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Super Garden judge Monica Alvarez shares the secrets of good - and bad- garden design

Missed visiting Bloom? Never fear, 'Super Garden' judge Monica Alvarez reveals the secrets of good - and bad - garden design

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Monica Alvarez

Monica Alvarez

Dermot Melia

Dermot Melia

Fran Byrne

Fran Byrne

Siobhan Keogh The R&R Design

Siobhan Keogh The R&R Design

Tara Linnane The Gourmet Garden

Tara Linnane The Gourmet Garden

Tara Linnane The Gourmet Garden

Tara Linnane The Gourmet Garden

Tara Linnane

Tara Linnane

Fran Byrne La Vista

Fran Byrne La Vista

Siobhan Keogh

Siobhan Keogh

Dermot Melia The Room Effect

Dermot Melia The Room Effect

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Monica Alvarez

The pandemic has caused quite a few surprise trends - home-made sour dough bread, Zoom calls, DIY hair dye, the home office. And a new love for our gardens.

One online gardening shop registered a month's sales on just one morning in April. "I'd never seen anything like it," said Niall McAllister of Quickcrop.ie. "It's like having U2 tickets in your back pocket. If I had 50 polytunnels full of plants, I'd sell every one. We could never have predicted this. We had to take the website down."

Fruithill Farm and Irish Seed Savers, the not-for-profit dedicated to heritage and open pollinated seed, reported similar demand.

The trend has also lifted TV ratings for the Irish reality show Super Garden - an average of 353,000 viewers tuned in to watch this year's series, a jump of nearly 140,00 over 2019, though some of the jump may be due to its new hour-long format.

Gary Graham of Bord Bia, one of the three judges on the show, says: "There's absolutely massive growth in gardening. People have been stuck at home and, if their houses have become their castles, their place of sanctuary, then you can imagine their gardens have become their kingdom. It's a safe place, it's outdoors, and people have had time for the first time to look at their outside space and its possibilities."

If you haven't been watching, the premise of Super Garden is this: five keen garden designers are pitched against each other to win a show garden space at Bord Bia's Bloom 2021. Their brief is to transform identical back gardens in a social housing scheme in north Dublin into something beautiful that works for the home owners, and Bloom. The twist is they have to help each other finish their gardens, and all of this is done in a race against time. The Irish weather pitches in too with torrential rain that has them sloshing about ankle deep in mud.

The clock ticks, the budget runs low, tempers fray. And along the way, armchair gardeners can pick up plenty of design tips. So what are the winning elements of garden design?

The hunt for a winner

Monica Alvarez, judge, horticulturalist and garden lecturer, ticks them off. "A garden has to have a strong theme that provides you with a message, inspiration, making you want to stay there." It should have a coherent design. "For example, if you have a garden and there are sections - a patio, a BBQ and entertainment and play area for the kids - it is united, maybe by a path that has a shape that is kept throughout, so you don't have a completely different style in one half to another.

"There should also be balance - that means equal amounts of hard and soft landscaping so it's not all just the one."

Colour is crucial, and so is a good finish: "If someone is going to put a patio or pergola or raised bed or water feature in it actually has to work."

And of course, "it has to be special, unusual, different, that's the hard part," she says. "The average Irish garden has three things in it - a patio, a lawn and plants. Whereas a Super Garden or a Bloom Garden would have an element of the unusual, whether it's artistic or colourful or practical, something outside the box."

There are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary. "Because they are drawing on paper, designers can look at the garden as if it's a carpet." Gardens, she says, need something vertical in them, something that breaks the skyline, like an archway, or a pergola with a climber growing through it.

People often forget about just how important a boundary can be too. A well-designed garden, she says, is framed by walls or trees or trellises, something that sets off what's inside. "It is like having a photo or painting and next thing you put in a frame and all of a sudden it is more beautiful."

Stop with the evergreens

There are peculiarly Irish sins committed in planting that Monica, who is from Spain, often comes across. Too many evergreens, for starters.

"I have found that Irish people when they refer to the garden as 'all year round', in their mind they're thinking evergreen bushes. That is completely wrong. 'All year round' should mean that, every month of the year, you have something interesting to look at whether it is a flower or a berry or the branch structure of a lovely deciduous tree. Whereas they have interpreted that their garden should have evergreen bushes everywhere. That would be very boring, very uninteresting and definitely unchanging. A garden should change and it should evolve and it should move."

Apparently, we are suckers too for the idea of a low maintenance garden. "People wrongly think that having more patio, more concrete, more hard surfaces, will prevent them from having to spend too much time on the garden - that is totally wrong. It's a misconception," she says. "It won't feel like a garden. There is no need for that. If you select the right plants - ones that do not require to be pruned or looked after, they have the ability to take a natural shape and will cover the ground so that weeds will not appear."

"I am a particular lover of blue, it is calm, it reflects the sky, it reflects the sea. You can never go wrong with blue, but you have to sometimes make it happy with splashes of yellow or orange, little bits only. White is used to unify. If you choose your favourite colour and then put splashes of white, like gypsophila, something nice and gentle, it unifies everything. And it tells the viewer, I belong to the same space."

Nature comes first

In her own designs, Monica aims to make a space look as natural as possible. "I want to feel that no one has touched it but it's perfect. It's very easy to have a garden where everything is manicured and has artificial shapes. What is very difficult to imitate is the balance and beauty of the natural world. So most of my designs would have flowing natural lines that hide the traces of the designer."

Thursday is the grand finale of this year's series. Any hints on the winner? "I cannot give away who the winner is, all I will tell you is this was the very, very first time when the judges were not 100pc in agreement and it took us forever to agree. The standard is getting higher, and people who apply are learning from previous programmes - the cheek of them!"

Super Garden airs on RTE One, Thursday, June 25, at 8pm.

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