A Designer Perspective – Barry Lupton Interviews Angela Binchy

Barry Lupton talks with one of Ireland’s most well established and respected garden and landscape designers, Angela Binchy MGLDA.

B. From where did your passion for plants and design emerge?
A: My father, who was proprietor of The People’s Bakery, Rathkeale, was a keen gardener and also ran a market garden as part of our small farm. He sold tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, apples, a few pears and chrysanthemums at Christmas. As a child I knew how all these were grown and loved the countryside and all its beauty. My father taught me to look for the detail in a scene or object, such as moss patterns on a tree.

B. How did you go about cultivating that interest to build knowledge and experience?
A: On leaving school my choice of career would have been horse riding, agriculture, veterinary, architecture or commercial horticulture in that order.

Remember this was the late 1950s and amenity horticulture as we now know it was unknown. My parents dismissed the first four choices as unsuitable for a girl or beyond my capabilities so I began the degree course in commercial horticulture in UCD. However, young people never give up on you’re their life’s ambitions – I eventually married a horse vet, lived on and managed a small farm, and finally ran a practice in landscape design.

The late Professor Ed Clarke and Professor Joe Morgan of the Horticulture Department UCD were great mentors. Working as research assistant to the then Dr Morgan I submitted a thesis for a Masters degree on the effects of day length, light intensity, and temperature on the flower production of tomato plants treated with a growth chemical. This work opened my eyes to how influential these factors are on all plant growth and why plant growth, particularly flowering, is so variable in this country
because of our frequently fluctuating light and temperature.

The enhancing and artistic possibilities of combining selected plant shapes and colours with domestic buildings struck me during a pre-marriage last fling to the eastern states of the USA in 1969. A friendly landscape architect lent me a most inspiring book on landscape architecture for everyday living and directed me to worthwhile gardens and plant enhanced buildings. It was April/May and I particularly remember the magnolias, flowering dogwoods, (Cornus florida), and tree wisterias, and my elation at the first sight of a Harvard University building through a flowering curtain of trees. I continued on through New York, Washington and Virginia with my landscape and architecture eyes now wide open and working in unison.
It was not until 1990 that I really got to grips with landscape design by doing the intensive but exhilarating course in garden design at Kew Gardens, London, headed by John Brookes, the most influential modern garden design guru in this part of the world.

B. How would you characterise your design style?
A: I hope my design style is simple and harmonious, creating comfortable relaxing spaces with clean lines, unadorned structures, but mostly with plants including trees and grass. But I am also very aware of the actual as opposed to the perceived needs and maintenance capabilities of the client.

B. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?
A: I love meeting people and seeing the joy on clients’ faces when they are presented with a pleasing solution to their garden problems, or when an area of mangled clay and rubbish has been turned into an place they can enjoy and be proud of. Also pleasing is if they send me their friends and relations as potential clients. I now have designed for generations of families in Co Kildare. Because I do design only what I find most challenging is getting the work done properly and on time, and also nowadays, the suddenly shortened day and remembering names!

B. What type of work do you primarily undertake and why?
A: Because of the mysterious missing hours I now confine my work to advice and plans for domestic sites and the renovation of parts of existing gardens. Being farmers, many of my clients undertake a lot of the initial groundwork themselves, with help from specialists such as stonemasons and local contractors/gardeners to do the final ground work and planting, all the while with ongoing advice from me.

For special clients I plant perennials myself. Often progress will spread over a number of years.

B. How would you characterise Irish garden design?
A: Do we have a characteristic yet and should we have just one? We have the flaming hedge strips and lush planting in west Kerry, the ‘less is more’ in the rocky Burren, the miniature carpet plantings of the Connemara coast, the glowing shimmering grasslands of upland bogs. All outstanding wild gardens with a fey liquidity to them but all suitable to the soil, light intensity, temperature and wind conditions of their location. As designers we should be trying to emulate these ideas in a suitable location and pursue the difficult task of designing structures to further enhance and not kill that aura of fey liquidity. We aren’t there yet but I believe Oliver Schurmann is on the right track, and also June Blake, but in a different vein.

“My design style is simple and harmonious, creating comfortable relaxing spaces with clean lines, unadorned structures”


B. In your opinion, what differentiates a good designer from a great designer?
A: A good designer should show originality in combining original or borrowed ideas in a ‘fit for purpose’ manner, and use materials in such a way as to leave the user or observer with a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure. A great designer should produce designs that whip up emotions and sensations that hit you in the gut with almost orgasmic intensity then leave you calm and comfortable to revel in the detail.

