Monday 23 October 2017

Diarmuid Gavin: 'The pure imagination that went into my Willy Wonka-themed garden in Dundrum'

Come with me... to Dundrum's Garden of Pure Imagination

The Garden of Pure Imagination at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show
The Garden of Pure Imagination at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show

Today, a new garden opens at Dundrum Town Centre in Dublin. It's a Chelsea Flower Show exhibit that I've brought home to Ireland to display publicly, and it's going to remain in place until September.

Developing it has been my favourite project to date. This garden includes so many aspects of things I love most - from gardening to selecting trees, model-making and working with illustrators, to the eccentricity inherent in these islands... and, most of all, a sense of fun!

The origins of the garden lie in a request to design my ninth plot at the Chelsea Flower Show. The sponsor wanted something traditional... which is not quite what I'm known for. So I had a delicious challenge: to find the perfect design to suit my clients, yet be it had to be a scheme that reflected my values and aesthetics.

The answer arrived while I was walking through another flower show with a friend. While I poured forth my inspiration problems, she offhandedly pointed to something on a stall, observed that it was "very Heath Robinson" - and that was it! A bolt of lightning struck.

Robinson was a beloved historic character - a talented illustrator full of humour and fun who was obsessed with people's lifestyles, both inside and outside their homes. His specialty was drawing incredibly complex machines for achieving simple tasks, using cogs, wheels, bits of old rope and salvaged wood.

Over the following week, the garden seemed to design itself. And as it did, more long-term influences bubbled into play: Willie Wonka and his magical chocolate factory, which awed his golden ticket prizewinners; the surreal visuals of the original movie and, of course, that wonderful soundtrack of Pure Imagination.

Dreamer: Diarmuid Gavin with a mechanical model
Dreamer: Diarmuid Gavin with a mechanical model

And there were others. In 1951, for the Festival of Britain, Guinness created a clock that fascinated people. It put on a performance every quarter hour, which delighted spectators. So popular was it that the company made several of these clocks, which travelled around the UK, Ireland and America for 20 years. I'd always loved that notion and so decided that the garden would perform on the quarter hour - and hopefully captivate in a similar manner.

It's been a busy 18 months. We gathered together an amazing team of architects, illustrators, model-makers, props people, engineers, fabricators, landscapers and project managers. Then, in January 2016, we met as a group on Sandymount Strand in Dublin, where we marked out the lines of the garden amidst a fast- approaching tide and mocked up the framework of the octagonal folly. We walked through the space, made adjustments to the design, imagined the views through and across the planting, and convened a meeting in Helen Dillon's elegant drawing room to finalise some of the bigger decisions.

I sourced my 'twirling' bay trees, the central 'performing' plants, in Bruges, Belgium. There has been a tradition of bay cultivation in Flanders since the 16th century, resulting in amazing technical expertise passed down through the centuries, as well as outstanding genetic material.

The nursery, Lauretum, has invented automatic machinery that turns these plants so that they receive an even haircut in pruning season (they were very excited to hear that we would twirl them for real in a garden). I needed precise measurements for the trees - with height, weight, girth and pot size being vital information so the engineers could plan and ensure that the moving parts were up to the challenge.

The garden's primary trees - some huge hornbeams - are 15 years old and have very distinctive dome shapes. They have been grown and clipped to perfection in a specialist nursery in Holland. I've been watching them develop for six years... just waiting for a chance to use them in a garden scheme. And now we have the perfect place: as a backdrop to the octagonal folly.

Flowering plants, ferns and grasses, and a few shrubs were grown for us by Garden World of Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, with shrubs and trees coming from Belgium, Holland and Italy.

The Garden of Pure Imagination at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show
The Garden of Pure Imagination at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show

In May 2016, we unveiled the garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. The response was overwhelming. Crowds gathered around the display, often 10 people deep. They knew something different was about to happen... but they weren't quite sure what. They gazed at the garden, enjoying the vibrant clashing colours, the strong lines of topiary and the arts-and- crafts sensibility.

And then, on the quarter hour, box balls bobbing up and down caused a ripple of excitement. People gazed and smiled- and gasped when trees started to twirl. Excitement grew through the following minute as whole beds of plants trundled around the folly; an automatic shears emerged from the undergrowth to prune a rotating shrub; a flip table revealed a sundial on one side and a bowl of geraniums on the other, while windowboxes full of poppies moved up and down. Finally, the roof of the folly popped up, tipping its hat to the excited crowds. As it slowly closed, the garden's performance received a round of applause.

We wanted to make people smile - and that's exactly what happened. Among our celebrated visitors who enjoyed the antics were fashionistas Paul Smith, Philip Treacy, Matthew Williamson, most of the royals including Beatrice, Kate and William (who reckoned young Prince George would have a field day with the mechanics) as well as Jeremy Paxman, Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike.

To bring this Garden of Pure Imagination home and display it in Dundrum Town Centre free of charge, is a dream come true. It allows more people to be entertained by its magic, it welcomes children to the joys of garden creation, it completes the picture - and we, as the garden team, can't wait.

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