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Dawn: “My work’s much more than just gardening. This is art”

By Stephanie Bell

Larne designer Dawn Aston talks about her amazing new creation for this weekend’s Bloom festival in Dublin.

Talented local artist and garden designer Dawn Aston will be hoping to strike gold this weekend when she unveils her most ambitious creation yet at the annual Bloom festival in Dublin.

Ireland’s answer to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show sees around 120,000 people from all over the country and beyond converge on Dublin’s Phoenix Park on the first weekend of June every year for the Bord Bia five-day festival of flowers, food and family fun.

Dawn (49) from Larne, a three-time medal winner at Bloom, has been working for months on the design and creation of The Calor Stepping Stone Garden.

As is typical of the award-winning artist — best known for her cross community work in Northern Ireland helping local children to create iconic art and gardens — you can expect the unexpected.

Combining her love of art and mosaics with gardening, Dawn has spent months working on what she describes as a compact garden for a modern, urban lifestyle.

In it she attempts to highlight outdoor living with sensory experiences such as cooking, eating and relaxing in a beautiful space that has been softened with ornamental, aromatic herbs and fruit plants along with contemporary artworks.

Having been on site for days, toiling to get her garden ready for this weekend’s extravaganza, an exhausted but excited Dawn says: “I’ve been working on it since last |autumn.

“Now that we are so close to the show and the garden is taking shape after so many months, you have a mix of emotions, from relief and exhaustion to exhilaration.

“The final week is all-consuming. I’ve been lucky this year to have a sponsor, Calor, who have been fantastic to work with and a brilliant contractor in Alan Smith, who is at the top of his game.

“We have some real quality features and, yes, I would love to win my first gold, but it’s really difficult to get gold with a small garden. There is absolutely no room for error, it has to be perfect down to the finest detail.”

Dawn, who is married with three children — Caz (24), Glen (17) and Kate (15) — studied for an art degree, but it was some years before she got the chance to make a career out of her creative talents.

After graduating she worked in her dad’s construction company for a number of years and then as a sales executive for some time.

It wasn’t until she returned to work after taking a career break to raise her children that she finally got the chance to follow her true calling and make a name for herself, bringing together her love of art with gardening.

“My early jobs paid the bills although in my head I was always an artist,” she says.

“After taking time out from my career to concentrate on my family, I got a job in a local garden centre and it was there that I found that I could combine art and design with |gardening.

“I was involved in propagation and working with plants in the background and it was an invaluable experience which helped me to understand plants and what people want out of a garden.”

Dawn enrolled in Greenmount Agricultural College, where she completed a number of courses to hone her skills as a garden designer. And since becoming a self-employed artist and garden designer she has built up a reputation for her unique ability to introduce art into the outdoors, especially with her iconic mosaic creations.

A lot of her work has been with local schools across Northern Ireland, helping them to create shared spaces in the community as well as their own gardens — again mixing art with the fun of planting flowers.

Her artwork is dotted across the province and one of the most striking is an eight foot tall, four-sided mosaic pyramid sculpture which she worked on with the children of Ballysillan Primary School and which now stands outside the school as a well-known piece of the city’s community art.

She says: “I consider myself an artist who also does garden design and if I can combine the two then that’s |brilliant.

“Working with children and local schools for me has been quite a holistic process, just being able to work alongside them and help them to create a special space and be artistic.”

While the Bloom show is as big as it gets for gardening enthusiasts in Ireland, Dawn has been privileged to play a part in the UK’s Chelsea Garden Show, where she got the chance as a student to work alongside |Diarmuid Gavin and Elma Fenton in 2004 and 2005.

“They wanted to give students a chance to work with them and learn from them and it was an amazing opportunity and experience,” she says.

“It was a hugely influential experience and I absolutely loved the whole process, it is such an incredible show.”

It says everything about the impact she has had on the many children that she has worked with that in 2012 a local pupil from Hazelwood College nominated her to carry the Olympic Torch.

She also played a role in Northern Ireland’s most recent world sporting event, the Giro d’Italia, when she was commissioned by Larne Borough Council to paint a bike sculpture called Bikers, Butterflies and Bees.

But undoubtedly it is at Bloom that Dawn gets the chance to really let her creative juices flow and show the world what she is made of.

For her first garden in 2009 — The Artist’s Retreat — she set out to create an inspirational garden with her signature combination of nature and art. That earned her a silver medal.

