Q&A with Killruddery Head Gardener Daragh Farren


Usually, in the production of this seasonal blog, we aim to provide a small insight into some of the work carried out here in the gardens at Killruddery – the (sometimes mundane) aspects of regular maintenance, the less usual development or rejuvenation works that are carried out, perhaps new planting completed, some of the techniques we employ, and of course the complications we may encounter.  

 For the visitor to Killruddery, be they first timers from far away, unlikely to return for some time, or some of our very regular and familiar faces, it must be difficult to imagine what a place you enjoy during your leisure time is like as a workplace.

In an effort to give some small approximate idea of the kind of day to day occurrences that might crop up, this entry will hope to bring some light to what a particular day in my own role may entail.

What time do you start/finish your day?

We begin work, year round at 7.30, our finishing time is either 3.30 or 6.30 depending on the day.  There is no such thing as a typical day.  Of course we have peak times, obvious to most, but we never have quiet times, and never have anything other than a long list of jobs to do.  It’s true to say that some of the items that feature on this list are a little aspirational on my part, and some items can take literally years to get to.  A big part of my job, and one of the most crucial aspects of this department – there are 4 of us in total, is quite simply, being organised.  In essence, this is of course very simple, and if we manage it well, it mostly is…

What is the closest to a typical day that you can describe?

I would have a clear idea of what work I would want us to achieve over any period of a few weeks at a time.  For some parts of the year, a lot of time is spent on weekly or bi weekly maintenance, all the fairly routine stuff.  In many ways, as long as nothing unforeseen crops up (unforeseen things crop up all the time….pretty much every week…) this is work that we’re all well used to and familiar with and will progress without many difficulties.  The remaining time in any given period, and whether or not we can be clever and creative about how we complete our routine tasks, decides what additional works maybe possible.  And so, being organised, looking for efficiencies, and generally using our time well, and honing or altering our work practices – we do that to some degree every year, is  hugely important.  The first few minutes of every day, is spent organising and discussing amongst ourselves the general shape of the day, and what needs to happen.  Everyone has input….but, as I often say, this garden is not a democracy…

There is a lot of checking and monitoring too.  Recent plantings require regular scrutiny – look for signs of pest or disease, physical damage, and whether watering is required.  Other than with newly planted material (first year or so) we try to avoid watering.  We’ve got a fair bit of relatively recent additions about the gardens just now – the car park area of course, Thirty 1 metre or so Bay plants added at the Sylvan Theatre, some Primula, oddments in the Rockwood, Elizabeth’s walk and even a new tree or two.  The early months are crucial to plants that you hope will have a long life in the gardens, and if the correct plant choices have been made, contribute as best they can.  

What plants are your favourites?

While I’m up in the Rockwood, I won’t miss a chance to wander in the direction of some of my own favourites – Mysotidium hortensia, Dodocatheon media, some of the Primula, and a couple of young Magnolias, putting on their first reasonable show of flowers this year – Magnolias will often take a few years to flower well. I’m personally fond of and proud of the Rockwood, as it represents the largest area of new development in the garden in many years, really the only entirely new area added in generations.  It went from an area of heavy over growth to a reasonable and sizeable woodland garden over the course of a few years, and still is tweaked a little each year.

Another couple of favourites to check in with on my way back to the walled garden would certainly include the recently planted Meconopsis grandis and M. villosareferred to commonly to Himalayan poppies.  This group of plants, not true poppies, have a reputation for being tough to grow, requiring careful citing, and are difficult to produce in the nursery.  We seem (I’m happy to say) to have cracked it over the last couple of years after many many attempts I have a good number of different species and cultivars in the nursery awaiting homes around the garden, and more seedlings germinated this year.  It’s sometimes challenging to arrive at a decision as to where particular plants might end up, but for sure I’ll look to get more Meconopsis planted in the near future. While I’m at this spot, I’ll say a quick hello to another favourite, Polygonatum verticiliatum, a subtle plant, with a relaxed feel – this is most certainly a plant I intend to acquire in greater numbers, and plant in more locations.  I think it’s a beauty, a real plant lovers plant, though, these things are entirely subjective I suppose…

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Nursery work and plant production is one of my favourite parts of my job, something I’ve always loved.  This year, I’ve decided to begin growing some shrubs and maybe trees in the nursery to larger sizes.  Although plants will generally establish more readily when young, there’s a need sometimes to have larger specimens to hand.  With our increased footfall, establishing or rejuvenating areas of planting has potentially one or two added complications.  Because of this slightly different approach, I’m in the process of potting selected specimens on, and altering very slightly some aspects of the layout of the nursery.  We’ve also had another great year of seed sowing, and so right now I’m feeling pressure of something of a back log of nursery work.  When time presents over these weeks, I need to put a lot of effort into this area.  Its always a bit of a juggling act at this time of year, but I hope that later today, and certainly this week will see some time allocated to this.

