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The secret story of Lady Mayo and her lost garden

Bunny Guinness: The secret story of Lady Mayo

I had never fully appreciated the value of garden journals. But gardens and their keepers are, of course, heavily intertwined, which is what makes them endlessly fascinating. Reading Lady Mayo’s Garden, based on her diary from 1885 to 1923, made me realise that gardens are especially ephemeral.

Palmerston House, in Co Kildare, came to a sudden, gruesome end during the Irish civil war. Lady Geraldine Mayo, her husband and their staff were given 20 minutes to evacuate before it was set ablaze and gutted.

In that tiny window, she chose to set the chickens free rather than save pearls, paintings and other precious artefacts.

Long lost: Palmerston House, destroyed during the Irish Civil War

We would know nothing of the gardens into which she poured her heart and soul had she not kept a beautifully illustrated journal. Her garden book eventually found its way into the hands of one of her cousins, Kildare Bourke-Borrowes, who has published it. How this was saved when almost every other family document was lost is remarkable.

What makes this particularly interesting to gardeners is that Geraldine did the physical labour herself. She would spend days planting thousands of bulbs and balancing precariously on ladders.

Her observations, combined with the practical experience gleaned from working with a head gardener, make many of her reflections not only interesting but also highly relevant today.

It is easy to empathise with her, even though she had more than four acres of land and six gardeners to help. Although part of the landed gentry, the family had to up sticks each summer while the house was let out for two or three months to “fill a hole in their finances”. Just as the winter rain and wind was giving way to fine sunshine, and the herbaceous borders were coming to their peak, they would leave. This was something Geraldine loathed.

Her passion for her garden is obvious. As she had no children, it consumed a vast part of her energies. Her father, Gerald Ponsonby, was an accomplished painter and when he came to stay, they would sit side by side studying the garden. Painters often create wonderful pictures of gardens as they scrutinise and observe plants, compose views and manipulate the light. Geraldine and her father’s garden designs and plant studies are peppered throughout her diaries.

Passionate gardener: Lady Mayo

I found her preoccupation with the weather particularly reassuring. We always think we are in the throes of the wettest, longest, driest and coldest spells, but clearly we are not. The weather was as unpredictable then as it is now. In February 1903, a gale smashed the glass of a greenhouse, leaving the plants “all in a mash”. The avenues were blocked, roofs were damaged, and sheds collapsed. This was followed by torrential rain, causing small lakes to appear.

I read this just after a friend told me about the damage a freak hail storm in Leicestershire had caused on her land one June. Hail the size of golf balls had shot from the sky, smashing greenhouses and denting cars. It had destroyed a wood of young cherry and Sorbus trees on my friend’s nursery. The bark of the trees was so marked, that the trees were unfit for sale.

Geraldine’s remarks – “for the last fortnight we have had lovely summer weather – quite perfect and the garden is looking lovely” in May and “the weather is terribly wet and prevents one getting on with anything” in September – sound familiar to the modern gardener. It is up to us as gardeners, I find, to work with the weather, whatever the conditions.

When I read that Geraldine arrived at Palmerston House aged 22 from London, I wondered how she would adapt to her new role as head of an established garden. She decided, it seems, to make her mark in the garden early on, even though she knew nothing about gardening.

One of Geraldine’s beautiful plant studies in her diary

Geraldine started with “changing things just outside the garden walls”. Then she bit the bullet and moved the entire herbaceous border from under the shade of a yew hedge into the sunlight. She ordered the plants; she planted young yew trees; and then she started to shape yew trees herself, which was pretty much unheard of at the time.

This might have been why, in 1889, shortly after her arrival, an H Burgess (a gardener) was dismissed, and why his successor, Russell, went the same way in 1890. Geraldine appears to have been highly decisive, and her style of working was compatible only with certain gardeners.

Fulford, who came after Russell, was quickly replaced with Simon Doyle in 1893. Doyle, though, seemed to understand her passion and remained her head gardener and friend until she died. She even included him in her will. While many tips, no doubt, came from him, Geraldine travelled and mixed with great gardeners from all over the British Isles. Frederick Moore, curator of the botanic gardens Glasnevin, advised her on freesias. He said the secret was to give them liquid feed for a month after they had finished flowering, then to “dry them off gently and entirely and pot [them] again in August”. I am aiming to try this on my own freesias. They are a wonderful, scented cut flower. I also intend to order plenty of double-flowered sweet rocket – another of her favourites.

Over 21 years, Geraldine planted about 30,000 spring bulbs. She became renowned for her flowers, and a narcissus, the Countess of Mayo, was named after her.

By 1907, she was becoming more thrifty, and was planting offsets from established bulbs.

Another entry in the diary

I have been inspired to follow Geraldine’s gardening plans in several other ways. I particularly like her idea of putting a table underneath a tree and inviting people to sit on chairs around the trunk.

Other ideas, I admit, are a little too labour intensive for me: Geraldine liked, for example, to grow Prunus cerasus, or cherries, in pots, so that she could move the plants into the sun during the spring.

And, in a few cases, I was left puzzled by her notes. I wondered why she sent bags of couch roots to a medicinal herbalist to dry.

In one way, Geraldine was fortunate to have tended her garden for 36 years, interacting with many of the great gardeners of the day, but her garden book was only half full when she left.

Lady Mayo’s Garden is an inspiring read for all gardeners. Keeping a journal encourages a healthy dose of reflection and makes you think about what you are going to do next. It could also provide a great insight for another generation. One day when I have time…

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