Sunday 18 February 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: it's showtime

His favourite project to date, Diarmuid's eccentric garden proved a hit with the spectators - and judges! - at the Chelsea Flower Show

Diarmuid Gavin's latest garden entry at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Diarmuid Gavin's latest garden entry at the Chelsea Flower Show.

It's 5:30pm on Friday May 20 and I've just noticed an email from Weekend's editor. She wants my column. Trouble is, I'm at Chelsea with the team building the Harrods British Eccentric Garden. We are putting the finishing touches to the exhibit and I haven't a notion of what's in store.

I'm sitting on a few York stone steps, gazing at a rotating carousel of planting which is revolving around our octogenarian folly.

As it travels, foxgloves nod in the breeze and our neighbouring gardeners stop, take out their cameras and smile.

Behind me Helen Dillon - one of the world's most talented and wonderful gardeners - is on her knees spreading gravel at the base of Achilleas. Carmel Duignan, of Irish Gardening and RTÉ fame, is armed with a hose, aiming it dangerously close to my iPad with a wicked smile on her face.

A team of mechanical engineers from Nugent Manufacturing are armed with stop watches timing each mysterious mechanical movement, ensuring a three-minute garden performance.

The flower borders are looking sparkling: a frothy base of queen mother colour, rosa ballerina, geranium, Paeonie, Nepeta and pink digitalis. The garden backdrop is made up of a series of shaped Hornbeams.

The hard landscaping is just perfect. Salvaged York stone was sourced by Kilsaran Paving of Dunboyne. Its building was led by a very generous team from Equitas Properties.

Developing this garden has been my favourite project to date. It includes so many aspects of things that I love, from gardening, selecting trees, model-making, working with illustrators to eccentricity and a sense of fun. My brief from the sponsor, Harrods of Knightsbridge, was very clear: they wanted a garden which reflected their grounding in Britain and their love of their London heritage. I was thrilled but confused. Others had a record of creating classy-styled British gardens. I didn't.

So, after the briefing meeting last June I had a week of both exhilaration (the joy of returning to Chelsea) and trepidation - what was I going to create that represented both the clients' aspirations and what I believe in?

Would I sell out and create an expected Chelsea norm, bagging a gold medal and revelling in the chance to show a colourful flower border? Or was there a way of interpreting the brief which would live up to the requirements of the clients, but also allow it to be a garden I wholly believed in?

Thoughts soon clarified at the Hampton Court Flower Show where I was enjoying the gardens while chatting to a friend. She pointed to something on a stall, observed that it was 'very Heath Robinson' and it was as if a bolt of lightning struck me.

He was the answer! A cartoonist renowned for drawing complicated machines that performed simple tasks, he's a character beloved by Brits - talented, humorous, fun and concerned with how people lived their lives inside and out.

In the following week the garden designed itself. And as it did, another long-term influence bubbled to the top of my head. In 1951 for the Festival of Britain, Guinness created a clock which fascinated people. It put on a performance every quarter hour which delighted spectators. So popular was it that the company made seven of these clocks which travelled around the UK, Ireland and America for 20 years. I'd always loved the notion and decided that our garden would perform and hopefully captivate in a similar manner.

Helen and Carmel were our dream team who pruned, preened and watered our plants and established a committee of superior taste and judgement.

Nugent Manufacturing of Naas, Kildare led the charge as they had done previously with the Irish Sky Garden in 2012. And Paul Officer led a team from Design ID who drew the details of the machinery.

We are the only garden in the history of the flower show to be run by a youngster, a remarkable 16-year-old transition year student, Pierce Redmond of St Gerard's in Wicklow. Brought along for the experience, he established himself as indispensable. Harrods have been the perfect sponsor, to represent such a brand and seek to encapsulate their ethos in a garden has been my privilege. And this week saw the launch of our joint venture ,Harrods Gardens, their first garden design and build service.

But my final nod of appreciation must go to Pol Gallagher of Zap Architects. Memorise the name as Pol is a star on a rapid ascent. From Donegal and based in the bell tower of a church next to the Houses of Parliament in London, he was recommended to me by the Royal Institute of British Architects as the only member who could turn my dreams of bobbing plants, twirling trees and a garden folly which doffs its hat to the gathered crowds of expectant gardeners into a reality. It's no surprise that his imagination is being harnessed by Orla Kiely, Dublin City University and the developers of the old BBC TV Centre in Shepherds Bush. If you have a project which requires pure imagination, have it Zapped!

A huge thank you to all involved, organising, supplying, digging, planting and building. It's been the dream project.

Update, Tuesday, May 24: The medals have been announced and we achieved a silver gilt medal! We are delighted with that. For me, as always, the reward is the reaction received from visitors and viewers, and our bit of bling is the icing on the cake. Huge congratulations to all the award-winners and everyone who created something to display. Especially Paul Martin whose Vestra Wealth exhibit earned him gold.

Irish Independent

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