Fernhill Gardens, County Dublin

Fernhill is a garden where the plants come first, not the architecture. Covering some forty acres in a superb location overlooking Dublin Bay, it contains a comprehensive collection of trees and shrubs in an informal 'Robinsonian' layout that adapts the plants to the terrain. The camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons are particularly fine, as are the large drifts of spring bulbs, but there is something for everyone amongst the many excellent plants that thrive in the light wood lands, water garden, rockery, heather bank, fernery and kitchen garden of this enchanted place.

Although there are some fine eighteenth-century trees at Fernhill, the structure of the present garden layout was created in the 1860s by Mr Justice Darley and his son Edmond. It was further enlarged in the 1890s by Judge William Darley who was responsible for the pond, cascades, rockery and for many of the fine rhododendrons, including a magnificent bright blue form of R. augustinii and the original plant of the pink flowering R. 'Fernhill Silver' - an arboreum hybrid of unknown origin but believed to have been given to Fernhill by the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens. The rhododendron collection was expanded by Joseph Walker after he acquired the property in 1934, and his work improving and extending the garden was subsequently continued by Ralph and Susan Walker when they succeeded to Fernhill in the 1940s. In addition to adding new features such as the Back Paddock, Water Garden and Heather Bank, they increased the collections enormously and transformed the garden by putting into practice William Robinson's ideas of arranging exotic plants in a naturalistic setting.

Visitors start and finish their tour at the bottom end of this long, narrow garden opposite the nursery sales area. The Kitchen Garden, which is located some distance downslope from the house, is the first area to be visited. It is enclosed within clipped beech hedges and is divided into four quadrants with a now rarely seen potager-style layout that was once a standard feature of most Irish walled gardens. Typically, herbaceous borders line the paths with espalier apple trees behind screening rows of vegetables and soft fruit. There is also a small Edwardian rose garden with clipped box hedges delimiting beds of floribunda roses and old hybrid teas. Among the latter are a number of early Dickson-bred varieties, such as 'Irish Elegance', bred in 1903, with a lovely shade of salmon pink.

A large beech tree spreads over the avenue up to the house, beyond which stands a fine sweet chestnut at least 200-years old. Great masses of colchicums blossom beneath this tree in autumn, while in spring thousands of daffodils, mostly old unnamed varieties flower along the avenue, on the lawns and in the sloping field in front of the house.

A long straight track known as the Broadwalk brings the visitor from the open areas around the house into a lovely light woodland full of beeches, oak and larches. Three splendid Wellingtonias 130-feet high date from the time the Broadwalk was laid out and were planted in the 1860s, while other impressive trees along here include a Tsuga heterophylla seventy-nine feet high and further down, a Scots pine 108-feet tall. Enthusiasts will admire two more trees: a good Cedrus deodara and a Dacrydium cupressinum, but it is the shrubs, particularly the rhododendrons, that are the glory of these woods. Aside from the older R. arboreum varieties, the area has a large number of fine species, including examples of R. genestierianum, a Forrest introduction from Burma; R. macabeanum with magnificent trusses of pale yellow, purple-blotched flowers; a magnificent R. falconeris with rust-coloured tomentum on the underside of its large obovate leaves; and a tender white-flowering R. lindleyi. The sloping stony ground is ideal for these plants, especially in the area of the old quarry to the right of the Broadwalk where they grow as if they were in the Himalayas. Among the many other praiseworthy plants is a well-developed Michelia doltsopa from China - a rare relation of the magnolia with creamy-white flowers.

In complete contrast to the wild character of this part of the woodland is the laurel lawn off the Broadwalk - a rarely seen surviver from the Victorian days and kept in immaculate condition. At the very end of the Broadwalk lies the Back Paddock, a new addition to the garden laid down by Ralph Walker in 1952 and containing many fine shrubs, notably varieties of camellia, leptospermum and pieris. Taking the quarry path from here, the visitor will pass the Fernery, arrive back onto the Broadwalk and then take the path around the house past the tennis court area with its attractive tulip tree. The principal attraction along this route is an old Edwardian rockery which the Walkers cleared, enlarged and planted with an amazing mixture of pieris, cordylines, bulbs, perennials, rhododendrons, azaleas, as well as a variety of alpines. Of note is the Rhododendron 'Bric-a-Brac' (a hybrid between R. moupinense and R.leucaspis) whose beautiful little flowers are among the first to open each year in the garden. The Walkers also added a heather bank to the side of the Rockery and amongst the erica that grow here are varieties of bergenia, most notably Bergenia 'Ballawley' - one of few surviving cultivars from the late Desmond Shaw-Smith's vanished nursery at Ballawley Park nearby.

A hillside stream behind the house was widened and dammed by the Walkers to create waterfalls and little pools for a water garden. This garden now contains a variety of waterside plants, such as the yellow skunk cabbage Lysichiton americanus, rodgersias and astilbes, while on the banks above verdant plantings of ferns, pulmonarias and many candelabra members of the primula genus flourish. Nearby lies Mrs Walker's famed collection of primulas which no visitor to Fernhill should miss before leaving the garden.

Located 8 miles south of central Dublin in Sandyford on the Enniskerry Road.
NGR: 0183257. Open daily, March to November: Tuesdays to Saturdays and bank holidays; Sundays. Plant nursery. Occasional exhibitions of sculpture. Toilet facilities. Partly suitable for wheelchairs. No dogs. Admission charged. Special adult group rates.