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Northern Ireland's Colm Joseph sold his home to follow his dream of becoming a garden designer and won a medal at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show

The Dunmurry man's incredible success is justification of his decision to give up his job doing development work in some of Africa's poorest countries, as David O'Dornan finds out

Colm Joseph
Colm Joseph

By David O'Dornan

When it comes to showcasing your talents at the most famous garden contest in the world, it takes something special to stand out from the crowd. But surely even the visiting royals to the Chelsea Flower Show will have been impressed by the incredible back story of the only person from Northern Ireland - and Ireland for that matter - to earn the right to exhibit a show garden at the prestigious event this year.

What's remarkable about Colm Joseph from Dunmurry in south Belfast is not just his eye for garden planning - it's the fact that this time last year he was not even a qualified designer.

What's more, it's only a couple of years since he made the bold move to quit a successful job in international development to pursue his passion, which was not without risk.

The 36-year-old pays tribute to the support of his wife of five years, Victoria, in particular. The couple put their house up for sale to fund his career change - and he repaid her faith by coming top of his class at the London College of Garden Design by a record score.

That was last July, and just 10 months on he is making his debut at Chelsea, which was visited on Monday by the Queen, Prince William and Kate, before opening to the public yesterday.

"Having the support of my wife and family has been hugely important for this career change," says Colm. "A few years ago when we decided to do this, in 2016/2017, we sold our house to fund the career change and my wife has been incredibly supportive and patient in doing that.

"And so these things are never just about what you are doing or what you're trying to do, it's also about the people around you supporting you as well."

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So to realise a dream of appearing at the Royal Horticultural Society's annual Chelsea Flower Show is a matter of professional and personal pride, as well as validation for his life-changing decision. And his decision was further underscored when he won a prestigious Silver Gilt medal for his debut garden.

Colm says: "I am definitely proud, it's something I've wanted to do for as long as I've thought about being a garden designer which has been many years.

"To be able to exhibit my design at the Chelsea Flower Show is hugely satisfying professionally and to be able to feel that what I have put together is something that I think is strong and will stand up with the other exhibits and show gardens that are there from people who have done it many times over, is something really satisfying and exciting.

Colm with his medal
Colm with his medal
The Queen with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the Chelsea Flower Show

"On a personal level it is brilliant. I've got my mum coming over and other family coming down to the show and it's going to be lovely for people to share in that. When I was doing international development, it was one of those lines of work that people found hard to relate to because it's not part of people's everyday experience as such.

"But with garden design, because gardens are such an important part of our culture in this part of the world and people's lives, everybody's interested and everybody's keen to share in the success and share in the story and be excited with me and for me that's a lot of fun, because I haven't had that before."

Colm, who now lives on the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire border, spent a lot of his time in east Africa in his previous job managing programmes to create economic opportunities for people in some of the world's poorest countries, but after 12 years of it he yearned to change his life and do something he loved by getting a career in horticulture.

"It's an interesting one," he smiles. "I've always sort of gardened, I've also always been keen on the outdoors and landscape and so on.

"A big part of the change was I wanted that to be more of a central part in my life. I think it was also that I wanted to do something a bit more creative.

"For whatever reason, growing up I always felt I was a creative person but never really had an outlet for that, and it seemed like garden design was a good option for that desire to be more creative.

Crowds flock to the annual event
Crowds flock to the annual event

"It was really when I made the decision, when I was travelling for international development work, the thing I always found myself doing was trying to get up and out into the local landscape wherever it was.

"I also had my own garden at home and tried to keep that going and had an allotment, but you know, it was the usual thing of when you're working silly hours and travelling."

But Colm feels his experience in working in Africa can feed into his new life as a garden designer.

"There's multiple correlations and there's two that stand out for me," he explains. "One is that both of those lines of work are very life affirming.

"So in international development you're trying to improve people's livelihoods and you're trying to design programmes that support people's opportunities and improve their places in which they live and the opportunities that exist for them there.

"And with garden design, in a similar way I'm working with clients to help them improve their home. Primarily I do residential work, although I do some commercial projects as well, but with the residential clients you're going in and helping people in their homes to create something that's going to work for them for hopefully decades to come.

"And so it's about improving people's lives in that sense and making a difference for people. That's something that's really important to me.

"I think the other correlation is that I think it's, in terms of the process itself, working with people and working closely with clients and helping them to understand and me understand what they're looking for and what their needs are.

