‘My city roof terrace saved me in lockdown’

My outdoor room: Mark Grehan, florist and garden designer

 Mark Grehan and his French bulldog, Finn,  in his garden at his apartment in Cork Street, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

Mark Grehan and his French bulldog, Finn, in his garden at his apartment in Cork Street, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

If you’ve ever passed through Dublin’s Powerscourt Townhouse Centre from South William Street then you’ll almost certainly have spotted The Garden, the quirky flower shop that occupies the entrance hall of this elegant Georgian building.

Established by Mark Grehan in 2010, it’s a place of scented blooms, leafy garlands, twiggy branches and moody, theatrical beauty, its nature-inspired aesthetic very much an expression of its owner’s deep-bedded love of gardening and attachment to the Irish rural landscape.

“I’ve always been drawn to the soil”, says Grehan, who runs a successful garden design business in tandem with his flower shop, twin loves that provide him with a constant, cross-pollinating source of inspiration.

A graduate of Kildalton Agricultural and Horticultural College, he grew up near Barna in Connemara where his parents have a one-acre country garden.  As a child, he had his own experimental plot to the rear of it while he also enjoyed helping his grandmother in her own garden in nearby Shatalla.

“I’ve had my hands in the earth since I was 12 years old’.

Not surprisingly, when Grehan bought his Dublin city centre apartment back in 2005, its south-east facing terrace with its panoramic views out over the Guinness Storehouse was a big lure.

Mark Grehan: “I’ve never been more glad to be a gardener or more grateful to have my own garden. I don’t know what I would have done without it.” Photograph: om Honan
Mark Grehan: “I’ve never been more glad to be a gardener or more grateful to have my own garden. I don’t know what I would have done without it.” Photograph: om Honan
Photograph: Tom Honan
Photograph: Tom Honan
The completed design is an exercise in elegant restraint, the harsh angularity of the long narrow, urban space. Photo: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.
The completed design is an exercise in elegant restraint, the harsh angularity of the long narrow, urban space. Photo: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.

“It was just a bare concrete shell at that stage but I knew that it had such potential,” he recalls.

It was late 2017 by the time he had the budget to fully redesign the space in the way he wished but, in the meantime, Grehan learned a whole lot more about the challenges and pitfalls of city balcony gardening.

“I made all the classic mistakes at the start . . . I used way too many small fussy pots that dried out too easily, used too many different kinds of plants, and chose plants just because I liked them rather than for their suitability for the difficult growing conditions. But each mistake taught me something valuable.”

The completed design is an exercise in elegant restraint, the harsh angularity of the long narrow, urban space – which measures just a touch over 11m x 3m – softened by raised beds of Corten steel, hardwood decking, beach pebble and polished concrete, with the hard landscaping carried out by Francis Doyle of Outerscapes.

The terrace’s outer concrete boundary walls are painted a warm shade of charcoal-grey that mirrors the interior walls of his apartment, a clever technique that subtly blurs the line between indoors and outdoors.

“I wanted it to feel like another room, an uninterrupted extension of my living space,” says Grehan.

Those soot-grey walls also act as the perfect foil for the plants that fill every corner of this garden terrace, a carefully-honed selection where every variety has been chosen for its long season of interest and ability to withstand the swirling, dessicating winds that so often buffet the space.

“I found that things like bamboos quickly got their foliage scorched. So I’ve learned to focus on mainly tough, drought-tolerant species instead,” he says.

Favourites include the sub-shrub Euphorbia characias ssp, wulfenii, which he loves for its architectural growth habit, handsome evergreen foliage and lime-green flowers. Another is the bronze-leaved ornamental sedge known as Carex testacea, which reminds him of the wild grasses that grow in the peaty boglands of the west.  

Pops of summer and autumn colour come from the lilac-flowering Verbena bonariensis, the golden umbelliferous flowers of fennel, white-flowered Japanese anemones and chrome-yellow goldenrod. Photograph: Tom Honan
Pops of summer and autumn colour come from the lilac-flowering Verbena bonariensis, the golden umbelliferous flowers of fennel, white-flowered Japanese anemones and chrome-yellow goldenrod. Photograph: Tom Honan
Mark Grehan in his garden. The terrace’s outer concrete boundary walls are painted a warm shade of charcoal-grey that mirrors the interior walls of his apartment. Photograph: Tom Honan
Mark Grehan in his garden. The terrace’s outer concrete boundary walls are painted a warm shade of charcoal-grey that mirrors the interior walls of his apartment. Photograph: Tom Honan

Other ornamental perennial grasses woven through the planting include the ultra drought-resistant pheasant’s grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), the evergreen blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, an herbaceous variety that forms a very handsome, vertical screen of golden foliage by late summer. Interestingly, Grehan’s great love of grasses is also evident in his floristry work.

“I love using them in flower arrangements to add a very natural, wild quality.”

He’s also planted fleshy agaves (Agava americana) whose stout evergreen rosettes of spiky, jagged leaves add a touch of the tropical. A handful of shrubby species give further winter structure including a couple of snowy mespils (Amelanchier lamarckii) tucked into protected corners and a silver-leafed species of Olearia whose foliage he likes to use in arrangements.

Pops of summer and autumn colour come from the lilac-flowering Verbena bonariensis, the golden umbelliferous flowers of fennel, white-flowered Japanese anemones and chrome-yellow goldenrod. In spring the garden is filled with purple alliums, inky tulips and – in shadier corners – hellebores.  

“I want to be excited by the planting all year round.”

A keen cook, he’s also made space for plenty of culinary herbs including mint, trailing rosemary and thyme.

“But I had to give up trying to grow vegetables; it’s just too windy and dry for them to do well here.”

When lockdown was announced and his businesses had to temporarily close down, Grehan says it was his city terrace garden that saved him.

“Without a doubt. Just to be able to sit outdoors surrounded by plants and feeling the sun on my face . . .I’ve never been more glad to be a gardener or more grateful to have my own garden. I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

Dates For Your Diary: 
Sunday 16th August (12pm-5pm), Kiltegan Village Green, Kiltegan, County Wicklow, ‘Patthana Garden Full Bloom Celebration and Picnic on the Green’, Pattahan Garden itself is open to the public 12-5pm with a free talk by its owner and creator TJ Maher at 2pm on the village green outside the garden. There will also be a small number of artisan market stalls selling cakes and other baked products, rare plants and vintage goods. Visitors are invited to bring along their own picnic. See patthanagardenireland.com 

This Week in the Garden: 
It’s been an unusually cool, wet summer with many species of annual and bedding plants struggling to perform well. Give them a boost with weekly liquid seaweed feeds and make sure to regularly remove any faded flower-heads or damaged foliage.

Given the high rainfall of recent weeks, keep a particularly vigilant eye out for slugs and protect vulnerable plants with a light sprinkle of organically-acceptable slug pellets such as Sluggo. Alternatively wait until evening to hunt/collect any slugs attacking plants and then use a scissors/ secateurs to snip them in half for garden birds, which will happily gobble them up. 

Late summer/early autumn often sees the arrival of some stormy weather with high winds that can easily topple tall plants. So if you haven’t done it already, it’s a good idea to tie in climbers and to subtly stake/support dahlias, sunflowers and taller perennials such as aconitum, phlox, delphinium, aster and rudbeckia.

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