – meaning happy, and very importantly, repeat visits.

Q: What changes might the design of the garden undergo if any?

DF: At Killruddery we feel strongly that the overall design must be preserved. Being a French formal garden, Killruddery represents a hugely important period of Garden design, and one that in large part was eradicated when the English garden movement gathered popularity. The influence of well known designers such as Capability Brown and Humprey Repton meant that the more maintenance intensive (see grass question above!) formal gardens were in many cases dismantled in favour of the newly fashionable designs – and in fact some of the components of these English/ Romantic garden styles are still closer to what tends to be created today.

So, while the preservation of the overall fabric of the garden is important, we can still add some new features. Good examples in recent(ish) years include the Rockwood, Elizabeths walk, the rejuvenation of the Kitchen Garden etc. Like all gardens, Killruddery doesn’t stand still. It’s a process of constant evolution while staying true to the factors that make Killruddery the special garden it is.

Q: Will climate change pose a challenge to the gardens?

DF: Well, yes. It pretty much already does. Over the last 5 years say, we’ve had some fairly severe episodes of flooding in the garden, causing damage to paths, soil erosion and rendering areas unworkable for a time.

Personally, a notable low point was the drought of Summer 2018 – we lost plants and were very lucky not to loose much more. We have had groups of plants die out gradually over periods of dry weather – plants that were well established. So, for us we have a few processes we can implement in times of drought, unusual heat, or even excessively wet weather, various practices we can call on if conditions are clearly going in a particular direction. These factors also require more careful plant choices and citing of plants – you need to aim for a scenario whereby plants can manage with minimum on going intervention from us, which highlights the need for right plant, right place.

Q: Are there any traces of monastic or pre – Bonet times?

DF: The front avenue, as seen today, was remodelled around 1800 or so. During these works, human bones were uncovered and following subsequent examination, dated to around 1100.

There have been a couple of notable (from an age point of view) coins found in or near the garden. The oldest was a coin from 1180, second oldest 1276 – so both very significantly pre dating the garden, the laying out of which commenced in 1682.

Q: How were the lawns mowed in the early days of the garden, and how much were kept as mowed or clipped lawn?

DF: The first lawn mower as we might feasibly recognise them, was invented in 1830 – some time after the Gardens at Killruddery were laid out. The best information we have suggests that the entire garden would have been maintained as a clipped lawn, all done by hand. Of course, labour was plentiful in those times.

Later, horses were used to draw cutting bar type arrangements across the lawns – the horses wearing heavy leather covers upon their shod feet to prevent damage to the turf beneath. During the second world war, virtually the entire garden was used to grow hay – a practical contribution as well as a solution to the shortage of staff as many had left to participate in the fighting.




Head Guide Barbara Cafferky

This week to begin, our own Head Guide Barbara Cafferky, recalls questions she gets asked alot about the Gardens;

BC: How large are formal gardens, how many acres of grass, how long are the hedges, and most popular, how many garden staff?

Killruddery Garden Team

DF: The landscaped gardens are approximately 50 acres. In the Formal section we have over 20 acres of grass and about 5 km of hedges. Including myself there are four gardeners in the formal gardens…there are two more working in the Walled Garden and we contract in some parts of the hedge maintenance.

BC: Why is it called the Wilderness?

DF: When the area known as the Western Wilderness was originally laid out, it was planted only with Lime trees, in a strict, grid like fashion. Many years subsequent, it was heavily planted with Laurel to act as cover for pheasants. Most of these are now removed and the grid pattern has become somewhat more visible. In the last two years, we’ve planted about forty young Limes, following the grid formation, replacing lost specimens. Various other species have colonised parts of the area, and there are a couple of interesting Podocarpus located to the edges, along with some Luma apiculata. In general, we aim to sympathetically maintain this area in a manner that shows the original design, as is our overall approach to our 17th century formal garden. The name, comes from its purposeful introduction of designed wilderness which was imposed in an allocated composition within the laid out gardens formality, though that’s more true nowadays than it might have been in the earlier eras of Killruddery.

BC: Name the tall purple/ blue plants on the left hand side of the lower parterre, the area to the left of the gates through which we enter the Formal Gardens?

