Aileen Lee interviews Dominick Cullinane for the inside scoop on being a garden designer and landscape architect.
What’s your background?
My parents were fanatical gardeners. I grew up in a three-quarter-acre walled garden in the Powdermills in Ballincollig. Mum and Dad provided fruit and veg for all seven of us.
I studied horticulture and garden design, and then garden centre management in Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire, England. That was from 1981 to 1984. I loved it. I hated school, so I went from hell to heaven. I travelled to all these beautiful gardens all over England during those first two years in college.
I then worked in a nursery in Luxembourg. I played rugby for Luxembourg’s only club. When I came home to Ballincollig after that, they all thought that I had played international rugby! We travelled all over Germany, mostly drinking beer, but we did play a bit of rugby and it was great fun.
Then I came back to college and studied garden centre management. In the meantime, I had started my first venture — my mother and I actually started it when I was 17 years old.
We had 80 varieties of herbs, so while I was in college, I collected different varieties of herbs, from different herb nurseries. We called it J&D Herbs and supplied Ballymaloe and Roches Stores. It paid for my college fees the second year I was over there.
My Mum kept it going and then I would come home on the holidays and we’d pot thousands and thousands of herbs. Darina Allen would ring us at 10 o’clock at night, and say she wanted 800 herbs for the following morning, so you’d love getting the order but you’d kill her for ringing so late at night! But it all paid off.
I went back to England and then came back here and started a garden centre in Bishopstown, and ran a landscape business from that. I would have been 22 years old at the time.
This is all I have ever known in terms of work. I have never done anything else, and have no regrets. It’s an incredible world, and we are getting better at it. For example, the lads are outside cutting slabs for the Montenotte Hotel.
Frankie Whelehan is the man behind it. We’ve designed a sunken Victorian Garden for him. There’s a balcony at the back of it, where you look out over Cork, and the view is just to die for. It is looking down over five acres which is where the garden is. It’s incredible, right in the middle of the city that there is a five-acre garden.
Phases One and Two are done, which is the entrance, the upper car park, a lot of planting beds, and the courtyard in the middle, which is pedestrianised. We’re also looking at the carpark below, and have a whole series of terraces to do.
Frankie saw our website, and rang me about three months ago, so we’ve been here at The Montenotte ever since.
The idea for the Victorian Garden was mine, and the terraces were mostly designed by Ann Daly, the designer who works with me, and Peter Haughton, our engineer, in combination with Con Walsh, our expert groundswork contractor, and stonemason Ger Harrington. I think the hotel is very happy with the transformation.
What’s a typical work day like for you?
I am up at 5am. I start with paperwork and reading. I like to work on designs and ideas between 5.30-7am, and then it’s off to work between 7-7.30am. We are currently working on several projects.
We closed a nursery this year in Killumney. I had it for seven years but the farm got sold, that I was renting on. I have now taken another piece of land, five acres, by the river in Ovens, down the old Cork Road, so we’re developing that nursery.
We are starting another project in Killavullen, which is a lovely wildflower planting scheme, for a client who is based in the States. This would be Ann’s design. We are also looking at a project in Ballydehob for a young couple down there.
I sub-contract work out, but I have my own crew as well. Ann and I are both fanatical gardeners and designers, and we love to get our hands dirty as well.
Tell us about a recent project/ favourite project you worked on?
My favourite project would be the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork, which we did two years ago. We had a fantastic crew, all local from Ahakista and Kilcrohane. They were American clients, from Texas, who have come to live here on a plot overlooking Mizen Head and Dunmanus Bay. We started during the worst storms on record in January and finished it in August. It’s a beauty. Every time I go down there, it’s like I go to Heaven.
The job was on a very difficult sloping site, with over six different levels leading to a moon gate, which you go through and down 60 steps to the sea where my client fishes and puts lobster pots out.
There was 400 square metres of Kota Blue paving and 600 square metres of Luagh Liscannor Stone which is light grey in colour. My clients chose the materials and the combination worked beautifully.
