Need a great garden? Try one of these top designers

Here are the gardening names who can help you achieve that natural look

Leonie Cornelius

Kiss formal, manicured gardens goodbye and embrace an altogether more natural way of planting. Like all unstructured looks, it takes much more work to achieve. How, for example, do you sow a wildflower meadow on your lawn and make it look evocative and not just weed-infested?

These days a garden is a much more meaningful experience than just slipping outside, says Gary Graham, the architect of Bloom, the hugely popular annual horticultural event which opens its doors next Thursday in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. This is something the former landscaper, who trained with Diarmuid Gavin and who manages the show for Bord Bia, strongly believes. “A garden should be a place to escape the everyday and should change the way you feel. With the numbers attending church falling, the alternative is listening to nature, feeling the breeze in the trees, hearing the sound of running water, beautiful birdsong and the sun on your face.”

So who are the gardeners you need to talk to, to get the results you want to help you create somewhere you can go to get headspace?

Tig Mays and Anthea Howbert

Design duo

People tend to forget that Anthea Howbert and Tig Mays, known as Howbert & Mays, started off as garden designers. When they opened their urban garden centre on Monkstown Crescent in south Dublin, they reinvented the genre as a suggestible place to browse and shop. Here you didn’t need to know the Latin names of plants to be made feel welcome.


The pair met when they were studying at the gardening school at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Howbert grew up in Michigan. Tig graduated with a history of art degree from Trinity College Dublin.

They went into business together offering garden-design services. Before opening the shop, they sought the advice of a client, who was so taken with their proposal, he went into business with them. The business has expanded, opening its second shop at Airfield, Dundrum and a third at Avoca in Dunboyne, Co Meath where they've managed to retain the charm of the original shop in a huge space that is about 1,000sq m in size. They still offer garden design, and you can still pop into one of their shops and get impromptu advice. "We are just as happy to design and plant modest front gardens costing from €4,000-€6,000 as we are to do much larger gardens, but in both cases our style can be described as informal and plant-orientated with an emphasis on low-key materials like gravel, salvaged stones and Irish paving materials," says Mays. "It is unpretentious."

Bernard Hickie garden in Killiney

Master interpreter

Bernard Hickie loves rising to the challenge of interpreting a brief. "For me a garden is a healing space, a space you can reflect in. It is not off the shelf but when finished makes them [the client] feel complete. Getting that right means understanding what they want. It's about listening to what a client has to say, reading their minds and trying to figure out what it is they want. This could be refurbishing a big old house or building a pond with woodland around it, a wildflower meadow or a hang-out space in the woods." Jobs start from about €2,500 for a small space.

Kevin Dennis garden


Kevin Dennis works on small city gardens - and that includes balconies. He started by designing his own garden. Friends liked what they saw and got him to do mini projects at mates' rates. His version of naturalism uses contemporary finishes such as smooth rendered walls, unhoned porcelain, sandy limestone and corten steel to weave the interior with the outdoors using "built-in hardwood seating and lighting to give the outdoor space real depth". Recently he has been exploring the idea of sheltered outdoor spaces using polycarbonate sheeting to let light stream in. Prices range from €10,000 upwards.

The country squire

Paul Doyle describes his style as "always restful and understated" and while he made his name doing the gardens of period red-bricks in Dublin's southern suburbs, he is increasingly sought after by clients with deep pockets who want him to weave his magic on their country estates, something that, as a country boy, he relishes. Doyle is working more on a shooting estate in Co Clare and a castle in Co Galway. The Clare property is natural gardening writ large. It is set on the shores of a lake. Doyle has constructed beautiful stone piers that have sculptures by the water's edge, a boardwalk that meanders through an ancient woodland and a patio area off the bar with a fire pit, forged by a local blacksmith, and cut sections from trees felled on the estate as stools. He says there is no cut-off point when it comes to his fees but that they don't typically dip below €75,000.

Garden by Leonie Cornelius

Return of pretty

"For a long time the idea of beauty had been forgotten, the idea of creating beautiful spaces was considered uncool and yet when you discover those kinds of gardens, it affects you and you feel it emotionally," says Leonie Cornelius, an interior architect and garden designer who is a judge on RTÉ TV show Supergarden and has written the recently published bestseller Dream Gardens. "Good garden design should touch all senses and even your soul. Creating it is very challenging but also very satisfying." A first consultancy starts from €250, excluding travel.

Paul Martin garden

Lightbox moment

Paul Martin’s designs blur the fact that they have structure by using rusted corten steel and soft planting to distract from any hard lines. He learned his trade by shadowing his grandfather, in whose large town garden all the plants were labelled by their correct botanical names. “As far back as the 1950s my grandfather used to travel from his home in Dundalk to the Chelsea Flower Show. He grafted his own apple trees and was planting vegetables like kohlrabi, a member of the cabbage family that was unheard of at the time, which had been sent to him as seeds from his daughter in the United States.”

The Chelsea Flower Show 2016 gold medal winner – a favourite of architectural firms De Blacam and Meagher, and Scott Tallon Walker – loves to use light boxes to add interest and to illuminate a space after dark. His prize-winning design featured a large photo of one of London’s bridges hidden behind shutters to create a focal point, an idea he has also successfully used in smaller city gardens as an artful way of building a dividing “wall” between neighbours. For a project in Ranelagh in Dublin, big prints of bluebells screen the space over a low boundary wall.

"If we had raised the wall to 6ft, it would have blocked out much of the garden's natural light and made the small space feel dark," he says. Fees depend on the size of the garden but prices for a plan-only proposition start from €2,

Oliver Schurmann in the Designer’s Back Yard, one of his show-stopping gardens at Bloom last year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Capturing the Irish landscape

Oliver and Liat Schurmann met at a specialist nursery in Germany’s northern Bavaria. Oliver had grown up in the Dublin mountains but moved to Germany aged 12. Liat worked at the nursery and Oliver set up a garden design and construction firm. They were together for a decade when the Irish landscape lured them back to Oliver’s hometown, where they set up the Mount Venus nursery in 2000. The partnership has blossomed to the point they can throw out ideas and criticise each other’s work without recourse. “It’s good to listen to someone else and for them to have eyes, ears and another mind on the project. It is invaluable,” Oliver says.

The couple’s design for this year’s Bloom is inspired by the coastal landscape of their home at Lettermore, one of a necklace of islands off the Connemara coast that can accessed by causeways at low tide. There the landscape is untouched, says Oliver. “There is no demand. There’s a bench you can sit at and over the course of an hour observe the water ebbing to reveal islands at low tide, while a glass structure at its centre looks like a spaceship that settled there.

“For us a garden has to be incredibly well-balanced and to have horizontal lines to draw the eyes down rather than up as vertical lines do. The biggest challenge is trying to bring the landscape into an urban setting without making it look pretentious and making it an atmosphere that you enjoy.”

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