Nirvana In Bloom: Rock of a whole different kind
Rock music has always featured in father-of-two Kevin Dennis's life, but more recently, he has been digging rock of a different kind - and unearthing a passion for Latin. Photography by Tony Gavin
Gardening is "the purest of human pleasures and the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man" according to the 17th-Century philosopher Francis Bacon, and professional garden designer Kevin Dennis would probably agree with his sentiments.
Kevin's a man who delights in every aspect of gardening, even the long, complicated Latin names, which he loves to let trip off his tongue; such as acer palmatum dissectum, when it would be so much easier to say the English name - Japanese maple. "Plant identification is very tough - a foreign language, but a beautiful language - and when I see a plant and I know its Latin name, I feel like I'm meeting a rockstar," he enthuses.
That's high praise indeed from Kevin; rock music is his other great passion. The music has absorbed him since his teens, while he was well into his 30s when he settled on a career in garden design. However, the late start at the craft hasn't hindered him in any way; in fact he won the gold medal at Bloom this year, and far from having regrets about not finding his true vocation earlier, he feels his former careers add to the rich experience he brings to the craft.
"Gardening is a later-in-life thing for me. I went through a lot of things first; it's been a bit of a journey," he explains.
The journey started in Canada where he was born - his parents had emigrated for work, but they returned to Ireland with the family when Kevin was two. Growing up, he was both musical and artistic; he played in bands and intended going to art college, but it didn't work out quite as he planned.
"I really wanted to go to NCAD, but when I was advised to do a portfolio course, I couldn't do it. I was impatient; I thought, 'I could be dead by the time I had that done'," he says, remembering his younger, rather impetuous self.
The bands worked out better - "I was a rocker; long hair, leather jacket, the lot," Kevin says - and he made a living out of playing the guitar for the best part of five years. Then he and his older brother decided they'd go back to their roots and headed for Toronto, but it wasn't the plain sailing he'd expected.
"I went from hanging out with the band, having the crack, to getting up at 6am to go to work. I did so many jobs. It was a challenge, but it straightened me out," he says. Things got better when his then girlfriend, now wife, Annette, a nurse, joined him and he made friends with music people and joined bands, but ultimately, after four years, he and Annette decided to come home. "Dublin is our town, Ireland our home," he says. "Being away made us realise that. Coming home was the harder road, but we compromised and accepted it."
Kevin's dad is a taxi driver and Kevin decided to get into that game too, and did night work for the next 10 years - "I was so focused, I wouldn't take a Saturday night off" - but then the taxiing was deregulated, and for him the bottom fell out of the business. "I had to find a new career," Kevin says simply, "so for a while, I had a 'yes to everything' policy - house-painting, wedding bands, laying floors." Music, as always, played a part. "For a while I was even in a Thin Lizzy tribute band, and I found myself playing at all these biker festivals," he says with a laugh.
This 'yes' policy began to include gardening jobs. "I had done my own garden and enjoyed it, then I did jobs for a few others," he says.
Kevin realised this was an opportunity he could seize and make his new career, but he needed to know more; early failure to pursue college niggled at him and he decided, with Annette's full support - he describes her as his "rock" - he would study for a degree in horticulture and garden design. He feels it was the making of him. "It formatted my mind," he says. "I went for awards and I won two while I was in college."
He has been gardening professionally for the last seven years and continues to win awards, including five ALCI (Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland) in the last four years, but the really valuable accolade was the overall award at Bloom 2014 for his city-style garden, which included 25 panels of graffiti. "It was the first time graffiti has been used at Bloom," Kevin says proudly.
The award has opened a lot of doors for him and he does everything from gardens consisting of more than an acre in the countryside, to urban gardens. He has a team of trusted landscapers to work for him, while he does all the design. "While I was at college, I found out I was really good at it and I learned how to use technology to build 3D design," he says. "I built gardens using architectural software."
He believes the key to success as a garden designer is collaboration. "I don't go in saying, 'I need metal here', I don't do my design out of ego," Kevin explains. "It's what fits the client's lifestyle, what fits the family. I can still have a bit of fun with the design and end up with happy people. I love doing is small city gardens because you can do so much with them."
Kevin's garden behind his and Annette's home in Dublin 5 is one such compact space, yet Kevin has managed to encompass within it an unobtrusive shed, a play area for their two children, Abbie and Scott, an oasis for Annette and beds for him to plant.
They bought the house, then a two-bedroom townhouse, 19 years ago. Even though Kevin hadn't given a thought to garden design then, they opted for the house because of the trees behind the back area, which frame it.
As the family grew, they needed more space, and 10 years ago, decided to gut it and extend. This involved incorporating a lot of their exterior space into the shell of the house. The former side entrance is now a study, a hallway, a downstairs bathroom and a utility room. They also extended out the back, enlarging the kitchen and adding dining and living areas, while the original living area is used mainly as a TV room. They also added a bedroom.
Kevin himself designed the whole extension and it works extremely well. Though the kitchen extension faces north, he's managed to fill it with light using skylights, expanses of glass and by painting the walls of the garden white.
Of course it's the garden design he's most proud of - Annette has made the iroko seating her place to read the paper, while the kids enjoy messing on the climbing frame - he still has plenty of space for his herbs, his box hedging and his olive, bay and maple trees.
That's when he gets time to tend his own garden; his garden design business is full-on, though he still likes to make some time for his music and even recorded an album, purely for his own pleasure. "A friend of mine has a recording studio, so he helped me with the album and I designed his garden," Kevin says. His two passions serendipitously coming together.
Kevin Dennis, tel: (086) 173-3735, or see cityscapegardener.ie