Heading for Bloom? Here’s what to expect

Ireland’s biggest garden event kicks off its 10th year in style in the Phoenix Park

The 10th annual Bloom Festival runs from Thursday to Bank Holiday Monday in the Phoenix Park. This year’s show features 23 show gardens and attendance is expected to be over 100,000. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Ireland’s biggest garden event, Bloom, proudly celebrates its 10th birthday this week with a show that features 23 show gardens and displays by many of the country’s best nurseries. It also hosts floral displays by members of AOIFA, an exhibition of botanical and floral art, and garden-related talks on everything from “Saving the Bees” by Erin Tiedeken of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, to botanical art (by artists Shevaun Doherty, Elizabeth Prendergast and Jane Stark), and ‘Social Farming’ by Cavan farmer and garden designer Barry Kavanagh. Here are just some of the stand-out features of this year’s show, which continues until Monday, June 6th (see bloominthepark.com)

Garden as a healing place

The concept of the garden as a healing, restorative place in which to reconnect with nature and escape from the pressures of 21st-century living is one of the strongest themes of this year’s show. Examples include seasoned Bloom designer Fiann Ó Nualláin’s small show garden “The Tao of Now”, which explores the concept of “green healing” and “polarity therapy” (the theory that a person’s health is affected by changes in their electromagnetic field), and the well-known landscape architect Hugh Ryan’s tranquil design “Well Centred” which proves the soothing qualities of a meditative outdoor space. But my favourite has to be Barry Kavanagh’s excellent large show garden, “Across Boundaries”, a wonderful embodiment of the “Social Farming Across Borders” project which offers a social support service to vulnerable members of our society by inviting them to get involved in the day-to-day activities of the farm. A qualified horticulturist and hobby farmer, who also trained as a nurse, Kavanagh is a passionate advocate for the transformative effect that the project has had on participants’ lives in terms of their general health and well being. See socialfarmingacrossborders.org

Quiet water

Re-created meadow

Traditional meadows, with their complex ecosystems and abundance of wild flora, are fast disappearing from the Irish landscape, their existence under threat from intensive farming methods and the use of herbicides and artificial fertilisers. So it’s a thrill to see one authentically recreated in designer Barry Kavanagh’s large show garden. Its flowery sward, which is filled with native wild flowers such as yellow rattle, plantain, cowslips, stitchwort and red campion, is a genuine slice of Irish meadow, painstakingly lifted in sections from a field in his organically managed, family farm in Cavan. The farm was previously owned by the designer’s father-in-law, the late Peter O’ Brien, whom Kavanagh describes as “a traditional old-style farmer with a deep connection to the land, and a man who understood the important link between its health and the health of his livestock. His cattle never had a sick day, while the quality of the milk that they produced was next to none”.

Craft work

Many of this year’s show gardens tap into the recent resurgence of interest in once-forgotten crafts and traditional skills. In particular, Bremore Castle Medieval Garden, a collaborative design on the part of Fingal County Council and the students and lecturers of IT Blanchardstown (one of whom is the award-winning Irish garden designer Jane McCorkell), showcases the impressive stonework and willow-weaving skills acquired by the many students who’ve worked on the ongoing reconstruction of the centuries-old Bremore Castle in north County Dublin (see fingal.ie and irb.ie). The same garden also features a wonderfully imposing, medieval-style door with hand-forged fittings. Other Bloom show gardens that feature the work of Irish blacksmiths/ ironsmiths include Barry Kavanagh’s large show garden, which includes a “kissing gate” made by Cavan-based Andrew Clarke of Rock Forging (see rockforgingironcrafts.com), and Oliver Schurmann’s design, whose handsome “rain chain” was forged by the third-generation, Galway-based blacksmith Peter Folan (see peterfolanblacksmith.com)

Not just flowers

Cast concrete might seem like an unfriendly, even forbidding material in a garden but some of the designers at this year’s show offer proof that when used inventively, it’s marvellously adaptable as well as affordable. Examples include the cast concrete bench that features in designer Alan Rudden’s “Inspired by Ireland” small show garden, as well as the polished concrete living-table that Andrew Christopher Dunne uses in his large show garden, which he created with the help of Meath-based company, Uniqrete (uniqrete.ie)

Understated gems

It’s often the smaller, quieter, more understated plants that can make a garden sing. Again, designer and nurseryman Oliver Schurmann’s show garden offers ample proof of this, with an array of dainty flowering plants that stitch the design together. He uses the lovely white-flowering Ranunculus aconitifolius (both the single and double-flowering forms) to bring a shady corner to life, and the petite Penstemon pulchellum to add flashes of peacock-blue, while the white-flowered, semi-evergreen sorrel Oxalis magellanica softens the angles of the Valentia Island slate paving used in the garden’s tiny courtyard. Designer Barry Kavanagh has also made his garden’s rustic stone walls a part of the living landscape by softening them with moss and dainty wild ferns.

Natural shades

Thankfully, all those slightly sickly, candy-coloured shades of wall paint and wood-stains that were such a prominent feature of last year’s show are far less in evidence this year. Cue more natural shades that are far more complementary to the planting. Examples include Alan Rudden’s “Santa Rita Living la Vida” large show garden, where the rendered walls are painted a pleasing shade of brick-clay (“Powerscourt” by Fleetwood Paints), while the stone walls are made of golden Wicklow granite.

Bloom wouldn’t be Bloom without at least one futuristic garden. This year it’s the turn of Chicago Park District with a design entitled “Bridge the Gap”. More installation piece than garden, designer Matthew Barrett describes it as “living sculpture”.

Family connections

Bloom’s Grand Pavilion is home to some of the country’s very best specialist nurseries, and the place where you’ll find the latest, most coveted plant introductions. This year’s offerings include a host of excellent Irish-bred plants named after the different plant-breeders’ family members. These include the new, giant, apricot-coloured show dahlia, D. Aggie White, that award-winning Irish floral artist and dahlia expert Christopher White has named after his mother, and which takes pride of place in a special exhibit that he’s created in honour of her 80th birthday. White’s dahlia display also includes a host of other newly-introduced Irish-bred dahlias such as D. John Markham and D. Ann Brannigan, both from the stable of well-known dahlia breeder Alick Brannigan. Meanwhile Kilmurry Nursery’s stand includes Dierama dracomantanum “Hannahbelle”, named after the daughter of nurseryman and plant breeder Paul Woods. Other standout Irish nursery displays at this year’s show include those of Boyne Garden Centre, Mr Middleton, Camolin Potting Shed and O’ Reilly Nurseries.

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