Celtic design is rich in history and sacred symbolism. You can see its mark in a wide range of eras, from the ancient Druids to modern Christianity, and it's alive and well today.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in garden design, where the Celts’ love of nature spirits, the cycles of life and serene spiritual spaces has taken a firm hold. In fact, what first flowered in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales — the artistic use of natural materials, a deep “pagan” bond with plants and trees, and a series of gorgeous symbols (including spirals, animal forms, Celtic crosses and knots) — now grows in gardens and parks around the world.
The following are some of the most charming Celtic gardens around. Wander in for some quiet reflection or gather design inspiration for your own enchanted retreat.
Mary Reynolds, a Celtic garden designer from Ireland who won gold at the Chelsea Garden Show in 2002, created these whimsically spectacular grounds at Ireland’s Celtic Gardens and Visitor Centre in Galway. The attraction is named for both St. Brigit, the sixth century Abbess of Kildare, and the pre-Christian Celtic goddess Brigit, known for her wisdom and connection to the natural world. Reynolds, author of “The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves,” created four main gardens. Each one represents one of the Celtic seasonal festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa). The gardens feature several captivating creations, including stone circles and monoliths (like those once used throughout the Celtic world as places of worship and healing), a sunken garden, spiral-shaped stone walls (Celtic spirals symbolize the transcendence of ego to enlightenment), basketwork swings and an Iron Age roundhouse called a crannog made of oak poles and woven with split hazel. The gardens are surrounded by native wildflower meadows, woodland paths, a lake and a fairy fort.
Celtic Knot Garden (Inniswood Metro Gardens)
The perfectly maintained boxwood Celtic Knot Garden at Inniswood. (Photo: Eve Hermann/flickr)
This 121-acre multi-garden nature preserve in Westerville, Ohio, was once the estate of Mary and Grace Innis, which they donated for public enjoyment in 1972. One of the highlights is the Celtic Knot Garden located within a larger herb garden. The Celts were acclaimed for their many knot designs, featuring interwoven strands with no beginning or end — symbols of eternity and the unending and interconnected cycle of life. Inniswood’s knot garden uses multi-colored bushes that are meticulously trimmed and shaped into a tightly looping design. (Learn more about creating your own herb knot garden, and watch this video for maintenance tips.)
Rose of Glendalough
Landscape designer John Cullen of Celtic Gardens in Dexter, Michigan, won a gold medal in the Landscape & Fantasy Gardens category at the 2010 Singapore Garden Festival for this magical Celtic-influenced exhibit. It features a replica of St. Kevin’s Chapel in Glendalough, Ireland, tucked away amid a tangle of vines, trees and blooms. The idea, says Cullen, is to show the natural world reclaiming the abandoned built environment — “marrying architecture with nature.” As a “period gardener,” Cullen follows a Celtic ethic of human collaboration with the wild, using old stonework and plants (many of them heirloom) to create tranquil havens. “I take what God has created — be it soil, stone, plant, or water — and I try to weave together both nature and inspiration until I feel the desired effect has been achieved,” he notes.
Peace Maze (Castlewellan Forest Park)
The Celtic influence is clear in this three-acre yew tree maze located at the edge of Northern Ireland’s picturesque Mourne Mountains (inspiration for C.S. Lewis’s mythical land of Narnia). The Peace Maze was designed by Beverley Lear of Lear Associates as a peace symbol for this once violent nation, and is one of the largest permanent hedge mazes on Earth. Those who find their way to the center of the sprawling, spiraling maze can ring the Peace Bell, said to receive over a half million rings each year. The maze, along with nearby castle, lake and forest trails, were once part of Lord William Annesley’s Castlewellan estate.
Celtic Cross Knot Garden (Abbey House Gardens)
This five-acre garden near the ruins of Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England, is renowned for its Celtic Cross Knot Garden (shown at the beginning of the video above). The original meaning of Celtic crosses is lost, but they may symbolize the bridge between heaven and Earth or the four elements (earth, fire, air, water). The Abbey House cross is patterned after St. Martin’s Cross, an eighth century standing stone cross on the ancient isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. The gardens and 16th century Tudor mansion on the grounds are owned by Ian and Barbara Pollard (the “naked gardeners”). The couple, who recently announced they are divorcing, gained some fame — and notoriety — by appearing au naturel several times on TV. Like-minded visitors seeking their own rawer kinship with nature can enjoy the gardens on one of many “clothes optional days.”
Bruno Torfs Art & Sculpture Garden
Sculptor and painter Bruno Torfs may have created this whimsical sculpture garden in the heart of the lush Australian rain forest, but his Celtic inspiration is undeniable. Torfs’s handcrafted terracotta figures seem to spill from his imagination kindled by fairy tales, forest spirits and a Celtic love of natural beauty. The sculpture garden, located in Marysville, Australia, was destroyed in a bush fire in 2009, but Torfs has since rebuilt and repopulated it with his fanciful woodland characters and creatures.
Columcille Megalith Park and Celtic Arts Center
Nestled on 20 acres in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, Columcille is the brainchild of William Cohea Jr. Stirred by the beauty and mysticism of the Scottish island of Iona, he and friend Fred Lindkvist decided in 1975 to create an ethereal Celtic-inspired space of giant standing stones. Over time, they erected a Stonehenge-like spiritual sanctuary (the only outdoor megalith park and Celtic arts center in the U.S., according to the Smithsonian Institution). The otherworldly grounds are adorned with stone circles, quiet forest paths and old-world stone structures, including a chapel, bell tower, Thor’s Gate and the Bridge to the Other World. As Columcille’s website notes, the ancient rocks “provide a sacred playground for the human spirit to dance, to encounter the mystery of the Earth’s creation.”
Celtic Maze (Ballymaloe Cookery School)
This beautiful Celtic creation is located on the grounds of the renowned cooking school and 100-acre sustainable farm in County Cork, Ireland, co-founded by Irish cookbook author and “slow food” devotee Darina Allen. Ballymaloe’s Celtic Maze was planted with yew tree hedges in 1996 based on intricate designs that embellish old Irish illuminated manuscripts, including the Book of Kells. Beyond the maze, a native wildflower meadow gives a taste of the old Irish countryside.
It’s not a Celtic garden in the traditional sense, but this half man-made, half nature-made 14-acre ancient woodland in Gloucestershire, England, is the embodiment of all things “Celtic.” With its mystical moss-covered rocks, twisted yew trees, rustic wooden bridges, secret caves called Scowles and meandering wildwood paths, this magical primeval grove is believed to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth forests in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Located in the historic Forest of Dean, Puzzlewood was the site of a centuries-old pre-Roman Celtic iron mine. Paths were created in the 19th century by the land’s owner at the time, and it opened to the public 100 years ago.
Visitors to Dubhlinn Gardens enjoy a walk on the spiraling Celtic maze. (Photo: SidewaysSarah/flickr)
A succession of castles has stood on this site in the heart of Dublin, Ireland, for more than 800 years. Behind the current Dublin Castle, built in the 18th century, sits Dubhlinn Gardens with its many Celtic touches. One is knot pattern that loops around the central lawn. The spiraling brick paths are actually two intertwined river eels that visitors can walk on. The gardens (and the city itself) were named for the dark water that once accumulated on this spot where the River Poddle joins the River Liffey (“dubh linn” means “black pool”). The Poddle has since been diverted underground, and the castle garden above, trimmed with colorful works of Celtic art including a giant glass snake, also now serves as a helicopter landing pad for visiting dignitaries.