‘Gardening Doctor’ brings to life his Croí garden at this year’s Bloom festival

Cardio-vascular themed garden highlights importance of looking after heart health through blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholesterol control

Derek O’Keeffe, consultant physician at University Hospital Galway and professor of medical device technology at NUI Galway has been a “hobby gardener” since he was a child – though he says he’s had “more failures than successes at gardening”.

But now, "the Gardening Doctor" – as he's been nicknamed by some of his patients – is hoping for his greatest gardening success as he designs and brings to life his Croí garden at this year's Bloom festival (June 2nd-6th in the Phoenix Park, Dublin).

The cardio-vascular themed garden will highlight the importance of looking after heart health through blood sugar (diabetes), blood pressure and blood cholesterol control while paying attention to diet, exercise and mental health.

Specific flowers to complement the theme. “I was looking around my own garden and saw the foxglove and thought, ‘yeah I guess we get medicines from the foxglove, the digitalis, which gives us digoxin which we use in heart failure’.

“And I know one of the biggest medicines in diabetes is called metformin and that comes from another flower called the French lilac. It got me thinking that a lot of medicines in the clinic come from flowers”, Prof O’Keeffe explains.

“Metformin has been used for 40 years. Millions of humans are on it because, unfortunately, diabetes is very common. About 600 million people have it – which is about a tenth of the planet.”

Awareness

A drainage pipe on the side of the road as he drove along the motorway, along with his awareness of medications derived from flowers, led to Prof O'Keeffe's vision for the Croí garden (see croi.ie/bloom).

“If I could get one of them [drainage pipe] and cut it in half and have one of them as an empty one showing a healthy blood vessel, and the other one as a blocked one, full of plants that are greeny-brown . . . I just thought of it and I went away and designed a garden that evening and I submitted it to Bloom.”

But it’s not just as simple as having a vision, Prof O’Keeffe explains. “You have your idea, you have to put it into a garden space, but then it has to come up perfect that one weekend in June and that’s actually a big challenge, because what happens if all your flowers bloom in April, or they bloom in July?”

The main plant used in the Croí garden is the foxglove while the “bleeding heart flower” also features. “We used trees and shrubs that have blood red stems so it looks like the vessels when you look at your arm under light. One of the fences in our garden is in the shape of the ECG.

“The garden for me is just a fantastic way of bringing what I teach patients in the hospital into the real world”, Prof O Keeffe says, adding that he hopes it will invite lots of questions.

“Ultimately what you want [people] to do is go away and make a small change in their life – to understand it and share it with somebody else. To go back home and say, ‘I saw this thing the other day at Bloom and it was a garden talking about the heart vessels and how it was important to stop the smoking or reduce the cholesterol’. It’s kind of like a ripple effect”.

Robot drones

With an interest in med tech, Prof O’Keeffe has brought robot drone bees into his garden. “I thought it would be interesting to have drones flying around my garden pollinating flowers. The drone can recognise the white flowers and it’ll go from a white flower to a white flower back to the next white flower.

“It’s to start a conversation with people, because a lot of people who like gardening also like the outdoors, and nature and the environment. I’m expecting someone to say, ‘why do you need drones made of robots?’ and then we’ll be able to say, ‘well, the bee population has halved by 50 per cent in the last few years because of the climate crisis, and because of modern farming practices and because of the biodiversity crisis and you need to think about that when you leave part of your own garden wild, or you don’t use as many insecticides in your garden or maybe you put in an insect hotel’.”

Prof O’Keeffe adds: “It’s been a great experience. It’s just so different to my clinical job in the hospital or my academic job in the university, or just life in general. I think it’s just a very intuitive way to help educate people”.