The Gardener's Apprentice

Book Review: Lady Mayo’s Garden

On May 1, 1891, Geraldine Mayo, of County Kildare in Ireland, armed herself with a stout pair of loppers and climbed a ladder—long skirts and all.  “I got on the top of the Yew hedge in the garden at the risk of my life..,” she wrote later, adding that the risky yet satisfying hedge pruning operation was “the first clipping it has had.”

Geraldine, more formally known as Lady Mayo, was born Geraldine Ponsonby and became the wife of Dermot Bourke, 7th Earl of Mayo, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat.  The yew hedge was part of the garden at Palmerstown, the Bourke family home, to which Geraldine came as a bride in 1885.  Her garden diary is the nexus of Lady Mayo’s Garden by Kildare Bourke Borrows.

The best garden history books are portraits in words and pictures that bridge gaps in time, place and social station to link readers to historic landscapes.  Those portraits are especially compelling in Lady Mayo’s Garden.  Subtitled the “The Diary of a Lost Nineteenth Century Garden,” the book captures a snapshot in time—the life of an Irish estate garden from 1885 through 1923.

Intrepid though she was, Geraldine possessed little gardening knowledge at first.  She did, however, have a plenty of energy, intellectual curiosity and an uncommon talent for drawing and watercolor painting.  Beginning in 1891, she kept a diary, illustrated by her own plant portraits.  The book was further enriched by watercolors made by her father, Gerald Ponsonby, an English politician and bureaucrat and amateur artist.  The beautifully reproduced watercolors make the diary truly singular.

As a 22 year-old newlywed, Geraldine dug in, literally and figuratively, dirtying her hands with some of the “real” garden work, visiting nearby botanical destinations and making the acquaintance of horticultural experts and other aristocratic gardeners.  Many of them gave her gifts of advice, bulbs and plants.  After a rough start with a rotating cast of head gardeners, some of whom may not have appreciated her hands-on approach; Geraldine found a talented garden stalwart in Simon Doyle. By 1899, fourteen years after starting in the garden, Geraldine was exhibiting her daffodils at a Dublin flower show.

Daffodil references abound because the diary was mostly about the spring garden.  Tight finances forced the Mayos to rent out the large house during the summer and early fall to help make ends meet, so Geraldine rarely saw or commented  on the garden during those times.  Over the 37 years documented in the diary, Geraldine and her gardeners planted tens of thousands of bulbs, which was, as she pointed out, “very hard work.”  To keep costs down, she would often lift and divide daffodils and plant bulb offsets from her tulips.  Her watercolors of various daffodils, tulips, crown imperials and scillas are exquisite, making me wish that I had more of all of them in my own garden.

With the renewed interest in heritage gardening and heirloom varieties, many of Lady Mayo’s favorite spring plants are obtainable today.  The lovely Narcissus poeticus recurvus and ‘Conspicuous’ daffodils currently sleeping in my garden are the same varieties that graced the Palmerstown house grounds 100 years ago.  The same is true of the ‘Duc van Tol’ and ‘Clara Butt’ tulips.

The garden at Palmerstown would probably not be ranked among the greatest of its time, but there is no question that it was a beautiful, inspired place, with plantings that were personal in a way that would not have been possible with a less hands-on gardener.  Geraldine and her husband were attracted to the aesthetics and philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its celebration of all things natural and artisanal, but Geraldine also maintained a degree of formality in the garden, with lots of clipped hedges, topiaries and other stylized elements.  I especially liked the “M Garden,” a parterre with a sundial at the center and the family’s initial outlined in rosemary, surrounded by scrolling, interlocking plantings of cotoneaster, ivy, boxwood and periwinkle.

Lady Mayo’s Garden is a beautiful book.  The author, Kildare Bourke-Borrows, is a veteran gardener and writer who is also a cousin of Lady Mayo.  His elegant explanations and commentary help fill in background information and complement the diary entries, watercolors and period photographs.  Reading the book took me back to Palmerstown at its apex and made me want to see it for myself.

Unfortunately, the garden survives only between the covers of Lady Mayo’s Garden.  It was abandoned in 1922, after the house was burned to the ground by opponents of the treaty that created the Irish Free State.  The Mayos, who had about 20 minutes to evacuate the property, saved very few things.  Fortunately, the diary was among them.  Even without the fire, changes wrought by world wars and economics might well have taken their toll.  The author points out that in 1919, Ireland was home to over 2,000 “big houses” like Palmerstown, many of them with significant gardens.  Now, almost all are either gone or radically changed.

When Lady Mayo began her diary, she wrote the following, “Now, in January 1891, the beginning of the New Year, I make the effort, with the sincere hope that in years to come it may be of interest to others.”  With the help of Kildare Bourke-Borrows, she has succeeded.