Only a short drive from Dublin, a visit to these exceptionally lovely gardens makes a very enjoyable and relaxing day out for everyone from the seriously knowledgeable gardener to those who just enjoy a gentle stroll in pleasant surroundings – with the promise of a good meal afterwards (plus a little gentle shopping, if you like).
The River Vartry is the central feature of the 20 acre gardens, which are planted in the informal Robinsonian style, presenting a magnificent collection of trees, plants and shrubs in romantic sylvan settings and shimmering river vistas.
There are some really impressive herbaceous borders too, but this is not just somewhere for a summer outing – it is truly a place that celebrates the changing seasons and a visit here will always be rewarding, at any time of year.
The Jay family have owned Mount Usher since 1980 and continue to live here, but the stewardship of the gardens is now in the appreciative hands of the Pratt family of Avoca (see entries). Along with careful management of the gardens, they brought their reputation for good food and added a new dimension to the property, as a destination lunch stop for visitors to this scenic area, or travellers passing through on the N11.
Although you have to look quite closely to see the connection at all (an open Avoca cookbook in front of the tempting display of cakes and other goodies just inside the door is a clue), the Garden Café @ Avoca is the key feature of the courtyard.
The entrance is discreetly swathed in greenery but, inside, this modern café is much bigger than it seems and some window tables overlook the garden. Outdoors, tables and seating dotted around on the grass and under trees provide a nice spot to enjoy the swing band which sets up here on Saturday afternoons and, should the weather turn chilly, café staff are quick to dispense lovely Avoca rugs to keep al fresco diners warm.
As to the food, you may expect the same fresh and delicious all day meals that are the foundation of the Avoca reputation, with irresistible home baking, fantastic antipasti sharing plates (a big success on a recent visit – not to be missed), great salads and an eclectic mix of flavoursome hot dishes.
The Head Chef is Andrew Holmes, a young chef who is committed to using as much local and Irish artisan produce as he can; this is reflected in menus which change with the seasons and showcase a wide range of local producers – winning the title of “Just Ask!” Restaurant of the Month for the café in June 2011.
All of the meat and poultry comes from Ashford butcher, Niall Dowling, fish is supplied by Beshoffs of Howth, County Dublin, and Andrew is fortunate to have some of the country’s best producers nearby, many of them organic. He works closely with growers like Marc Michel of Kilpedder; Gold River Farm, Aughrim; and Sweetbank Farm at Newcastle, for example - and the wonderful Wicklow Blue will always be among the range of Irish farmhouse cheeses offered.
The shopping courtyard provides another good reason to visit Mount Usher, and it is a refreshingly low-key experience, with a minimum of branding and an emphasis on quality products relating to homes and gardens – including a small Avoca foodstore, and a garden centre with a section dedicated to quirky and antique garden planters and ornaments.
All round, Mount Usher Gardens and the Garden Café are a great asset to the area and always well worth a detour.