Sunday 19 May 2019

'People's love of house plants is coming back': Diamuid Gavin on how his latest venture - a pop-up coffee shop in the city - is aimed at new gardeners

For those pressed for space or time, the only way to flex green fingers is with house plants, succulents and cacti. Here, Weekend's Diarmuid Gavin tells Alex Meehan how his latest venture is aimed at the new gardener

Relentless passion: Gardener Diarmuid Gavin at his Outer Spaces shop at Dunnes Stores, South Great Georges Street in Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Relentless passion: Gardener Diarmuid Gavin at his Outer Spaces shop at Dunnes Stores, South Great Georges Street in Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 1: put together a mix. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 2: Prepare the soil. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 3: select your container. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 5: handle with care. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 6: tend to your garden. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Alex Meehan

Spending time around Diarmuid Gavin is quite the experience. To start with, he is a people magnet. It's a weekday morning and he's showing me around his latest venture, a converted period butcher's shop on George's Street in Dublin city centre that's festooned with a selection of indoor plants.

We're trying to do an interview, but a never-ending stream of passers-by are stopping him for advice, or to take a selfie with him, or just to say hello. Clearly, the Irish public's fondness for celebrity gardeners - or at least for this celebrity gardener - shows no sign of abating.

Step 4: plant. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Step 4: plant. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Star quality aside, Gavin's relentless passion for his profession is contagious. He's going into business with Dunnes Stores, masterminding a network of indoor gardening hubs with the supermarket chain dubbed Outer Spaces.

The George's Street premises is designed to be a laboratory, to try out ideas and train staff from around the country on how best to roll out the concept. At the heart of the venture is a growing appreciation of just how important indoor gardening has become in recent years.

"I've been working with Dunnes for about a year and a half on this project at this stage, basically because I had seen people's love of house plants coming back, especially with young people," he says.

"There is an enduring trend in fashion, interiors and in gardening for dramatic plants and shapes influenced by plants. Instagram is full of them, yet there were very few dedicated places to buy nice plants."

However, the venture is about more than just plants - Gavin says he has no interest in Outer Spaces becoming a network of dull garden centres. So while the project is built around plants, there's also artisan coffee served by trained baristas, stereo systems playing vintage jazz, pop and soul on vinyl, and movies projected onto the walls. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is being shown on the back wall. It's all about opening up gardening and caring for plants to a generation not typically associated with it. For a generation of younger people living in rented accommodation, space is often at a premium. But that doesn't mean they don't want attractive greenery to bring their homes alive.

"People want plants that are attractive, portable and fairly indestructible. They want to feel that they're nurturing something and keeping something alive, something exotic and perhaps untrained. That's very much in vogue at the moment," says Gavin.

"Once people start growing plants they never stop and then they move on to the outdoors. They want a cactus, or they want a collection of cacti and succulents. They want something they needn't worry about too much. They want something that allows them to touch soil a little bit, to be earthed in a way."

The Outer Spaces concept came about when Gavin was in New York a couple of years ago. "We were staying down in the Village above a plant shop called Green Fingers, and it struck me that it was full of young people going in and out of it. I was amazed, and I started looking for it in other places," he says.

"I saw it again in London, where a girl had opened a shop in East London called Prick that just specialised in cacti. In Amsterdam there's a shop called Wilderness which is again very similar. So I approached Dunnes and said, 'Is this something you would like to do?' They were wonderful, and we worked on a roll-out of the idea which will start in about five or six weeks around the country."

Commercial 'lifestyle' offerings aren't renowned for being affordable, but when it comes to price, Gavin and Dunnes Stores are very much aiming at making their new offering accessible. Prices for miniature cacti start at around €3 to €4, with most of the stock being in and around €20. Of course there are also statement plants such as banana plants that start at €90, waist high cacti at about €130, and giant palms going up to €250.

"I think plants in general aren't expensive for the amount of time that goes into growing them, but for us it was important that they not be expensive here. One of the things that Dunnes said to me was 'yes, great, we love all the ideas, go experimental, go lifestyle but never forget value'," says Gavin.

"The bigger plants cost a bit but they take longer to grow and will completely change the character of your home if you put one in - it's a piece of jungle for the home, a statement piece. But you can also spend €5 on something for your desk and have something cool to look at."

Gavin could of course have opened a standalone shop on his own, but by partnering with Dunnes he will be able to bring it to a potentially huge audience, and have access to things that he could never afford as an independent retailer. A good example of that is the app that is currently being planned.

Related: Diarmuid Gavin's step-by-step guide to making your own cacti garden

"Every plant is barcoded, and people will be able to bring them home, download an app, scan the barcode and get care instructions direct to their phone. We are trying it all out in this laboratory situation on George's Street, and I am just amazed at the care and attention that Dunnes have put into it from the very start," he says.

"There has been a lot of meetings and organising all the small details - with the cacti, for example, we've been to Spain to visit the suppliers and firm up the supply chain. Likewise, we've been on lots of trips to Holland where a lot of our plants are grown."

Similarly, the vinyl soundtrack for each outlet has been playlisted and projectors bought for each Outer Space. Nothing quite like it has been done before, according to Gavin, and from what I've seen he may well be right.

So what's next for the venture?

"I want to get a big old American yellow school bus, strip it out and make it into a mobile garden centre with a coffee offering and I want to drive it around the country. I love the fact that if you go to any regional town on market day, there will be someone selling plants out of the back of a van and I want to have a go at doing that to promote the idea," says Gavin.

Irish Independent

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