A Conversation With Damien Keane

A Conversation With Damien Keane
Damien Keane Garden Designer Headshot
Industry expertise

Damien Keane

Damien Keane is one of Ireland's top garden and landscape designers, and someone we are lucky enough to be collaborating with on an exciting residential project. His award-winning outdoor spaces transport you to another world, with stunning past designs including a Moroccan-themed garden that’s perfect for chilling out, an ancient-inspired labyrinth, and intimate rooftop green spaces. In this conversation, we discuss how he started out in the world of landscape design, his top tips for elevating your outdoor space, and why we’re all investing more time and money into our gardens in 2021 and beyond.

Swing Chair in A Damien Keane Designed Garden
Starting Out In The World Of Garden Design

Firstly, we’d like to take it right back to the beginning...how did you get into garden design and what sparked this interest?

Garden design is in my blood.  I had the privileged of beginning my career and training at the tender age of twelve, under an old school professional head gardener, my father Philip Keane. I was completely hooked from day one. This apprenticeship of sorts with my father really honed my skills and led me to pursue my formal education in Horticulture at The National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. I always planned to be a good gardener but as the course progressed, I gravitated towards design after discovering that I had a knack for it. I’ve always loved designing, from tiny city spaces to renovating old large Victorian gardens,  it’s the variety of projects that really keeps me motivated and interested. It’s my passion.

A Modern House Garden Designed by Damien Keane
Keanespaces By Damien Keane

What is your favourite project to date?

I get the same buzz from every single job we complete and I see every new job is an adventure. I can’t say that I have a favourite project as each comes with its own unique set of challenges to overcome. Our work ranges in size from large expansive gardens to small “Keanespaces” and we create spaces that transform clients' lives particularly now with lockdowns and Covid so they are all pretty special!

Can you share your top three public gardens in Ireland that are well worth a visit?

The top three for me are Kilmacurragh Gardens, Powerscourt Gardens Enniskerry, and Mount Usher Gardens, which all happen to be in County Wicklow {The Garden County of Ireland}.  Kilmacurragh Gardens have been restored over the past few years, it’s right on my doorstep and it contains amazing specimen trees, walks, and herbaceous borders. The vast size and scale of Powerscourt garden are breathtaking. Its original landscape design of integrating views of mountains and follies is amazing and this concept of bringing views into the garden is often underused in modern garden design. Mount Usher Gardens was originally laid out in the Robinsonian style and I just love the way the garden naturally flows from area to area.  They also have a great coffee shop which I often frequent!

How does Ireland’s climate inform and influence your choices when selecting trees, plants and flowers? Are there certain species which bode particularly well?

Our climate is definitely changing and it’s getting more difficult to pick the right plant for the right site. We are seeing dryer, warmer mini heat waves in summer and warmer wetter winters. With many new gardens, we have to allow for extra drainage to deal with heavier rainfall and flash floods and then on the other side we are having near droughts in summer. The species of plants and trees that we are choosing now are much more site-specific. For example, Olive is great and is very hardy in dry conditions but dislikes wet ground but tough plants such as Bay, Sumac, Miscanthus and Hydrangea do well in most conditions. I think the big challenge for garden designers and landscape architects moving forward will be to pick the right plant for the right spot. I have started to use more native type plants such as Pine, Sorbus and Heather over the past few years, as these plants thrive in our climate.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I have always had a very vivid imagination and my inspiration can be directly linked to this.  I’ve never needed anything other than a piece of paper and pen, silence, and a cup of coffee in order to design a new space.  Blurred pictures appear in my mind when I’m visiting a site for the first time and I build on these at the drawing board. I suppose I’ve spent the last thirty years soaking everything up, from garden history, plants, design, and experience.  Also, inspiration can come from something which catches my attention in a dilapidated old garden or from the clean lines of a modern contemporary building.

Damien Keane Garden Design Palm Trees
Prioritising Client Needs

What do you love the most about your job?

Creating a space that never existed before is really very satisfying. I love to use different styles within the gardens I create and I always prioritise the client’s needs. A well-designed garden should be an escape from modern life and I can tell when I have achieved this by my clients’ reactions. Many years of hands-on experience in gardening and landscaping has been rewarding and I also really enjoy seeing our spaces mature over time. Gardens should evolve and be redesigned or edited over time and I very much enjoy the aftercare aspect.  This builds solid relationships with our clients and in most cases, we work with clients for many years after the initial design and build project.

Damien Keane Designed Garden With a Water Feature
Landscape Designers and Architects in Ireland

How has the demand for landscape designers and architects in Ireland changed over the last 5-10 years?

With a greater amount of money in the economy, the demand for garden design has risen dramatically. Clients have become very astute and savvy and want the best service that they can afford.  Clients nowadays have really thought about how they want to use their outdoor space even before our initial contact.  Providing a full design, build and aftercare package has been the key to my company’s success as it is easier for the client to deal with one company that caters to this full service.

Since the start of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns, we’ve seen many homeowners take a greater interest in their outdoor space and a greater emphasis placed on gardens in general when looking for a new home. Have you seen this shift in your business as well?

