Friday 26 December 2014

Seeds of change

Susan Daly meets Dermot O'Neill, the Irish TV veteran who is now on the cusp of fame in America. Ronan Lang travelled to Co Laois for an exclusive preview of Dermot's 'secret garden.'

Last year, gardening expert Dermot O'Neill hopped on a plane out of Ireland, booked into a hotel and stayed in his room for a week.

"I became a recluse for a week. I took off abroad and did nothing. I ate in my room, I didn't go out -- I was like Howard Hughes," laughs Dermot. If it wasn't for the broad grin spreading across his face, I would be worried.

"I was very frazzled and I needed downtime. It was fantastic at that moment in time and it is not something I would do often. I am a free agent so I can up and go when I want to." Not a breakdown then, just a break.

This is classic Dermot O'Neill. Ireland's most dearly-loved gardener is more cheery than a bed of begonias. No matter what life throws at him -- and he is frank about a few thorny patches -- his default position is to get up and get on with it.

We were to meet in the gorgeous surroundings of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, but his hectic work schedule means I have to chase him down to an industrial estate in Finglas. It is where he is filming some of his new show for RTE, Super Garden, which kicks off next Tuesday at 8.30pm. Dermot mentors five people who would love to become fulltime garden designers and the transformations they achieve in ordinary gardens is quite remarkable, all on a budget of €10,000.

"You get to see the heartbeat of the operation," Dermot tells me. In just one week, he had been doing radio work for Derek Mooney's show, putting the latest issue of Garden Heaven magazine to bed, going to Chelsea and sticking to a punishing recording timetable for Super Garden.

This new show aims to find fresh garden design talent under Dermot's tutelage. The winner will get to create a garden at the Bloom 2009 festival. The five finalists, including a taxi driver, a veterinarian student and a former business executive, try to create "a real garden on a real budget for real clients".

Dermot says he is using "tough love" on his protégés and, nice guy though he is, you believe him. It is an approach that has served him well in his own career.

"I had a difficult period at one stage some time ago where I was focusing too much on one thing. It didn't work out and all of a sudden I was without a job and quite stretched financially," he reveals.

"If you have a boss who isn't particularly nice, work can be terrible. I was thinking, 'This isn't living, this is torture. I am miserable, I'm not happy'."

True to form, his survival instinct kicked in. "I thought, 'Do something about it, get up off your backside and change it'. The life lesson I learned from that was that I needed to diversify. Now I'm writing, I'm doing radio, I'm doing television, I put together books, I lecture, I travel and I do tours."

Dermot guides groups around some of the world's most magnificent gardens and calls the trips a "busman's holiday," but even as he tells you what hard work it is, his eyes are shining.

"I took a group to China last year and because I have a personal interest in Chinese history, particularly the dynasties, it helped me enrich the guiding of the gardens that I did there," he says.

"A tour to South Africa was incredible; the landscape, the plants... fabulous. I'm just back from Versailles in Paris. We did Holland earlier in the year. In July, I'm doing the Italian lakes; we go to three garden islands on Lake Maggiore -- it's like stepping into paradise, the set of a fabulous movie. These buildings dripping with trailing bougainvillea, passion flowers..."

"She was a very traditional gardener. She came from a farming background in Co Limerick and her own garden in Dublin was packed with produce; there were apple trees, rhubarb, it was full of flowers, roses, climbing plants, scented-leaf geraniums. I remember being sent out and told to pick the caterpillars off the cabbage. As a kid I thought this was fabulous," says Dermot, who cites his granny as the formative influence on his green fingers.

"At home, as a kid, I had a patch of the garden, but I didn't feel it was going to be a career. However, I took a job in the local garden centre, not far from my home in Blackrock, in Cabinteely. It's gone now, but back then it was called Marlfield and it was very well known."

Enter Dermot's next mentor, a man by the name of Barney Johnson. "He owned Marlfield, and he had a gardening programme on television. I adored working there."

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