Lupton talks to Sandro Cafolla about a life dedicated to cultivating
native plant species.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Why should potential wildflower customers buy Design by
Nature seed rather than the one available on the garden centre
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 29/07/2011
We 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
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 www.Barrylupton.com