We have been inundated with potential new work due to Covid and the lockdowns and the lockdowns in Ireland have been the longest in Europe! Many new homeowners have thought as much about the outside space as the house. Office pods, chill-out areas and privacy are the main shift as well as the desire for almost instant maturity in planting. In general, the garden in a new home is now seen as a multifunctional space and a place to escape to than it was pre-covid. We have two websites online, keanespaces.ie is aimed at smaller gardens and chill-out spaces while damienkeane.com is aimed at larger projects and garden restoration. Visits to both sites have increased dramatically over the past 18 months and at least 90% of our new work this year is from new homeowners.

What is the collaboration process between yourself, site architects and interior designers when working on a project in order to maintain a sense of cohesion between the indoor-outdoor environments?

The level of collaboration really depends on the scale and type of project that I am involved in. Many of my established clients would actually involve me before they purchase a house or hire an architect, with a view to the site and potential new garden. On some projects we work closely as part of a design team but I always have a direct link to the client and all garden design elements have to be signed off by ourselves. There has been a move towards treating the exterior of a property as part of the interior and this approach only works in certain circumstances.  The garden should generally be viewed as a separate entity as it allows for the chance to create something unique and an escape from the house, modern living and interior trends.

Inner-city residential gardens often have different levels, which homeowners can often find daunting when thinking about how to design or remodel their outdoor space. How do you work with these different levels to enhance and make the most of them?

Working with a garden with different levels can actually be a big plus as it allows us to manipulate scale and helps to create different zones within the new space. For example, steps can become features using hidden lighting and these can also double as plinths or landings for planters and pots. Terraces can also allow for dense planting and when laid out correctly, can actually give the impression of a larger space as well as giving more privacy. When I design I love to begin with the “problem” areas first.  Sometimes, these problem areas can actually be the best thing about a new garden. City gardens with slopes can also allow for different “rooms “ or spaces to be created, for instance, a shaded spot can have a totally different feel to a sunny elevated deck or patio.

Water Feature in a Damien Keane Designed Garden
The Collaboration Process

What would you say are the main advantages of working with an Interior Designer/Architect on a project?

It is definitely a two-way thing, we can really help each other to achieve the best results for our client.  Working with an interior designer or architect can afford me insight into client’s tastes, use of colour and to inform me of how they intend to use the space. As we are almost always the last contractor on site, a high level of interaction is required regarding the scheduling of works and project deadlines too. Also, it’s helpful to work with interior designers/architects so that during the bleakest of winter months, focal points and features in the garden can be enjoyed when viewed from inside, especially so due to the shift towards expansive glazing.

Damien Keane Art Deco Designed Garden
Advice For Aspiring Garden Designers

What advice would you give to aspiring garden designers?

Clients have a much clearer idea of what they want from their gardens these days. With this in mind, I would recommend that a designer should get as much hands-on experience as possible on the ground as attention to detail is even more important these days than it was pre-covid. One thing that I would also advise is that a designer shouldn’t be overly swayed by what’s on-trend, good design is timeless and it might just separate you from the pack.

What are some tips for creating the illusion of more space in your garden?

One tip is to think big, plant one large specimen if you can, this can distract the eye and can also be used to disguise problem views. Utilise fences and walls, a lushly planted perimeter can help soften the lines of the property and can include scented and seasonal colour as well as evergreen cover. Plants such as Bamboo is great as it sways in the wind and looks very cool when it is lit up, the dwarf Fragresia “Bimbo” can be grown in a pot or in the ground and it’s non-invasive. When dealing with a very linear small space, I like to use curves and exuberant planting to help create more of a sense of discovery.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with planting and features.  The garden should be a picture when viewed from inside so think about the winter months too.  Allow for seasonal planting and that well-positioned urn, piece of art, or statue.

What do you think makes the perfect indoor-outdoor living experience?

For me, the use of the indoor/outdoor space is about creating that “wow” factor, whether working in an old garden or creating a new contemporary area, the garden should entice people out of the house no matter the time of year. Much emphasis is put on the outside space these days as an extension of the house and due to covid, we are definitely using the garden much more. Depending on the project and the client's tastes, I like to create a sense of discovery so we might plant very close to the house and have the patio set further back in the garden perhaps to catch more sunlight. It is important if possible to allow for some cover and heating.  I personally dislike using outdoor kitchens as they can take up much-needed space and I prefer to use more seating, a fire pit or pool. When large paned glass or bi-folding doors are used it makes my job a lot easier as the transition between the indoor and outdoor is instant.  Then all that is required a good, strong design based on the client’s needs. With more entertaining being done at home, lots of homeowners are looking to elevate their entertaining areas.

And a great outdoor entertaining space?

It’s really about creating that feeling of “escape”.  The great thing about what I do is that you can really let your imagination run wild and think outside the box. In larger gardens, I generally allow for weddings or large parties with space set aside for marques.  I built one garden with two large lawns enveloping an elliptical pool and the entire area could be covered. In smaller spaces you have to allow for different types of entertaining and also be very mindful of how the garden looks and how it balances.  Softening with planting is key. Try to allow for lighting, internet, heating and most importantly cover from the elements if possible. Really a great outdoor entertaining space should be a place where everyone can congregate and chill!

