Belfast Telegraph

Award-winning NI horticultural expert Ian Price: I'm dedicating a special garden at the Chelsea Flower Show to those suffering mental health issues... I know how that feels

Award-winning NI horticultural expert Ian Price on participating at the world's greatest event... and on the debilitating depression that has haunted him for years

By Claire McNeilly

Say it with flowers, we're told. Use their warm, vivid colours and aromas to express love, gratitude, sympathy, praise and remorse.

Flowers and plants, after all, form a global language we can all understand. No words are necessary.

One talented local man, however, is using them to tell a deeper, darker, more disturbing story.

Not only that, but he's getting his message across on the biggest, most prestigious canvas available - the Chelsea Flower Show.

Ian Price, who grew up in Newtownabbey but now lives in Mallusk, is the envy of his peers across the land.

He is the only garden designer from Northern Ireland at this year's five-day horticultural phenomenon in London - and the first from here in 30 years to have secured a coveted spot.

His creation - Mind Trap - is his unique interpretation of what it's like to suffer debilitating mental health problems. It will also, he hopes, serve as a beautiful, uplifting message to those who have gone through, or are currently experiencing, the demons he has had to deal with in recent years.

The green-fingered, award-winning Ian is lucky to be doing the job he loves, a job he has wanted to do since his early teens, a profession for which he had to overcome parental scepticism to pursue.

Indeed, the 39-year-old is clearly a man who knows his own mind and he is now reaping the rewards and recognition his ability commands.

You picture someone who should be happy and content with their lot, yet he would be the first to admit that depression has plagued him for most of his adult life.

Indeed, he has sunk so deep that, on two different occasions, he contemplated taking the ultimate course of action.

"I don't actually remember most of my twenties and early thirties because of what I was going through at the time," he said.

"There was a whole pile of situations that built up - personal, work, everything else - and it eventually took its toll on my mental wellbeing.

"My parents lost their business, my grandmother, whom I loved very much, passed away, I lost my job as a garden designer and there were relationship breakdowns as well.

"It was the combination of events all coming together and I hadn't a clue what was wrong."

Self-employed Ian, whose £45,000, 6m x 6m mental health awareness show garden will be on display during the five-day Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea event in May, added that people in his predicament will be well aware of the inexplicable, often recurring nightmare they're plunged into.

"I seriously considered ending it all in my mid to late twenties, and then had a resurgence of the depression in 2010 and ended up in hospital," he said.

"I'd been having therapy and taking anti-depressants but stopped after three or four years. I actually felt I was taking up someone else's place, if that makes sense.

"In my mind, someone else with depression could have been getting more benefit from it. I took a decision to back away from it, which was, of course, foolish, but I couldn't see how bad I was.

"When you're in the middle of these things, you can't see it yourself."

If anything, the relapse was worse. For nearly 18 months, Ian found himself dragged back into hell.

"It was like all of my life had been written down on post-it notes and I'd taken all of those and thrown them up into the air," he explained. "Some blew away in the wind, some landed upside down - and some covered the others up."

You can tell that Ian's often-tortured mind is capable of conjuring up some profound imagery, and that is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the alumni of the world-renowned Writtle University College in Chelmsford, Essex, is so highly thought of in his field.

"I am really thrilled to be the only garden designer from Northern Ireland at the Chelsea show this year; it's a fairly big deal to have your work on display there," he said.

"Even to get through the two tough rounds of application process is something to be proud of, never mind actually getting there.

"When you consider that it's open to every single garden designer across the world - and they've had people regularly from Australia, China, Japan and America - I see this as quite an achievement."

It all sounds so uplifting, but Ian describes his profession as a "double-edged sword" when it comes to dealing with the depression that is always threatening to knock on his door.

"There are huge scientific links between the benefits of gardening, horticulture, green space, exercise and outdoors and positive mental health and physical health," he explained.

"Having said that, because that's my job, and even though it's something I love, it sometimes can be the source of some of my worries. Self-employment is not easy."

His inspiration for the forthcoming Mind Trap display came shortly after one of the occasions when he felt he couldn't go on with life.

"Four months after reaching that lowest of ebbs in 2010 I designed and built a show garden in Garden Show Ireland, all about telling my story about dealing with depression and it was received incredibly well," he recalled.

"It wasn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination and I wasn't doing it to win awards; I was building it to improve myself and to share it with others. It was like my own enforced therapy.