B. Bloom has done so much to encourage horticultural activity in Ireland, but concerns have been raised about the quality of some gardens over the last few years. What’s your take on the quality of Bloom show gardens?
A: I am very pleased to have been involved in the birth of Bloom as a Director of Horticulture at Bord Bia at the time and for suggesting Chelsea-experienced designer and judge Andrew Wilson as adviser to Gary Graham on Bloom show gardens. Bloom has more than fulfilled our initial concepts for that show. It is attempting to raise the public’s expectations of gardens and plants to the same level as their expectations of restaurants and food. Every year there are a few excellent large and small show gardens that stand up extremely well to Chelsea standards, and during the course of ten years attending that show’s press day I saw many gardens. Down the line at Bloom there have been a few inconsistencies and gardens where perhaps more
attention should have been given at assessment to proof of previous design and construction capabilities. However by and large there is plenty of talent on show and provided judging is of a consistently high standard, with good advice and feedback available, the show will continue to educate. Show gardens are what they say on the tin. Incidentally most of this year’s gardens at Chelsea require considerable mental exercise and reading the script is essential. It could be time for Bloom to introduce a section for genuine fit for purpose gardens suitable for restaurants, pubs, public places, craft enterprises etc, displayed in the food and craft areas if possible.

B. Irish contractors have been accused of undermining quality design by o£ering it as a free service. And it’s been said that the poor level of understanding of design has relegated it to a cut and paste process. What’s your sense on how design has evolved over the last decade?
A: We have some designers in this country capable of showing true originality and many who are capable of taking ideas from around the world and putting the elements of a garden together in a fresh and very acceptable way. However we have so many people in the design and contracting business with or without qualifications who have no idea how to relate design to the wide open spaces and the house, and who have little or no practical knowledge of plants and their requirements, no experience of the requirements of real gardens and how they should be constructed and will develop in the future. Often a very heavy hand is evident in the hard landscaping.

B .Following from the last question, what do you feel are the primary threats to the development of Irish design as a respected and accredited field?
A: I’ll say again, the lack of a genuine knowledge and a touchy- feely experience of location and the elements used in a garden. Also there appears to be no way to monitor and control standards in the field. In the past we have had Irish TV shows that actually promoted bad practices. The current Supergarden series is going in the right direction. It is a pity Paddy Gleeson works for the sponsors who supply the plants. Paddy is a very knowledge plantsman.

B. Nurseries should supply what designers want. Designers should specify what’s available. Much has been said and written on the inability of our sector to cooperate effectively for a greater vision. You’re a well-known supporter of Irish nurseries. Do you think this is so, and what could we be doing to address the situation?
A: Irish nurseries grow their plants to suit the garden centre trade and the jobbing landscaper is happy with whatever is available on the day. Landscape designers want plants of a specific size, shape and colour to fulfil specific functions and so would appreciate consultation on the species and varieties grown and how they are grown and presented on delivery. Many of our nurseries are not strong on imagination and updating. They are slow to adapt offerings and work cooperatively for the greater commercial good. Hopefully young eyes and nerve will make the right move. The future could be bright.


“A great designer should produce designs that whip up emotions and sensations that hit you in the gut with almost orgasmic intensity”

Since a tentative meeting of various factors within the amenity industry in the mid 1990s when I first met Gary Graham and Pat Fitzgerald among others, I’ve been waiting for genuine cooperation among all the amenity players. In the early days of the GLDA’s international design seminar we made a big effort to contact and encourage all sectors and societies interested in or benefiting from gardens and horticulture to attend the seminar.

We got a great response and ended up with a wonderfully diverse group. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to do something similar now at say Bloom and give each group six minutes to air their views. At least it would be a start.

B. Industry commentators have questioned the focus of some Bord Bia initiatives targeted at promoting the industry. As a member of the board for 10 years, do you think they’re delivering on all fronts?
A: Well as we used to say at board meetings, ‘What is the industry doing for itself?’

B. What advice would you give to a young person wishing to make a career in landscape and garden design?
A: First get as much hands-on and practical experience in all components of the career and also travel as much as possible, note the detail in scenes and constructions that attract you, ask questions. Make the effort to research the many courses available between here and England and choose the one most suitable for your ambitions, and hopefully you will have ambitions to start with!

B. If you could wave a wand and change three things about Irish garden design, what would they be?
A: That the government gives full verbal, visual and monetary recognition through its agencies to the importance of plants to our being and plus well being and the importance of good design to our daily living, and follows up with action. That it would be made illegal to set up as a garden designer/landscaper without proper experience and qualifications, and the law enforced.

Have a central distribution area that actually works for all nursery plants and garden materials with a website kept up to date. The GLDA with its new Corporate Membership and booklet is on the right track.

B. Will we see an Angela Binchy garden at Bloom or Chelsea?
A: No! I got a gold medal with Yvonne O’Connor at the RDS Garden Show in 1992 and that got doing show gardens out of my system.

B. You were going to retire several years ago. What happened?
A:I was hoping to spend more time doing up my own garden, travelling and hill walking. However I lost a lot of my savings in the economic crash and there was a need to stay working. I am now trying to confine work to mid-January to mid-May and from September to December. I am already running behind schedule this year.