Friday 22 November 2019

Budding talent... the Supergarden contenders

As RTÉ's Super Garden returns, we talk to mentor Leonie Cornelius about what it takes to win a show garden at Bloom - and meets this year's green-fingered contenders

Leonie Cornelius with the 2015 Supergardens contestants. Photo: David Cantwell
Leonie Cornelius with the 2015 Supergardens contestants. Photo: David Cantwell
Supergardens contestant Suzie Cahn
Supergardens contestant Zaneta Olszowy
Supergardens contestant Brian Burke
Supergardens contestant Floris Wagemakers
Supergarden contestant Grace McCullen

Doug Whelan

I don't know a huge amount about landscaping, but after meeting with Super Garden's five hopeful contestants, it emerges that it bears similarities to any other creative pursuit: a combination of art and science plus that little bit of alchemy between the two.

For some, the alchemy is a uniqueness in the way they see the world; for others it's an understanding of industry, or simply the challenge of leaving the comfort zone and giving it a go.

Each Super Garden designer is different, but they share the belief that their vision is the one that the judges will choose as the winner of the RTÉ series, giving them the chance to create a garden for the prestigious Bloom festival, taking place in Dublin's Phoenix Park this summer. Leonie Cornelius - who writes Weekend's inspired planting column and is herself a former contestant and winner of Super Garden - is perfectly placed to guide them along the way.

As the TV show's mentor, sometimes that might mean encouraging them to think a little bigger, sometimes it's to rein them in a little, but she says she doesn't feel it's her place to tell them no. "I don't like making decisions for people," Leonie says. "Rather I prefer to empower people to make their own decisions."

The main thing to remember for a show garden to be a success, Leonie says, is the concept, which grows out of the designer working with the client to understand their needs. It's worth remembering, then, that the gardens in Super Garden are real gardens that are privately owned by members of the public in Galway, Meath, Kildare and Dublin - and as such the clients expect real results. "If the brief isn't strong," Leonie says, "the concept won't be strong and that will inform everything else. It will lead in to the planting, the colours, the patterns, the symmetry, the rows, everything. Some of the people here may not have that formal training and that's where I come in.

"They might have the most amazing garden in their mind's eye, which is great but there's a good chance it won't be what the client imagines too. For me, what the client wants has to serve the concept - but your own vision has to come through too."

The combination of the two is the special magic the judges are looking for, and what will get the winner through to design a garden at Bloom, to be seen by 100,000 people. "As a mentor," Leonie says, "I don't want to be horrible but if something doesn't work I need to tell them because the judges will pick up on it too."

She has also reminded the contestants to give it their all in Super Garden, but to remember if they win they'll have to do it all again with even more pressure. "Bloom is a huge opportunity for anyone," she says, "and winning a medal [Leonie won a gold medal and best in category at Bloom 2012] is just the ultimate feeling."

You want to walk in to a space and get a certain feeling of comfort and awe and inspiration," she says, "but not quite know why."

Here, we meet this year's five hopefuls…

'Super Garden' begins on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday at 8.30pm

The student

Zaneta Olzowy (31), is originally from Poland but now lives in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. A landscaping student, she and husband Rafel have one child.

"I began studying landscaping because my husband is a landscaper," Zaneta says, "and I used to go and help him with his work now and again. I really loved it, but realised I cannot do it for a living myself without the background knowledge you need."

Growing up in Poland, Zaneta loved the countryside and was always among nature, hence her new-found interest in landscaping. But she confesses another reason for her new career. "I want to be my husband's boss," she jokes. "When we worked together first, he would say OK, do this, this and this. Now I am the boss and I tell him what to do!"

Zaneta admits that she is the least experienced of the Super Garden competitors. "The others are more familiar with plants," she says. "There are two types of landscape: soft and hard. Soft is where the plants are, but hard landscapes, like structure, and pathways, are where I am strongest. I don't have the same knowledge of plants as the others, so sometimes I just describe them by their colour!"

The prospect of designing for Bloom would be very prestigious for Zaneta, who has been living in Ireland for 10 years. "It would be a perfect way for me to end my college experience."

The businesswoman

Grace McCullen from Bellewstown, Co. Meath, works in marketing.

All of this year's Super Garden competitors have unique approaches informed by the professional and personal backgrounds, and Grace McCullen is no different. As well as her passion for landscaping and horticulture, Grace is also utilising her professional background in marketing and management to achieve the best garden she can.

"I grew up on a farm with green-fingered parents and grandparents," she explains, "and around five years ago, I inherited a little old cottage and my own little acre in Co. Meath, on which I've tried to make my own gardens. I have a little cottage garden, a kitchen garden and a woodland."

