“OUTSTANDING IN THEIR FIELD
They’ve won awards and created horticultural works of art, but the nation’s best garden designers are also yours to hire. Dara Flynn picks the best of the bunch.
Based in North Wicklow, O’Brien is also heavily influenced by water. “I see it as an almost essential element in any garden, providing movement and sound, while bringing light to even the most shaded courtyard,” he says. O’Brien’s firm is Plan Eden, based in Kilpedder.
INTERVIEW WITH PETER O’BRIEN
Barry: How did you first become interested in garden design?
Peter: With me it was a gradual evolution going back to my time as a carpenter then building contractor, coupled with my life long love of gardens and fascination with the built environment.
Barry: You’ve worked on some pretty exciting projects over the last number of years. What represents the highlight of your career so far?
Peter: It would have to be a rear garden project in Dun Laoghaire completed two years ago. The design was based on black granite ground lines radiating out from, and pivoting on a fixed point within the house. All the elements of the design, water feature, paving, deck, raised planting etc. are incorporated within segments of the created arc, slices of a pie if you like. A key feature of the design is the retention of two fine old cordyline specimens in the central area which, coupled with the use of Gunnera manicata, Fatsia japonica, Rodgersia aesculifolia and Phyllostachys nigra, all blend together to give a distinct sense of the exotic to the garden. The client’s willingness to be adventurous with the use of colour allowed me to use a combination of soft pink and lilac for the wall finishes with coordinated planting of Tulbaghia violacea, Agapanthus ‘Blue Giant’ and Astilbe ‘Irrlicht’. For me, the icing on the cake (if you’ll forgive me mixing my culinary metaphors) is that the clients are just completing construction of a two story glazed atrium. Based around the pivotal point of the design, this completely opens up the core of the house on both levels and gives a really strong visual link to the garden.
Barry: Ireland now seems to be overflowing with young designers wishing to build careers for themselves and the market dictates that only a few will succeed. What do you think underpins your success?
Peter: Primarily I would put it down to two factors, a passion for what I do and a constant attention to detail, often at my own short term expense.
Barry: The design sector has evolved rapidly over the last decade, what, in your opinion represents the most significant changes?
Peter: Coupled with Ireland’s growing affluence has come an increased awareness in the value of good design in all aspects of the built environment, this together with the demand for an increasingly high level of service and the production of instant results.
Barry: As the chairman of the GLDA and an active member since it’s inception you obliviously see professional organisation membership as important to both you and the broader industry. What in your opinion do such organisations offer the design sector?
Peter: The GLDA benefits the design sector on many levels. They’re perhaps too numerous to completly cover here. However, to highlight just a few; through it’s external assesment procedure it sets a standard for upcoming new designers to aspire to; With it’s seminars, workshops and garden visits etc. it allows members to keep up to date with developments in many aspects of the design and horticultral world both nationally and internationally; Finally, as individual designers, it allows us to collectivly achieve a far higher profile than would otherwise be possible, both with the the general public and in our dealings with government bodies etc.
Barry: Following from the last question, what changes would you like to implement during your tenure as Chairman?
Peter: I would see myself more as a safe pair of hands rather than a radical mover and shaker, but I would like to see more involvment in and engagement with the association by the wider membership. To this end, last autumn the GLDA held a very successfull one day workshop on garden lighting ( primarily due to the hard work of our treasurer Lisa Murphy), a similar event is being organised for this year, together with a four day garden tour of Belgium and Holland.
Barry: Plant knowledge, spatial design, project management expertise, practical construction experience, contracts, people skills…represent just a few of the talents that are said - often in isolation - to make a good designer. What skills, in your experience, make for a good designer?
Peter: Certainly all of the above, and a balance of learnt skills and experience is vital in really good design, but perhaps the most important element is passion, to constantly work to achieve something new and unique, to truly engage with the project and the client, and not see it as just a quota to be filled.
Barry: The GLDA has recently invested heavily in the redevelopment of it’s web site, which reflects the increasingly important role the Internet is playing in the design sector. How important is the Internet to the design community and how do you see designers exploiting it in the future?
Peter: I would see it as a vital tool in communication, marketing and research, allowing us to keep abreast of developing trends and new materials. In the predominently visual medium in which we work, it is now the initial search tool of choice for members of the public looking for a designer.
Barry: There is no doubt that Bloom 2007 helped to further promote the design sector. What role do you see the show playing in the future?
Peter: The GLDA is strongly committed to the contnued success of Bloom, our stand this year will be doubled in size. Even in it’s first year, I feel the show has made major strides in raising awareness of the value in, and availability of, quality design in this country. This can only be enhanced as we all gain experience and growing confidence from our experiences in the years to come.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
by Peter O’Brien
As a designer, I find that small gardens are some of the most difficult but often rewarding spaces to work with. So it was with the rear courtyard of this Victorian house in urban North Wicklow, which I first viewed early last year. The client, having newly acquired the house, wanted both the front garden and the courtyard totally redesigned. So with very little constraints, other than to retain the car turntable to the front garden and to provide a comfortable area for entertaining to the rear, I set to work.
