Gavin’s Flower Power

Diarmuid Gavin on his BBC TV show, Ground Force, which focuses on planting.

By Lauren Byrne, Contributor
August September 2005

“I’ve got to go. Diarmuid’s show is coming on.” My otherwise devoted mother has cut short more than one transatlantic phone call with those words. If you haven’t yet encountered Diarmuid (pronounced Dermot) Gavin’s friendly face under its mop of curling hair, trust me, it’s only a matter of time before you do. In England, the success of his television garden makeovers show (part of the ongoing craze for lifestyle TV) has transformed him into an anomaly of our times, the “celebrity” gardener; a status ratified by appearances on reality shows and shaking hands with the Queen. They’re mad about him in his native Ireland too, where his talents seem all the more dazzling for having been recognized in England first.

That’s why I felt a kind of proprietary pique at watching him amble about unrecognized at this year’s Cincinnati Flower Show, where he was a judge and guest speaker. The lack of a fan base didn’t bother him; freeing him up to go sightseeing with his family. And whereas his TV persona is ebullient and opinionated, as a judge his opinions were mild and he seemed content to loiter cheerfully in the accommodating sunshine while his fellow judges continued to debate. It was something of a shock then, when he was preparing for a talk he was giving that evening, to hear him confess to a slight case of nerves.

“My stuff is different,” he said, fretting about the response of Midwestern gardeners to it. “And why should they like it? They may prefer English or French traditional gardens.”

“Different” is one — if hugely inadequate — description for the work of the man they call the “rock’n roll gardener,” one whose garden designs originate in a rattlebag of ideas that include dime store slinkys, Zaha Hadid’s chaos-inspired architecture, and TV cartoons. Gardening enthusiasts (most, he admits, are of the armchair rather than the active variety) having been tuning in for several years to his BBC show for the frisson of seeing quaint English gardens transformed by an Irishman with a penchant for metal, glass, and concrete fixtures.

“Contemporary gardens should reflect the way we live now,” he says ricocheting from his chair in front of my tape recorder to the stage where his laptop, with its images of the work he’ll be showing his audience later that evening, sits. Some of his ideas, he admits, just didn’t work; contractors often weren’t capable of achieving what he wanted. He pauses at one image and wonders if the client really liked it or if he’d simply been persuaded by Diarmuid that he liked it.

Success, it seems, may be Diarmuid’s main gripe nowadays. “Ten years ago, I could do none of the stuff I wanted to do. Now everybody wants contemporary, which is bad also. It’s like the craze for shiny kitchens and stainless steel everywhere.”

It’s all right to be inspired by something but not to slavishly emulate it, is Diarmuid’s position. Zen gardens, he thinks, are fine — but in their indigenous locations. To be contemporary, to him, doesn’t mean replicating some outdated model of 1930s Modernism. His rock’n roll philosophy is the same one Elvis swiveled his hips to: be true to yourself; live in the present. “Suburbia is so incredibly bland, why can’t you get a little bit of the architecture that you like in your garden? The outrageous stuff I do is to get people thinking maybe we can do something new. Though actually, I don’t think my gardens are as whacky as people think they are. They have all the usual features; a lawn, plantings, but the TV programs highlight the structures so that’s what people tend to see.”

He’s still out of pocket for the garden he entered at last year’s Chelsea Garden Show in London. The show is to the gardening world what the World Series is to baseball and more. The design he entered contained a patch of multicolored metal lollipops waving amid the natural plantings, and a multicolored egg-shaped garden room with a hydraulically operated door (that stubbornly refused to open when the Queen declared she wanted to see it). It doesn’t take a communications expert to interpret the body language of the judges seen in a photograph Diarmuid has of them emerging after their inspection. “We are not amused,” would sum it up. Though they did award Diarmuid a medal for the best plantings in Chelsea. And this is the reason why he also counts serious horticulturalists amongst his admirers. Take away the oversized metallic eggs and glass tiled walls and you still have one of the most talented and best-informed gardeners around today.

A little over ten years ago, Diarmuid Gavin was a frustrated landscape gardener in Dublin. “Everybody in south Dublin where I worked wanted Gertrude Jekyll types of gardens and she had been dead for seventy or eighty years. And they were always looking to a British way of doing things. I thought why can’t we be young and confident? We are in so many other arts. Why can’t we in gardens?”

To salve his creative urges, at age 32, Gavin designed a garden inspired by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video and a Dublin nightclub, and took it over to London, to the Chelsea show. Lacking funds, his design lacked the kind of finished elegance that wins medals, but it did get him noticed. Interviewed for a spot on a BBC gardening show, Diarmuid discovered he possessed another remarkable talent: a capacity for entering people’s homes via TV and having them want him to stay. Before he could say “Helleborus argutifolius” he was signed up by the BBC as a host of Ground Force.

It might sound like heaven, but for the self-conscious Irishman, happiest when working alone with nothing more than an old radio for company, it was hell. “I was freaked by it,” he says of his instant success. “It was at a time when I’d have to plead to do anything. Then suddenly people were saying I could do something, but I didn’t know what it was. What was I, an entertainer? It was nice to be wanted, but it made me feel awful.”

He was the kind of child who wanted to blow up everything. Unengaged by school, he hated the blandness of suburban Dublin life. His introversion was compounded perhaps by the experience he had when he was six years old and his five-year-old brother (the two shared the same birthday a year apart) was knocked down and killed while the pair were on their way to school. An interest in plants seems a mercifully productive activity for a young nihilist, but though he liked working out of doors, the idea of becoming a gardener, with its associations with men in cloth caps coming to trim the roses, did not appeal to him. For a long time after graduating from Dublin’s horticultural college, his ambition to change the world, or at least its backyards, seemed frustratingly unrealizable. “I could design pretty gardens on the back of an envelope,” he says. “I could go to a garden festival in Dublin and win a gold medal every time. But it wasn’t what I needed to do.”

But even the worst of times have their highlights. It happened that well-known plantswoman Helen Dillon dashed off a garden design on the back of a proverbial envelope for her neighbor, the gossip columnist Terry Keane (whose published memoirs revealed the details of her longtime affair with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey). Keane called Diarmuid in to put the design in place, and the rest blends rock’n roll with Victorian romance, for it was then that Diarmuid met Keane’s daughter Justine, and the two fell in love. Justine went back to college to get a degree in horticulture, and has worked with Diarmuid in his landscaping company in London and is co-author of his several gardening books. Most recently the two collaborated on another project, baby daughter, Eppie, whose name was fittingly borrowed from a 19th-century novel by George Eliot.

With the arrival of Eppie late last year, Diarmuid and Justine moved back to live in Dublin to be with family. At ease with his TV demands nowadays, he’ll continue to do shows for the BBC and also with Irish TV. But even as he appears to be going home, he’s also branching even farther afield. Though talks with TV people in the U.S. haven’t panned out so far, Dorling Kindersley have published U.S. editions of his books, and invitations, like the one to Cincinnati, are proliferating.

“I’d adore to work here.” His eyes light up at the suggestion. “Someday I’d love to do something and have someone like Architectural Digest cover it. I’ve looked to America for so many influences.

“When I was starting out in Dublin you could do nothing, and America was always the land where you can do anything,” says the man who’s made a habit of realizing his dreams. ♦

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