Few gardeners would expect to have a film crew descend on their garden. For some, it would be thrilling, for others it might be daunting. For the owners of three Irish gardens, last August it became a reality. As part of new Sky tv series ‘Show me your Garden’ film crews came to Cork to pit three gardens and their owners against each other to win a cash prize and a ‘Golden trowel’ trophy.
The program makers were looking for passionate, amateur gardeners to take part in a series celebrating private gardens across the UK and Ireland. They chose three very different gardens thereby highlighting the different conditions Irish gardeners face and the great diversity of garden styles we have here – a tropical city retreat, a more formal garden with herbaceous borders and parterre in the grounds of an 18th century rectory, and an elevated and exposed wildlife friendly garden, referred to as a ‘windy gap’ by its owners.
When first contacted by the show makers, plantaholic Bruno Nicolai was hesitant. “I was so nervous at the thought of taking part, that I gave the contact details of others who I saw as being better gardeners than myself. Over the next couple of days, my partner Chris convinced me how much fun it would be to take this once in a life time opportunity…and fun it was.”
The overall impression in Nicolai’s garden is one of exuberance, reminiscent of the surroundings of a tropical villa. But you don’t have to be an unusual or exotic plant to earn a place here. Although impressive unusual specimens abound he uses Primulas, albeit dark ones to edge some of his beds and Snowdrops can be found at this time of year. “Though I’m drawn to unusual, rare, and often tender exotic plants, I’m not a plant snob in any way. My garden is just as full of common hardy plants, some of which others might consider weedy and invasive.“ Nicolai modestly displays great flair in the garden and you could say his borders are an exercise in inspirational planting design.
For Erika Treutler and Harry Sexton who garden on a windy hilltop the show was also a positive experience. “We both enjoyed the making of the show immensely, especially once we knew the other participants, Bruno, Mike and especially Bee [Fitzgerald – owners of the third garden]. I think it is fair to say that we all had a great time”.
The format of the show consists of the participants visiting each other’s gardens and evaluating them. Treutler had some concerns in the beginning. “The London gardens [in the first episode] looked very posh and well manicured. The competition was very tough. Our garden is very elevated and in a very windy location and from this point of view it was hard to compete with Bruno’s walled and nearly tropical garden or even with Bee’s sheltered garden. For over 30 years I am trying to grow some plants and they keep dying on me as our garden is too exposed. To have the plague of rabbits was not much help either. I planted some new plants in the garden and by morning the flower heads were all eaten away by rabbits. I was close to crying some days.” But they persevered and eventually found plants that would establish inspite of the wind and now have a garden of flowers, shrubs, rockeries and a pond where they can relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. “I love the beauty of flowers in different seasons and to watch them grow from small seeds to large plants bursting in all the colours of the rainbow. Over the years we managed to find plenty of plants that acclimatized well in our windy gap and over all we have many well established flowering shrubs, trees and plants to make it a place to relax for us and enjoy weekends and summer evenings after work.”
Treutler also describes the perpetual battles against garden foes as well as the battle for more planting space that most gardeners will be familiar with. “It is a struggle against weeds, slugs and rabbits to keep the garden in colour and a small struggle with Harry to turn more and more of his precious lawn into herbaceous borders or shrub borders.” As gardeners we like to expand our worlds whether that be physically or suggestively as Nicolai explains “For me gardening isn’t just about producing something nice to look at. It’s about creating a world to experience. My own garden is a combination of obsessive plant collecting and my desire to create a lush, exotic escape and I like to think of it as a big garden in a small space.” Nicolai says he uses his garden to recharge after the hustle and bustle of Cork City and his work where he supports people on their mental health recovery journeys.
The gardeners also inspired each other as Treutler hopes to bring a bit of Nicolai’s exotic garden to her own by creating a sheltered area to grow more delicate plants. But ultimately she believes that people should stick to their own visions and work within the limitations of their site. “For a while I was comparing the different gardens and I wished I could copy some of the features of the other gardens but in the end we are creating our garden to suit us and the conditions given by nature.”
For all of the gardeners, taking part will have been an experience to remember, particularly the initially uncertain Nicolai: “I loved every minute of taking part in ‘Show Me Your Garden’. I never thought my interest in gardening would lead me down so many different paths. Who knows where it will lead me next.”
Show Me Your Garden, Fridays at 8pm on Sky 1, with the episode from Cork on Jan 30th.
This article was previously published in The Sunday Business Post and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the newspaper and the author, Ali Rochford, who is an IGPS member. Bruno Nicolai is Chairman of the Munster Branch of the IGPS