HE’S undoubtedly one of Ireland’s most renowned gardeners, with an impressive profile that is revered right across the globe. But celebrity gardener, Diarmuid Gavin, didn’t always have the gardening world at his feet, telling CONNECT that he was homeless at 25 after becoming increasingly dissatisfied creatively, which led him to manage his landscaping business really badly.
Diarmuid, who is set to co-host a unique and exciting three-day garden festival in south Kerry this September, says he now feels privileged to do what he does and says his biggest career highlight is being accepted and appreciated in an industry he absolutely adores.
Growing up in suburban Dublin with what he described as a ‘family of conformists,’ Diarmuid says he was always ‘the black sheep’ and the creative one. His love of all things gardening was evident from an early age, admitting that he knew from when he was a child that he had a desire to change landscapes.
“I always loved being outside in the garden and there was a public park that had a woodland very near me called Bushy Park in Terenure and I used to go there as an 8-year-old with my dad’s shovels an spades and landscape up underneath the trees in that park,” he recalls. “From a very young age I seemed to have this desire to want to change landscapes.”
Admitting that he was never academic, Diarmuid says that the school system was not for him, so a more creative path was always on the cards.
“I didn’t enjoy school, so coming from a family where studying and doing well and getting a permanent, pensionable job was important was all a bit challenging for me at a young age. So around the time it came to leaving school, I had two things in mind – either working in a restaurant as a chef or working in the garden area.”
In fact, Diarmuid actually did begin his career as a commis chef, working in Templebar, and loved every moment of it. But after three months, a job in a gardening shop came up in the city centre and he changed course – admitting that gardening was always the big draw.
“The new job was in a shop called Mackey’s Seeds and that was a shop that had been operating in Dublin for nearly 250 years. It was an institution and had been passed down through the family,” Diarmuid explains. “I had been desperately shy up until then and I met great people there who became friends. I loved the hustle and bustle of cycling in every day from the suburbs and I loved everything about it. I loved picking up loads of tips from the staff who were trained gardeners and I met people from all over the country – great people who were passionate about gardening,”
At the age of 21, after three years in Mackey’s Seeds, Diarmuid applied to become a student in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin – another step in his career that he loved.
“That was utterly brilliant. I absolutely loved it because I was in a class of like-minded students from all around the country. At evenings and weekends we’d go out and do nixers, learning in a very practical way how to create gardens. It was such fun. We spent our middle year with the Parks Department in Dublin City and County Councils and every six weeks we’d change from one park to anther – so we could be in Merion Square in the city or St Anne’s Park on the outskirts, working with council workers learning how to look after a park. It was tough going, with long hours, but it was exhilarating.”
After three years at the Botanic Gardens, Dermot immediately set up his own landscaping business – Gavin Landscaping.
“That was always a hallmark of me – as soon as I could get a van and start up I was doing it. I even designed the logo for Gavin Landscaping before I left college and literally had the t-shirts and the business cards printed,” Dermot reveals. “I had a lot of get up and go and once I started landscaping I never stopped. I was so excited. Even at weekends, I’d hire a friend’s van and be up at 5am on a Saturday morning gathering all the materials I needed and finish late on a Sunday having finished creating a garden somewhere in the suburbs of Dublin. I loved it. I could hardly sleep with the excitement of what the next day brought. I was always able to get work and I learned from a very early age that I understood gardens, so I could design a really good garden on the back of a pack of cigarettes. They were great days.”
However, Diarmuid admits that his career ‘hit a dip’ a few years later, when he felt he was challenged creatively.
“I was really interested in creating beautiful gardens, but once I realised I was able to do that and that it came naturally, I hit a dip. There were garden festivals I’d go to in the RDS and nearly always win the main prize or whatever, but when I reached that I felt it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t very good at business, but I could make the gardens, and I ended up being very dissatisfied. I wanted to make gardens that were contemporary – whether it was from magazines or pop videos on Top of The Pops – stuff that nobody was looking for. I wanted to do that, but there was no market for it.
“Even though I was winning the medals and building a profile making pretty gardens for pretty people, I wasn’t satisfied creatively and I started doing my work pretty badly. I was bouncing cheques left right and centre and started feeling very ashamed and in the end I couldn’t pay the rent for my flat in Ranelagh and I ended up homeless. First, a guy came to repossess my stereo system in my flat and then I lost the flat. I wasn’t going to go back home, so I had all my belongings in two black bin bags and I’d sleep on couches. I was about 25 at the time, so I definitely hit a low because of not being able to create the gardens I wanted to. It was a really tough time.”
Thankfully, at around that time Diarmuid met well known journalist Terry Keane and her daughter, Justine – who would later become his wife – and says their support and encouragement was crucial in helping him turn things around.
“I met a Terry Keane, who was a journalist, and I did her garden, and then I met her daughter, who told me I can do anything I wanted to do – just put my mind to it. I thought she was amazing and with their encouragement I started to look at things again. I’d heard of the famous Chelsea Flower Show in England and myself and Justine went off to see it in 1994 and I thought ‘If I can get in there, maybe my life would change.’
“I sent off an application and they told me to get lost,” Diarmuid jokes. “So, the following year I turned up on their doorstep and they eventually let me. I brought a garden from Ballinskelligs over in 1995 and nobody noticed.”
