The Lost Garden – Gardener’s Gate


From here, in the distance, you can view the head gardener’s ‘cottage’. This is no modest cottage but a two-storey, slate-roofed house, compared to a typical worker’s cottage of the period. A Head Gardener commanded such a fine dwelling because he was central to the successful running of the grounds, gardens and food production. In Ireland, there seems to have been a pattern of employing head gardeners of Scottish origin because of the excellence of the educational system there and the long tradition of productive walled vegetable and fruit gardens in its rugged climate.

Head gardeners had a long and arduous career path, It was a hierarchal system beginning as a humble garden boy at the age of 14 or so. Garden boys lived in pretty poor conditions in grim ‘bothies’ (a derivation from the Gaelic Bo Ti or cow house). Sleeping on potato sacks or, if they were luckier, on horsehair mattresses, they shared food and open fires (to dry their saturated clothes and heat their food) with several other garden staff of the same rank, before being promoted to under-gardener, then assistant head gardener. A long and challenging period of apprenticeship indeed. So a man would typically be in his thirties and married before being considered ‘suitable’ for taking on the responsibility of head gardener.

The Head Gardener was an invaluable member of staff. He was central to the management of the pleasure grounds and ornamental gardens, they dealt with walled gardens, fruit gardens and orchards, vegetable, glasshouse crops, forcing houses, etc. An estate with a walled garden complex and a range of glasshouses with a fine plant collection was tempting for an ambitious head gardener. In reality they fulfilled a number of roles including producers of fruit and vegetable crops, keepers of exotic plant collections, landscape designers, nurserymen, plant breeders, botanical experts and meteorological recorders.

He ruled over his horticultural kingdom with an iron fist; any ambitious young gardener had few options, either knuckle down to his authority or leave and hope to get into another estate where the regime might be kinder. Before being considered trained and skilled enough in all gardening techniques a young man with notions of becoming a head gardener someday was also expected to attain proficiency in reading, writing and knowing botanical Latin. Keeping written records, keeping a daily or weekly journal/diary, writing labels in legible copperplate handwriting, reading gardening books such as J.C. Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1834) or (Charles) McIntosh’s Practical Gardener (1828) which were, and still are unsurpassed for horticultural knowledge.



We know that a John Stevenson, described as a landscape gardener, lived in this house.

Stevenson resided on the demesne at Drumnahall, a house built between 1834 and 1859 just a short distance to the southeast of the kitchen gardens, and directly accessible from them, across a footbridge. His origins appear to have been Scottish, suggested not only by his name but his involvement in works for the Earl of Hopetoun (presumably at Hopetoun House). His role at Montalto is confirmed at the end of his career there, revealed when he submitted a newspaper notice advertising for work:

“Landscape Gardener, Forester, &c. The subscriber begs to offer his services, from the 1st November next, in the above capacity, to Noblemen and Gentlemen, in laying out Avenues, Gardens, Pleasure Grounds, Plantations, &c., and superintending Demesne and Farm Improvements generally. Having been for thirty years past similarly engaged at the Earl of Hopetoun’s, N.B.; Col. Forde’s, M.P., Seaforde; and D.S. Ker’s, Esq., Montalto, he feels confident of giving satisfaction to any gentleman employing him. Terms moderate. John Stevenson. Drumnahall, Ballynahinch, Oct. 12, 1859.”

Given Stevenson’s employment as a landscape gardener at Montalto up to at least 1859, and the evidence that the glasshouses first appear during this time, it is reasonable to speculate that he may have had a direct role in planning and designing them as part of major reordering of the demesne landscape carried out between 1834 and 1859. Certainly, the provision of hothouses was among the chief abilities and responsibilities expected of landscape gardeners… in 1838 Charles McIntosh recommended that ‘before undertaking any structure of this kind…the practical gardener should be consulted, whose experience will be found of much more utility in laying down the conveniences essential to a well-ordered house, than the architect or surveyor. (Excerpt from K. V. Mulligan’s Historical Report)

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