The following year she won a Silver Gilt Award for her creation Urban Oasis.

This year, with a main sponsor on board, she has had the freedom to let her ideas come to life in what she hopes will be enough to secure her first gold.

In her garden Dawn will be promoting the innovative new Calor Mini-BBQ with cooking demonstrations by The Druid chef Rory Morahan.

“I’ve never had anything like a live cookery demonstration in a garden before so that will be interesting,” she says.

“I’m using quality contractors and sponsors this year so there are some real quality features in the garden.

“I have a floating, star-shaped patio made in dark limestone and the kitchen stand is in limestone and oak with bar stools to create a social space. It’s a compact, modern garden to relax and socialise in. I have mosaic stepping stones running through it and a red chilli mosaic on a panel which will act as a free-standing wall.

“I also have some high-end, bespoke artwork. We have recreated paintings of Silver Birch trees by Hazel Revington-Cross of Purple Raven Art Gallery in Delvin, Westmeath, which we are using as weatherproof art panels in the garden.”

Dawn adds: “It is bespoke and I hope visitors will see something unique that they have never seen before in a garden.”

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Magical creations and a treat from Mrs Brown on show at this year’s superb event

Bloom, which is Ireland’s largest garden and food festival, runs until Monday in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Now in its eighth year, it is showcasing 30 exquisite show gardens, from the very best of Ireland’s landscape gardeners and designers.

Highlights this year include Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Garden, which will see the popular TV show come to life through the recreation of the now infamous kitchen set Bloom-style, and a 10ft high Mr Tayto will overlook the Tayto Garden — Potato to Packet, which will also include the largest water feature ever to appear at Bloom, the Wellbeing Wetlands.

Also worth a visit is the Sowing the Seeds of Magic garden, a magical, thought-provoking and fun-filled place for children and adults.

And the Samaritans’ You’ll Talk I’ll Listen garden has been designed to highlight the powerful effects of simply talking about your problems.

Visitors to Bloom will also see what can be achieved with a limited budget, as well as looking at gardens which reflect the latest trends, such as the new approach to horticulture, ecology and sustainability in garden design. For the second year, Bloom will host a number of Postcard Gardens, designed and constructed by passionate amateur gardeners.

Expert judges include Andrew Wilson (award-winning garden designer, lecturer and writer), Mark Gregory (winner of 55 Chelsea medals), Karen Foley (landscape architect and educator) and Paul Maher (curator of the National Botanic Gardens). They will be joined by guest judge, award-winning landscape architect and garden designer Feargus McGarvey.

New features this year include the Floral & Nursery Pavilion, which will house more than 50 exhibits from some of the country’s top floral artists, and the AOIFA Floral Art Stage, which will offer demonstrations on the techniques for achieving a perfect floral display at home.

There is also a Food Village at Bloom offering some culinary delights for hungry gardeners, while The Quality Kitchen stage will see some of Ireland’s top chefs, including Neven Maguire, Kevin Dundon, Donal Skehan and Catherine Fulvio host daily demonstrations.

£4,000worth of gardening products to be won

If you’re feeling inspired to put your green-fingered talents to the test, the Belfast Telegraph’s Bloomin’ Marvellous gardening competition is the perfect outlet for your creative talents.

Whether you’ve got a balcony or a landed estate, we want to find the gardeners whose passion and skill have created the most inspirational gardens in Northern Ireland, and are offering £1,000 worth of gardening products for the winning garden in each of our four categories — small urban (which includes balconies and courtyards); urban garden; small country garden, and large country garden (over half-an-acre).

And with the closing date in July, you’ve just over a month to get your garden looking as impressive as it can. Just photograph a few views of your garden (we need sharp images), add your name and contact details, and tell us what category you’re entering. You can also include a brief outline of a few paragraphs describing your garden, if you wish.

After that, email your entry to bloomingmarvellous@belfasttelegraph. or post them to Linda Stewart at Belfast Telegraph, 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast BT1 1EB. The closing date is July 4, 2014.

Our judges — BBC Radio Ulster presenter Cherrie McIlwaine; Greenmount horticultural lecturer David Dowd; National Trust Rowallane head gardener Averil |Milligan, and garden designer Trevor |Edwards — will scrutinise the entries in July and shortlist three from each category, after which they will visit the finalists’ gardens in person. Once we choose our winners, they will be interviewed and featured in a special Bloomin’ Marvellous gardening supplement in August.

Good luck!

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