O’Nualláin, Fiann

Fiann Ó Nualláin is an award-winning garden designer and horticultural therapist. He is co-presenter on RTÉ's 'Dermot’s Secret Garden' and makes regular contributions to other TV and radio programmes on the subjects of ethnobortany, the natural environment, biodiversity, ecological gardening and GIY. He blogs under theholisticgardener.com and contributes to a variety of gardening and health magazines across Europe. As a horticultural therapist Fiann develops outreach horticulture programmes with Dublin City Council and other agencies further afield, working with children at risk, elder groups, and adults in recovery and community regeneration projects.


You’ve been gardening all your life, how did it happen that you came to write a book about it?
I noticed that over the years I picked up a lot of skills and knowledge that were in decline or barely known at all. That and the fact that it can take a hundred generations to learn something wonderful about a plant but only one generation to lose it. Lucky Mary Feehan agreed with me and so here we are.


Had you ever been interested in writing before you came to write this book?
I guess there’s a bit of history in it – plenty of bad teenage poetry (not available through Mercier Press) and a cluster of gardening and health articles over the past few years.  I remember reading an Egyptian proverb when I was about fourteen that said ‘put writing in your heart and you will never work again’ that sounded interesting, that and being an avid reader meant I always had the interest – but boy did those pharaohs get that proverb wrong, I haven’t stopped since the book came out and that’s just working on the next one. 


Did you find the writing process difficult?
Not really – for a book like mine, you are just telling the truth and by that I mean because it is factual I didn’t have to worry about plot twists and character arcs. It was just a case of getting it out of my brain and onto paper as it were. That said, the solitude can be tough. When writing I would normally spend all day with my own thoughts in the garden, and then spend the majority by myself in front of a blinking cursor, and this went on for months on end. It’s a unique experience – like panning for gold, you are trying to come up with treasure and of course you sometimes get the urge to give up, drop the pan by the stream, get on the asses back and ride back to the mining village. However, I persevered and hopefully there are some golden nuggets in the book.


How was your day structured around writing this book? 
Not being a full time writer and having other daytime obligations, there was a lot of late weeknights and months of closeted away weekends. When it came to proof reading and editing you just have to make daylight for that and give it your sole attention – so that became early rising – laptop button first, toaster button second.


What kind of books do you like to read?
I am a bit of a blokey bloke sometimes and I can’t pass a book on survival techniques or something about how things work, for work I am always catching up on horticulture, ethnobotany, food science, medicine, psychology and the like but you can’t beat Irish history and culture for the awe and the ah-No.


For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
You can’t beat the feel of physically turning the page and I love to rummage in Kennys bookshop and the like for something obscure – you can’t get that sensation downloading or streaming.


Do you have a favourite flower or plant? 
That’s like saying a favourite kiss. Each is special – but then I especially love plants that resonate a cultural value –  so our native alder tree, which when cut shows some red but is resilient and almost indestructible,  so much so that the red branch knights of the Fennian cycle took their name, and made their shield, from it. I am currently enamoured with the fly agaric mushroom, not because I harvest its psychoactive/hallucinogenic properties but because reindeers do – they eat it and get high – hence Santa’s flying reindeers, the Scandinavian shaman used to harvest it, wearing red and white and drop it in sacks down their neighbours chimneys at winter tide as gifts- sound familiar –  it’s that side of plants,  how plants have shaped our civilization,  that fascinates me. As for favourite flower, gardeners will kill me but I love the humble lawn daisy –it’s childhood daisy chains and a time when the grass was for rolling about on.



Would you have any advice for a budding gardener? 
It is one thing to have green thumbs it is another thing altogether to start ‘budding’ – I would call an ambulance or turn to page 68 in my book. Joking aside –  the secret to success with gardening is understanding the type of soil you have- once you have that you just select from the plants that grow in similar. It’s easier to work with nature than against it.  Second secret ‘budding is soon blooming’ – stick with it, there are more species of plants than people in the phone book, you won’t know everything but you can enjoy the journey and truly find yourself in it.


Gardening is your career, but do you ever just do the gardening simply to relax?
Many people create gardens to relax in – brilliant – but those of us with the gardening bug are so active in the space that relaxing is not what we associate gardening with, it all about turning the compost, getting the bulbs in, watering a drooping plant, perfecting paradise – it’s a doer or a go-go thing. At the end we might sit and reflect on the days accomplishment on our bench with the best view and our favourite beverage. But then you’ll notice something you missed and you’re starting all over. Having said that, doing the garden is a positive distraction from the modern world and all its clamour and complications, so active gardening is zen-like work- you find the inner peace, you get renewed, your focus is prayer – its more powerful to your personal health than just relaxing


Any other hobbies you do to relax?
I studied painting and sculpture at one point in my life and it’s something that I return to a lot. But lately I am thinking of taking up shark diving. Apparently it is less frenetic than writing a book and less demanding than gardening – you are just responsible for your own survival not all the worms, bees, birds and plants – and especially with the water charges on the way, the sinking or swimming in that scenario is entirely voluntary and not an economic consideration.