STATE VISITS and ceremonial tree plantings on one hand, GARDEN PARTIES fuelled by homegrown apple juice and cucumber sandwiches on the other: the PRESIDENT’S GARDEN is the best expression of Irishness and an exemplary engine of food production, discovers Sarah Mc Donnell …
Of all the benefits of being President of Ireland, having a free range, organic egg, collected fresh from a happy brown hen every morning, must be up there. President Higgins and Mrs Higgins may possibly have the healthiest diets of heads of state anywhere in the world, with most of their food coming from carefully tended organic soil, less than 100 metres away from their breakfast table.
Apple juice is from the orchard; jam is made from soft fruit picked in the walled garden, honey is from beehives, bottled and shelved in the Áras kitchen. We don’t know if the First Couple indulge in cake for breakfast (I would, personally, if I were President) but if they did, the sponge would be a rich, sunny yellow from nutrient-laden yolks. The 16 Lohmann brown hens from Co Monaghan, who live beside the apple trees, sheltered from marauding Phoenix Park minks, look relaxed and well-adjusted, confident in their organic, free-range status. (They each have their own organic passport – presumably with a harp on the cover.)
Robert Norris is head gardener at Áras an Uachtaráin, in charge of 22 hectares of gardens and parkland, including the vast organically certified walled garden which provides all the fruit, vegetable and herbs for the presidential plate. He’s worked for the OPW for 30 years and in the gardens of the Áras for 14, has planted trees with Barack and Michelle Obama and with Queen Elizabeth II and overseen the garden’s conversion to organic status.
With his team of six, he has ensured a steady supply of produce to feed the President and his household, important guests and the thousands of visitors (also considered VIPs) who attend the round of summer garden parties, consuming hundreds of sponge cakes made with the organic free range eggs, stacks of cucumber sandwiches, and bottle after bottle (often 150 in one sitting, to be exact) of organic apple juice.
He is an enthusiastic and friendly guide to the garden which, he is quick to point out, is there for the benefit of the President, but also for the citizens from all over Ireland who visit. (We should not forget that the Irish people own the Áras, a fact that made me feel both proud and patriotic as I drove through the big white gates and up the avenue.) “The best bit is seeing, literally, the fruits of your labours, when visitors enjoy the food we grow, at dinner in the Áras or at a summer garden party,” says Norris.
In the flower garden, which was for a time a fruit and vegetable garden (until President Mary Robinson suggested its function be swapped with the large walled garden) a long Richard Turner-designed peach house, shelters vigorous vines (planted just outside the glasshouse and trained up over wires inside it) and peach trees, many of them the original varieties, as well as kiwis and kumquats.
While the original Victorian heating system was fuelled by coal, the fires stoked by apprentice gardeners who lived in the bothies in the adjoining yard. Now no heating is required to keep the trees in flower, as they are right now, and fruit. “It’s south-facing,” says Norris, “and we haven’t had to heat it to produce good peaches and kiwis – both sweet and delicious.” Pollination of the peaches is done by hand, pollen transferred with cotton wool, from tree to tree. Norris gets a lot of advice from visitors. One told him that cotton wool would not work, a rabbit’s tail was your only man. There are orange and lemon trees as well, though not too much is expected of them.
The garden in which the Turner glasshouse sits is divided into four sections, each representing a season, with a feature tree in each – the flowering cherry is blooming now – a yew hedge cut into bottle shapes, and low box hedges in a Celtic cross design. A marble statue represents each season.
While the formal structure of the garden is unchanged since Decimus Burton designed it for the British Viceroy in 1840, the preferences of every president were taken into account and reflected in some of the planting. President and Mrs Higgins love dahlias and the garden now has an award-winning collection, with 60 varieties planted (600 in total), including special Irish cultivars, which are grown in North County Dublin by specialist Christopher White. These bulbs are lifted at the end of their season and White minds them over the winter, before they are replanted in the garden.
Hardier dahlias, red favourite Bishop of Llandaff among them, are still in the ground, snug under a cover of Christmas tree branches. The dahlias take up where the deep herbaceous borders leave off, in terms of providing colour well into late autumn, ensuring that Lauren, the Áras florist, always has something to work with. In winter, bulbs are forced in the peach house and bowls of narcissi and hyacinths go up to decorate the house.
In January every year, Norris sits down with the head chef in the Áras to discuss what he’d like to have in good supply for the house – he then orders seed from organic suppliers. When it arrives, he begins planting – this process is well underway now in the buildings of the walled garden. Against the south-facing wall of the garden would originally have been a long Victorian glasshouse, whose low walls remain. A much humbler, ordinary aluminium glasshouse and a teak glasshouse (which would have been an orchid house in Victorian times) now serve the purpose the original one would have – growing tender vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber and peppers, and leaves (mizuna, rocket, butterleaf) and micro-leaves for the President’s salads, as well as keeping seedlings warm until they are ready to be planted into the long vegetable beds.
Norris says the ground is cold after a long winter and he will hold off on planting until he’s as sure as he can be that the frosts have passed. “And we hold off on the carrots, for instance, until June, partly because of carrot fly.” He forks up some carrots, the last of last year’s crop, from crumbly dark earth – they look perfect and I resist the urge to ask him if I can pocket a few. Norris and his team operate a strict crop rotation plan in the vegetable garden in accordance with organic principles and zero chemicals are used. The beds are massive, big enough to fuel an army.
“The President and Mrs Higgins love traditional veg, like carrots, cabbage, parsnips and turnips, so we always have plenty of those, but we also grow courgettes, artichokes, peas, beans, asparagus and sweetcorn, even pumpkins. And we grow enough potatoes to last ten months. We grow the Orla variety, which is an early; it stores very well.” Potatoes, apples and onions are stored in dark old sheds with deep wooden shelves – almost empty now, but gradually to be filled with produce. They smell wonderful, musty and sweet; there’s even a shelf marked “windfalls”. “And we can’t ever have enough herbs – we grow everything, from parsley to basil,” says Norris. At the moment, only hardy rosemary is visible outside but I can imagine the garden bristling with energy and colour as the months progress, and plan to return to see it in its full glory. “It’s a very different place in summer,” says Norris.
I like it just fine right now.
Tours of the Áras gardens take place from July to the end of October when the garden is at its best – you can’t book so places are on a first come, first served basis, on shuttle buses from the Phoenix Park Visitors Centre. Queues start early on summer weekends. Horticultural groups may visit by appointment; see www.president.ie for details.
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