Cork garden designer shares advice for a beautiful and eco-friendly garden

COLETTE SHERIDAN asks RTÉ garden show expert Ingrid Swan about how lockdown turned us into amateur horticulturists
Cork garden designer shares advice for a beautiful and eco-friendly garden

Ingrid Swan with garden designer Niall Maxwell and horticulturalist Jimi Blake, in the RTE series

ONE of the more positive offshoots of the pandemic is the increased public interest in gardening, says Ingrid Swan, a garden and landscape designer living in Cork.

Ingrid, 44, is one of the judges on new RTÉ1 series, Ireland’s Garden Heroes. Originally from Carlow, she moved to Cork in 2002 to work with BHL Landscape.

Ingrid, who runs her own landscape design company, Isdesign, says that a lot of teenagers are interested in the environment. During lockdown, they wanted to see how they could improve it.

“They’re following in their parents’ footsteps,” she says. “The environment is probably a topical discussion at home. And a lot of secondary school students are very vocal about wanting to combat climate change.”

It has been very difficult for people “stuck at home in that, in one sense, modern homes are not really conducive to being there all the time. People want to expand into the space and make the most of every little bit of it.”

Garden rooms have sprung up, with companies making little cabins for the garden in which people can work, says Ingrid.

“It’s about utilising the space. People are now doing that much better.”

Ingrid has been interested in gardening since she was a child. Her grandmother encouraged her to garden and her father was interested in ecology “and teaching us all about the land.”

Before committing to a career in landscape design, she pursued her interest in art, studying at the Limerick School of Art and Design. 

“I leaned more towards design than fine art and then I thought it would be good to combine the two things I really enjoy — art and garden design.”

She went to the UK, graduating from Writtle College, Essex, with a degree in landscape and garden design. Ingrid went on to work for a number of practices before going out on her own in 2014, launching her company at Bloom.

She has travelled to Japan and China to learn about the various styles of gardens there and has created show gardens in those countries.

“The shows are a different set up than Bloom. You’re given a budget and a sponsor. Everything is organised for you. It makes it easy. They lean very much on the creative side of things. In Japan, I created a rag garden. The brief was to do something that reflected our culture. With the rag tree, you tie some of the cloth of a sick person to the rag tree and the illness goes away.

“In Japan, when you go into a temple, your fortune is given to you on a piece of paper. If it’s bad luck, the paper is tied to a pine tree and left there. The bad luck rots away. It was a nice similarity in the two cultures rather than concentrating on the differences.”

Ingrid, who has worked on private and public projects throughout Ireland, including the grounds of CUH, the grounds of a number of pharmaceutical companies as well as putting down foliage at the Ballincollig and Fermoy bypasses, is concerned about bio-security.

“There are plants that are on the invasive list here that are sold freely in garden centres. We really shouldn’t be able to buy them in these centres.”

Ash dieback “will kill off our native ash. And there’s a disease running through the continent which, if it gets here, will kill off our native oak. The disease is airborne so there’s no way to stop it.”

Ingrid says that the horticulture industry is “very aware of the importance of bio-security. But I don’t know if this has disseminated properly to the public. The greatest way to keep our native species is to buy Irish grown products. But we import a lot from Italy which has the disease that threatens the oak tree. Instead of getting so much from Italy, we should be looking for the Irish grown label.”

What makes for a good garden? 

“A good garden is functional. It takes on everything that the family or the individual needs and delivers that. Even things like the washing line and the bins are in one area while the enjoyment area has its own space. The two shouldn’t interact.

“In a functional garden space, you’re going to have some hard landscaping and you need to be able to move around the space comfortably. 

"You’re going to need a patio. Also the planting of flowers and shrubs can be full and dramatic. It should blur the boundaries. You should never know where the garden begins or ends.”

Wild flowers are de rigueur this year, encouraging pollination.

“In my experience, it’s the Tidy Towns committees that are the greatest exponents of things like No Mow May. I find a lot of public bodies just pay lip service (to initiatives like not mowing the lawn to facilitate pollinators).

“It’s great to see more native species blooming. Wild flowers give life and colour and texture to a garden and you’ll notice the fauna coming into the garden such as nesting birds and even hedgehogs. They love longer grass.”

There are, says Ingrid, people who love a pristine lawn. 

“That’s fine. You have to take a holistic view. Often, someone with a perfect lawn will have borders that are full of flowering plants that support pollinators and provide a habitat for small fauna. 

"I wouldn’t criticise these people. They’re still doing something (useful.) There’s a lovely quality in the contrast between mown and longer grass.”

For anyone in the process of creating a garden, Ingrid says it’s important to concentrate on the soil from the beginning. “Get some organic matter for the soil and it will pay a huge dividend for you.”

Another tips is “not to fight your conditions. If you have a wet garden, buy plants that like the wet.”

Blurring boundaries “really helps because it softens the look and takes the eye away from the boundaries. If you have a small space, try to make your eye bounce back and forth across the shortest distance so it appears longer.”

Gardening trends emerge at the Chelsea Flower Show, says Ingrid. 

“They tend to trickle down to Ireland about five years later. We’re now seeing a lot of public authorities and public individuals embracing perennial plant mixes. They’re very soft and are in keeping with an almost wild approach to planning.”

Gardening is subject to fashion, but Ingrid advises not blindly following what’s on trend. 

“Work with the style of the property and forget about fashion. If you do that, your garden won’t date.”

Ingrid enjoys the combination of both private and public work. “Some of the pharmaceutical companies are very progressive and very brave. They want something that staff will enjoy and that will improve their work environment.

“A lot of public authority work tends to be low maintenance so there are different considerations.

“I’m delighted to hear that a tree officer is being appointed by Cork City Council because someone really needs to advocate for the trees we have. We need more trees. They’re valuable for air quality and they make our city look good.”

Ireland’s Garden Heroes is on RTÉ1 on Thursdays at 8.30pm.


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