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..."
This is Dermot sitting in a warehouse in Finglas -- imagine how enthusiastic when he is actually on a tour.
His jetsetting has brought him far from his childhood in Blackrock, where summer holidays largely consisted of going down the road to potter in his maternal grandmother's garden.
"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."
The seed was sown for Dermot. From Marlfield he went to the horticultural unit in UCD and spent his summers working in their greenhouses on cutting-edge projects, such as hydroponics (growing plants in mineral liquid solutions instead of soil). Eventually, he returned to Marlfield for a full-time job. In 1982, television came knocking.
"I was asked by RTE to do one or two things on kids' programmes and then an opportunity came up to do a gardening slot on Live at Three. The first thing was a piece on bonsai -- it was winter and there wasn't much else growing. They loved it!" remembers Dermot.
In the 26 years since, he has become synonymous with Irish gardening. He particularly loved a series he did on house plants, and describes fronting The Garden Show on RTE as "just heaven, great days".
Of course, we know that somewhere along this apparently smooth path came the major bump that forced him to diversify his career.
In his personal life, too, there was a particular event that stopped him dead in his tracks.
"My sister Carol was in the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. She was in the first one to be hit.
"I was in Italy taking a tour, my parents were away on holiday. Of course, we saw this on the television and we knew Carol worked for a company that was based in the Towers."
A terrifying day passed before Dermot, his parents and his other sister Louise, who lives in Donegal, found out she was safe.
"She was lucky; she was in the concourse when the first plane hit. It was really hard and emotional for all of us, that period, because there was a blackout. Her husband found her -- she got out through the basement. She knew lots of people who died, of course. She left America for a while but she's back there now."It was, says Dermot, a "big eye-opener".
His parents, still avid travellers in their seventies and "an inspiration" are visiting Carol in New Jersey for six weeks and Dermot also made sure he got to see her when he travelled to the States recently.
His own American adventure has just begun. Dermot's seventh book, Roses Revealed, has become a sleeper hit in US bookstores and he was invited to be a keynote speaker this year at several prestigious conferences including the San Francisco, Atlanta and Philadelphia flower shows.
It led to his big break on American TV, 26 years after he first appeared on Irish screens.
"My book went into a second print there and the next thing I'm asked if I would do this five-minute interview just before The Oprah Winfrey Show on St Patrick's Day. They only told me just before that it was going live and national. Oh my God!" laughs Dermot, remembering his panic.
"I asked how many people were watching and then said, 'No don't tell me -- just let me do it first!' It was millions and millions of people."
He experienced first-hand the 'Oprah effect' the next day at the San Francisco Flower Show. "I had spoken for three consecutive days but after I did my bit on TV, the number of people who turned up on the fourth day, was crazy. To be made a star in America is a crazy thing. If that's all it takes, a tiny flash of my face -- amazing. It was scary, not to be too dramatic about it."
Dermot may have to get used to the fame -- and presumably the fortune that might go with it -- as his publishers are planning to target the US market with his new book.
"Every single person in this country dreams of winning the lottery," says Dermot. "I'm not saying for one minute that it's the answer, because I know lots of wealthy people who are quite miserable. But money can certainly afford you a few comforts and a few securities that would allow you to be more creative," he muses.
This desire for creativity has Dermot spending his precious free time in a 'magical' walled garden he is developing in Clondeglass, in Co Laois. "I'm being very selfish about it at the moment," he says. "It's a private space for me to indulge myself and to recharge my batteries. This is why I don't want to open it to the public."
Dermot is a bit of a secret garden himself. Two years ago, he revealed himself as a fantastic cook, earning five stars on RTE's The Restaurant, one of the few guests to pull off that feat.
"I was genuinely shocked," he says. "Especially as (judge) Tom Doorley was quite critical, saying 'The crab is not crabby enough'. Then I wanted to do authentic confit of duck and when it went out, Tom said, "It's not crispy enough'. I thought maybe he was just moaning for something to say."
His passion for antiques was similarly revealed on The Dealers, which he won by haggling a bargain on antique pieces and then making a profit at auction.
He is also a wine buff and often rediscovers bottles of wine that he has squirreled around the house -- "that makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I'm not!" -- and is an expert photographer, often illustrating his own books and lectures.
"Oh yes, and I'd also love to sculpt and to take a course and find out if I could be an artist," he adds.
Anything else, Dermot?
He leans forward. "This is going to sound mad if you print this, but here goes -- I wish I was an opera singer."
Do you sing? "No. But I love opera music and I always thought it would be wonderful to get up on a stage and be able to sing an aria and deliver it beautifully."
I have no doubt that if Dermot O'Neill could be an opera singer by sheer force of willpower, he would be on the stage of La Scala by this time next year.