Christy Parker talks to dual award-winning landscape designer Sean Russell
CORK man Sean Russell credits a blissful childhood for his blossoming career as one of Ireland’s foremost landscape designers.
The 38-year-old from Youghal recalls the castles and ruins of his environment sparking an interest in design as he “pondered their longevity”. More profoundly still, an affinity with nature was easily nurtured amongst trees, lawn and garden of the family’s farm “from eight in the morning to the last rays of daylight”. The youngest of six children (and brother to jockey Davy Russell), he would for “hours on end” enjoy gardening alongside his mother Phyllis, whose encouragement instilled a confidence that continues to sustain him.
Now living in The Lough, Cork, and married to Christine, the father-of-three has had that confidence considerably enhanced at the prestigious 2019 All-Ireland Association of Landscape Contractors (ALCI) awards.
Not only was his company, Russell Landscaping Ltd, declared joint winner of “Best Private Garden, €50-100k” category but it earned outright victory in the “Design and Build” sector.
Sean’s entry featured a house being built on an undulating, three-quarter acre site overlooking Garrettstown beach near Kinsale.
The owners “didn’t want anything too ornate”, he explains, so as not to compromise the site’s natural beauty. They also wanted mature plants for a “settled” presentation.
Given the exposed location, his deployments were specially selected to survive the elements. First the driveway was kerbed and the patios paved with Kilkenny limestone. The subsequent planting involved mature, multi-stemmed olive trees, mountain pines, native strawberry trees and Japanese hollies.
Raised planters brought protection behind retaining walls with the lower area set with perennial planting for “blasts of colour.” He elaborates: “You get their full value when set close to a house.” Seán also spread “lots of lavenders, sea thrift, carnations and Blue Storm African lilies.” Ornamental grasses were spread “en masse close to the front door” and mature, multi-stemmed evergreen oaks, tolerant of coastal conditions, were also summoned.
The outcome saw the ALCI judges praise his “‘use of skills to adapt the landscape to meet changing environments”.
It was noted too that his “bespoke service is unusual in that he has the technical design skill coupled with extensive plant knowledge.” Séan reached this career juncture having graduated from UCD in 2004 with “a BA in landscape horticulture, specialising in landscape architecture”, he reveals.
As both self-employed and employee his career has blossomed. He spent four years as a landscape architect overseeing landscape designs for Dublin Railway Procurement Agency (RPA)’s Luas and Metro lines.
His three-year tenure as a horticulturist with Fota Resort included a much-lauded presentation for the 2014 Irish Open Golf tournament. (Par for the course for the capable Cork man!) He departed Fota in 2016 to establish Russell Landscaping Ltd, which has thrived under his “design and build” approach. “Once the design is approved I am full-on supervising and working on the job,” he confirms.
Typically when meeting clients, Seán will produce drawings covering the hardscape design elements like paving, kerbing, and drainage, followed by softscaping drawings for trees and planting. On-site, if specialist structural work is needed he will employ a specialist subcontractor before doing the planting himself.
When it comes to design he stresses the importance of “not overthinking”.
Designing an outdoor space demands pragmatism. “Organise space from your roadway exits and entrances so that traffic and pedestrians move freely from A to B, not as quickly as possible, but without obstruction,” he says. Driveways should be practical. “Most big drives have tarmac that will never be driven on,” he notes. “Incorporate as much grass and planting as possible, to create premium living space.” When selecting plants and trees “don’t just choose them for their colour”, he advises, adding: “Think how a plant behaves, its rate of growth and what it will be in a decade’s time.
“What looks good in a pot today might become ten times larger, eating up space and affecting other plants.” But of course in any design, he acknowledges, “budget is fundamental”.
These parameters have served him well through 50 varied projects over the past three years including local authority contracts such as Douglas Community Park and private schemes like the planning drawing for the brand-new Dairygold plant in Mogeely in east Cork.
Yet neither these nor even the ALCI success ranks highest with him. “I did a job for Derek Walshe in the Elm Tree in Glounthaune, near Cork city,” he smiles. “We designed and completed it in about four months, even travelling to Italy for the mature plants. It’s a real showpiece. I’m very proud of it.” With a zest for high-end challenges, he now pointedly defines his career as “aimed around landscape design and build and landscape architectural consultation including on-site management.” Across the horizon his next ambition is taking root. “I have a good idea for the 2020 RHS Chelsea Flower Show,” he muses. That’s an expensive seed to sow and will require sponsorship. He sees it as an opportunity for some corporation looking to enhance its social responsibility. “Perhaps someone indigenous or multinational sector here may be interested,” he suggests. Watch this space.