"And I did try putting another one together for another world-famous event in 2013 - the Hampton Court Flower Show.

"I got a lot of contacts and help, but finance was a big stumbling block because I don't have £50,000 sitting in my back pocket. (You don't have to pay to enter but you need somebody to pay for the garden.)"

He added: "Looking back, it was a good thing I didn't get into Hampton Court at that time, because it spurred me on to do my first RHI show, in Tatton Park, Cheshire in 2014.

"It took a lot of work to get that one in there but I came away with a gold medal, even though it was my first show, which was quite an honour."

But his spirits were only lifted momentarily.

"After the high and the pressure and the thrill of that show, I did go down again," he conceded.

"The depression came back with a vengeance. I lost control of it.

"I equate it to a broken leg. Once you've broken a leg it will always be weak no matter what help, physiotherapy, training, care that you take."

At his lowest point, Ian got into his car and just drove for miles into the Co Antrim wilderness.

"I brought alcohol and tablets with me to the top of a waterfall and I just sat there and cried," he recalled.

"I didn't take any alcohol or tablets on the journey there because I didn't want to affect others - that wouldn't be right - it's not their issue.

"Suddenly, I looked up and saw police and ambulance arrive; my girlfriend at the time had contacted them because she knew where I was."

He added: "I was in hospital overnight to get the substances out of my system. I remember there was a male nurse in there. He knew fine rightly why I was there but he asked me anyway.

"I kind of sheepishly looked up at him - with my own vomit in a bucket in my hands - and I told him I attempted to take my own life and he said 'Why would you want to do that?'

"I couldn't answer him; I didn't know. And that has always stuck with me."

Ian says that his partner of five-and-a-half years, Jenny (31), a civil servant - with whom he shares a home and two beloved rescue dogs, Toby and Oliver - has been his rock during the tough times. And he appreciates how she has stood by him no matter what.

"I'm not stable," he admitted.

"I've dropped up and down over the years, but I've been more aware of where I am and the support Jenny gives me is unreal. She's absolutely amazing. She knew before we got together that I'd had mental health difficulties and she knew that sometimes I'm just not great at dealing with life."

With Jenny's unflinching support, and his own innate ambition, the owner of the eponymous Ian Price Design began the arduous application process for the English show many months ago.

"I looked at Chelsea Flower Show when I was a child and I said to myself 'I'm sure I could do that' so I just thought I'd try it to see how I get on," he said.

"The applications went in last June and I heard back from the RHS that the initial adjudication panel wanted my garden at the show.

"Then I had to go through two or three processes until I received the final confirmation at the beginning of November."

The Chelsea show can count the Queen, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince of Wales and celebrities such as Joanna Lumley and Amanda Holden among its regular visitors.

There are 24 gardens confirmed for this year, including nine Show Gardens, nine Artisan Gardens, five Fresh Gardens, the RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden, and more than 100 floral displays,

With his Fresh Garden slot guaranteed, all that's left for him to do is raise the rest of the finance to make it happen.

"I'm about half way there - I've raised £20,000 via English-based suppliers, but it would be great to have local support," he said.

"That might even be with donations in kind, because it costs a fortune to stay over there and to transport materials from Northern Ireland.

"All the metalwork in the garden is being built by a local firm in Newry, for example, but to get it over there will cost a couple of thousand pounds."

For Ian, time is a major factor.

"Preparation for it all needs to be started in the next three or four weeks, so I must get all the money together very soon," he said.

"You only get a week and a half to build your garden on site, so everything else is all preparation."

He added: "Wrightbus supplied the batteries for hybrid buses in London and Chelsea Flower Show advertises on the side of those buses, so it would be great if a company like that could get behind me."

Ian's project has the full backing of Inspire Wellbeing, formerly Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (NIAMH), which has been supporting individuals for six decades.

"The development of therapy gardens in a number of our services has proved to be very beneficial for our residents, service users and members," said the organisation's Nuala Dalcz.

"It is exciting to see Ian take this concept of therapeutic gardening to the RHS and to see his design for a garden based on the experience of mental ill health.

"We believe that the garden will prove an innovative and effective way of raising awareness among the public of mental health issues, as well as highlighting the therapeutic effects that gardening can have in helping individuals with mental health problems build resilience and recover.

"We are delighted to support this project and its ambition of successfully addressing the stigma and discrimination around mental ill health, which continues to impact on so many lives."

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