Echium Pininana in all it’s glory

DF: These are Echium pininana. They are biennial, meaning their life cycle is completed in 2 years – they die after flowering, but seed prolifically. It’s native to the canary islands, and is loved by bees. A bit of a ‘marmite’ plant – a lot of people really like it, but some definitely don’t – I’ve known it to invoke strong sentiment one way or the other. Old Lady Meath sadly disliked them strongly, while the current generation adore them. I have it in my own garden…I love this plant.

BC: When was the Sylvan Theatre made and by who?

DF: The Sylvan Theatre was one of Bonet’s original features.

BC: How large is the Walled Garden?

DF: The Walled garden is just over four acres. We are slowly regenerating this space. With some two acres currently under Vegetable, Fruit or Cut Flower Production for our Visitor Cafes and Farm Shop, some space occupied by a 20th C farm shed, some chickens, a nursery field for young animals and there is a picnic and play area here.

The Sylvan Theatre

BC: What do we know of M. Bonet?

DF: We know bits and pieces, and can guess at

other aspects of his life. We know Bonet was a Frenchman, a student of the renowned Andre le Notre at Versailles. He was commissioned to create a formal garden at Killruddery in 1664, a process he completed over several years. It’s likely that he came and went a little over the years of the construction of the garden, in an overseeing type capacity. We don’t know whether he had a family.

BC: When were the ornate Victorian beds of the area now known as the Ribbon garden removed and why?

DF: The area now referred to as the ‘Ribbon Garden’, used to be much more ornate in it’s design, featuring detailed Victorian style carpet bedding schemes and an elaborate centrepiece. This was most likely removed and replaced with the less detailed layout of today around the 1930/ 1940’s. It is said that the then Earl (Jack’s Grandfather, Anthony’s Great Grandfather) was of a very different personality to his father and he and his wife much preferred the more natural, less grand design we see today.

BC: People ask me about The Rock, it’s history, it’s irrigation system….

DF: The Rock is of course a natural feature of the garden, and at times contained collections of alpine plants. The current Earls Grandfather and wife Lady Aileen Meath were keen on alpine plants and spent much of their retirement years collecting, propagating and planting a collection of plants on the Rock. He also enjoyed dabbling in some engineering/physics related tasks and as well as creating the clock in the tower in the forecourt, built a ‘ram’ which pushed water to the top of the rock, protecting the young alpine plants from drying out. In addition, he made a lime pit, in which lime was burned, and the ashes were used to reduce the acidic nature of the soil on the rock.

BC: I find the Gingko tree fascinating, its age and origins, please tell us more?

DF: The Gingko in the Rhodie Rood area was most likely planted by the current Earls grandparents – so, probably dates to around 1930’s. That’s a guess. Gingkos are considered to be the most unchanged plants we have today – almost a living fossil, unevolved for thousands of years. Classified as a conifer despite having leaves rather than needles, and of course being deciduous (great Autumn colour) rather than evergreen as is the case with almost all conifers. Gingko are native to Asia, and almost all Gingko throughout Europe, are male trees. The female trees at times emit a very strong, foul smell, likened to (amongst other things) dirty gym socks.

BC: Our Arbutus unedo, Strawberry tree, probably planted around 1800 is a pretty interesting specimen…

DF: It’s a tree native to 2 distinct places – Portugal and South West Ireland – Kerry to be precise. Commonly known as the Killarney Strawberry Tree, it produces edible, if bland fruits, slightly strawberry like in appearance. It generally grows with a slightly spreading habit, but around 1911 was struck by lightning, causing many large branches to split and fall, though they remained attached to the main trunks. In time, the general health and vigour of the tree recovered and the limbs prospered, leading to an especially interesting shape and a uniquely wide spread . I recall a former staff member, in his 80’s at the time, telling me this story, while graphically self admonishing for never having gotten round to removing the damaged branches….

Do you have questions regarding Killruddery Gardens; its layout, history, plants or trees? If you do please leave them here, with your name or anonymous, as you wish. We will select a number of questions each month as well as continuing to invite various people to pop the questions!

Photo credits
1. Laragh & Suki Stuart @thesilverybees
2. Steve Whysall –
3. James Fennell –


Visit Us Soon

LOCAL SHOPPING: Killruddery’s Horse Yard is transforming! We are so excited to announce the re-opening of the Grain Store Cafe and Farm Shop on 29 June – open 7 days a week all year round! The Grain Store Cafe has seating both inside and outside to meet friends this summer and enjoy our garden-to-plate menu.


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