Thursday 17 August 2017

'I can't believe my life... I pinch myself' - a day in the life of garden designer Diarmuid Gavin

Diarmuid Gavin (53) is an award-winning garden designer with a successful international career. From Rathfarnham, he lives in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, with his wife, Justine, and their daughter, Eppie (12)

Diarmuid Gavin: Gardening helps you to forget everything
Diarmuid Gavin: Gardening helps you to forget everything

Ciara Dwyer

A lot of the time, I'm going for a flight, which means I will wake up at 4am. You get used to it. The only problem is that if you wake up at that time, your sleep is unsettled. If I'm very organised, I'll have porridge and berries before I go to the airport.

I have everything set out the night before. My wife, Justine, will have printed out 10 pages for me with the plane tickets, train tickets and hotel check-in. The car is parked on the verge, to the annoyance of the neighbours, so I can just shoot off up the road. I have my parking planned and I fast-track through the airport. It's a bit like that movie Up in the Air with George Clooney. I sit on the same seat on the plane every time, and I'm first off and first in the car-hire queue.

Diarmuid Gavin at the garden he designed in Dundrum Town Centre. Photograph: ©Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin at the garden he designed in Dundrum Town Centre. Photograph: ©Fran Veale

As a garden designer, the bulk of my working life is away from Ireland. I might be flying to see a new job, or to do a presentation for clients. One of my designs ­- Garden of Pure Imagination ­- is currently on public display in Dundrum Town Centre. The roses bob up and down, and then the bay trees begin to dance. There is a whole carousel of plants that goes around to the Willy Wonka song Pure Imagination. It's all timed. The mechanics are silently working away and you can't see them. That's the type of thing I like to do. Even in an ordinary scheme, I like to find the magic.

I'm obsessed with my work. I love it, and I think about it all the time. I forget lots of things in life, like people's names and addresses, but if it's anything to do with plants or a design, I will remember everything. I get a lot of my ideas in the car. Sometimes I'm driving along and I come up with a whole scheme. It might be a bit edgy and over the top, but I'll know how I'm going to sell the scheme, and how I am going to do it. I'm beyond excited about it and I can't wait to jot it down. The most important thing is to listen to clients. If you don't do that, everybody is going to be unhappy.

I could be flying to China. That will mean at least four flights and 21 hours before you get to where you are about to work. They want to start you into work the moment you get off the plane. They tell you that it's for your own good, so you won't be wrecked the following day. They don't put you in business class, because it doesn't make economic sense. You are squeezed in with everyone else.

The Chinese want anything that the West has. They don't want anything that is originated in China. They want to import it from Britain, Holland or France. They want something contemporary and they want lots of colour. The cities are full of industry and smog, and they want to travel a couple of hours to go to places where there are rivers that haven't been destroyed by industry. A local authority there has commissioned me to create a new four-mile-long linear park by the side of a river. The people can do their tai chi there. It's astonishing to watch them do it in Beijing. It's so elegant and graceful. And the park is for young lovers who have no space in their apartment blocks. They can enjoy themselves by the river.

Whenever I'm away, I go running. I can run up to 14km now. I love it, because you get to see something. You are running by the side of canals and you run past buildings that you know from photographs. You become less scared of a place if you go running there.

I love gardening. It centres you and you forget everything. Gardening helped me figure out what my career would be. I was thinking of giving up, because I wasn't able to do the gardens that I wanted to do, which were contemporary and quirky. Nobody wanted them. They wanted posh flower gardens. I just dug and dug and dug and figured everything out in my head. I still go through ups and downs, and I use gardening to get over that.

Ireland is probably the best country in the world to garden in, with our temperate climate. We're lucky that it doesn't get too hot or too cold. We can grow plants that have originated right the way around the world. Also, the Irish have some mystical relationship with the land, and we want to grow something. It might be just a couple of spuds or hanging baskets. Gardens are smaller than ever before, but there are more gardeners than ever before.

Everyone has an interest in letting kids know that most of the stuff we eat comes from the ground. If you give kids permission to get dirty in the garden, they can't believe their luck. They love digging.

Diarmuid Gavin with his daughter Eppie at the garden he designed in Dundrum Town Centre. Photograph: ©Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin with his daughter Eppie at the garden he designed in Dundrum Town Centre. Photograph: ©Fran Veale

When I get home, the dog is waiting. He'll hear the car pull up and he'll stand up on the windowsill. My daughter, Eppie, won't look up from her phone, even if I've been away for three days. But that doesn't mean she doesn't love me. Eventually, she'll wander into the kitchen as I unpack. Justine will be cooking something wonderful, and I'll be telling her some amazing story. I don't mind all the travelling, as long as I get home. The family centres you. Then I'll take Eppie out for a walk. It might be 10pm and we'll walk along the beach in Bray. We'll have a great time and we'll chat.

I sleep very badly, but I don't worry about it any more. I've decided to live with it. The iPad is beside me and it connects me to the world in the middle of the night. I can't believe my life. I pinch myself. I remember the first time that I got on a Ryanair flight to go to England as a gardener. I couldn't believe that I was going off to do some gardening in a different country. I still feel like that.

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Diarmuid Gavin is an ambassador for GroMor 2017, an initiative that aims to get the country growing. Free demonstrations are taking place nationwide over the summer months

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