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Interview: Peter Donegan. Horticulture Connected, Summer 2015

peter donegan, horticulture ireland magazine, 2015

Horticulture Connected, Ireland’s Hort Trade Magazine, Summer 2015 Edition.
Peter Donegan talks with Editor Barry Lupton.

Generally speaking, most industry folks agree that gardening coverage on TV and radio in Ireland is pretty poor and this has a negative impact on the market for goods and services. Ask those within media circles why it is so, and it all comes back to the same factors: production costs, scale of the potential audience and the need to generate ratings using the lowest common denominator. If you want gardening on TV, it better come with sex, violence, emotion, upset and scandal.

But all is not lost. The downward pressure has produced a knowledge vacuum and a necessity. Necessity precipitates creativity. Thankfully, one industry figure is adressing the issue.

Peter Donegan is well known in the fields of horticulture, construction and design. Owner and operator of Donegan Landscapes, he established his name with a series of dramatically imaginative show gardens in the early days of Bloom in the Park. Like many in the design and construction sector, Peter felt the full force of the recession and took steps to contract his business to see it through the lean years. But he didn’t just hunker down, he saw an opportunity to redirect his energy online and to address the poor level of gardening media coverage.

The Sod Show was created in 2010 following a suggestion from a friend that he build on his existing gardening blog with a weekly radio podcast through Dublin City FM. And the rest, as they say is history. A burgeoning audience, multiple awards and an interview list which includes people from every corner of horticulture, the Sod Show has become an important component of Irish gardening media. One which continues to grow in both audience and influence.

I was delighted to meet up with Peter recently to get the back story on his success with the Sod Show and his plans for the future.

B. What inspired you to become involved in horticulture?

P. I used to grow plants under my bed when I was five, and after moving them to the top shelf of my Dad’s old garage they started to lean towards the light. That summer I spent an entire month’s pocket money on a packet of radish seeds that I sowed in trenches two foot deep, as the book said. They logically, says he a little older and bolder, never saw the light of day. I wanted to find out more and the answers the grown ups were giving simply didn’t do it for me, I guess. I was always that child that kept on asking ‘why’ far too much. I should add that I am one of eight children so cutting grass was a great way of making pocket money to buy more plants.
By the time I was six, I knew what phototropism was, I landscaped my first garden age 10 and if you’ll pardon the cliché’d pun it kind of grew out of hand from there. Studying horticulture at college seemed to be the next logical step to take.

B. Where did you pursue formal horticulture qualifications (and why there)?
P. Most of my horticultural studies were done at Kildalton College in Kilkenny. It was, and still is, such a fantastic place to study and learn. I already had a great hard work ethos and they had that fine balance between the right amount of practical work and theory pretty much spot on. At the time Mick Conlon (now deceased, and I still miss him) was the Head Don there. Fair to say he and pretty much all of the staff kept an eye out for me. In hindsight, I don’t think I had eased on the amount of times I asked ‘why’.

B. What is your most memorable educational experience in horticulture?
P. I’m sure I’ll kick myself later for this one and remember an even better story, but bear in mind we didn’t have Google when I was in college.
A lot of who I am now comes down to lecturers and college staff for taking time with me. I knew which plants were which but a lack of botanical Latin in my early years was maybe a downfall. It being an international language I knew I would need it if I wanted to travel. I wanted to be expert and at it, and at everything else. It was Fred Townsend who told me I should first teach myself to identify plants that surrounded me, versus an image in a book. I used to know every single plant in every front garden and every single tree in Piltown throughout every single season. It’s the most logical thing I was ever advised to do – learn horticulture along the way, on the two mile walk to college.

B. What does a typical working day for Peter Donegan involve?
P. A typical working day, yesterday for example, starts just after 6am with a return to home just after 9pm. My business is creating gardens for a living. Or as I like to call it, getting paid to make people smile. Nothing is too much trouble and client is king. A little homework gets done first thing in the morning and a little more during the evening plus maybe a garden visit, and garden-making happens during the day.
In this industry, you realise quite quickly that your summer holidays take place in December, and also that eventually rain will give you some form of a day off. I won’t say it’s an easy ride, but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

B. Tell me about the rewards and challenges of working in the Irish contracting sector.
P. It might be a bit different for me because I work mostly in private landscaping as against commercial projects.
That said the challenges are always finding the right projects and essentially getting paid. Make no bones about it, the last six plus years were tough for everyone and I guess the challenge in that was to get through it and to try and keep that smile on your face. And though things seem to be very much improving I don’t think the entire Irish hort scene is heading off to Barbados just yet. What I have learned is that Ireland is a very small place, and the horticultural sector is even smaller.
I have great friends in the industry, some of whom are just friends whilst others I trade with. The greatest rewards are people, the ones who stay with you through sun and rain.

B. Why did you start a gardening blog?
Actually, it was started by a series of mishaps. My website died the weekend of the pink boat garden at Bloom 2008, and stayed dead for three months.
I sought help from another great friend Adrian who resurrected it and introduced me to blogging as a way of getting my name back out there. In 2008, blogging was all very new, but it was a cheap spare time way of getting some news out. My blog was a finalist for the best Irish blog a few times, but something tells me I’m better at making gardens.

