Saturday 26 May 2018

In Pictures: Peek inside Irish garden designer Diarmuid Gavin's own private Eden

From TV projects and a new book, to planting trees by helicopter for megabucks clients, Diarmuid Gavin is run off his feet. But, he still finds plenty of time for his No.1 obsession - his own garden, he tells our reporter.

Labour of love: Diarmuid Gavin above his garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Labour of love: Diarmuid Gavin above his garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin loves toiling in his garden at his home in Wicklow. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin at work in his own garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Pond plants in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Some of the planting in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin has puncuated his garden with many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
A view from above of Diarmuid Gavin's garden, with its many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
Ed Power

Ed Power

Diarmuid Gavin can't tell me about any of the megabucks clients for whom he designs luxury gardens. In his line of work, discretion is essential. Also, he is typically required to sign non-disclosure agreements. One loose remark and the lawyers would be circling like buzzards.

He can, however, tell me about one prospective client he declined to work for: President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

"We were asked to go out and look at the Royal Gardens in Damascus in 2011," he says. "They were very offended when we turned them down."

He said no to Assad for obvious reasons: Syria's dreadful human rights records, the bloody war its leader was prosecuting against his own people.

Diarmuid Gavin loves toiling in his garden at his home in Wicklow. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin loves toiling in his garden at his home in Wicklow. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin at work in his own garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Pond plants in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Some of the planting in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin has puncuated his garden with many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
A view from above of Diarmuid Gavin's garden, with its many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale

"They weren't happy. I remember thinking, 'Bloody hell this is ridiculous'. When you are working in an area of the market that is luxurious and expensive you have to be a little bit careful."

Gavin and I are in an otherwise deserted Dublin coffee shop at stupid o'clock in the morning. The early appointment was his idea as he's due in London later for meetings.

In addition to his work as TV presenter and author - and Weekend columnist - he runs Diarmuid Gavin Designs, one of Europe's most in demand high end landscaping firms (if you have to ask, you can't afford him). One day he'll be in Tbilisi, the next Prague or Nice.

"I am constantly in situations where I am pinching myself," says the avuncular 52-year-old. "I did a lot of time in the South of France - you find yourself in quaint little villages, waking up and then going to plant trees using helicopters. When you are working with the super wealthy you see ridiculous things. Money brings its own issues."

Gavin is best known as a celebrity gardener - perhaps the celebrity gardener of the past 15 years. He's presented BBC programmes such as Gardeners' World, Home Front and Gardens Through Time and written nearly a dozen books, including a just-published guide to getting the most from what he refers to as "the extra room" (also the title of the new tome).

"In Ireland and the UK people know who I am," he says. "Then you go to work for these very wealthy Europeans and they just haven't a clue. These are the super rich and incredibly discreet. It is an odd dual life."

Gavin has driven into the city from his home in Wicklow. As our photoshoot shows, Chateau Diarmuid is a sprawling two-storey affair with a sprawling garden to match. After a hard day slaving over someone else's greenery, is it a chore tending his own? I am reminded of the Michelin star chefs who indulge in a sneaky McDonald's when they clock off.

"I love it," he insists. "Any time I get a chance, I'm outside toiling away. The idea that it's a job disappears immediately. I'm obsessed with my own garden."

Some of the planting in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Some of the planting in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin loves toiling in his garden at his home in Wicklow. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin at work in his own garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Pond plants in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin has puncuated his garden with many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
A view from above of Diarmuid Gavin's garden, with its many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale

Not that he completely abandons his professional principles when getting stuck in at home. Working for a client, Gavin prioritises their requirements above everything else. It's the same with his own house: he wants a garden that will please his wife Justine (daughter of former Chief Justice Ronan Keane) and their 12-year-old daughter Eppie.

"I have certain opinions on garden design and the relationship between the house and the garden. For instance, our bath is outside the house and is elevated. It is part of the overall vision. Mind you, none of the others will use it."

Has he taken the plunge? "Not really. I'm waiting for the plants to grow so that the neighbours won't see me."

