this article was written by freelance writer and really nice girl [ 😉 ] Jane Ruffino some time ago now. Autumn 2008 to be exact. It was geat fun meeting Jane and kind of funny somewhat seeing anothers view of myself in writing… take a read and see what you think.
Real gardens and virtual friends
Landscaper and garden designer Peter Donegan is constantly on the remake. His has become the only certiﬁed fully-accessible horticultural website in Ireland, and through blogging, live-streaming and Twitter, he’s brought an unlikely online social networking angle to landscape design and gardening. But ofﬂine, too, Peter is always looking for ways to make his gardens and his life more fun, more environmentally friendly, or more interesting.
He’d always hoped he’d be running his own business by the age of twenty-ﬁve, and he was; he set up Donegan Landscaping in 2001. “Our ﬁrst award was for a ﬁfty-ﬁve-acre 18th-century estate in North Dublin. It’s privately owned. People were saying to me ‘Where’s your father? How long are you working with your dad?’ I was going, ‘No, no, it’s just me.’”
Peter started gardening when he was about six, growing plants under his bed. Yes, we said ‘under his bed’. When his mother discovered what he was up to, she wasn’t pleased, and he became worried. “There was a mentor, an old Marist brother, a gardener-type of guy, so I went across and I said, ‘My mam’s going to throw all my plants out! Could you mind them in your glass house?’ This was the 1980s, so Ireland was pretty shit, and all that Bob Geldof stuff.” Peter talks like that, oblique yet sensible, describing sensations more often than appearances.
The Marist brother taught him about growing plants and gardening, and he did his ﬁrst garden at around age ten, for a friend of a neighbour who was having guests around. “The neighbours called around and said, ‘Your garden is lovely. Who did it?’ And she said, ‘Oh, Peter Donegan.’ And she said, ‘You must give us his number.’ And she went out and she took me in by the hand. And so that was it.” It wasn’t easy being a kid in Ireland of the 80s, let alone one who was into gardening before television made hedge-trimming sexy.
At sixteen, Peter went off to study horticulture, and worked and studied both in the UK and around Ireland before he set up on his own back home in Dublin. In a way, he’s always been on his own, or at least a breed apart. “You know the way some people are just really good with children?” he says, and then adds, “But I don’t mean to compare humans with things that photosynthesise.” He may not grow plants under his bed now, but he certainly has a connection with them.
He hasn’t lost his boyish, obsessive love, or his child-like wonder, and rather than a Man trying to conquer Nature, he talks about his role as if he were something other than a creator, more like an editor of landscapes. He speaks with zeal for leaving things to grow wild, and even in front of his own house, he’s created a hedge-ﬂanked boreen with a little strip of grass in the middle instead of the conventional paved driveway. “I get free fruit on the way to work.” I picture him arriving at his desk with berry-stained hands and cheeks
– if only everyone were as happy as this guy is.
Of course he wants and needs to make money, but making ends meet is the means to an end, a way of being able to keep at what he does best, which is also what he loves most. “The biggest problem I have is that because of what I love I tend to sacriﬁce the business bit of it.”
More than once during our conversation, he compares what he does to buying the Beatles on vinyl: it’s not just about having the recording, it’s about having it in a particular way that is special to you, even if it’s rarer or more expensive. “I’m not saying I don’t know how to make a couple of quid, but in the scheme of things if we’re doing a garden, and I go, ‘That tree will be better but it costs a hundred quid more,’ I’ll buy the better tree and I won’t change the quote. That’s the bit where I fall down,” he says. “Feck it – I’m getting paid a wage. That will do me.”
He’ll do your garden whatever way you like, but decking and cobble-locking seem to make him cringe. He’d probably try to talk you out of them, not out of snobbery, but because choking the ground is not particularly sympathetic to the environment, and it lacks imagination.
He recently built an extension on his house. “I felt like I’d increased the concrete space, so I planted 120 trees to kind of balance that in my own brain. You can’t eliminate the square metre-age of a house – multiply it by 75,000 units per year and turn around and go, ‘I don’t know why the water has nowhere to go.” To Peter, a garden is an aesthetic space, but must be done with the same sense of responsibility that he seems to apply to everything; he’s the type of guy who hates the thought of people being or feeling excluded.
That’s why he didn’t just need just a decent website, he needed a place online where he could interact with people and share his love for gardening. It was in the middle of last year that his friend Adrian McMahon, Head of Operations at Segala, helped him remake his online presence. He and Adrian ﬁrst met at a trad session in their local pub. “Peter landscaped my gardens, and we got chatting over a cup of coffee,” says Adrian, whose company audits and certiﬁes websites for compliance and accessibility. “Peter asked what I did. And when I explained and demonstrated the beneﬁts of having an accessible website, that cup of coffee turned into a positive longer project.”
Peter had a website, but Adrian told him “If you’re good at what you do, which you are, it’s no good having it if nobody can see it. And I just said, ‘But I have a website.’ It was very archaic thinking.”
He went off and thought about it for a while, and then they got some not-so-positive feedback to the site. “We got a complaint from a lady who was hard of sight and she said she couldn’t read my website and she thought it was unfair. So I rang Aido, and he said to me, ‘You need your website fully accessible,’ and I said, ‘Fine.’”
“He listens and takes things on board. If he doesn’t understand it, he asks questions until he does,” says Adrian. “Once he realised simple changes controlled by him could beneﬁt so many others, he embraced it.”
This is where Paddy O’Hanlon came in. “I met Peter through Adrian McMahon. I came on board as Peter’s web designer.”