A Damien Keane Designed Garden At Night
A Well-Considered Outdoor Lighting Scheme

Why is a well-considered outdoor lighting scheme important?

As the garden is now used so much more, a good lighting scheme is essential. With a new build it is much easier to consider, design and install but with an established garden it can be more difficult. I always recommend to start with the basic questions- what do I want to highlight, where do I need to light for safety or security and can I add to the system easily in the future?  As we also landscape the gardens we create, it is easier for us to get the lighting right as we have a very good understanding of both the hard and soft landscape features within the space. With zoning of lighting, fittings for any style available and integration of control into the main house, smart system lighting can be a major plus for the outside space. I would always advise checking that the lighting scheme installed can be easily be added to over time if required.

Wooden Sculpture in a Damien Keane Designed Garden
Designing Your Dream Garden Building

Art studios, work-from-home offices, saunas, home gyms...What are some of the most common uses for garden buildings you are currently seeing?

I’m seeing a big shift to using garden buildings as multi-functional spaces. We are currently installing a glass-sided pergola with a retractable roof which will cover a swim-spa, lounge and bar area. The front opens up onto a large deck complete with a firepit and tropical-styled planting so the space can also be used for dining or a large party. Taking on the concept of multi-use, we are currently designing a project creating a garden room right on the edge of the sea. This building will include a cantilevered roof for extra protection, large landscape window looking onto the sea and inside it will contain a fold-down day bed, stove and office.  With some clever design, it will turn into a chill-out area at night.

Aside from the wonderful Albert House gardens which we are currently collaborating on, are there any other exciting projects you have in the pipeline?

We are currently working on an amazing new garden in south Dublin. The clients have really invested time with me prior to starting on the ground, tweaking the design. So far, a huge composite deck backed with five metre tall bamboos have been installed alongside a large glass pergola containing a swim spa and chill-out area. This part of the garden will in turn be framed with tropical-styled planting. The rear garden is very modern and contemporary but the front and side gardens will be very in keeping with the Edwardian house.

In addition to this project, we are working on the most wonderful site right on the sea. We’ve just removed boundary walls and allowed for privacy and cover with large specimen pines, oak, and lush underplanting. A zen-styled basement garden complete with a water table is just waiting for lighting and bespoke mid-century styled furniture. I’m really excited about the garden room we are designing to be installed next year. The spray from the sea will actually wash over this structure and the views out to the coast are just breathtaking.

Another ongoing project is in Wexford town where we have been creating a multi-use garden. It has been designed for a restaurant, a coffee shop garden area and for a private garden space for the same client. It’s actually situated on the edge of a medieval church with the house dating from the 1640s. Extreme attention was taken at the design and build stage ensuring that the garden didn’t damage any potential archeology and to ensure that it was functional but in keeping with the period.

At Designed by Woulfe we believe a beautiful, memorable garden is about more than just how it looks. How do you create a fully sensory experience with the outdoor spaces you design?

What are some of the features you include in order to create this? I love to create gardens with lots of vibrancy, colour and life. I always use mass planting and large specimens and water is a must if possible. The key for me with any new garden I undertake is to create a space that looks great all year round. I will always use seasonal planting and also features such as laser-cut screens, architectural features and soften hard landscaping wherever possible. By using this likes of glass art, you can really add life to a space. My wife, Bianca Davito, is a glass artist and we work together on some suitable projects. Lighting can also transform any space day or night. Greening a space is essential so never underestimate the humble lawn or Laurel hedge as these design elements are great backdrops for planting and landscape features.

Damien Keane Water Garden Design
Adding Vegetable Patches or Herb Gardens Into An Outdoor Space

What are some things to consider for those wanting to incorporate vegetable patches or herb gardens into their outdoor space?

I think the main thing to consider in any sized garden if you want to use herbs, fruit or vegetables is good sunlight. Most of these plants will do best in an open sunny spot so if you only have a small garden perhaps consider integrating these plants into other planting. Cut and come again salads are great in large pots or mixed in ground planting and I actually use Rhubarb around some of the water features we create as it is a great architectural plant. Herbs are very easy to grow and integrate well into planting. If you have space or really want to grow vegetables, it is best to install raised beds and I like to use a formal layout softened with wattle fencing or espalier fruit trees. The fruit and vegetable garden can be beautiful in its own right and cottage plants can also be mixed through the planting for more colour and variety.

Damien Keane Garden Design
Gardening & Landscaping Trends

Are there any particular trends you are seeing arise in the gardening/landscaping world for 2021 and beyond?

The trend of utilising the outdoor space is moving rapidly, especially covered multi-functional spaces. The wild, natural look with cottage planting and meadows is also on-trend and for me, this is great as I love using these plants. The use of recycled composite decking and manmade porcelain paving will continue to grow in popularity and could potentially overtake timber and natural stone. Due to Covid lockdowns, interest in gardens and gardening, in general, will continue to grow at a very fast rate and I feel that the legacy of Covid will stay in our minds for a long time to come.

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