The Avant Gardener

Gardener Diarmuid Gavin, reputed for his wacky bold garden designs, returned to Ireland this year having reaped success across the pond. But success did not come easily. By Emma Browne

Diarmuid Gavin has been called many things – “enfant terrible”, “the punk rock gardener”, “the Damien Hirst of garden design”. And the impression portrayed by the media, mainly the British media, is of an arrogant, difficult man with a big ego.


But when you talk to those who have personal experience of Gavin their impression of him couldn't be more different. They describe him as “very shy”, “great craic”, “easy-going”, “quite timid”, “a cheery fellow”, “approachable” “an ordinary guy” and always with a smile on his face.

Friends say the arrogant image is mistaken and comes from a “shyness that can be misconstrued as arrogance” or just a general perception that “people think celebrities are like that”.

Diarmuid Gavin says that there may be some truth in it. “Television makes you feel like a king for a day and you begin to get an attitude from it… I did get a bit of an ego a few years back but now I have cut down on the television.”

Dubliner Diarmuid Gavin is known for his flamboyant, wacky garden designs on such programmes as the BBC's Home Front and RTE's I Want a Garden, which has started a second series here. Charming and attractive, Gavin is also a “good listener”, making him a hit with the ladies.

Gavin was recently in the news for winning his second silver medal at the Chelsea flower show last month. He has reaped massive success in Britain, mainly in television, and has recently returned to live in Ireland where he opened a branch of his garden design company.

But success did not always come so easily to Gavin.

After studying at The College of Amenity Horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens he set up a gardening business in Dublin, but it was a flop. He ended up homeless and penniless and abandoned gardening. “I had no money, my clothes were in bin liners in somebody's garden because I couldn't afford a flat and I was kicked out of houses. I was nearly 30 but I couldn't go back home. I had no money – not even 50p – and was staying a few nights here and there on floors and sofas.”

Gavin says the venture went wrong because he was trying “to make gardens that were different and there was no audience for that” in Ireland. And he was not business savvy.

Around the same time a design he had entered at the Royal Dublin Show was well received and he and a mate knocked together £300GBP for a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. He won a bronze for it. It was a traditional design, but Gavin returned in 1996 with a more contemporary design – a wall of metal with flowing water, inspired by the POD nightclub toilets. This was when he got his big break. Because of the unusual design of the garden, BBC gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh interviewed him about his garden and “overnight the phone started ringing” with television roles.

Then about a year later the BBC asked if he would co-front a show, Home Front. The show was already established as a home improvement show, but with Gavin they added a garden design element. It was a success, becoming the number one show on BBC2 and attracting 5 million viewers from the outset. Many more television roles on the BBC followed. But his television style was not to everybody's liking. Reviewing Gavin's series Gardens Through Time in 2004, the Sunday Times critic, AA Gill said: “His Attila the Digger self-image is largely based on tearing up the past and planting the future with balls on. It's childish, sandpit gardening.”

The BBC gardening shows helped to establish Gavin with a distinct style of gardening - bold architectural pieces “people expect the drama, the oversize from me now.”

Since the first win at Chelsea Gavin has been back a few times – winning a silver-gilt medal in 2004, and then again this year.

But Chelsea has also been the location for some Gavin controversies that have perhaps felled the impression of him as an “enfant terrible”. In 2004, he had a row with Bunny Guinness, his neighbour on a Chelsea site, about the size of a wall. He called her “rude, elitist and a snob”; and the organisers complained that he was “a nightmare to work with”.

Then he accused Andy Sturgeon, a fellow TV gardener who won a gold at Chelsea with a garden design Gavin said he had plagiarized from him. They went to court, Sturgeon accused Gavin of defamation, but the dispute has now been settled.

Gavin says he was always “outdoorsy” and “that way inclined” as a child but had wanted to be a chef before he settled on gardening. He went to Templogue College but was not academic. He did not like growing up in the suburbs of Dublin and describes it as “suffocating” and “horrifying”. After school he went to work in Mackies gardening shop in Dublin city centre for three years before studying horticulture at college. Paul Cusack, head of the college, who taught him when he was a student says Gavin was “noted there” as a student, and tells a prophetic tale about the young Gavin. One of the projects they had to do in college was a garden design. The owner of the garden in question reported back that “it was an outstanding design, this student will go far with their career”.  
Gavin developed a second passion last year – show jumping. He took part in BBC's charity showjumping event Only Fools and Horses in 2006 and since then has been totally hooked.

In the last few years he has tried to move away from television and concentrate on his garden design company which has been branching out across the globe. He is enviously quick at designs, often knocking them up on the back of a napkin. He does about 20-30 gardens a year.

He says that he is happy doing less television as life is less manic. The move back to Ireland from London has been spurred on by the birth of his daughter in 2004. His wife, Justine is also from Ireland, and the daughter of former chief justice Ronan Keane and journalist Terry Keane. They met when Gavin was doing Terry Keane's garden back when his gardening business was not faring so well. He credits Justine with giving him to confidence to continue in gardening, and the bug must have rubbed off on her as well as she went back to retrain as a horticulturist at the National Botanical Gardens after meeting Gavin.

Gavin has grand plans for the future. He is hoping to conquer America, and is collaborating with design heavy-weight, Terence Conran on an ultimate guide to the outdoors. But most interestingly he says that he has lots of ideas for the city of Dublin.

 “Ireland was about 10 years behind England in terms of garden design up until recently, but once you do introduce contemporary garden design here they are not as hung up on the traditional, they are much faster to let go of it, compared to the English.”

But this is the guy who put a metal shark fin in a suburban garden - is Ireland ready for the Gavin whirlwind?

“In fact, I'm the Daniel O'Donnell of gardening,” he laughs. “It's other people who think I'm a rebel.”