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Landscaping Matters Magazine: Irish Garden Designer Peter Donegan

When discussing child proteges the first name that often comes to mind is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The 18th century Salzburg superstar was a talented pianist, violinist and composer by the age of five. Dublin-based Landscape Architect Peter Donegan certainly wouldn’t compare himself to Wolfgang, but he does share some similarities. He too, was an early starter, but he happily describes his young self as “nerdy and geeky”, rather than anything as pompous as a “protégé”.

’Man With The Golden Touch’ by Scott MacCallum first appeared in Landscaping Matters Magazine issue 3, 2023.

The facts are that he may not have a Cosi fan Tutte in his back catalogue, but, when it comes to getting out of the blocks quickly, he was only a little behind. Young Peter designed his first garden, and knew the meaning of the word “phototropism”, by the time he’d reached nine!

“I dressed like a nerdy, geeky, kid, at a time when horticulture wasn’t sexy. But by the time I was 17 I’d already worked on roof top gardens on multi storey car parks and, by 22, I was a Contracts Manager. I had my own company at 24,” explained Peter, in a manner which wasn’t boastful, but merely describing how he’d been bitten by the gardening bug very early on.

Indeed, his green fingers, not to mention his entrepreneurship, was apparent even earlier when, at seven, he borrowed a lawnmower and set out to earn himself some money. However, he may reflect on his choice of Business Manager for the fact he wasn’t wealthy, and in a position to retire, by the time he hit high school.

“I had asked my dad for some money as I needed to buy compost, but the request was turned down. So armed with the lawnmower and a can of petrol I set to work and returned at the end of the day with £12. My dad counted it out. One, two, three, four, five, six – that’s for tax; one for the hire of the lawnmower; one for the petrol and so on. It came to the end and he handed me £1, with the instruction that I had to buy a bar of chocolate for each of the family,” recalled Peter, who, being in the middle of eight children, saw all his profit disappear on the 10p bars of chocolate.

Having learned a lesson in life, as well as a lesson in hard work, Peter, thanks in no small part to his dad, had built some solid foundations for his career as a garden designer.

“I got a reputation for doing difficult projects that no-one else wanted. The first garden was two storey at the front and three storey at the back with a 17 degree angle going down a flight of steps. We couldn’t use cranes because of the weight over distance and the access at the front of the property, while everything had to be co-ordinated to come in by hand, as even wheel barrows would have tipped over.”

On such projects careers and reputations are built.
“By the time I was 30 we had won awards for design and had built a garden on a 27 acre 17th century estate and another on a 55 acre 18th century estate, projects which ran concurrently.”

In 2018, he was one of 14 designers selected globally to represent Ireland to design a First World War Peace Garden at Chateau de Peronne, in France, and he later returned to France to design a second garden at the 13th century castle, which is also home to Europe’s largest war museum.

He is particularly proud of the Peace Garden, which was built in a dried up moat 30 feet below street level. A throwback to his enthusiasm for awkward sites.

“We were asked to design a garden to remember the past and to commemorate the fallen in both World Wars, but with an eye to the future. It is one of the most humbling and emotional things I’ve ever done in my lifetime.”

Peter also became garden designer for Ireland’s most watched TV Show, DIY SOS The Big Build, where he could really let his creative juices flow, even if the tight time frames of producing a television programme imposed some practical limitations.

Think barbecue inside the bonnet of VW Beatles; paths which light up as you walk along to an outdoor grand piano, or 35 foot pleasure boats in a garden.

We spoke just as he was about to head down under to exhibit at the Melbourne Flower Show, the biggest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and one of the globally regarded Big Five Flower Shows.
Peter’s career has followed a series of sliding doors moments, one creating the next opportunity and so on and Melbourne came about by the same circuitous route.

“In 2020, working with contractor Ed Burnham, of Burnham Landscaping, I had been accepted to do a garden at Hampton Court, but in the meantime I’d become the designer for DIY SOS. We were also supposed to do a second garden in the castle in 2020, but had I taken on Hampton or the castle I wouldn’t have been able to do the television.

“Then came lockdown and I wasn’t able to travel but was able to do the television. The French then rang and said they really needed me to go back and do the second garden, so we were able to do that project as well in the end.”

It was through his show garden and television work in 2007, however, that the Melbourne opportunity presented itself. Peter had been chatting with Trevor Cochrane, host of television progamme, Garden Gurus, in Australia, and asked him how much he knew about Melbourne.

“It had been on my radar. I just liked what it was about and how it did its thing. It was nothing more than a passing enquiry, but IMG, who run MIFGS, came back to me three weeks later and asked if I could produce a design for them within the next two weeks

“Normally it takes three weeks to come up with a design but I said, jokingly, ‘One in two weeks? I’ll do you two in one week’. They said ‘Brilliant’. What was I thinking!

“We worked around the clock and did produce two designs. IMG picked one and I got an email to say that the contracts were on my desk, that my garden was completely funded and that I’d better book a plane to Melbourne.

“That’s not always how it works. I call this guy and 20 days later I’m heading to Australia. It’s a brilliant pub story,” said Peter.
So let’s talk about the Melbourne show garden and its inspiration.
“There is an island off the coast of Galway, and on it there is a beautiful place called Inishmore – unknowns at the time, it became the location for the Banshees of Inisherin. It’s a stunning landscape. I was there with a friend of mine and got to thinking, can you imagine if you fell in love and your beau was on the mainland. The emotions, the conflict of knowing there were stormy waters, or not enough fuel in the boat, but emotion telling you to go for broke to make it over to the other side.

