Casual gardener: Yew Tree Garden in Co Derry is crafted with passion

Phillip Stewart’s South Derry Garden is quickly becoming a TV sensation…

You are likely to see and hear more from Phillip Stewart. Such talent, enthusiasm and innate understanding of ornamental gardening rarely go unnoticed. That’s not to say the 28-year-old hasn’t already caught the eye of others – he starred in RTÉ’s Irish Garden Heroes last year and topped that in 2022 when Yew Cottage Garden was the the only regional representative in Channel 4’s Garden of the Year, narrowly losing top prize to a Victorian secret garden in Scotland.

By his own admission, Phillip is “like a lot of millennials – he struggles to get a mortgage.” Although he would much rather have his own home, the advantage of living with his parents is that he is close to the sprawling cottage garden he has created over the better part of a decade.

Nestled in the Co Derry countryside near Magherafelt, he says the 1,200 square meter space can sometimes “be difficult to master”, but the rewards it brings to wildlife, including the bees his mother keeps , far outweigh the disadvantages. Then, of course, there are the benefits for one’s own well-being and the win-win that comes from both working and relaxing in the garden.

It’s fair to say that Phillip is immersed in his garden and his gardening. It propagates all its own plants from seeds, cuttings or divisions. Its style is naturalized and it tends towards herbaceous perennials, grasses, deciduous shrubs and succulents.

“I’ve always had a natural connection to plants and started growing lupines and gaillardias when I was eight years old,” he says.

“I started working on the garden when I was 15, experimenting with planting plans.”

He graduated from Greenmount in 2012 with an Extended Level 3 Diploma in Horticulture, winning the Crosbie Cochrane Perpetual Award for Best Planter. This was followed by six years working as a visual merchandiser in a garden center in Mid-Ulster, honing his skills in horticulture, retail and people relations.

The site where the garden and house stand was left to Phillip’s father, who built the family home there 32 years ago. It is surrounded by land cultivated by his uncle and cousin and is shaped in a style inspired by designers like Dan Pearson, Nigel Dunnett, Andy Sturgeon and Charlotte Harris.

Non-gardening parents meant the most ambitious landscaping was initially 10 oak trees lining the driveway, but in 2014 Phillip’s parents bought a small field in front of their house, which “consumed the most of their savings.

“The end goal was to have a pond,” says Phillip.

The pond, with an island in the middle, is one of a number of circular features and themes that run through the garden. The backfill of the pond was used to terrace the slope of the house on three levels, creating different zones in the space. It was also developed with more than a nod to sustainability.

“The pond has no liner and is naturally sealed with clay/mud for biodiversity reasons – the whole garden is plastic free, chemical free and no weed membranes are used zero share to boost biodiversity,” says Philip.

The development of Yew Cottage Garden came to a halt around six years ago when Phillip began traveling around Europe. Covid, however, brought him home to Derry and enabled daily re-engagement with his garden.

:: You can see Phillip Stewart’s garden in Episode 3 of Garden of the Year on More 4, while his Instagram and YouTube channels are both called Yew_Cottage_Garden.