The history of Johnstown Castle stretches over 800 years. The current rendition of the gardens and estate began in the 1800s when Daniel Robertson designed the Gothic Revival castle and surrounding land in Co Wexford. When the site was finished by 1872, the demesne included a deer park, artificial lakes – including the County’s largest freshwater lake – and landscaped gardens.
Ciarán Fitzgerald, head gardener at Johnstown Castle
Today, the 150-acre estate includes the castle, woodlands and lakes, and the Irish Agricultural Museum in the castle courtyard. Together, with Teagasc, the Irish Heritage Trust works to sustainably develop and conserve the grounds for the benefit of the wider community.
Head gardener Ciarán Fitzgerald and two full time gardeners look after the grounds. “We cover all aspects of the grounds including four acres of the walled garden and nursery production,” begins Ciarán. “We have a fantastic volunteer team which come in two days a week to help get through the work that needs to be done.”
Ciarán has much on his plate since he joined as head gardener two years ago. He is spearheading the rewilding of the estate or returning the grounds to its natural state and reintroducing native wildlife to restore the natural ecosystem. “Basically, everything outside the walled garden will only ever be native plants.
“We want to increase our biodiversity in this site,” continues Ciarán. “We have trail cameras around the grounds and so far we've tracked every native land mammal in Ireland here on Johnstown. We really want to build up those numbers so we're doing everything in our power to entice them back in.”
When Ciarán began there was 22 acres of lawn being cut. It’s now reduced to nine acres with five acres left as rough grassland. “We’ll cut it every five years so shrew and field mice numbers can increase, which in turn will increase our owl numbers.”
The Major Flail Collector plays a crucial role in rewilding the historic Johnstown Castle Gardens and Estate in Co Wexford
The rest of the grounds will be native hay meadow, which will be cut annually. The Major Flail Collector plays a crucial role in this vision. “We need to take the grass off after cutting because grass left on raises the nutrient level, and our native wildflowers prefer lower nutrient soil,” explains Ciarán. “Having the Major Flail Collector will make a world of difference. It’ll make it much easier to extract the grass and allow us to develop meadows much quicker than if it was a just a normal mower.
“The majority of the meadows we're cutting is near the arboretum or around sparsely planted woodland, which means there's going to be lots of twigs in the ground or hiding in the high grass,” continues Ciarán. “The flail mower is reliable and robust; it can take a bit of cutting. And we can get in much quicker and get a much cleaner cut.”
The collector capacity was initially a worry for the team, but it has been alleviated. “Because we’re getting the smaller model we thought it might fill up quickly, but we’re surprised with the amount of grass it can actually hold,” exclaims Ciarán. “We’re actually cutting a lot of grass before we need to empty it, which is great because with nine or ten acres of meadow to cut we don’t want to be stopping a lot – we have been able to get through the meadows quick enough.”
The dealer experience has also been stellar. “We bought the mower from Barron Machinery and they’ve been fantastic,” Ciarán raves. “Barry is more than helpful - he did call outs to see our [New Holland Boomer] tractor beforehand and made sure everything was set up perfectly. After care has just been brilliant.”
Returning the estate to its original woodland setting will take time and collective efforts from the Johnstown Castle community. “As with everything in gardening you think years down the line, not months or weeks,” Ciarán points out. “In order to see our vision through to the end we need something that is going to last the test of time, and for that it had to be a Major.”