“Ultimately, when you get older, logic takes precedent, but when you are 17, 18 or 19 you’re completely infatuated  and logic goes out the window,” said Peter, with a rather lovely description of his motivation for the garden.

In fact, Peter has as much an eye for a turn of phrase as he does for a great garden.

“Day dreams are one thing, but people who take day dreams, turn them into an equation and make them real, are those to be respected.”

And another…
“Adapting a contemporary version of the love story means that we don’t have Otis Reading, but we do have Marvin Gaye.”
And, still on the musical theme, discussing how ideas and human beings develop and progress…

“The Beatle’s doing Love Me Do was all very nice and beautiful, but by the time they recorded Sergeant Pepper, they had moved on, and actually put more people on the fence about them as a band.”

Having nailed the concept, the logistics of building the garden in a UNESCO Heritage Site which doesn’t allow for any penetration of the ground, added complications to an already complicated project.
“We had a 400mm fall over a 20 metre distance so we had to build the site up with precision detailed construction to level and then build the garden around that,” said Peter, who worked with respected Australian contractor, Martin Semken, the most medalled contractor in the history of the Melbourne Show.

“Inis Mor is entirely limestone, but in Australia you have bluestone. So we took the decision to replace limestone stepping stones with bluestone stepping stones for the garden – these stones crossing water which is dyed black to assist the reflection of the stones,” explained Peter, who added that while utilising indigenous stone was the more sustainable option it did mean that the judges had to accept the fact that the stone wasn’t exactly true to the garden’s Irish roots and perhaps “off brief”.

The key elements of “The BAM Stone Garden” include water, natural stone paving, boulders, and lush planting. To further enhance the garden’s appeal, a portal dolmen-esque stone structure with a stone table and seating has been incorporated, allowing visitors to relax and appreciate the natural beauty of the surroundings

This contemporary garden portrays the tale of two hearts separated by a small island off the coast of Galway to the mainland. The design aims to take visitors on a journey through a rocky, maritime landscape, reminiscent of the journey made across the Atlantic from the Connemara coast.

The garden features a series of natural stepping stones that elegantly weave through the landscape, leading visitors to an island of tranquillity. Here, a single large, Liriodendron tulipifera tree stands tall, providing a beacon of hope to those who wish to return to their loved ones.

That tree did cause Peter and the on-site team some headaches

“The tree needed to appear a certain way, but, as we speak, we have a choice of trees and I won’t really know which one tells the story best until I get there. And behind the scenes, because we aren’t allowed to dig down, and the wood frame has already been fabricated because of lead times, we are not sure if the frame will fit over the root ball of the tree,” said Peter, giving a little insight to the pre-show machinations.

On the subject of medals, and whether they are a true measure of a garden’s success, Peter also has some interesting thoughts.

“If you are my sponsor who has given me a big bag of loot and I design a patch of grass, which fulfils the brief exactly and it gets Gold… but the media doesn’t mention it – does the sponsor, and everyone who contributed, or donated, towards creating the garden, benefit?

“Then there is the line when you tell a story, or do something which is completely different and interpretive. The judges can go against you because they might argue that it hasn’t met the brief sufficiently. But you’ve produced a garden which has been to the betterment of the show and sometimes to the betterment of horticulture. It’s a bit like jazz, and I’m not a fan of jazz, but someone who has the ability to freestyle, or ad lib, within a structure has to be applauded.”

This was when he referenced The Beetles and Sergeant Pepper. See where it fits in now?

“So, how important are medals? They are important and they matter to me, but they are not the bit right at the top of the page.”

Press Release just in!

Garden Designer Peter Donegan has won Gold Medal with The Bam Stone Garden at Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show 2023.

The central boulevard 200 square metre show garden constructed by Semken Landscaping, a contemporary vision of a love story and two hearts separated by a small island off the coast of Galway to the mainland stole the hearts of the 120,000 visitors to world heritage site of The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens.

Featuring a series of natural bluestone steps that symmetrically weave their way through a rocky landscape, recognisant of the journey made across the Atlantic from the Connemara coast, the destination became a limestone (moleanus) island featuring planting, shelter, and a single autumnal 8 metre tall Liriodendron tulipifera reflecting across the black water, a beacon to those who wish to return to their love.

From a garden construction perspective the design and build was a daring one on a site where one cannot, penetrate or dig in any way below ground of the Unesco protected world heritage site and became the largest ever garden featuring water in the shows history and the most difficult build Donegan and Semken have ever undertaken.

The story albeit interpretive, is of a man hoping, in reality in vain that on the island his beau and he will meet and be together. That however is of a daydream and completely plausible by sole virtue of imagination and daydreams where their impossible becomes possible and separation by water no longer exists. The garden is also representative of love’s many forms – unrequited love, true love kept apart by distance, or unconditional lovers no longer physically together but never forgotten in the heart.

During his time Donegan also guest lectured at The Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and also at Melbourne University.

Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show is the largest and most prestigious flower horticultural event in the Southern Hemisphere and rated among the top three flower and garden shows in the world showcasing only the finest calibre of garden design and landscape architecture talent selected from Australia and globally.

Having interviewed Peter just before he set off for Melbourne, the news of his success seemed almost personal to me and I continue to bask in the reflected glory. He is clearly a man with a romantic mind but an analytical brain – a very useful combination for a garden designer.

So, Mozart may have composed his beautiful Clarinet Concerto in A but, as far as I’m aware, he fell down on the Gold Medal front, so it may be that Peter is, indeed, sneaking up on his old child protégé rival!