We created a separate garden at the very top of the site with breathtaking views. There was a firebowl on the next level, which leads to a curved set of steps to the pool in one direction, and the courtyard and glasshouse in the other. The pool and garden surrounding it are a microclimate on the cliff edge, which was created by installing a green net fence to protect the plants from the wind.
The lower lawn is magnificent and beautifully maintained by my client. There are lots of sets of curved steps, gravel beds with grasses, herbaceous perennials and shrubs.
It’s probably one of our biggest projects yet. It wasn’t like going to work every day though, I made loads of friends locally, and we had a ball.
What’s your design style?
We have an interesting take on this: every site is unique, and you can’t pigeon-hole a style, so what we do is contemporary design, using traditional building materials.
We love doing firebowls, but we’ll use lots of different materials to do them. We have actually done firebowls using logs: you hollow out the log, and you fill it with fire cement. We are doing some of those up for the Montenotte Hotel.
We are always playing all the time, working with different artists who come up with fantastic ideas. We designed and built from scratch a courtyard for Sage restaurant in Midleton. We did an outdoor eating area, an outdoor kitchen, and herb beds for about 120 varieties of herbs. There were a lot of long hours until 5am to hit deadlines.
I’ve actually designed a garden around a dog. I’ve designed gardens for deaf-blind people that were all sensory. We’ve done one for Shine, the organisation for children with autism. We also did a sensory garden for St Joseph’s Autistic Centre in Liskennet, Co Limerick. That was a sensory garden with huge rose arches done in stainless steel, so every situation is completely unique.
Wse are also involved with a lot of student programmes through Celtic Internships, a Cork-based company run by Fiona Lyons McGrath.
What/Who inspires your work?
I would always be influenced by Liat and Oliver Schurmann, Dublin-based designers. And of course, Diarmuid Gavin, he would be another designer that I would be a huge admirer of. .
What’s your favourite trend at the moment (if you have any)?
We like to set trends actually. I always send my clients to the stone suppliers and they pick the materials.
And then I will ask them if they’re contemporary or traditional and they’ll ask me, “what do you mean?” My response is: “Well, are you straight lines or curved lines?” And they’ll go, “I don’t know”.
But nothing in nature is straight. Some people are very contemporary and want straight lines, but most people actually like curves, and they’re more difficult to do, but if you look at Gaudí’s work, for example, it’s all curves.
Lines of curvature is what I do, it’s our trend. Everything we do, if we can, is curved. Stonework, timber work and planting schemes, so it softens, so nature comes into our modern life.
What’s your most treasured possession?
My Toyota Landcruiser – I live in it.
Who would be your favourite designer, or style inspiration?
My favourite design that I ever saw in my whole life — that I actually cried at — was George Harrison’s garden which his widow commissioned in his memory, the year after he died.
It was at Chelsea Flower Show and I have never seen anything more beautiful in all my life. The garden was incredible, and it took its influences from when the Beatles were in India. It had an Indian pagoda at the back, a beautiful mosaic path, and a planting scheme to die for. It was divine.
What would be a dream project for you to work on?
If you really enjoy what you do, nothing’s an issue. I am very blessed that way.
It is really hard work and there are a lot of long hours, but the job has changed completely.
For me, I started as a one-man show, doing gardens for people and learning, and now we’ve a big crew and a design crew as well.
We got involved with the Laura Lynn Foundation about five or six years ago. Its founder, Jane McKenna is the most ordinary extraordinary person I have ever had the privilege of meeting and working with.
I have spent time in her company in the last three years, and I really wanted to do something for the organisation, so our idea was to build this musical garden, the Laura Lynn Butterfly Garden, at the back of Eileen’s pub in Kilcrohane, which was our local pub when we worked in Sheep’s Head.
We have the drawings done of the garden. Because it’s voluntary, it has taken us almost two years to get done.
Have you any design tips for us?
Listen to your designer, let them oversee and implement your dream design. It’s the most important aspect of the project to be able to come up with a design and then
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