Diarmuid Gavin on the Chelsea Flower Show: 'You need to be a bit of a fantasist to make things like this happen'
Ahead of this year's Chelsea Flower Show, Diarmuid Gavin tells us why the competition is a labour of love for him, and how he's finally got his business head screwed on - but not at the expense of his creativity
Diarmuid Gavin's excitement about his forthcoming show garden at this year's Chelsea Flower show is positively infectious. "It's fantastic. It's beyond fantastic," Weekend's gardening columnist says animatedly, as he opens up sketches on his iPad and pulls out a working wooden model that shows the underlying mechanics of his new creation.
Developing this garden has, he says, been his favourite project to date. The 'Eccentric British Garden', as it's titled, is sponsored by Harrods and draws its inspiration from William Heath Robinson, the English cartoonist and illustrator who was famed for his depictions of extremely complicated machines doing very simple tasks.
At surface level, the garden is pretty and gentile - and, let's face it, very un-Diarmuid Gavin - but then, on the quarter hour, enchanting things begin to happen.
Topiary balls, set amid floral drifts, start to bob up and down in carefully choreographed movements; conical bay trees on either side of the sunken pond twirl around, like rollers in a car wash; a carousel of planting begins to dance around a folly; window boxes rise up to the first floor - in the style of Wallace and Gromit - while, to the right of the structure, a set of patio furniture emerges through a trapdoor, and on the other side a domed topiary specimen is trimmed by mechanical shears. "At first look it's all very nice, very pretty - a garden I would never design for Chelsea because the show is full of this sort of thing," Diarmuid explains. "The person who would live here is kind of quirky, certainly an Edwardian gent. I kept thinking back to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster."
But if the garden is now something he's raving about, he says he was blindsided by his first meeting about it with Harrods, a company he's previously done several projects with. He came armed with ideas and sketches but Harrods' brief was very clear: the famous department store wanted a garden that reflected its love of London heritage. Not exactly the brief you'd expect for the designer who brought us giant colourful lollipops and a futuristic Sky Garden.
"I went away very confused," Diarmuid says. "How was I going to make something that was theirs, but also mine? Because I have a style and a different, slightly quirky, take on things. I can do flower gardens but I never choose to do them at Chelsea. I can do romantic gardens - and, indeed, a lot of my client work would revolve around that style of gardening - but how would I go to Chelsea and not sell out and do all the things I hate about Chelsea? Just another beautiful garden that maybe 10 people could do a lot better than me? It was kind of a delicious problem to have but it was a real problem."
The solution came to him as he strolled through the Hampton Court flower shows with a friend. She pointed to something on a stall and said it was very 'Heath Robinson', which was when he had his lightbulb moment. "I just knew it was something that I could have enormous fun with and I also knew that the store would say yes."
It may be a quintessential English garden, but there's a hint of Ireland in the design too - another influence was the Guinness Time Piece. Created for the Festival of Britain in 1951, this was a giant clock which featured mechanical performances from characters such as the Guinness toucan. It proved so popular that seven of these clocks were made, touring the UK, Ireland and America for 20 years. There is a replica of one on display at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. "I'd always loved the notion and decided that our garden would perform and hopefully captivate in a similar manner," Diarmuid says.
Running from May 24 this year, the Chelsea Flower Show is the most prestigious horticultural event in the globe - the World Cup of gardening, if you will - and the Dublin-born gardener has a long-standing, somewhat colourful, history with it.
He has won several medals - including a coveted gold for his Irish Sky Garden in 2011 - there have been some years when he hasn't entered and others where he covered the show for the BBC. There are parts of Chelsea that he likes; others that he's not so fond of.
"There are parts that certainly feed the ego; when you're hiding around the corner looking at people who are smiling at your garden… Trying to bring that emotion to people and trying to get people to understand what you've been working up to for years - that's all great. But there is plenty of Chelsea that I absolutely hate."
The ephemerality of the show garden is something he can find upsetting. "When you're creating and planting up the garden, it can be fantastic and you get carried away. Then, all of sudden, you find yourself being repelled by the process because it's only there for a week. It's all artificial, it's just flower arrangement, and that's not what I trained to do. But show gardening is an art form in itself, so as long as I don't do too many Chelseas, it's fine.
"You can be as clever as you want with ideas - and I am clever with ideas - but you have to know what your job is and to know that this is an indulgence, that will end up costing you a fortune, and that's a dangerous game to play."
Certainly, Chelsea has had both an emotional and financial cost for Diarmuid over the years. He has recounted before how, while he was building his first Chelsea garden in 1995, he was living on instant coffee and was under threat of having his garden dismantled because he owed £800 for plants. Eventually, his family and that of his wife Justine, came to the financial rescue.