The courtyard, wrapped around two sides of the kitchen annex, was originally formed as the result of much of the rear garden being hived off for a mews development. The space was overshadowed by adjacent buildings, while the ground plain was completely decked, with block walls all round and a variety of plants struggling to survive in containers. Meanwhile the north facing front garden, despite the house being painted a warm yellow, was dull, damp and lifeless, being laid out in a lawn with narrow planting around the perimeter. The lawn, curiously enough, was later found to have been laid directly over a tarmac driveway, no wonder it was damp!
In starting to work with any small space it is important to keep the design as simple and uncluttered as possible, also to make any hard landscaping features or plants earn their keep. There is little room in this case for the prima donnas of the plant world which look magnificent when in bloom for two weeks, then sit in a huff in the corner for the other fifty weeks of the year. Also the sense of well defined boundaries should be blurred as much as possible, while attention to detail and a high standard of finishes are even more critical than normal.
With this in mind, my design for the courtyard called for the use of Indian sandstone paving, with rendered walls and raised planting all round. The walls were then topped by a band of horizontal lathed timber panels. The idea in using this combination was, firstly, to draw light into the courtyard, then to reduce the feeling of height to the boundaries, by breaking them into three distinctive elements, while using the strong horizontal lines of the fencing and planters to draw the eye around and give a sense of space to the courtyard. The icing on the cake was provided by the use of three mirrors, set into the boundary and house walls and framed as door openings, to reflect light while giving the illusion of additional space beyond the physical boundaries of the courtyard.
In using a mirror in the garden as a form of trompe l’oeil (literally “deceives the eye”), it is important to remember that it should sit as naturally as possible into the design. Positioning is critical and it should be placed off the direct line of approach, or angled, so as to reflect a feature within the garden rather than the person viewing it. Also there are a wealth features and optical illusions which can be used in garden design, but all work best only if used as the solution to a particular design challenge rather than if included for their own sake.
The design of the courtyard was also enhanced by the use of a simple cistern type water feature, set into the raised planting. This was positioned directly opposite the glazed kitchen doors in order to give a strong visual link between kitchen and courtyard. The water recycles through a slot type cascade set in the wall behind, its low deep toned sound used to enhance the calm atmosphere of the space while further strengthening the link between kitchen and courtyard.
Given the confined space, the planting was kept to a restricted pallet including the focal point bamboo, Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’, its striking yellow canes streaked with green; Nandina domestica, commonly known as Heavenly Bamboo and a Chusan Palm Trachycarpus fortunei. The Soft Shield Fern, Polystichum setiferum and Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’ were among the varieties used as ground cover planting.
Meanwhile, in tackling the front garden, which was larger and somewhat more open than at the back of the house, I decided to work to a grid pattern, based on the width of the hall door case, this established strong ground lines of brick kerbing which were then softened by planting to blend and link the garden with the wider landscape. The period character of house with its warm buttery yellow frontage was enhanced by the use of a hand made brown brick to the kerbs and biscuit coloured gravel paving to draw light into the space.
On closer examination the front garden had the feel almost of a woodland glade, with two sharply contrasting microclimates within the same space; cool damp shade on the one hand contrasting with a leafy semi-enclosed suntrap on the other, the whole drawing on the surrounding landscape of an old well established urban setting. As the central feature of the garden I used a semi-mature maple, Acer palmatum, this was underpinned by a block of low clipped box, Buxus sempervirens. Another feature used in this area is the L shaped hardwood bench seat set into one corner of the gravel paving. This coupled with the box planting works to emphasise the strong architectural lines of the design.
The planting, generally, is in cool greens relying on architectural form and texture to provide interest. Notable plants include Acer palmatum as already mentioned; Acacia dealbata, with its feathery grey foliage and yellow flowers produced in late winter; the evergreen ornamental grass Stipa arundinacea; and the low growing broad leafed bamboo Sasa veitchii.
WATER IN THE GARDEN…
by Peter O’Brien
When recently called to a new client in north Wicklow, and faced by the challenge of dealing with the ever shrinking modern suburban garden, I found myself drawn back, yet again, to promoting a favourite feature of mine… water.
In the smaller urban garden, surrounded by sharply defined high boundaries, water can bring in light, reflection and movement while it’s sound helps to distract attention from the background urban noises of modern life. Where children are present it can be a shallow play pool by day; while strategically placed lighting can create a very chic reflecting pool for entertaining by night.
In this case it has evolved as a simple raised rectangular cistern type feature, with water flowing into it from a copper letterbox type outlet set into the adjacent wall. The effect is softened visually by planting on either side. As a bonus, its front wall also acts as additional seating in the garden.
PLAN EDEN, 54 GARDEN VILLAGE DRIVE, KILPEDDER, CO WICKLOW, TEL: +353 (0)1 281 9470, INFO@PLANEDEN.IE