Grace's everyday routine has always involved looking after the garden in some capacity. "I've always grown my own food," she says, "and I've always experimented with other elements in the garden - insect houses, little structures and lots of other things." Another element that informs Grace's gardening style is working with what is there to begin with. "I'm all about working with nature rather than against it," she says, "so I'm not knocking anything down or building anything; I'm utilising what's there.

"My concept for the garden is Serendipity," Grace continues. "It's about those little unexpected discoveries that happen by accident as you move through the garden, just as lots of my interests in gardening came about. I knew nothing about woodpeckers until I discovered I had one in my garden. I also had no idea that deer chew bark off trees, but now that I know that, I use it in my garden's design."

Grace has also long been a fan of Bloom festival, and has visited the event every year since it was first held in 2007.

"My work life is all about managing projects and creating new brands," she says, "which gives me an extra boost. I want to get there, and I'm doing it by my own rules. I'm working with the best people, and using as many local businesses as I can."

The environmentalist

Suzie Cahn (45), is a teacher from Glenealy, Co. Wicklow. Married to Michael, they have four children.

Being with nature was always a big part of growing up for Suzi. When she had her own family, she wanted to create a similar lifestyle for them so she began growing vegetables. As time went by she got more interested in techniques and concepts, which eventually led to her volunteering at her kids' school showing the classes how to get their hands dirty.

"I eventually realised I had a lot of knowledge because my lifestyle and family history had taught me so much. That gave me the confidence to start teaching adults, so I set up community gardens in Wicklow, which eventually led me to permaculture." The concept is about "understanding nature and applying it to anything designed by human beings," Suzi says. "Originally I was applying it to growing my vegetables, but it can also be used in line with anything you build."

Carraig Dúlra, owned by Suzi and her husband Michael, is a permaculture learning site for people to volunteer and learn about permaculture, which Suzi has now applied to her Super Garden project.

"Learning about permaculture is what got me interested in garden design, and that's what has led me to Super Garden."

Suzi explains that her project is all about inspiring people to consider their own gardens as sustainable areas.

"The idea of doing a TV garden, and perhaps eventually a garden for Bloom, is to show people it's possible to have a place that is functional, sustainable and productive, as well as beautiful."

Even still, Suzi hasn't been able to apply permaculture fully.

"One of the ideas about the theory is that you shouldn't do anything until you've observed your space for a year," she explains. "So that went out the window straight away! Another approach of design is that it's influenced by two things: what is available, and the weather - so we're reacting to those two elements too."

The inventor

Brian Burke (43), is a landscaping contractor and horticulture student from Killenard, Co. Laois. Married to Julia, they have five children

Brian's garden has an added challenge in the form of the clients' youngest son, who suffers from spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair.

"One of their main requirements was that their youngest be afforded equal access to every part of the garden as his brother and sister. If there was a change in level, it would have to include a ramp; paths would have to be going through every part of the garden and so on. There had to be distinct access," Brian says.

At first, this seemed like a challenge too complex for Brian to achieve in the timeframe and with the budget, but then he realised the family's requirements would allow him to focus his efforts.

"When I went in, it was a very typical garden, and I simply couldn't recreate a typical garden, it had to be special," Brian says. "For example, there was a swing set that he simply could not engage with. So we've taken that away to repurpose it, and tried to come up with a new type of play structure that he can get involved with. I tried to put myself in the mindset of a child before moving on to what adults might need, then the whole family."

Brian's intention in studying horticulture at this point in his life, is to add to his existing design abilities. "I'm always trying out new things and salvaging materials for reuse, or repurposing things."

With that in mind, the opportunity to display his skills and ideas at Bloom would be a very big deal. "To get exposure to people in the know would help me refocus my own career; it would be amazing."

The foodie

Originally from Holland, Floris Wagemaker (37), lives in Galway. A caterer, he and wife Sonia have two children.

Floris has his own falafel business in Galway, which is how he found himself bit-by-bit becoming interested in gardening and design. Disconcerted by the amount of produce that is imported in to Ireland, Floris began growing his own herbs and vegetables. "Basically I felt I had a responsibility to produce my own stuff because of all the space we have in Ireland."

Now, Floris maintains his own one-acre garden in Galway with two homemade glasshouses, but seeing as he doesn't own the land the garden is on, everything has to be done on a shoestring budget. The limited choices he has is what got him interested in garden design to begin with. The opportunity to design a garden from the ground up (pun intended) is a unique challenge. "I did a short permaculture course," he says, "and got really inspired, and found the confidence to design something and put it in to practice.

"My theme is holidaying. If you feel like you can't afford a holiday, then there's no reason why your garden at home can't be an escape of its own."

Floris's garden will have lots of fruit, lots of vegetables and lots of medicinal plants. "When you're in my garden I want it to feel like you're in a different environment and you've moved to a new space," he says.

"I've taken a big risk with my structure, but if I can pull it off, it might be the clincher."

Photogrpahs: David Cantwell

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