How I re-imagined one Cork family's garden on Room to Improve

This Fermoy house was the water cooler moment of last week’s TV and our Peter Dowdall was behind the re-imagining of its gardens.

Pictures: Dan Linehan

No matter how much somebody tells me about their site or how many photos I see before I visit, it’s only when I arrive and get a feel for the space that I can fully appreciate it. Each place has its own energy, unique to the location and also to the people living there.

Sure, I could look at pictures and work with the dimensions and create some fist at a garden’s design, but that’s not doing anybody justice. This site in Fermoy needed to be experienced to understand how severely sloped it was. On paper, it looked fine to create an area for the kids, a bit away from the house, whereas in reality, if I did that, then the kids couldn’t be seen, as they would be too far beneath the level of the house.

Was there any way to create more of a level area? It seemed a pity to use so much of the usable, level space for car parking and as an entrance — but at the same time reality and everyday life has to be catered for in a garden design. Any home loses out if the cars are parked right outside the front window and in particular a home such as this Fermoy project.

It would be sacrilegious to blot the front of the space — so the decision was made to farm the cars around to the back, allowing unhindered views of the urban park and town beneath and the hills in the distance.

A site such as this is unusual in that nearly all of it is sloping away from the home and so much of the garden is nearly unseen, unless you venture down into it.

I first visited this site in November 2016, by which time Dermot Bannon and his crew were past the initial wish list and concept design stage, and the build had actually begun. I knew that Dermot was planning a contemporary rectangular extension to this grand old lady of the Victorian period.

Positioning something so unashamedly new, next to something so proudly and gracefully 19th century was always going to be a challenge for the architect — and to marry that into the landscape would present its own obstacles, too.

It would be wrong to design a traditional cottage-style garden right up to such a contemporary build and equally this site, previously the home of retired British army officers, wouldn’t work if the garden had a completely 21st century look and feel.

The design, therefore, needed to provide context to both elements. This could have been difficult if the site was more one-dimensional, but in many ways this is where the challenge also offered the solution.

By designing a contemporary terraced space enclosed within a low retaining wall, the home now has a ready-made, elegant and sleek space right outside the purpose-built extension and continuing around to the original front door to enclose the entire front of the house.

This space serves as an outdoor dining area, as well as just being a beautiful south facing terrace on which to sit and simply enjoy the view, which never tires. More importantly I suspect, it now provides the children with a safe, fun and visible place to play outdoors.

I broke the expanse of paving with buxus sempervirens hedging, planted as instant grown specimens and underplanted with Heuchera ‘Marmalade’, The texture of the Heuchera just softens the effect that bit to doff the horticultural cap to the old adjoining building. To the front of this terrace, I interspersed Buxus balls with one variety of David Austin rose, catmint and lavender, which will look stunning in bloom during the summer and before that time comes, there will be a wonderful display of tulips and alliums.

This planting continues around the side where I also had some space for some small feature trees and hopefully enough shelter for my choice of Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ a particularly strong-coloured, Japanese maple.

The paving is further softened by a grass area, which again provides play space for the kids and an aesthetic green oasis amongst the limestone. This terrace is up steps and so, the only convenient place to store the lawnmower would be in the kitchen, and I’m not sure how Dermot and his TV programme would have received my request should I have broached it.

Instead, I opted for an artificial grass alternative. I normally wouldn’t, as I much prefer the life that comes with real lawns. However, in this instance aesthetics and practicality won out. I can balance my conscience with the fact that I incorporated a lawn area, nearly soccer pitch in size, lower down the garden, where I am hoping the children, when teenagers, will while away their spare time. This artificial grass, 38mm in height, was expertly fitted by local, Kilworth company, Outdoor Living Munster, for year-long usage and little maintenance and fits in perfectly with the surrounding paving and planting.

Finally, an Elaeagnus ebbingei hedge envelops the outside of this terraced area and tall Kilkenny limestone planters complete the terrace, (seen with Peter Dowdall right) planted simply with elegant Buxus balls to tie the area together. The rest of the garden is much more traditional with two large sloped banks and the aforementioned lawn between them.

The best way for a client to approach a project like this is to engage with the garden designer early in the process. It’s essential, considering that the garden and outside area is the first element to be seen. One of the final details to be fitted were the superb Ardagh, ‘Deerpark’ entrance gates and railings. I needed to provide something that was, once again, timeless and contemporary and these work to a tee. Elegant but far from overpowering, they were provided by Outdoor Living Munster.

All plants were provided by Tom Bryan Garden Centre in Fermoy and the ground was prepared, and trees and shrubs planted, by Shane Murphy and Lavender Landscapes, Cork.

The importance of using good suppliers and good contractors to implement the design cannot be overstated, as nobody wants huge losses and maintenance issues down the road, and much of this can be avoided by doing the job correctly from day one.

I had wanted to finish the outdoor space by using a nice autumn gold tar and chip or preferably resin bound surface on the driveway but alas, was overruled by the client, I think it misses it and who knows maybe I’ll be called back to discuss in the future.


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