Lady Fionnuala Aston-Ardee on leading the creative direction of her family’s historic estate and gardens into a new era
Here, Amanda Kavanagh speaks to Lady Fionnuala Aston-Ardee on bringing Wicklow’s historic Killruddery estate and gardens into a new era.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the former horse yard at Killruddery is abuzz. Beyond the weekly market and food trucks, a farm shop is laden with estate-grown vegetables and Irish artisan food produce, jostling for position alongside Saille baskets and pottery from Araucaria Ceramics and Inconsistent Machine. Next door, cut flowers from the estate are prepared and arranged in a small studio. It’s incredibly idyllic, but it’s through to the walled gardens where the magic really begins.
As we walk its paths, Fionnuala shares how the gardens have evolved since 2009, when as relative newlyweds, she and Lord Anthony Ardee opened The Tea Room. At that time, the vegetable garden had apple and magnolia trees that hadn’t been tended to in 20 years. There was a crumbling tennis court in one corner that had been installed in the 1970s, while the tumbledown Victorian pit houses had broken glass and rot. There was no planting, but plenty of grass and brambles were thriving among the heat of the walls. Head gardener Daragh Farren had already been onboarded a number of years before, and so the restoration of the garden began.
Though she grew up on a farm, Fionnuala describes herself as self-taught in horticulture, but is eternally curious. Crucially, she knows when to bring the experts in. Alongside Daragh Farren, who manages both the five-acre walled garden and 800 acres of parklands and forestry, is Volodymyr Popil, current vegetable gardener. trees. “That’s the main thing that estates like this contribute to Ireland. They’re green belts, which are huge biodiversity sinks,” says Fionnuala. “I think that’s very acknowledged by our locals.” The Earl of Meath still writes a nature diary published twice a year on Fionnuala’s blog. “He’s quite sad about the state of biodiversity, compared to what he knew in the fifties,” she says.
When working with a garden that’s centuries old, a challenge can be deciding what era to preserve. “I was talking about this the other day,” Fionnuala says. “There was a time in which the main part was established in the 17th century, and each generation has honoured that period. But if you look at the original drawings, there are whole areas laid out as fruit trees, so the garden orchard was more in the garden. The wilderness had a mirror of trees on the left-hand side that have blown down, and all the trees are getting older. Everything changes.”
One of the main oak trees in the garden now is 80 years old, as it was planted when the Earl of Meath was born. “So, I think it’s hard to pinpoint a period. It’s 17th century with all the additions, but many of the Victorian additions have been removed at this stage. Things like very Brighton-esque bedding with a name or pattern going through it. And parts of the garden have been simplified since then, like the beech hedge pond.”
Things are changing on the farm, too. Under the stewardship of the present generation, Killruddery. Dermot Carey has also been consulting here for four years on vegetable growing, while garden writer and flower farmer Fionnuala Fallon has both consulted on and grown heady blooms here too. It’s quite a team, and it’s easy to appreciate the fruits of this collaboration as we walk through the 20m-long pit house lined with ranunculus and assorted seedlings, and through to the looser vegetable beds brimming with pristine greens. Swaying above us are washing lines from a recent Kathryn Davey natural-dye workshop.
Biodiversity has always been top of mind at Killruddery. “It was one of the first parts of what we wanted to achieve here. The biodiversity of the estate is old, and an estate like this has been doing that since before the word became fashionable.” Anthony’s father, the Earl of Meath, is a forester, and keeping the estate forested was his main goal in life; his grandfather before him planted many is working with third-generation farm manager Tom Jenkinson, and outside companies, to create a balance between biodiversity, energy, recreation and food production.
“We’re creating a new plan for the farm to be half energy and half stock, while still keeping a huge amount of wilderness and shrubland.” A whole field of solar panels is in the works, as the estate works towards being carbon neutral, and hopefully returning energy to the grid.
So many things have changed in the last 13 years, and these days the Earl and Countess of Meath are busy working through the archives, occasionally popping down to the yard for coffees and pastries. “The Grain Store [Restaurant] was formerly a dilapidated shed full of vintage cars, and the horse yard was wrecked and overgrown,” Fionnuala says. “It must be strange for them, I think it’s strange. But they are so proud of us.”
Find out more about Kilruddery right here.
Photography by Jo Murphy. This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of IMAGE Magazine.
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