When the first Bloom Festival was held 16 years ago, UCD qualified landscape gardener Sean Russell was busy creating private gardens around Youghal.
From there the Cork man went on to work for the railway procurement agency (RPA) who had procured the Luas. Sean’s job? To make sure what was on the drawings was completed on the ground to spec and design.
However he didn’t completely lose sight of home gardens, often working on smaller projects not picked up in the main contracts, such as when parts of people’s gardens or small bits of parkland were CPO’d [compulsory purchase order]. From there Sean’s career took him to the Foto Island Resort.
A great time he recalls, as the Irish Open was held there during his tenure and a lot of extra planting and hardscaping (anything structural like paving, carving and paths) was done.
Then seven years ago, Sean went back out on his own designing and building one off private gardens amongst some commercial projects, going on to win a number of awards for his work.
So, I hear you ask, what is our fascination with this particular landscape gardener? Well he is the designer of the the National Dairy Council (NDC) Sustainable Dairy Farm Garden at this year’s Bloom festival.
Sean explains how dairying is not new to him: “I grew up on a dairy and drystock farm but my father had a car dealership, petrol station, convenience store and a mechanic outfit too. We stopped dairy farming about 25 years ago and the other enterprise closed up 20 years ago.
There is drystock on the farm since, but the main animal of the farm now are thoroughbreds”. That enterprise is headed up by Sean’s brother now, jockey Davy Russell.
Passionate about preserving the natural environment and the built heritage Ireland is renowned for, such as stone walls, traditional craftsmanship, trees and hedgerows, Sean aspires to see farmers working with what we have rather than taking everything down.
Suffice to say, such features make up the main elements of the garden he tells me; “it’s a very informal style garden, native trees, native hedgerows and native wildflowers.
When you’re designing a garden, its either native style planting or cultivated plants from your garden centre. “It’s not easy to do a mixture of the two because if you plant cultivated plants like perennials, and you plant wildflowers in amongst them, they wildflowers will dominate and take over. The idea with wildflowers is to basically leave them do their own thing.
For this reason, Sean’s own home has become a mini nursery since he started the project because he has been foraging for plants. Many of which he says he got from the home farm in hedgerows and ditches.
However this garden also benefitted from the expertise of a number of other people. On the wildflowers side, Sean turned to Sandro Caffolla (Design by Nature).
“Sandro sourced a number of plants for me that I didn’t know where to go for like field campions and different plants that are going to be flowering the week of bloom.
It’s tricky. You have to choose carefully for the first week in June and hopefully they will be in bloom. Also dead heading flowers, that are flowering in the coming weeks, is important too, because if they go to seed, then you won’t have any flower for the show.”
Brian McCarthy from Teagasc helped Sean source pasture grass with clover in it to show visitors what Irish dairy cows eat.
He described the process. “Two months ago, we brought a sod cutter up to the farm in Offaly and cut it out. Sixty square metres of high quality grass pasture. We brought that up to my landscape contractor’s yard in Cavan and laid it out on a bed of plastic.”
This was necessary Sean explained so that they could manage it and make sure the grass was able to fully regenerate as “there were a few cowpats inside in it.”
To replicate grazing grass and not the lawns more familiar at Bloom, Sean wanted the grass to be approximately 100mm in height - prime grass pasture for grazing.
To achieve this it was important that they cut the patches out into two foot by two foot sections to get underneath the sods without trampling the grass so it would not be flattened for the show.
The difference between the NDC grass and amenity grass he said was that; “we are looking for long grass, we can’t roll it up so that’s why we have to manage it ourselves and its perennial rye grass with the clover in it which you won’t get in an amenity grass growers field.
Aside from the grass pasture, there is slate dry stone walls. Going back to our dairy farming heritage, Sean says that slate was used many years ago on the floors of milking parlours because it is an easy stone to clean and doesn’t allow water to travel through it.
There is also a stream flowing through the garden to emphasise the importance of water and preserving natural water in farmlands as well.
The water runs through the garden and opens up into a little water hole which is where the big beautiful eyes of Daisy great you. Designed by talented Wicklow based sculpture artist, Emma Jane Russworth, Daisy is a full size wire woven cow sculpture.
Another traditional Irish craft showcased in the garden is metal work. Fourth generation blacksmith Alan Clarke from Cavan created a curved bench in traditional steel as well as a traditional style gate for the garden.
Sean says that these would have been seen in most old farmyards across the country. He also sourced a cast iron pier from a salvage yard but this was not the only items salvaged.
To make the entrance to the old cottage, which makes up the seating area, Sean has salvaged a number of pieces from his own home place including timber windows and doors.
Interspersed in the garden are trees and a 10 metre native hedgerow. The aim is to demonstrate that gardens can be built from native plants sourced in Ireland and that all the materials can be sourced in Ireland too.
Seam admits that a lot of garden hardscaping products are imported but some are manufactured in Ireland with a low carbon footprint. In support of this, he says “I’m not using any structural concrete that will have to be broken up and dumped afterwards.
Everything in the garden can be broken down and repacked on pallets, the trees are going to be returned to the nursery. Everything is going to be recycled.”
In conclusion, Sean explains the main theme of the garden; it’s to demonstrate that dairy farming has been in existence for hundreds of years. The method might have changed but the end product is still the exact same.
The history of milk production. How we feed our animals in Ireland is primarily grass and 100 years ago it was the same - not much has changed”.
If you want to see more of Sean’s work, he designed the gardens in the Elm Tree restaurant in Glauntaun Co Cork. He had good reason to pick this one as he says “he (the owners) keep it looking really well, which is the most important part after you leave a job. That a prime example of a good landscaping project.”
Of the 19 gardens featured, three speak to Ireland’s sustainable food production systems. As well as the NDC garden which aims to highlight the role of grass in producing quality milk; the Department of Agriculture’s Organic Edible Garden will show attendees how best to grow organic vegetables and fruits.
The Eat Well, Live Well feature garden will showcase Ireland’s fresh produce industry with a planting display of in-season fruit, vegetables and potatoes. Sheep, tillage and forestry farmer Niall Deacon, who is also a sculptor has also designed a garden which is inspired by Archimedes’ eureka moment.
Agri Aware are bringing the mini farm back to the Phoenix Park. More than 90 food producers will be showing their wares in the Food Village while Neven Maguire is heading up a fantastic line up of tip chefs on the Quality Kitchen Stage. From music on the YouBloom stage to a kids zone, there is no end of things to do. All we need is for the sun to shine this bank holiday weekend.
Bloom runs June 2 - 6, 2022. Bord Bia is advising to book tickets (€25) in advance to as ticket numbers are being capped for this year’s festival. This new measure is to ensure a relaxed, safe environment for entrants following COVID-19. Two children under 16 go free with every adult ticket purchased. To book tickets, bordbiabloom.com