The Extra Room is his first book with an Irish publisher. He feels that in this country we have traditionally undervalued our gardens and lack the rich horticultural traditions of the UK. That, though, is starting to change. He hopes The Extra Room will help, as it sets out a step-by-step guide to creating a garden more or less from scratch.

"We saw gardens as this utilitarian thing. And yes, if there are kids in the house, you should accept that gardens are places of fun and memories and children kicking the ball around the back.

"However, if you are young and hip, perhaps you want a garden that is cool and sophisticated. And as your kids grow up, maybe you want to do something with the garden."

Gavin is charming company with lots of the twinkling effusiveness that made him so popular on television. So it's perhaps surprising to hear that he never set out to become the public face of gardening and, in fact, found the transition from obscurity to fame rather bumpy.

A view from above of Diarmuid Gavin's garden, with its many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
A view from above of Diarmuid Gavin's garden, with its many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin loves toiling in his garden at his home in Wicklow. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin at work in his own garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Pond plants in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Some of the planting in Diarmuid Gavin's garden. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin has puncuated his garden with many focal points. Photo: Fran Veale

"It didn't feel natural at all at the start," he says. "Nobody had ever told me I was good at anything. When they put a camera in front of me and then looked at the tapes and said, 'You can do this', I thought, 'Well what is it that I can do?' It freaked me out. I was uneasy."

The sniping - from fellow gardeners and the general public - didn't help. "What we do in this country is pull people down - the idea of 'don't get beyond yourself' and all of that. I was uncomfortable with it until I decided I didn't care what people thought. Once you let the public see you warts and all, they are accepting."

Other speed-bumps have presented themselves along the way. There was that gold medal-winning Sky Garden he designed for the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show, which later attracted controversy over its reported €2million of taxpayers' money it cost to bring the garden to Fitzgerald Park in Cork. Gavin had severed all involvement with the project more than two years before the row.

Yet the grumbling didn't dissuade him and he was back at Chelsea this year, with a Willy Wonka-inspired "clockwork garden" commission by Harrods department store (also partners in his garden design business).

"Chelsea is where gardening meets show business," he says. "Visitors come from all around the world. They don't just want to see something pretty. It's about trying to create something that can delight you or make you think.

"You must make an impact. For me, it's of interest only if it is dramatically new. It's a tough gig and I have to be really inspired. There's no point in me doing it unless it is radically different. I will only do Chelsea if I'm prepared to take on a task that keeps me awake at night."

As to what critics think…well, he couldn't care less. That's probably just as well, as the British gardening establishment can be sniffy about Gavin's Vegas-style designs.

"You come up against authority - you have to let people say whatever they are going to say. In terms of the judging at Chelsea, I couldn't give two hoots. If you are creating something from your dreams you have to push it a little. Often, it's only later when all the trauma is over that you can look back and think, 'Hey, we did it - wasn't it great?'"

On television, Gavin is a human teddy bear: ebullient and cuddly. But when under pressure, is he required to set to one side the Nice Guy routine and summon his inner Gordon Ramsay?

"Well, not in the way he does it, but yes, when you are trusted with a certain type of client you have to run an operation that is beyond question," he says.

With reality television constantly crying out for new franchises, I wonder if he's ever considered fronting a gardening version of The Great British Bake Off. The thought has indeed crossed his mind. However, gardening is such a painstaking process it simply doesn't lend itself to the format (indeed, the BBC's own attempt, The Big Allotment Challenge, was cancelled this year after two series). You can pop a cake in the oven and, half an hour later, stick it under Mary Berry's nose. Cultivating a rose bush takes rather longer.

"They have tried," he says. "I was flown to Los Angeles by Fremantle, the big media outfit that makes American Idol. They wanted me to do a gardening challenge programme.

"And they believed every such series needed an angry British judge. I was to be their 'Evil Brit'. But it didn't work - gardening doesn't suit that style of show. Of course, now that I've said it, I'm sure somebody out there will prove me wrong."

Photography by Fran Veale

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