After ten years, garden festival has really reached full Bloom

Gary Graham had a dream. The reality is bigger than anyone could have imagined, writes Fiann Ó Núalláin.

After ten years, garden festival has really reached full Bloom

Its only five sleeps to the event circled on every gardener’s calendar: Bloom, the gardening and food festival taking place in Phoenix Park from June 2-6. Plenty of parking, lots to see, kids go free and all that!

This year is the big Bloom 10. Can you believe it has been 10 years wowing the public already?

Seems like yesterday I was finishing my garden at the inaugural show, hoping it was good enough and that I wouldn’t let down the faith of my horticultural hero of this month — Gary Graham, the Bloom show manager, who had asked me to come and create a space in the garden event.

This was long before I was on TV — long before I had a book out or articles in print. Long before I had made Pat Kenny taste the sourest sorrel in the world live on his last Late Late, and long before I got into trouble talking about strawberries and orgasms on the Anton Savage show.

Long before all that, Gary had seen an installation of mine and liked the gib, the cut, or something. So I was invited, along with Ireland’s premier garden designers, to do something at what was to become Ireland’s answer to the Chelsea Flower Show. Talk about nervous.

Anyway my girlfriend Lisa, my family, and myself rocked up, built a garden on my overdraft and won best in show. That was it — hooked. We have done every Bloom since.

And really, TV, books, dirty looks in my local shops when I buy a punnet, and of course the name to be doing this column, is really all down to getting a start at Bloom. So you know who to blame.

But Gary is not my hort hero because he gave me my big break — no, it’s because he has put Irish garden design back on the world map.

When I had done RHS Hampton Court and the BBC covered it many years ago, I was the Irish garden; now, Irish designers at English shows have their own names. We have a rep. Many have come through Bloom.

But Bloom is no training ground for Chelsea wannabes. Bloom is a show with international prestige in its own right. Bloom means we Irish gardeners and Irish garden designers have our own sphere of influence — we can do it our way. Bloom 10 has international designers exhibiting at it.

When you think Chelsea is over 90 years building its international rep, we must be doing something right. And that’s down to Gary’s vision and his hard work.

Back in the day before Bloom, we had to go to England to make a name — from William Robinson to Diarmuid Gavin.

Gary who trained in the BOTs (the National Botanic Gardens, don’t you know), was with Bord Glas and he had helped some Irish garden designers and Irish nurseries get to Chelsea and British shows, but was thinking that we could do it for ourselves here at home.

Shortly before Bord Glas was merged with Bord Bia, he had proposed that the agency of Irish horticulture should take on a role similar to the RHS and organise a horticultural show of stature.

We had then spring shows, county fairs, and ventures like Garden Heaven but nothing on the scale Gary was pitching. After the merger, Michael Maloney revisited Gary’s suggestions and invited him to pitch the Bloom proposals to the new board and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bord Bia has been hosting the show ever since and has stewarded it into the success it is today, with more than 100,000 visitors each year and colossal knock-on spend in food and horticulture in the weeks up to, over, and after the show as Irish people are reminded annually what calibre of artisan food producers and quality plant growers we have here.

I caught up with Gary this week to ask him what he feels has made Bloom such a success. He explained:

“Like most successful ventures; a combination of passion and knowhow. Both of these come from people, garden designers with flair and skills, growers who love their plants, contractors who excel in construction, food producers who are passionate about provenance and ingredients.

“Exhibitors, sponsors, event organisers, and volunteers who are proud of Bloom, protective of its good name and determined that everyone will enjoy their visit.

“I could go on and give you a long list of people who are both passionate and knowledgeable, from the CE of Bord Bia to the kids who help load up cars with trolley loads of plants. Bloom is very much the sum of the parts and the parts are great people.”

And that’s it, it’s the people’s show, those who go and those who put it together. It’s not a show to be visited, it’s an event to take part in.

Now Mr Graham is also the ‘Simon Trowel’ of RTÉ’s Super Garden series that follows amateur gardeners competing for a place at Bloom — which has, since its airing, exploded the visitor numbers each year. Very often my garden at Bloom is number 1 or 2 at the showgarden arena entrance and the first question I’m asked is, ‘Where is the Super Garden winner?’

It has reinvigorated the idea of gardening as a challenge to transform your home and life and it has brought a whole new audience into Bloom who then get to be wowed by the other Irish designers and quality Irish-grown plants.

Again something down to Gary’s talent and tenacious pursuance of égalité in gardening. Bloom and Super Garden have made gardening accessible and fun for all.

I’ve gotten to know Gary well and respect him more each year over the past 10 Blooms but I took this article as an opportunity to ask how he got into gardening in the first place, (as a fellow Dubliner, I know we are often seen as oddities in that we took up a spade and not a trade).

Gary told me that his grandad was a serious veggie grower who “sold bareroot cabbage plants and wallflowers wrapped in old newspaper to shops and neighbours.

It was one of those long corporation back gardens in Bluebell, Dublin, and I learned how easy it was to grow food.”

Later Gary got a job in an old-fashioned seed shop on Dame St where he first stumbled upon Latin nomenclature “and I was intrigued, I still remember the first Latin name on an old poster: Convallaria Majalis (Lily of the Valley)”.

This perked his interest in the academic side and before you know it — a keen gardener becomes a qualified horticulturalist.

Each year I bring city kids to Bloom and each year the food dudes and the live farm open minds and hearts to what is possible and to where food comes from and how important nature is. Bloom is not just about the latest rose cultivar, it is cultivating thoughts and actions around food, farming, urban greening, and biodiversity.

The Origin Green presence and the GIY movement are putting ecology, environment, and ‘food empathy’ at the heart of Bloom.

Gary was responsible for GIY and myself bringing an edible garden into the show many years back, and starting that debate of how you can grow food and herbs in a beautiful garden or in a beautiful way.

Gary also chairs the GIY board and that organisation is growing from strength to strength and really delivering confidence to thousands of new gardeners each year, as well as impacting on food policy in schools, offices and officialdom and crucially in hospitals and centres of health.

There is even a platform at Bloom this year with Mick Kelly of GIY, Darina Allen of Ballymaloe, foodies, farmers, and health professionals to explore all that.

I asked Gary about the latest trends/initiatives happening in gardening today and he pointed out that growing your own is still growing — no longer a fad, that, in fact, “the GIY message around ‘food empathy’ is working across all ages and all demographics”.

He has seen changes in wants and perceptions of back-garden spaces in the recent years and commented that “the once conservative Irish gardener is embracing colour and brightening up those awful grey concrete walls and orange wood panels”.

“For many DIY gardeners the focus is on seasonal colour, and keeping everything else tidy. There is a cornucopia of amazing plants out there and I hope that we start to use more of these plants in the future.”

I asked him about us city boys (and girls) leaning to the green and he pointed out how urban gardens support biodiversity and our vision of city, that they not only bring in birds and wildlife but also “provide a strong link to the earth and Mother Nature.

“As urbanisation and population density continue its rise, I sense that city and suburban gardens, in particular, are playing a bigger role in keeping us grounded and reminding us that most of what we need, most of what is good for us, comes from the soil and our connection to it.”

Gary would be the first to say come to Bloom and get connected and I would always second that — but I would say too, come to Bloom and experience what one man has envisaged and gave the rest of us the confidence to create. I know he will say it’s a team effort but he is the strongest link in the chain.

So come along and bring the kids/grandkids and maybe inspire the next generation to dream even bigger.

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