What is a garden? What do our gardens mean to us? What do we want our gardens to be? All are important questions explored by Ireland’s Garden Heroes, a new six-part television series featuring 18 very different Irish gardens and their owners, the first episode of which airs on RTÉ1 next Thursday (8.30pm).
Intriguingly, according to its series producer Frank Agnew, the answers to those questions turn out to be every bit as complex and diverse as the gardens themselves.
"Animo TV [the independent production company commissioned by RTÉ to make the series] had more than 200 applications from gardeners expressing an interest in featuring in the series. So when it came to whittling that long list down to just 18, we focused on choosing as wide and interesting a mix of people as possible in terms of their age profile, the size and location of their gardens and the ways in which those spaces are gardened. The final list ranges from young urban beginner gardeners in their 20s to experienced gardeners in their 80s. It includes everything from a tiny, city balcony, container-garden measuring just a few square metres to a very large established country garden set on several acres. Filmed using a new, state-of-the-art Arri Alexa camera (the same brand of camera used to film Bond movies) and top-end drone photography, it's also visually very beautiful."
In an interesting departure from the style of many popular garden TV programmes, the series also eschews the fashionable garden makeover format in favour of exploring the story of each garden featured and what it personally represents for its owners.
Each episode features three different gardens that share a common theme (in next Thursday’s episode, for example, that theme is creative use of space, while other episode themes include gardens that intrigue and labours of love). The story of each garden is told with the help of three presenters – “not judges, this is not a competition”, stresses Agnew – all of them established experts in one way or another within the field of horticulture.Their job is to agree on the garden that best embodies a particular episode’s designated theme, all the while dispensing lots of useful nuggets of expert advice on plant selection and design to the gardeners themselves.
Breadth of knowledge
Of the three presenters, Jimi Blake, the National Botanic Gardens-trained horticulturist, passionate plantsperson, author and exuberant owner-maker of Hunting Brook Gardens near Blessington in Co Wicklow, is probably the best known. He's joined by the award-winning Wicklow-based garden designer Niall Maxwell, whose powerful Best in Show Bloom 2017 show-garden for Pieta House captured the imagination of many, and the Cork-based garden and landscape designer and GLDA member Ingrid Swan, both of whom are graduates of Writtle College in the UK. Together they bring a wide breadth of knowledge, experience and viewpoints to the series while all three profess delight at the great variety of gardeners and gardens that they've encountered during filming.
For Blake, whose own garden has been open to the public for many years, it was a welcome opportunity to put on his garden visitor hat again.
“I’d sort of forgotten the huge pleasure and excitement of exploring other people’s gardens and all the new ideas and inspiration that you get from chatting to them and seeing how they use plants in different ways. It’s just been so enjoyable and even moving listening to people talk about what their gardens mean to them.”
For some of those who feature in the series, the garden is a place of refuge, somewhere to personally escape the troubles of the world, especially during the pandemic’s successive lockdowns. For others, it’s a place of healing, a vital way to manage mental health challenges such as depression, grief and anxiety. Others featured in the series treasure their gardens as private spaces that can be used as outdoor rooms in which to entertain, play, exercise and grow food. Many also discuss the role that their gardens play in helping them to connect with nature. These gardens are also often symbolically important to their owners as places where they feel they can make a measurable personal difference to the global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change by gardening in a way that’s not preoccupied with dominating nature.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that idea of our gardens as this nexus between nature and culture,” explains Maxwell.
“So many of us are embracing a style that’s wilder, freer, much less labour-intensive in terms of routine maintenance and and far more supportive of biodiversity. It’s been so interesting discovering how different people are doing this in different ways, some of them really pushing the boundaries, while it’s also served as a very useful reminder to me that our gardens don’t have to be perfectly maintained to be beautiful. I think what’s much more important is creating and nurturing a special sense of place.”
Sustainability and biodiversity
“Those themes of sustainability and biodiversity are very important to many of the gardeners featured,” agrees Agnew. “For Jimi, Niall and Ingrid it’s a conversation that they’re already professionally very familiar with because of the industry they work in but it was a real learning curve for many of us working on the production team and a lesson that I took home. So for example, acting on Jimi’s advice, I didn’t cut my lawn for the month of May in order to encourage pollinators. Instead of worrying about all the ‘weeds’ popping up and things looking ‘messy’, I looked at it as a celebration of nature.”
For Swan, the challenge for all garden owners lies in successfully navigating that interface between design and nature.
"As a professional garden and landscape designer, I looked at the 18 gardens that we visit in terms of their spatial layout, hard landscaping and planting, while always bearing in mind the fact that these are private spaces created by amateur gardeners rather than professionals. But overall I was impressed by the owners' huge interest in plants and by how much thought most of them have given to the core principles of good garden design, from blurring boundaries and making good use of borrowed landscape to creating different areas of interest. I think things like Instagram have been really influential and informative in that regard."
Does she think that the growing interest in a wilder, more informal style of gardening presents its own garden design challenges?
“In some ways, yes. There’s a tendency to sometimes be completely hands-off when it comes to the practical elements of good garden design. But our gardens have to work for the people that use them as well as for the garden wildlife that inhabit them, otherwise they just won’t work properly in the long term. That’s something I think we’re gradually beginning to realise.”
This Week in the Garden
Avoid leaving recently-cleared potato beds empty as the ground will soon become colonised by weeds. Instead spread an organic mulch to act as a fertility-enhancing, weed-suppressing blanket over the soil (suitable materials include well-rotted manure, homemade garden compost, grass clippings or products such as geeup.ie, mulch.ie and enrich.ie) or sow seed of the fast-growing, hardy annual green manure known as Phacelia tanacetifolia for digging back into the ground later in the season. Seed of the latter is available from good Irish garden centres as well as from online suppliers such as quickcrop.ie, fruithillfarm.com, seedaholic.com and mrmiddleton.com
Many different kinds of flowers, ornamental grasses, grains and seedpods can be picked at this time of the year for drying indoors as small hand-tied bunches hung in a dry, warm, well-ventilated place out of direct sunshine. Suitable examples include achillea, nigella, amaranthus, astilbe, echinacea, rudbeckia, eryngium, lavender, strawflowers, limonium, pennisetum and lagurus. Always strip foliage from the stems before starting the drying process and harvest on a dry day to help avoid the risk of the harvested plant material becoming mouldy.
Dates for Your Diary
Curated by the well-known Northern-Irish-born floral designer Shane Connolly, the Garden Museum in London's major retrospective of the work of the gardener and floral designer Constance Spry continues until September 26th and is accompanied by a series of talks, lectures and workshops by floral designers, growers, gardeners, flower farmers and artists that is also available to watch live online, see gardenmuseum.org.uk for details.