Interview: Diarmuid Gavin – back at Chelsea

The star of 1990s makeover series Home Front is back at the Chelsea Flower Show

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Diarmuid Gavin looks like he’s been given a good sanding down. Physically, the king of the garden makeover is half the man he used to be – he appears to have shed about two stone and ten years since he last appeared on screen. Nor are the famous rough edges of his personality anywhere apparent.

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The 47-year-old Irishman once known for raising hell in the herbaceous borders is strolling about the prim planting of the Chelsea Physic Garden as affable as a politician on election day. “I love this place,” he says. “It’s special to me because my wife used to work here.”

It’s fair to say that Gavin’s relationship with Chelsea has not always been so peaceable. For years he was a professional thorn among roses – a reliably controversial counterpoint to the gentlemen gardeners and “ladies who mulch” at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show.

In 2004 he crossed secateurs with fellow gardener Bunny Guinness, accusing her of “snobbery, elitism and rudeness”, when she disputed the height of the wall surrounding his startling “Lottery ball” exhibit. Two years later, he brought legal proceedings against another TV garden designer, Andy Sturgeon, claiming that Sturgeon’s gold medal-winning garden infringed copyright in an earlier design by Gavin (the dispute was settled out of court).

The feuding, he insists, was nine parts “press invention”. “I’m Irish,” he says, by way of explanation. “If somebody prods me, I’ll stand up for myself. And other gardeners can take a dig. But I have no disagreement with Chelsea or the RHS. They’re all decent people. Chelsea can be a bit stuffy, a bit self-referential and careful about not offending anybody. If you break free of that, it’s wonderful.”

Breaking free is what Gavin does best. He made his name back in the 90s as the dedicated “avant-gardener” on the BBC series Home Front, rooting up bedding plants by the barrowload from suburban lawns and replacing them with uncompromising, structural schemes worthy of the Saatchi gallery. A string of gardening and non-gardening programmes (Strictly Come Dancing, Only Fools on Horses, Celebrity Come Dine with Me) followed.

And if he is to be credited with pulling gardens into the 21st century, it is only fitting that his entry to the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show – the seventh time he has competed – should go one step beyond. Inspired by the film Avatar, Diarmuid’s latest Big Idea is a distinctly futuristic “Garden in the Sky” featuring a zeppelin-sized, fully planted “pod”, raised and lowered by means of a crane.

Costing a cool £2 million-plus (the garden is sponsored by the Irish Tourist Board and the City of Cork, where, post-Chelsea, it will be a permanent feature), the scheme is ambitious, even by Gavin’s sky’s-the-limit standards. A series of stepped, shallow pools framed by waving grasses will reflect proceedings as plucky visitors are hoisted heavenward. 

At the time of writing, there are teething problems, but Gavin is undaunted: “To me, it will work fully as a concept if just one person manages to go up and down in the pod. That’s all I want, for one person, just once, to be in a proper ‘hanging garden’.”

And there is much in the garden to delight the earthbound. “There will be a sound element and water will occasionally hop over the paths – it’s an idea I’ve adapted from the gardens of Renaissance cardinals – and in half the pools the water will be dyed black to give a mirror-like surface so that you can see the garden in the sky without looking up.”

Hanging gardens? Renaissance cardinals? Isn’t this distinctly retro for a designer dedicated to the shock of the new?

“It’s true,” Gavin acknowledges, “that I feel quite strongly, though not as strongly as I used to, that gardening is an inherently conservative art form. But I also think, now, that you can’t go forward until you absorb the past. I’m convinced that if the great garden designers of previous centuries – the Arabs of Andalucia, or the cardinals in Renaissance Italy – had had the engineering capacity, the electricity, the digital capacity available to us today, they would have done everything possible to make gardens dance.

“Fun, for me, has always been the bottom line. Gardens are about entertainment and entrancement and the potential of ideas – being truly influenced by contemporary light in the darkness.”

Gardens, explains Gavin, were “the saving” of him, and he is gently evangelical about their transformative effect on the human psyche. It’s a conviction going back to his own, shattered childhood in the suburbs of Dublin.

He was just six years old when he witnessed the death of his younger brother. The two boys were walking to school when five-year-old Conor was hit by a car and killed. Gavin wrote about the trauma in his autobiography, How the Boy Next Door Turned Out, published last year, and there, he feels, the matter should rest.

“You know, the Irish are brilliant at wallowing in grief. So I try not to. But I learnt something writing that book. I learnt my little brother wouldn’t want to be defined by the way he died. But it was shocking, it was absolutely awful. And because of it, I grew up shy and withdrawn.

“I was a dreamer and I was regarded as ‘slow’ at home. I was brought to child psychologists and all this type of thing. I knew I wasn’t stupid, but I just couldn’t see anything in suburbia that seemed to ‘fit’ me. And the garden that my parents built – the lawns and the cherry trees and the bedding plants – drove me mental.

“I think I must always have been very aware of my environment because my response was to take my little shovel over the road to a piece of parkland and build my own gardens. And I’ve never lost that childhood thing of wanting to escape and be frivolous and build dens. I’ve never lost the joy in planting, that sense of regrowth and renewal, the possibility of some- thing different.”

Six years ago, with the birth of his daughter Eppie, Gavin’s cycle of renewal was complete. He is a besotted dad (“Actually, I’m quite strict”) and cheerfully ascribes the “great good fortune” of meeting his wife Justine, daughter of the former Chief Justice of Ireland, to “the Mellors syndrome”. “I was the gardener in her parents’ house. She was the beautiful blonde in the conservatory.”

He admits, though, that the mysterious pull of the potting shed has, at times, been an embarrassment. Female stalkers have more than once warranted police action. “There was an unbelievable ‘sting’ one year at Chelsea,” reveals Gavin, “involving Alan Titchmarsh and myself and a deeply obsessive fan.”

Now the faintly dissolute charm has been replaced by something no less charming, but a whole lot healthier. “I used to think when I got married and had a child and started getting plump that this was a sign of absolute contentment. And I realised one day that it wasn’t.

“I realised that I wanted to be there for my little one at all times of the day – the Saturday morning as well as the Friday evening. So I got my act together, cut out the drink, started running manically and changed my dietary habits. And you know what? It’s brilliant!”

He still seems a little shocked by the revelation. “I suppose I don’t expect a lot from myself and yet here we are – we live in a nice house [in the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin], we have a nice garden, we have good friends. I don’t know why I expected a life of calamity, but it hasn’t turned out like that at all.”

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Diarmuid Gavin sounds like a man touching wood – possibly some rare, extravagantly hard-to-grow species. “The luck of the Irish,” he warmly agrees, “doesn’t begin to cover it.”