How about your least favourite?

There’s lots of machinery here in Killruddery…most regular visitors have I’m sure on many occasions had their tranquillity/ peace shattered by some of our many work vehicles intruding in whatever part of the garden they may be enjoying.  Good machinery is obviously essential, particularly considering the scale and kind of garden we have here, and we clearly could not manage without the fairly extensive range of equipment we have on site.  Of course, the drawback is that machinery doesn’t always co operate…occasionally things become moody and erratic…things will break…parts will wear out…occasionally inexplicable events will occur…things an insurance company may describe as an ‘act of God’…  All part and parcel, but dealing with machinery problems is probably the part of my job I like least.  We do well by and large, routine maintenance, careful operation by skilled users, and general care and attention means that we don’t suffer more than our fair share of problems, and it’s an area that we’ve improved on over recent years.  It does happen though, and only a couple of weeks ago two of our most important machines were out of action at the same time  – most unhelpful at this time of year.  This morning though, we had a problem with one of our ride on mowers and when almost reaching the point of giving up, hit upon the necessary adjustment, (involving a solenoid valve and a no.14 spanner).  It’s greatly satisfying to resolve these things without calling in a pro, and we do get the occasional result in this area.  Still though…worst part of this job… 

Alongside the frustration of machinery difficulties, there’s plenty of satisfaction in managing and working in a fine garden such as Killruddery.  Achieving our usual tasks to the correct standard is always gratifying, and to boot, we have the pleasure once in awhile of getting through a project that may have been ‘bubbling’ away for a considerable time.  

What are your future plans for the gardens?

I hope next week, that we will put the finishing touches to the realignment and replanting of the Ribbon garden.  This is a really challenging area, one of the most irritating parts of the garden over a period of years, as I feel to date, I’ve not really got it right.  It’s subject to a lot of foot traffic, severe compaction both of turf and beds has conspired to create tremendous difficulty.  These are ongoing issues, and it will be necessary for us to manage this as best we can, but there were other problems here too.  For years I’ve been looking at the alignment of the beds, urns and granite in this area, the lines all wrong, the layout so askew as to be embarrassing.  All the years spent looking, while simultaneously trying to ignore…  Over the last while, we set about re-cutting all the beds, re aligning the various features, and making widths and positioning of the key aspects consistent and (mostly) correct.  This is now finished, and today we begin digging the area.  Organic material will be incorporated and then our new plants will go in.  We’ll plant formally, using a line to achieve correct positioning.  We have over 200 Geranium ‘Rozanne’ ready to go, enough for everyone who worked on this technically challenging task to sate themselves on the more obviously pleasant concluding component.

How much of a challenge is it to maintain the gardens, particularly with our famous Irish weather?

All jobs have their high and low points I’m sure.  Thankfully more ups than downs in this job.  Challenges are many, pressure a constant, and the drive and desire to achieve our best ever present. Naturally, things like weather bring a variable over which we can hope to have little influence, but we can to a good degree, forward plan.  Correct equipment and sufficient skill throughout our team, ensures that at short notice, having consulted a weather forecast, we can tear up our existing plans, and mobilise to quickly complete particular jobs that perhaps in a couple of hours will be impossible.  There’s always an amount of indoor work, machinery cleaning and maintenance, nursery work etc., and some sheltered areas of the garden where certain work maybe carried out even in especially poor conditions.  Whatever the weather, there are things to be done, and while our wonderful, temperate climate is bound to cause difficulties at times, mostly, good planning and a lengthy ‘wet work’ list allow us to muddle through.

I’m immensely proud of the gardens here at Killruddery, immensely proud of the estate too, and the part that my department and I play.  It really is an honour to be in some way a custodian of these fabulous, and relevant gardens, and to have a role to play in this wonderful piece of heritage and history that is Killruddery. The professionalism of our colleagues outside the garden department is awe inducing, and regularly I see them in action and am reminded of their talent and dedication, in aspects of Killruddery about which I have no skills or knowledge.  They’re inspiring, and frankly its easy to bring your best to this job, whatever that might be.  Due to the more personal nature of this particular blog, I’ll take the opportunity to thank my own 3 close colleagues – Ken, David and Colm. I guide and organise, occasionally grumble and moan, but these 3 guys are the ones on the ground day in day out, the guys that implement my various whims and notions.  They do so with utmost commitment and pride in their work and in ‘their’ garden, and (mostly) in good humour and with minimal griping.  And 3 finer colleagues I could not have.

Daragh Farren – May 2017