Barry Lupton talks to Sandro Cafolla about a life dedicated to cultivating native plant species.
Anyone who has sown a wildflower seed or stopped on a roadside to admire a meadow on a hot July afternoon will probably be familiar with the name Sandro Cafolla.†
Involved in every aspect of cultivation and conservation of our native flora,†
Sandro has established himself as the first port of call for anyone considering the use of native plants.†
On a recent visit to Co. Laois I had the opportunity to discover what makes him tick.
You seem to have an innate connection to the land. What inspired you to become so involved in horticulture and the environment?
As a child, I fell in love with plants. In my parentís garden I grew sunflowers, hollyhocks and veggies from seed bought in Mackeyís Garden Centre. I have always been interested in the relationships between plants and their environment and it was this interest that spurred me to become a founder member of Irelandís organic movement while also being Irelandís first member of the HDRA.
While in school I did bob-a-job gardening: mowing grass, cutting hedges and the like. Later I worked as a landscaper and maintenance man and got offered a job on a large estate in Dalkey. My time there was spent working under two old time gardeners; it was their interest in plants and me that helped cultivate my growing understanding of the plant world. While working in Dalkey I had my first opportunity to manage a real wildflower meadow and learned many of the techniques I still employ today. One of the funny things about Dalkey, and something that has probably affected my overall view was that we never brought plants; everything was propagated from seed or cutting!
How did you mange to make the leap from being an estate gardener to business owner and conservation leader?
When I left Dalkey I was able to utilise all the knowledge Iíd acquired and by age 20 I was working full time as a landscape contractor in south Dublin. Shortly after I set up Organic EarthWorm with Rhonda Smith offering a full organic service based around the creation of natural gardens. I was a pioneer of wild gardening at the time but didnít know it! We even made organic Compost for sale.
Bored with the realities of big business we upped sticks and set up home (mobile that is!) in Crettyard where we set up two acres of Ďgood lifeí growing our own food and bringing up our young family. It was from those humble beginning that the seed business emerged.
Since establishing Design by Nature in 1988 what has been your greatest challenge?
Where to start? I suppose running the business, the finance, the management and all that stuff. The introduction of IT was also a challenge but has greatly enhanced how we operate. Other than the actual running of the business, I have to say trying to save endangered species in the face of apathy. Making the right plant choices for clients is always a challenge.
You dedicate a huge amount of time to your business. What do you see as the most rewarding elements of the job?
The business is certainly a challenge to run but I've had many rewards: I worked on the Rio Summit, on Mary Reynolds Chelsea garden, I was heavily involved in the design and implementation of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York and helped to start the Genetic Resources Trust.†I also worked on the Curlew Mountain Bypass and helped to force an EU decision not to allow non-native mass planting on roadsides west of the Shannon. What was originally going to be a monoculture of trees is now planted with rushes and locally harvested species of wildflowers. Have a look for yourself. I'd say it's the only naturalistic new road in Ireland.
How do you think industry attitudes to wildflowers and native planting have changed in Ireland?
There has been a huge change in attitudes over the last 10 years. The industry is far more aware of using wild flowers and protecting native flora, than it was. Itís no longer a joke.†The global wildflower industry has grown rapidly as natural gardening really comes of age. Having said that, there is still a long way to go. There is still no real serious long-term management and maintenance of native flora being carried out, bar a few professionals who manage our products properly. The next challenge is to get better State and private budgets and make wildflowers and natural planting far more popular
At times I despair of the lack of real conservation going on in Ireland, it is left to the under funded NGOs, as our civil servants donít have the resources, staff or proper management structures. Wild asparagus, wild chives, and autumn crocus are on our protected species list, these are important species for food and medicine. We need to start allocating our budgets towards species conservation. It is no longer good enough that our landscapes are functional, beautiful and clean, they need now to have a strong conservation ethic or else we are just fooling ourselves and our clients. It is no longer suitable to glorify our wealth through landscaping - we need to allocate our budget towards conservation of all biodiversity.
What about public perception?
The public never change, they have always bought our flowers, even before the industry did, way back in the late 80ís and I suspect are even more discerning. Some customers report flower filled meadows with over 30 species lasting 15 years. Every time we get a successful meadow established, sales raise in the area. That says a lot about the willingness of customers to try. Most just realise it takes as much skill to establish a meadow as a good lawn, but a bad meadow will look as bad as a poor lawn.
The wild meadow and nature-gardening public are the real heroes, willing to be ridiculed to help nature. They have to justify a yellowing hay meadow, new ways of sheet mulching and choice of species.
Public and private horticulture, while enjoying a renaissance of interest, is under the same pressure of reduced budgets and competitive tendering. What role do you see native planting playing in the landscape of the future?
When compared to standard turf grass, wildflower seed is very inexpensive. Take a look at some of the benefits that can be drawn from cultivating native species: increased biodiversity, pollution control, water conservation and purification possibilities not to mention the range of raw materials that can be drawn from them and how beautiful naturalistic scenes are. You only have to look at sales of wildflowers and birdfeeder to see that native planting is going to become increasingly more important. We need to popularise the landscape as a public health issue and create self-sustaining biodiverse environments that are easily interpreted and enjoyed by all.
Why should potential wildflower customers buy Design by Nature seed rather than the one available on the garden centre shelf?
As market leaders, we know our customers, and support them through the website and free advice, for which many other companies charge their customers. We are on call all day every day by phone to discuss sites and problems and we grow Flora sourced only in Ireland. Because its sourced and cultivated in Ireland it is delivered fresh and is perfectly suited to the climate.
What does the future hold for Design by Nature?
this section has been updated 29/07/2011We are now involved to get more resources for conservation and to open our works for view to the trade and invited public where they can see how to grow wildflowers. Our first public open day to celebrate 21 years went very well. We are currently offering a number of courses on wildflower cultivation.
But mostly, Biodiversity is on the map and more and more people are getting involved.†
so we see that our services and products for the past 21 years are going to be more relevant in the future.
Its our plans to re-establish our own nursery after the failure of Ballintubbert Gardens to live up to its promises.
We also want to grow rarer species and make these available., but the holier than Me, botanists hate that stuff, even though garden centres sell the same species, Its a farce realy, we are discourage to sell certain species when the same can be imported, such as wild Autumn crocus, Its a protected species that should be planted in every good garden., then it wouldn't need protection.
with thanks to Barry Lupton