The task of planting and maintaining the magnificent gardens at Emo fell to the head gardener and his team. The head gardener had to manage not only the gardens and grounds, but also the vegetable and herb gardens, orchards and greenhouses. He had to keep the lake and walks free of weeds, clip the hedges and maintain the lawn. He made all the important decisions, in close consultation with his lordship and her ladyship. He also liaised with the cook, whom he supplied with whichever vegetables were in season, and she in turn consulted with the mistress of the house, to determine the day’s menu.
His first task upon becoming a gardener was to become familiar with the soil, before deciding what methods of digging and plants to use (sandy loam was considered the best). He then directed his under-gardeners, who assisted him with the physical work, telling them where to dig, trench, prune or plant. The head gardener was expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, trees and shrubs, including exotic species brought by the master from trips abroad. To aid him in the task, manuals and trade journals, such as the Gardeners Chronicle, provided expert advice. In the Leinster Express in February 1892, for example, a book called ‘Mr Gardener: A Practical Handbook for the Million’, promises to provide useful instruction on gardening, while ‘even the most practical and experienced gardeners can derive from its pages many useful hints’.
The tools of gardeners included spades, trowels, rakes, wooden wheel-barrows (often with open sides), baskets and sprinkling cans. Lawn maintenance was a laborious task in the age before motorised mowers. Close-cropped lawns became popular after the invention of the first lawn mower in 1830 (prior to this there were no lawns as such, only well grazed fields). A horse-drawn mower was introduced in 1870, but with this came the problem of hoof-marks. The solution was the ‘horse-slipper’, a strap-on leather slipper which could be attached to each of the horse’s hooves to prevent unsightly hoof-prints.
was made more difficult by the popularity of lawn games such as tennis, cricket,
croquet, golf and archery. The playing grounds for these games had to be maintained
all summer, and when games were due to be played, it was the gardeners who
had to provide awnings and seating in the shade for the family and their guests.
Another job of the gardeners was to provide fresh flowers for the house, and
to make garlands for festivities.
At a grand ball held at Emo Court in 1912, for example, the head gardener Walter Bradbrook and his team tastefully decorated the ballroom with flowers, plants and evergreens, providing a ‘beautiful spectacle’ for all who attended.
employed in great Irish country houses were invariably of English Protestant
Other head gardeners at Emo Court for which we have names but little further information include Mr. Beresford (1863),Daniel Ponsford (1863-73), Mr. Connor (1885), Edward Ennis (1875-90), Mr. McLeod (1892) and William Begby (1900). Some head gardeners were left money in their employers’ wills: Edward Ennis was left ₤100 in the will of the 3rd Earl, while William Begby, head gardener for the 5th earl, was left ₤50 by his late employer.
Gardeners had a
long day, working up to 12 hours depending on the hours of daylight. While
there is no record of how much the gardeners at
The Walled Garden at Emo
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The letters of the 1st Earl of Portarlington give an indication of the work involved in creating the gardens as we see them now. In addition to planting trees and shrubs, he created the lake and cascade by redirecting the river, and planted weeping willows and arbutus along the banks for ‘a picturesque effect’. Despite these successes, set-backs occurred, such as the fire of 1785 in which 20 acres of plantations and natural wood were lost. The scale of the work required a large gardening staff, and the earl’s letters mention that planting “goes on very slowly for want of hands”, although the gardeners employed were among the best in the country (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio I, 235, 251).
The journal of the
2nd Earl also contains many references to gardening works carried
out. An entry for March 1820 reads “planted 12 peach trees in garden, 200 elm”, while another entry mentions 180 trees blown down in a
storm. In 1852, the gardens were described as “richly wooded with fine Oak,
Elm, Beech and Deal”, while the timber was remarked upon as being of the highest
quality. The mile-long
In addition to the formal pleasure gardens, a two-acre walled-garden was laid out which contained an orchard, vegetable patches and hothouses. Produce from the estate was regularly exhibited at the Queen’s Co. Agricultural Society show: flowers such as roses, geraniums, dahlias, white fuschia and exotic ferns, vegetables such as French beans, celery, parsnips, carrots, cauliflower, and an array of local and exotic fruits including apples, pears, figs, peaches, apricots, nectarines, greengage plums, gooseberries, pineapples in pots, melons and black grapes. The great number of prizes won by Lord Portarlington in these categories is a testament to the hard work and expertise of the Emo gardeners.
gardens at Emo have two main parts – the Clucker and
the Grapery. The Clucker is an area of light woodland
containing some of the garden’s finest trees as well as azaleas, rhododendrons
and other shrubs. The Grapery is a beautiful arboretum, crossed by a series of
paths with names like the Everglade and the Apiary Walk. Close to the house,
avenues of very old beech and lime trees are the remains of the late 18th
century formal gardens of
In a letter to her sister, Lady Louisa Stuart, dated 1785, the Countess of Portarlington described a devastating fire on the Emo demesne, in which 20 acres of the plantations and many trees were lost. The fire began in the bog, and soon spread, destroying everything in its path. The Countess and her husband and all the servants and workmen worked together to fight the blaze:
“…a fire we had here the day before yesterday…burnt down about 20 acres of our plantations, besides a great deal of natural wood…Lord Carlow came in great haste to inform me of it, and I went and endeavoured to assist in hindering it from spreading, but the wind was so violent there was hardly any such thing as going near it. However, I worked hard all day, together with all the family and every creature we could assemble, though I was almost suffocated with smoke. It was a most shocking sight to see the violence of the flames, and I despaired of their being able to keep it from communicating with the old timber. However, our endeavours succeeded at last, and it was got under by dark; but we were obliged to have people sitting up to watch it these two nights, as it continued burning in the bog all day yesterday, and is still ready to kindle with the least gust of wind.”
(Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, II.5-6)
Thankfully, the house was spared and the gardens and plantations were to recover from the incident.