Over the next few months we will meet the people behind the scenes at Powerscourt who keep the estate looking wonderful and provide a great welcome to our visitors. This week we meet Powerscourt's Head Gardener Alex who grew up at Powerscourt Estate and has had a love of the gardens here from a young age.
Tell us a little about how you got into gardening – what inspired you and have you always loved plants / seeing things thrive and grow?
My first gardening job was to pull ragwort out of the field beside where I live now when I was about 7. My aunt Wendy paid us a rate of one penny per ragwort pulled. Gardening wise I didn’t have a big garden but I was always outside building bases and trees and wigwams. I was happiest outdoors as a child with my playground being the gardens and river walk. Because I had access to the gardens and the river walk and a massive amount of outdoor space without realising this set in motion my desire to spend time outside as a career – I thought this is something that I can do for the rest of my life. What I was happiest doing as a child – being outside – led to landscaping, gardening and a love of watching things grow and develop.
Was there a single moment when you knew that you wanted gardening to be your full time profession?
I was 11 and I was going around my mother’s garden and being a bold kid. I was whipping flower heads with a bamboo cane and my mother came out and roared at me and she chased me as far as the river walk and I got in a lot of trouble! From that moment on I started to respect plants and flowers and that’s when I decided to look after rather than destroy them!
Have you ever worked on estate gardens before?
I worked as a landscaper in Glencree for 3 years and then as gardener in a private garden for many years. While studying for my degree in horticulture at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin I began working at Powerscourt and have worked here intermittently for the past 5 years. I became Head Gardener of Powerscourt 1 year ago.
Are there different considerations for looking after such a huge estate space rather than smaller garden spaces?
It is the same concept but there is a lot more to prioritise on a large estate. Time management is crucial as it takes a lot of time for tasks compared to a smaller space. For example, a rose bed here is four times as large as one from an average garden.
Are there any gardening jobs that require constant attention on the estate?
The roses, the herbaceous border and the formal gardens all require constant attention. High maintenance areas include the Italian Gardens which have straight lines and have to be perfect – we are constantly cutting the grass there.
How big is your team?
There are 6 permanent staff including myself and we take on 2 seasonal staff each summer.
What is the main priority for the estate grounds during each of the seasons?
In spring our priority is pruning work, lifting and dividing herbaceous perennials and feeding. In summer there are more routine tasks including grass cutting, dead heading and wedding. In autumn we focus on planting, mulching, planting bulbs and winter bedding. In winter we work mostly on projects such as developing and maintaining paths, hard landscaping and tree work.
What should we look out for, plant wise on the estate this year?
In Spring Powerscourt is full of vibrant colour with our annual tulip festival featuring over 10,000 tulips in bloom. Daffodils and crocuses bring colour to the gardens each spring. In late spring the Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias make their appearance. In summer herbaceous flowers come into bloom, roses and summer flowering shrubs. In winter, winter jasmine, daphnes and evergreen trees add interest to the gardens.
Do you tend to draw up schedules and plans for work on Powerscourt Estate?
I do a weekly plan. Each season I have a target list of tasks to get through. Whether it’s a clearing the lakes, working on the trees or cleaning antique statuary, it’s a very varied job.
What is your biggest challenge when dealing with Powerscourt Gardens?
My biggest challenge is keeping the quality of the gardens at its peak at all times. We plan our gardening tasks around our opening hours so that certain jobs can be completed outside of visiting hours to maximise the enjoyment of our visitors. We are very weather dependent and the weather can play havoc with managing the gardens. A weekly plan can go out the window when it rains and also when it doesn’t rain!
What’s your favourite part of working on the Estate grounds?
I love the herbaceous border. There is a dramatic change along the border when spring arrives and the plants and shrubs come into bloom. It looks entirely different in July than it does in December – the border is an incredible sight to behold at its best in summer.
One favourite garden fact
Biophilia – The biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. As humans we depend upon nature and need to interact with and be part of it. We thrive as human beings when we have access to greenery and enjoy our natural surroundings. It is a very current trend as people are developing an ever increasing love of gardening and an appreciation for the environment.
How can visitors help the establishment of the gardens at Powerscourt?
Our members and other regular visitors to Powerscourt are very helpful to us in terms of both positive and negative feedback about the estate. They are a vital part of the estate and are committed to keeping is as the peaceful haven it is for so many people. They act as an extra pair of eyes for us and are really helpful. As gardeners we are focused on the tasks at hand and trying to tackle the gardening challenges before us. As leisure visitors to the estate, our visitors offer a fresh perspective to us. We always appreciate getting feedback.
Thanks Alex! We will continue this interview with Alex next week, before meeting our other team members soon :)