Paddy is a designer ﬁrst and foremost, but he puts a special focus on start-up companies, and on those with a real environmental conscience; he also builds accessibility into his sites as a standard practice, not an optional extra. “I undertook an overhaul of the previous site, including a redesign of the visuals and information layout with a strong focus on web accessibility and web standards.” They left a lot of the original design, but rebuilt the site from scratch (although it’s now being redesigned again).
When this was done, they got Segala to certify it as accessible, so that those with difﬁculty reading the screen could see it or listen to it through headphones. “The certiﬁcation cost a few quid, but from what I’m told, we are the ﬁrst to have horticultural-related anything – deﬁnitely in Ireland,” Peter says.
It didn’t stop there. “We got a complaint from a lady who lives in a Gaeltacht region – by phone. And she said, ‘I am hard-of-sight, but I’m also a Gaelgoir and I can’t read your website.’” Most people would dismiss such a call as an isolated incident. Not Peter. “I take it seriously. It’s not so much a complaint. So we made our website bilingual and then ended up as one of the top 50 companies in Ireland for the use of the Irish language.” Peter doesn’t chase awards; when he wins them, it’s the result of having done something that seemed to make sense anyway. His innate sense of fairness has never steered him wrong.
This doesn’t seem to surprise Paddy. “From what I know of Peter, I’d say new and different ways of doing things are appealing to him,” he says. “So if the opportunity to try something presents itself, why not try it out?”
So it wasn’t long before Peter was blogging, Twittering, and live-streaming. “It might inspire people to develop an understanding rather than pay for an education,” he says.
“The technologies were all new to Peter,” says Adrian. “You could say I went from being a friend to support and tech trainer.” Before he met Adrian, to Peter, Twitter was the sound of a bird in a Leinster hedgerow.
“Landscape design isn’t something you would quickly associate with the web, but I think it’s working out for Peter,” Paddy says. “The web is a powerful tool for networking as well as promotion. A case example is Peter’s Pink Boat heading down to Electric Picnic. It’s not something you can plan, or that happens all the time.”
The Pink Boat: an unlikely garden feature, and a good example of how online social networking can help bring unlikely people together with unlikely gardens. The centrepiece of Peter’s 2008 Bloom in the Park show garden was a 33-foot pleasure cruiser built in 1957, that had been due to be condemned. “It was used in the original Casino Royale, or so I’m told, and we have proof that it is,” Peter says. “That said, we didn’t use that to our advantage. I didn’t want it to take away from the garden. We painted it pink and black-tinted all the windows. I wanted to make recycling and gardening and eco-friendly environments – I wanted to make it very child-like.” And that he did. To some, the Pink Boat was a White Elephant. It even got a few noses out of joint, but Peter didn’t mind at all.
“We had a decision to make: do we want a medal, do we want the work, or do we want to have fun? So that’s exactly what we did
– we had fun, and we upset people because we had a pink boat in a show garden.” It was his second year in a row that he entered the Bloom in the Park without a main sponsor for his garden. Last year, it was an old Morris Minor in which he placed an entertainment system, and then set in a rather wild-looking garden. It was called “No Rubber – Soul”, and was a tribute to those good intentions that result in the half-ﬁnished projects in sheds and gardens around the country. He did win an award for that one. But this year, it was his online presence that brought appreciation for Peter’s passion.
“After the show, we needed to save it from being re-condemned because I couldn’t afford to hold onto [it],” Peter explains. “Adrian and I put up a blog post saying ‘We need a home for a pink boat.’ Adrian put out a Tweet saying ‘help needed’, and a link to my blog.
[2FM DJ and blogger] Rick [O’Shea] brought me on air. The response was unbelievable.” By the evening, they had found a home for the boat.
“We were offered money, but we turned it down. We didn’t want money, we wanted a good home for it. Electric Picnic said they would take the boat and they’d leave it there forever and ever, and in wintertime they’d wrap it up in a nice, warm, dry shed, and they’d restore it and keep it pink and keep the windows black.” So the boat was brought to the Electric Picnic, to an audience perhaps more willing to appreciate the joyous spirit in which it was created than the snooty folks who thought pink was for princess bedrooms and Elvis impersonators.
“You end up like the struggling artist. They say there are three types of show garden: one is ‘I will get work with this,’” he says. “And it’s a bit twee and crap, and Daniel O’Donnell, but it’s gonna sell.” The second type that has backing, and it wins medals. You know: neat rows of ﬂowers like hospital corners, plagues of hanging baskets, gravel paths and wrought iron benches from which glassy-eyed people in designer wellies stare at half-starved koi ﬂapping about in a plastic pond. Yawn.
“And then there’s me.” Peter, who enjoys communicating with the world both through about his gardening. This is nothing new. When he was in his early twenties, he planted daffodil bulbs in his front garden for his girlfriend, in the shape of a love heart, spelled out, “Sarah Loves Peter,” and waited for them to grow. “I brought her back, and I stood her up on the wall, and I went, ‘Look!’ She went, ‘Ye feckin’ eejit, ye! Drop me home!’ Because everybody would see. It’s child-like.” And this is a good thing.
The use of new technologies has helped him to share his knowledge and his enthusiasm, even with those who might not appreciate ﬂoral declarations of love. “I’ve got a good friend who is a civil engineer, who grew lettuce seeds for the ﬁrst time last week,” he says with great pride. “And he followed the instructions on my blog.” So it is here that we’ll leave the seed-planting metaphors to you.