Life Home & Garden

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Show man: Diarmuid Gavin opens up

As he joins the Weekend team, CLAIRE O'MAHONY talks to DIARMUID GAVIN about design inspiration and that hanging garden - and asks whether the bad boy of gardening is all grown up

Diarmuid Gavin
Diarmuid Gavin
Diarmuid Gavin. Photograph: Mark Nixon
Diarmuid Gavin. Photograph: Mark Nixon
Diarmuid Gavin's garden for the Chelsea Flower show in 2004
Diarmuid Gavin's Sky Garden

Claire O'Mahony

I do not expect to be talking to Diarmuid Gavin about ballet. Coloured balls and concrete pods and gardens suspended from a crane, yes, but ballet and romance? It doesn't exactly fit with his image as the bad boy of gardening.

And yet, here is Ireland's most famous garden designer - who joins Weekend today with an unmissable new column - enthusing about celebrated Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev. Diarmuid and his team have been commissioned to work on the garden of the late dancer in France.

"This family have been restoring it for a number of years and peeled it back to being a shell and we're creating really quite a romantic garden," he says. "We found images and even a little video on YouTube of him dancing through the garden. It's probably less than 60 seconds, but it's an extraordinary thing.

"His dance studio is in the garden so that is being restored at the same time and that will hold more performances in the years to come. So it will be a gathering place for people and the whole thing is about keeping his memory alive. But it's been a real privilege and a lovely, lovely one to work on."

Diarmuid is on the phone from the Cote D'Azur, where the weather, he says, is only glorious. Southern France is where he spends a lot of his time these days as he and his team are working on a number of gardens in the area. Some of these have been two- and three-year projects that are now near completion. "It's all go, but great fun," he says.

His international clients are clearly the sophisticated, moneyed types with discerning tastes and it's no surprise that they seek out Diarmuid's talents. Since 1995 he's been winning medals at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, scooping the gold in 2011 for his Sky Garden. A large pink suspended pod inspired by the movie Avatar, Sky Garden would go on to cause considerable controversy, but we'll come back to that.

His reputation is that of someone who pushes the boundaries, so you'd presume that his customers want gardens less ordinary? "People know what I do so they've already made a big decision when they've contacted me to ask would I come and have a look at their plots. Generally they'll be looking for something with a bit of a contemporary edge or a certain style of planting," he says. "When I go and meet them it's all about what the people feel about their gardens. If you don't listen, nobody is going to be happy. There's no point in just creating a show piece for somebody who doesn't really care and just needs a garden to go with the house."

As for his more shocking creations, he thinks that they are begat of a time and a place. "When I started off gardening in Dublin, around south Dublin, you were allowed do things that were classical or stuff that was twee and there wasn't much else. It was all crazy paving and rockeries, or Italian or English or French gardens. I had some frustrations that the way we live now wasn't being acknowledged - the fact that we live in concrete boxes," he explains.

"All of that led to taking influences from pop videos and pop culture and contemporary architecture and producing some outrageous things to get a reaction maybe - to make me think, to make others think. I was doing this as a very personal endeavour and I never expected all the media stuff to happen and television programmes. But I became known for that."

Does he ever look back at some of his designs and cringe? "Some didn't work and you go through an embarrassment stage about that, but I've always been honest with myself in what I was trying to achieve. If you do things for the right reason, even if you make mistakes, you mightn't like them but they're a learning curve. It's difficult stuff, yeah, but you learn and you move on. It's the great thing about anything artistic, you're continually laying down a layer and then another layer."

Some of his more fantastical creations, such as the Sky Garden and his multi-story pyramid garden, were created for shows rather than real gardens, he adds. "You might bring some of the excitement or a twist or a quirk into elegant gardens that you work for people in the real world. The shows are a bit of a shout-out and then you tone done those notions but stick to, you know, the way we live now."

As Diarmuid gets older - he will turn 51 in May - he's found himself becoming more interested in the history of garden design and classical gardens. That doesn't mean, however, that he is ever going to play it too safe.

"As you mature you slow down and you realise. Pat Kenny once said Ryan Tubridy was a young man in a hurry - I was certainly a young man in a hurry where garden style was concerned. But now, for instance, my own garden is a lot more traditional than people expect."

