‘I don’t care about medals, I want to try different ideas’

Diarmuid Gavin, garden designer

Celebrity garden designer Diarmuid Gavin will be bringing his green-fingered wit and wisdom to Galway next month for a one-man show at the Town Hall Theatre where he will explore the world of gardening, with stories of the Chelsea Flower Show, where he has exhibited nine times, winning the Gold Medal in 2011 for his Irish Sky Garden.

Ahead of his trip west, Gavin shot the breeze with me over an amiable half hour or so, beginning with his recollection of how he was first drawn to gardening; “As a kid I always liked the outdoors; I liked the freedom of being outside. We lived near Bushy Park in Rathfarnham which had woodland and a lake, it was the ancestral home of George Bernard Shaw’s family.

“The excitement of playing there, seeing a lake shaded by trees with huge bamboos growing about, really stirred my imagination. There was also a kind of gothic grotto there that I could imagine being the site of satanic rituals – I had a very vivid imagination! Then other odd things like the Willy Wonka movie, all combined to give me the idea that it would be great to create gardens, and gardens that were different.”

Gavin studied at the College of Amenity Horticulture in Glasnevin but, perhaps presciently, he cites as one of his key formative influences a TV gardener; “I used to watch the children’s programme, Blue Peter, on BBC and they had a gardener on called Percy Thrower. He was old-fashioned but when I saw him create the first Blue Peter garden I was utterly fascinated. He created a classic Italianate garden.

“It was all very ordinary design-wise, but I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever seen, because it was a transformation of outdoor space, it had tradition and history, and yet it was through this very contemporary medium of television. He used to come to the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin every year and he’d be on the Bord na Mona float, and to me, even though he was a granddad in a woolly jumper, he was a rock star.”

In his twenties, Gavin won a number of awards at the RDS gardening competition but his appetite for innovative contemporary designs found few patrons in 1980s Dublin. He endured lean times, even having to ‘crash’ on friends’ sofas for a period. While he now enjoys fame and success did the experience of those hard years shape his world view?

“Hugely,” he admits. “If you don’t earn things, if they are just handed to you on a plate you’ll have a different view on life. Those early years are very real to me and I always think I’m not that far from them anyway because you never know what’s around the corner. Everything that has happened amazes me to this day. I appreciate everything but because I still try to push things I sometimes find myself in similar situations. I always have work and I tend to make money but the zest for pushing things and making something new and convincing people to come along for the journey sometimes can create similar situations to the early days.”

One early Dublin patron and encourager of Gavin’s work was socialite Terry Keane. Gavin’s friendship with the family further blossomed when he married Keane’s daughter Justine and the couple now have a 12 year old daughter Eppie (she has “absolutely no interest in gardening,” dad notes ).

In 1995, Gavin entered a garden to the famous Chelsea Flower Show for the first time and won a Bronze Medal. His success at Chelsea, then and in following years, led to his commercial breakthrough, but he has also often ruffled feathers there.

“I’m coming along with different ideas that challenge the traditional ways of doing things,” he states. “I come along saying I’m not here to win medals, I don’t care about that; I want to try different ideas and they don’t know how to deal with that. Because I don’t really care about what they say but just want to try something to see how gardeners and the public react to it, then if you add the amount of attention I get when I do a garden at Chelsea compared to others, that really ruffles feathers, but I never go out looking for that.

‘Lorna McMahon’s garden in Galway is remarkable because it is single-minded determination from this lady who decided she was going to tame a hillside. I love that’

“I hate all that aspect. I really just want to do the gardens; all the other stuff eventually circles round and people are jabbing you and jabbing you and sometimes you react to it but I never go out looking for it. I do find that difficult but the compensation for that is that people do react and it gives me a voice to talk about things. People will listen to me and get to explore different ideas because as a result of the publicity companies may want to be associated with the amount of press that I’ll get.”

His success at Chelsea also led to Gavin being snapped up by the BBC and he has become a familiar presence on the small screen. “It took a while for me to find my feet in television,” he confesses. “The first time I went in front of a camera I remember the camerawoman saying ‘Bloody hell you are a natural at this! The camera likes you’. But I’d come from a situation where I’d never been asked to do anything in my life so it was very bewildering to step into this different discipline and hear people saying ‘You can do this’ and I was saying ‘What is it I can do? No-one’s ever told me I can do anything’. So it did take me a good few years to be at ease with it and just accept it, even though it appeared I was always fine with it. It’s always nice when somebody says you can do something, especially if you’re not used to it.”

Gavin is now about to embark on the personal Irish tour which will bring him to the Town Hall in June. Has he done this kind of show before I ask? “Not in this way,” he replies. “I have done lots of talks and I love being able to communicate ideas and explore what other people are doing and go back to the genesis of an idea and see where it came from and where it is going to, where the worlds of private and public gardens are going. The idea of the tour came about because I do so many talks it stopped challenging me in a way and I enjoy it but I never want to coast at anything I do so this is a kind of step up, challenging myself to see can I entertain and inform in a completely different environment so I don’t get complacent or lazy!”

I enquire about his current projects and whether there are any new TV programmes in the offing. “We’re doing a lot of work in China,” he reveals. “We’re designing private gardens in Beijing and Shanghai and public gardens in rural locations that the government wants to develop. I also have projects in France and London where I’ve just finished the first contemporary gardens the National Trust have commissioned. One or two of those will have TV series over the next couple of years.”

Finally, Gavin reveals one of his favourite Irish gardens is right here on our doorstep; “Lorna McMahon’s garden in Galway is remarkable because it is single-minded determination from this lady who decided she was going to tame a hillside just outside the city. I love that because gardens are all about the story of the people who made them, and Lorna’s garden is fantastic.”

Diarmuid Gavin comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Friday June 9 at 8pm. Tickets are €20 from 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie Gavin is also is reinstalling his 2016 Chelsea entry The Garden of Pure Imagination in Dundrum Town Centre where it will be open to the public from May 20.

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