B. How did you overcome your lack of broadcasting training in the early SodShow days?
P. Don’t all laugh at once, but I found the easiest way to learn was to just keep on talking.
I’ve no trouble doing that! On a serious note, talk and record, listen, play back, take criticism, and learn faster.
The SodShow started with another series of mishaps, involving great friends with great hearts. The truth it, the podcasts were originally done on my iPhone, in my back garden. Its current very high quality production standard comes down to another great friend, Brian Greene.

B. Tell me about your most interesting SodShow interview?
P. I interviewed Chris Beytes from Grower Talks trade magazine in the USA. We bumped into each other at the International Garden Centre Congress. I had always assumed that everthing was bigger and better in the States – at least that’s what I was brought up to believe! – but interviewing him was enlightening. According to him our industry is damn good at what we do.

B. What has been your most challenging interview to date?
P. That’s a real easy one to answer. Niall Maxwell at the Pieta House garden, Bloom 2015. I’ve known Niall a long time. Another great friend. It’s the first time I ever cried listening to an interview that I had been a part of. I related to every single word he said, and we both knew that would happen. It was very personal and very tough. You’ll know exactly what I mean if you’ve been there too.

B. What are the rewards of delivering the SodShow?
P. One day I’m chatting to James Wong, the next I’m chatting to the girls from Bloom Fringe. All singing from the same heart. All very lovely people. All gardening on very different levels. All good. One should bear in mind we’ve never ever been paid in any way for doing this garden podcast. The reason to keep doing it is always because it makes sense and makes you smile. What is gas is that we have won Ireland’s Best Podcast two years running and are still, four plus years later, Ireland’s only full time garden radio show.

B. What are the key challenges of the show?
P. You work in print, me on the airwaves, both actions support the industry and in turn, require its support. The main challenge is remaining viable. Those on the front lines understand this and support each other without question but collaboration doesn’t pay the bills. That’s the main challenge.

B. Greensax have provided great support for the show over the years. How and why should other enterprises get involved?
P. That’s an interesting one. Greensax are fantastic guys and also great mates at this stage and we love having their name on our club jersey. But Greensax only sponsor the radio show. We still have and all that goes with it and the podcast version of the show where we can take another name or two on board. If other enterprises wish to get involved, just drop me a line, make a suggestion and let’s see how we can make something great happen alongside each other. There’s a Jerry Maguire story in there somewhere. Pick up the phone or drop me an email – the coffee pot is on.

B. There are lots of horticulturalists who would like to follow in your footsteps. What advice do you have for them?
P. Just give it a go. Try it. And really, what’s the worst that can happen. Some laughed when I started Donegan Landscaping and when I started The SodShow. You learn. And if you need any help just drop me a line.

B. What next for the SodShow?
P: We just did our first live show this year as part of Bloom Fringe at the very beautiful Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in Dublin. I guess the step after that is to find the next challenge. I’ll let you know once I get the next garden I’m working on finished.

B. How do you think gardening media coverage could be developed to appeal to the lost generation?
P. Some people just don’t get the podcast generation. Not to knock the Sodshow in any way, but I honestly don’t know any 17 – 44 year old that sits by the wireless at 3pm every Friday to listen to us. Don’t get me wrong there is very much a case for both – in our case radio and podcast, both available online I should add. It’s like Horticulture Connected being in print and online, It’s there, and it exists to promote our industry.
If we want it to develop, like a football team or club maybe, it’s really simple – it just needs a bit of support. A tenner says there are garden lovers out there that don’t know the SodShow exists, either on radio or podcast. We all have a role to play.

B. How do you see Bloom in the Park evolving over the next few years?
Bloom has just passed year nine, heading on to the year ten year milestone. And the average attendance of 100,000 plus visitors went through a downturn that lasted for six of those years. It’s young still. It has new media on its side, something that didn’t exist when you and I were building there in 2007. We really should be very proud of what it has come from and what it has become.

B. What are the key factors holding back the Irish horticulture sector?
P. I pay very little attention to the negatives in my life and I really seem to just glide on past them. I honestly believe there are people out there who really want to make a difference within our industry. I think I am one of those people. I hope I am.

B. What changes would you like to see in the Irish horticulture?
P. To be fair there are positives already taking place. And I know I might sound like an old broken record but we’ve got one trade magazine and one garden podcast radio show that up until not too long ago did not exist. As an industry we’re just starting to stabilise. I’d say the answer is, keep those two going and ask me again in 12 months time.

B. Will we see another imaginative garden creation at Bloom anytime soon?
P. All I really ever wanted to do my entire life was to make gardens and as Donegan Landscaping I get to do that nearly every single day. I was privileged to get to create, design and build what was essentially a picture inside my sometimes funny little head, twice at Bloom, (the pink boat is now owned by Electric Picnic). I’m aiming to go back to Bloom in 2016, and I have a plan. The challenge is to get it built – and if anyone is looking for a journey with a mild difference now is the time to throw your hands up in the air. Or as I like to say it, if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship don’t ask which seat it is, just get on board.

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