Diarmuid lives in Wicklow with his wife Justine and their 10-year-old daughter, Eppie. "I think it comes down to understanding the client and I'm rarely home, so my clients are my wife and my daughter. I live in a house surrounded by girls - even our dogs are girls - and where Justine would appreciate the journey I've been on, I know the type of gardens I make would not necessarily be what she loves.

"So a great joy is creating a garden that she can go out and relax in and of course has a trampoline for the little one and her mates," he says. "Where maybe I stuck to what I believe in in terms of creating a garden at home is changing the architecture of the house, working the flow between house and garden." Digging and clearing soil are two of his favourite activities and, for Diarmuid, there's no place like home to do them. "I absolutely love it and I get lost in it. A fork and a spade and a shovel and a wheelbarrow back home, it's a funny thing. You work in these vast places all over the place and then you go home to your own plot and it's more important than any of them to you," he says.

He made Eppie a meadow last year but she's not that interested in gardening yet. "I'm sure she will be in time because she's quite creative, but it's more Rihanna and Beyoncé and iPads than gardens," he laughs. "She quite likes when I do a garden at Chelsea because I would do something with slides or a hint of the fairground or the flying garden or whatever, so she'll certainly enjoy exploring the quirky elements of what we do."

Inspiration for those quirks comes from everywhere. Film director Mary McGuckian, whose biopic of the Irish designer Eileen Gray will premiere at the Dublin Film Festival this month, is a neighbour in the South of France.

Through her, he's been learning about Gray's designs and her modernist villa, E-1027, which is just down the road from him in France. This has proved to be rich fodder.

"It's a nice way to go through life, it you're interested in things, if you're interested in the machinery of living and how people live, architecture. Your eyes are always open," he maintains.

Diarmuid unwinds by spending time with Justine and Eppie, running and going on country walks with the dogs. He's just back from a skiing trip in Italy with Eppie, his project manager and his two children. During the summer, the Gavin family surfs in Lahinch. As to what the gardening world is like to inhabit, he says it's a bit of everything.

"I had a friend in BBC Birmingham years ago who used to produce The Clothes Show and she came to produce my programmes and she found the gardening world to be a lot bitchier than the fashion world, which is saying something," he says.

But it's not always a rose garden, as was made obvious when he had a very public falling out with Cork City Council, over their handling of his award-winning Sky Garden installation. The garden finally went on display in Fitzgerald Park in Cork last year, having cost the taxpayer more than €2million.

Though Diarmuid had severed all involvement with the project two years previously, it's clear that the whole episode still rankles with him.

"It's very frustrating. I find it very difficult. I think it took a couple of years of my life to kind of get over what's happening," he says. "It's very interesting. Outside of Ireland, it's great. It's absolutely great. People celebrate it [the Sky Garden] everywhere and don't know anything that's happened at home so wherever you go people want to talk about that particular garden. And then sometimes at home, it's very, very different…"

He adds that the situation was unique and frustrating and he's "not sure it's over yet". As to where the rest of Ireland is with gardening right now, he posits that we've been through the design-obsessed phase ten or 15 years ago and then the bling stage, working with lots of stainless steel and having everything shiny and contemporary. Now people want to learn the craft of gardening.

"They're interested in colour, they're interested in growing fruit and vegetables, they're interested in herbaceous plants, so it's a cycle.

"Generally gardeners at home are more educated than ever before because they watch television programmes and buy the magazines and books. But now we're at a stage where people want to learn about real gardening and that can only be good.

"The industry was suffering from not enough people going into apprenticeships and learning. Everybody wants to be a designer, everyone wants to be a garden television presenter and that's changed a little bit and things have gotten a lot more real. I think it's no harm. When things are tough, people like to stay at home and nest a little bit and create their own Edens."

In his new column with Weekend, Diarmuid will be showing you how to create your own slice of heaven. As well as the column, he's designing a roof garden in Harrods, which will be open later in spring. Then there's a TV series with celebrated Irish gardener Helen Dillon, as well as lectures and conferences.

The awards and accolades are a bit of fun to him but it's meeting people who are interested in what he's doing that he finds more rewarding.

"I'll tell you what's really nice. I'll go to London next week and I'll get in a cab and the guy will ask me, 'Are you doing Chelsea?' and they'll know you and they'll want to talk," he says. "To have that sort of friendly acknowledgement from people on the street, to have people interested, is better than any award you can imagine. To have access to people who are interested, in so many different places - that's the real privilege that life has given me."

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life