Diarmuid admits that when he got home from Chelsea, understandably a little forlorn, something extraordinary happened which changed the trajectory of his life and career.
“I was in a pub one night telling people about Chelsea and was chatting to two girls. One was a producer with RTE, who I knew, and the other was a researcher for the Late Late Show, which I didn’t know at the time. She rang me the following day and said: ‘you were telling us about going over to this thing in London’ and she thought the story was amazing. The following weekend she got me on the show with Gay Byrne and, honestly, after that appearance on the Late Late Show it was as if my life changed overnight. It was mad.”
Diarmuid went back to Chelsea again the following year with his idea of what a contemporary garden would be – explaining that it was inspired by Michael Jacksons’ Billy Jean music video – but unfortunately, it didn’t go quite to plan.
“It was awful and I was almost drummed out of the place. It’s almost impossible not to get an award at Chelsea, but I got a letter to say go away and don’t come back. But the BBC recorded something at that show with me and my life in the UK changed overnight. From being homeless to having every offer come my way, simply because the garden looked great on television. From that day to this it’s been an extraordinary journey.”
Of course, Diarmuid did return to Chelsea and in May 2011 his Irish Sky Garden won the gold medal at the show.
Today, Diarmuid is busier than ever, although Covid19 has stalled his international projects dramatically.
“I have the weirdest job in the world now,” Diarmuid joked. “Pre-Covid, I would have been at the airport every day, flying to some other part of the world to design gardens or make a TV series. I was spending a lot of time designing gardens all around China. I could have been working for the National Trust in the UK or making a TV series or writing a book or taking part in a reality show. It was so weird – for someone who couldn’t get arrested before the age of 27 or 28, to turn around and be kind of celebrated and recognised in different places. It was so strange, but amazing.
“Since Covid and lockdown, though, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff online. I’ve also done a new lock down TV series in Ireland, a new garden make-over series in the UK, written a new book and have just launched a
podcast. So it’s been busy. It’s very varied and I never know who the next email is going to be from or what it’s going to be about and that’s very exciting.”
Of course, Diarmuid is busy planning an upcoming Garden Festival in Ballinskelligs from September 10-12, which he is co-hosting with his friend and fellow gardener, Paul Smyth. In typical Diarmuid Gavin style, his explanation of what’s in store sounds epic!
“So, in March 2020, when the first lockdown was announced, me and a friend, Paul Smyth, started going live over Instagram. We realised we could help people garden and we had answers for people so we wanted to make ourselves available,” Diarmuid explained. “We’ve done that every evening since, wherever we are, and out of that we built a community which we called ‘The Riff Raff’. We soon realised that we had to create an event to get these people from all around the world together once we came out of lockdown. I’ve loved Ballinskelligs for many, many years – so what better place to have a three-day festival?
“We have people coming from Africa, America and all over Europe, so we’ll have between 300 and 500 people here for a festival where anything goes. There will be great gardening stuff but also hayhem. We’re billing it like a Ted Fest – expect the worst and hopefully we’ll give you the best. It’s open to anyone who loves gardening and will be one big garden conversation with the best experts, marquees, a Riff Raff ball, a gardening disco, plant bingo, quizzes, stalls – a bit of everything. It will be the best gardening show anywhere in the world this year.”
Tickets are still available for the festival from Eventbrite at ‘Diarmuid and Paul’s Garden Festival’
Ballinskelligs was always going to be the location for the event, Diarmud explained, given his love of the stunning south Kerry village.
“I’ve been coming down here for over 20 years and it has always been my escape. My mother-in-law always came down here and my good friend Noelle Campbell Sharpe is here and of course we got married in Sneem. We come here three or four times a year. It’s Heaven. Kerry may indeed be the best county in which to garden. The rarest and most beautiful plants are here. Pants love to grow here. Kerry is a garden,”
Asked finally about some of the highlights of his career, interestingly, awards, medals and notoriety didn’t feature top of Diarmuid’s list. Doing what he loves and being accepted is what he cherishes most.
“I suppose it was doing some gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show and, through that, getting a voice. The highlight is all my dreams coming true and getting to explore what gardens can be. Getting to explore different – some might say outlandish – designs and sparking a debate,” Diarmuid revealed.
“A couple of gardens in particular that we’ve done there over the last 10 years have been special to me. They haven’t always worked – and I don’t think they need to work as long as you do them honestly and try to get them right. What makes me happy is just acceptance – the fact that people will allow me to be different and understand that I’m different and allow me try and succeed and accept if I don’t. It’s been an amazing journey.”
Yes, everyone can be a gardener:
Diarmuid’s top tips
– Do nothing for the first year – just observe. See where the sun is at at different times of the day
– Get your soil right. Getting good soil and improving whatever soil you have will be the best investment you will make
– Get someone local who is interested in gardening to give you some advice.
– Have a look around and see what’s growing locally and go with that – don’t garden against it
– Don’t garden in a neat and tidy way. Let some of the lawn grow into a wildflower or meadow. Magic stuff happens like that
– Be a bit untidy about your gardening.
– Garden with nature. We have to garden for the whole ecosystem so don’t use chemicals, pesticides or fungicides or artificial fertisliser
– A garden that grows wild is as good as any planted garden, so don’t be snobby about it