Setting the tone for the 2005 was Emily O’Byrne with her ‘Copper Curves’ garden, exhibited at the Spring House and Garden Show. Emily’s garden was an excellent example of what can be achieved, even on a tight budget, within the confines of a small suburban garden. With delicate use of subtle materials, including wood, sandstone and copper, Emily created an instantly placating composition that was a winner with both the public and judges alike. While Emily’s garden certainly made no attempt to stretch the boundaries of design thinking, she succeeded in delivering a beautiful, functional and, some might say most importantly in these high flying times, affordable.

 
Joining Emily at the show and helping her to set an upbeat tune for 2005 was Gerry O’Keeffe. Having exhibited at last year’s show, Gerry decided to return to the show with an equally dramatic yet wholly pacifying garden creation, which he suitably entitled ‘A Place Apart’. Drawing inspiration from the Chinese art of framing views and from his love of wood, as both a material for function and artistic expression, Gerry created a unique composition that drew the viewer through a series of framed views to a miniaturised landscape scene of trees, rocks and water. While not what you would typically find nestled behind your average semi-d, ‘A Place Apart’ was a classic example of how disparate sources of inspiration can be utilised and manipulated to form guiding concepts, outline plans and finally, stimulating three-dimensional space.

The St Patrick’s weekend is normally associated with start of the busy season for designers and nursery people alike, and while most of us were doing our best to at least look busy, Elma Fenton of Ellen Landscape Designs was frantically putting the final touches to her outstanding ecologically based ‘Moat and Castle Garden’ for the Chelsea Flower Show. A mere five years ago, a conversation about the environment and sustainable gardening would conjure up images of woollen-clad Tom and Barbaras tipping the contents of their sawdust toilet on emerging parsnips. Thankfully many designers including Elma are dispelling such misconceptions and making the sustainable garden an object of beauty and desire. Delighted with the fruits of her labour Elma reflected, “I wanted to see what could be achieved within an average garden, the space had to be functional, contempary, be based upon sound ecological principles and be simple to implement”. Even a quick glance across Elma’s garden reveals that she achieved her objectives and more. Although I tried, I could not locate a pigsty or chicken coup, but nestled within the naturalised planting was an organically filtered swimming pool – a real sign of how technology and creativity can combine to alter perception. Elma has set a sustainable benchmark for all designers that will be tough to outdo.

Being involved with the academics of design I’ve become attuned to spotting the use and misuse of the basic design principles. Scrutinizing Paul Martin’s latest creation it was easy to see his process of design is built upon a solid bedrock of scale, proportion, harmony, colour, texture, and all those other principles that make truly good design effortless. Taking a break from Chelsea this year, Paul has set a benchmark of his own with ‘The Sleeve Russell Garden’. Taking centre stage and the top prize at this summer’s Garden Heaven Show, Paul’s garden was a masterclass in design and implementation. While there is nothing radically new in the use of 45° offsets to create a greater sense of space or the exploitation of the outdoor room theme, Paul’s interpretation and execution of them belong on the stylish pages of a Phaidon design book. Quartz, limestone, Miscanthus and Agave all played alongside one another, forming rooms within rooms. Curious eyes darted between elements and spaces, elbows met and toes were trodden as necks craned to capture alternative views. Design students and designer- wannabes take note; you’re not awarded a silver from Chelsea and two golds from Garden Heaven without a solid grounding in the basics. Paul Martin will certainly be a name to watch out for over the coming years. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he does with the outdoor kitchen!

With Diarmuid, Elma and Paul playing the most popular tunes this summer. it would be hard to imagine that there’d be space for an Irish encore. Enter Oliver and Liat Schurmann. Buoyed with the overwhelming success of the first showing of their ‘Walk on Water’ garden at the 2004 Spring House & Garden Show, the plant loving couple decided to take on the big boys at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Even designers with strong swimming abilities tend to avoid the over-use of water – it is a notoriously difficult garden element to execute successfully. So imagine creating an entire garden waterscape! No problem for the Rathfarnham based nursery owners. Created as an emotional and artistic interpretation of holiday experiences along the south west coast of Ireland; ‘Walk on Water’ featured schist stone islands punctuating a pure horizontal plane of the water as two stepping-stone paths [daring tentative toes to try them] meandered to a contemplative stone platform. Planting was skilfully understated with hypnotic grasses swaying above woodland texture and rare alpines, a solitary Bosai Elm, rigid with age, added an element of timelessness to the composition. Commenting on his experiences, an exhausted Oliver said “It was an incredible experience for both of us. We knew we had to create something exceptional and we had worked so hard to achieve it. If we believed even half the comments we received then I think we did it”.

As the curtain falls on the most successful season in Irish garden design to date, my feet are still tapping to their inspiring tune. If it really were a concert performance I’d be shoving my way to the front of the crowds to ensure that I got front-row tickets for the next performance.