"Trying to essentially improve things for people and working closely with people in doing so is also a really important thing for me."

As a man who can say one of his last projects in his previous job was "designing a five-year strategy for a programme that was spending about a billion dollars of funds", he'll be well used to considering budgets in his new line of work.

But he also has ambitious plans already for growing his business - and that includes working on this side of the Irish Sea.

He says: "I'm still very early days. The goal over time is to build up a business that does employ people, to build it up so I've got a team and a garden design studio where there is a practice of people, but also to work internationally, that's another ambition.

"In time I want to do international projects and I'd love to do gardens in Ireland. I wouldn't be daunted by the travel - nothing compares to a fortnightly round trip to east Africa. It's even on my list to do a show garden at Bloom at some point in the future."

For his Chelsea garden he is working with Perennial, a charity that helps people in horticulture and is marking its 180th anniversary this year, after winning a competition run jointly by Perennial and the London College of Garden Design where he graduated last year.

The Perennial Lifeline Garden, a walk-through exhibit in the Great Pavilion, is inspired by the classical rose garden and colonnade at the Sir Roy Strong's Laskett Gardens, which are reimagined in a modern design.

A classical rose garden takes the form of a lower maintenance and wildlife-friendly 'rose meadow', with long seasonal interest. The colonnade is reinterpreted in an asymmetrically arranged series of verticals including metal screens, topiary pillars, and sawn limestone columns. Two modern fountains and three multi-stem trees replace more classical water features and sculpture. A contemporary rill flows around the garden, representing the 'lifeline' that Perennial provides to everyone it supports.

Colm says: "I think the fact that gardens are good for people's well-being is a really important thing and I'm really delighted to be working on my first Chelsea Flower Show garden, to be working with Perennial, who are in the UK and are the horticultural industry's charity essentially. They are the horticultural industry's benevolent society so they work across the industry to help anyone who basically is in need.

"My style aesthetically in terms of planting tends to be a much more naturalistic style and the benefit of that stylistic approach means that I'm generally planting and designing schemes that are really good for local wildlife.

"It is a really important thing for me, I don't tend to design things I don't think are sustainable - say artificial lawns or that type of thing - instead encouraging clients to think about trying to find innovative low maintenance planting solutions that are beneficial to nature and to wildlife but also work with people's lifestyles, because people are busy and it's challenging to maintain an overly complicated garden.

"So this Chelsea garden for example, the main planting scheme in this is this idea I came up with for a rose meadow. Which is this idea of taking a traditional rose garden and reimagining it in a more modern forward-looking way.

"We are using roses as part of an ornamental meadow mix, where basically roses are interplanted with grasses and perennials, and then the idea is that planting together looks really good and has interest all the year through from spring into winter and all the maintenance of it just gets crowded into a one, two or three-week period at the end of winter when you cut everything back and then you let it regrow again.

"And that sort of scheme is really beneficial for wildlife, because you've got not only all the flowers and nectar and whatever else for the bees and the butterflies, but you're also using plants that have lots of structure and texture and seeds going into winter.

"All those things have knock-on effects in terms of local habitat and food for wildlife, so it's modern contemporary garden design with a sensitive approach.

"What I'm keen to do with this scheme is to select roses that have not only beautiful flowers that everyone loves, but also that have longer seasonal interest, so they'll have autumn colour and we won't deadhead the roses so we'll just let the flowers fade, which has a beauty to it in itself.

"And then the flowers fade with the promise of the hips to come in autumn and winter."

Colm's modest about his rapid rise as the next big thing in garden design, but surely starring at Chelsea in less than a year has exceeded even his own expectations?

"It's where I want to be and I want to try to do many show gardens at Chelsea over the years to come," he says. "So I see this as the first, hopefully, of many.

"I guess you could say I'm quite ambitious. I think it would be different if I had tried this career change and discovered in the process that I was sort of okay or I wasn't that good at it or whatever.

"I'm not a naturally arrogant person, so I do struggle to big myself up in that sense, but I guess the reality of it is that it's been a process of feeling like I've discovered - it sounds a bit cheesy - what I'm meant to be doing or what I'm really good at.

"This for me is the perfect line of work, because not only does it turn out that I'm good at it, but it's got all those things we talked about before, that not only do I improve other people lives that I'm helping and working with, but my own."

Visit to learn more about Colm's innovative designs

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