Then there was the drama in 2004, when, he admitted to the BBC documentary team following him in the run up to the show that he had told the organisers there was sponsorship in place for his garden, when there wasn't. The sponsorship came through in the end from Camelot, who operate the UK national lottery, but because the show catalogue said that the garden was sponsored by the Lottery this caused further upset as it gave the erroneous impression that public money was being spent on it. (The use of public money also came into question when Cork City Council brought his gold medal-winning Sky Garden to Fitzgerald Park. Though Diarmuid had severed all involvement with the project more than two years previously, his name was still drawn into the row over the €2million of taxpayers' money spent to bring the garden to Cork.)
Now 51, has Diarmuid become a better businessman over the years? "You won't survive if you don't. You have to be able to pay for your indulgences," he says. "So for instance with Harrods, I have to back up my ideas and I have to get people excited by them so for these models," he taps the wooden Chelsea garden model beside him, "We're using the best illustrators. So I have to invest in everything and to be able to invest, you have to know what the figures are and be good at that."
But he also thinks that not being as business savvy in his earlier years as he is now was a good thing. "I was an unusual person in that I had a dream to do exactly what I'm doing now but to get here, you have to let your heart go before your head or your finances."
Twenty years ago, somebody once called him a fantasist, not naming him but he knew he was being referred to. He carried that with him for a long time. "Then I realised, just in recent years, actually you need to be sensible with it but you need to be a bit of a fantasist to make things like this happen," he says.
Today, much of Diarmuid's life is spent on planes or driving. "This," he says, brandishing his iPad, "has just changed my life completely. I design with it, I have meetings, I send stuff to people. It's so easy to live in Ireland and work anywhere you want. The same as with Nice [where he does a lot of work]. You're two hours on a plane to Nice and they're the most gorgeous two hours because nobody can get at you."
Family life with Justine and their daughter Eppie (11), is hugely important to him. They'll travel together as often as they can although he says this "does the little one's head in because she's a homebird."
"Being a dad is the most important thing I think for me. It's not about the amount of time, but how it's used and everything centres around it."
He's a strict father he says, but an absolutely doting one. Eppie, who he describes as creative but her own person, isn't, as of yet, that interested in what he does, "as she shouldn't be at that age," he says. "Even with the model [of the Eccentric British Garden] she was kind of vaguely interested. Then I showed it to her mates who were absolutely agog at it so she looked at it again. But there's all that of 'What dad does isn't cool'."
Chelsea is a labour of love but he also has his fingers in many other pies, with projects in Britain and Europe. Alongside creating the garden he has also designed an in-store garden festival for Harrods, which will run for the month of May.
On the cards for this year are two major announcements, the details of which he cannot yet reveal, but one being another joint venture with Harrods. "It's very exciting, it's putting a lot of faith in me and it's slightly overwhelming but wonderful."
If his maverick status has sometimes worked against him, it hasn't in Europe. "Because people don't know those things. They just see me as doing gardens that have been nicely photographed and featured in magazines. We got a call from Architectural Digest in New York who want to do something and they don't know any of the Strictly Come Dancing stuff or Cork…"
I ask him if he's mellowing with age? "I did think so for a while but I'm not. The inspiration to do stuff and the need to push stuff, not everywhere but occasionally, is still there and it comes from the right place. But what have I got to be perturbed or concerned about in terms of my craft when even big institutions in the UK - the most conservative place when it comes to gardens - are now inviting me to do stuff?"
The enfant terrible of gardening hasn't exactly become one of its elder statesman yet but there is now, he believes, an acceptance of his work which comes after spending "a few years out in the cold, as I think everybody does."
About four years ago he was giving a keynote speech at a big industry conference, (the British gardening industry is, he says, run by old established families who maybe fox hunt and wear tweeds). The speech was well received, but he was shy about talking to people afterwards so he made his escape to the bathroom. There, he found four men lined up with their back to him and a very posh voice said: "Well, I didn't know what to expect but I certainly didn't expect that. He really is part of the establishment now."
He turned and left before he was spotted but the incident pleased him. "They mightn't understand what I did or why I did it but they understand that it was coming from one of their places," he says. "It made me feel really good. And I think it summed up something. So it's a nice place to be."
Gardens of delights: Diarmuid's Chelsea Flower Show highlights
1995 His very first garden for the show called 'To the Waters and The Wild', was a romantic Irish countryside. It won Diarmuid and his collaborator Vincent Barnes a bronze medal.
2004 One of his most expensive gardens to create (he ran over budget) the Colourful Suburban Eden featured giant lollipops and a pavilion. The judges bestowed him a silver gilt medal for it.
2005 The Hanover Quay garden of beautiful lavender and balls of box hedge was another silver gilt medal winner. Its concept was a communal outdoor space for residents of a block of flats.
2008 Co-designed with Sir Terence Conran, The Oceânico Garden was a city courtyard with metal daisies. It won the design team a bronze medal.
2011 Inspired in part by the film Avatar, The Irish Sky Garden was a spectacular creation featuring a pod suspended in the air by a 60ft crane. It won Diarmuid his first gold medal at Chelsea.
2012 For his Westland Magical Tower Garden, Diarmuid found inspiration in Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window, as well as drawing on ideas of sustainability. The seven-storey pyramid shaped garden was made from scaffolding.
Portraits by Kip Carroll