Ely Flower Festival ambassador Diarmuid Gavin talks childhood, Chelsea and unexpected stardom
Dubbed 'the Damien Hirst of horticulture' for his boundary-pushing garden designs, TV's Diarmuid Gavin is the face of this year's Ely Flower Festival.
When a young Diarmuid Gavin turned up on the doorstep of the Royal Horticultural Society, requesting a show garden at Chelsea, he was sent away with a flea in his ear.
“That’s a very powerful memory for me,” laughs the now Chelsea Gold-winning designer.
“I’d tried to ring Chelsea Flower Show, but the operator didn’t have a listing for them – that’s how long ago this was: I called the operator! So I got on a boat from Ireland, went to London and presented myself at the offices of the RHS.
“I said I wanted a Chelsea garden and they said ‘Well, you don’t just walk in off the street and ask for one’. They told me I had to write an application and sent me on my way. So I then wrote an application. Which was rejected.”
With the luck of the Irish, Diarmuid later got a call to say another designer had dropped out, could he step in? And so, in the May of 1995, he arrived at the showground, armed with a design inspired by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video, a collection of plants foraged from Kerry hedgerows, and just £300 in his pocket.
“For the last three days we survived on instant coffee – we couldn’t afford to eat. Looking back, I was very foolhardy. In the flesh, the garden wasn’t great. It got a Bronze; if you turn up you get a Bronze.
“But it looked great on television. And that’s what changed my life, literally overnight.”
Interviewed on camera by Alan Titchmarsh, Diarmuid charmed viewers and caught the eye of TV execs – within hours, the phone was ringing. “It was all very confusing. But it led to some of the best joys of my life – and some of the best creativity.”
Since then, Diarmuid has become something of a horticultural rock star, with a string of TV hits (Gardeners’ World, Home Front in the Garden), books (including The Extra Room, which won critical acclaim) and headline-grabbing show gardens (notably The Sky Garden, at Chelsea 2011, which hoisted 60ft in the air) to his name. His fans are legion.
Diarmuid was talking to the Cambridge Independent – down the line from Newcastle, where he’s working on a legacy project for the National Trust – in his capacity as ambassador for Ely Cathedral Flower Festival. Returning to Ely this summer after a four-year break, it will see the cathedral filled with cutting-edge, technicoloured floral displays, and is set to attract hordes from across the country. The festival is being supported by the Cambridge Independent and our sister magazine, Velvet.
“The only time I’ve ever been to Ely is actually when I was doing that first Chelsea garden. I needed silver birch trees, so someone pointed me in the direction of Barcham’s.
“I remember getting off the train and Ely seeming so exotic, with the flatness of the land, the vastness of the sky and this amazing cathedral rising up... Ely’s a special place, and I’m really looking forward to going back.”
Diarmuid will cut the ribbon on the four-day festival, titled Kaleidoscope of Life, at a champagne reception. “A flower festival is the perfect place for me. There are similarities with making a show garden, actually – except with a garden you have a month to build it, and these people produce miraculous creations in a couple of days.”
Born in London and raised in Ireland, Diarmuid was always creative; he credits his school art master with being “the only person to say ‘There’s a place for you. You have a place in society’.”
Struggling with the academic side of life – “I just wasn’t very good at it” – Diarmuid was also dealing with “difficult family stuff”. “We were both on our way to school when my brother Conor was knocked down and killed. He was five, I was six. So no, it wasn’t great.
“It was only in later years I began to remember that, for his five years of life, Conor was a little devil. I began to realise that maybe he shouldn’t be defined by how he died – that was doing him no justice – and instead we should remember him how he lived. Now I think of him with a smile.”
Does Diarmuid share his brother’s devilish streak? Dubbed ‘the Damien Hirst of horticulture’, he’s known for pushing boundaries. . .
“I’ve always questioned, from a very early age. I think that’s got something to do with the way I was brought up – I questioned things like the Catholic Church’s hold over Ireland. But that’s not to be provocative, it’s more that I see things differently.”
Diarmuid can remember the exact moment he knew his future lay in garden design. Having studied at Dublin’s Botanic Garden, he placed a newspaper ad offering his gardening services and was commissioned to overhaul a small front yard. Inspired by John Brookes, the designer known for pioneering the ‘outdoor room’, he created “a little gravelled garden, with this collection of plants and objects. And it gave me an overwhelming feeling of joy. I knew then that this was what I was supposed to be doing.
“We’re going back 30 years now, but weirdly I bumped into the client on an airport bus last year. They’ve kept the garden exactly the same, not changed a thing. Which is a bit surreal.”
The novelty of designing domestic gardens did, though, start to wane. “I wanted to create gardens inspired by Michael Jackson videos; the kind of gardens people don’t want in real life,” laughs Diarmuid.
A string of show plots over in Ireland spurred him to knock on Chelsea’s door. “I heard a visitor say ‘That’s almost Chelsea standard’, so that made me think. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Diarmuid has something of a love-hate relationship with Chelsea. Constant changes of guard at the show have, he says, caused frictions. “They’ve had six or seven show managers in the last six or seven years. The last garden I did – the British Eccentrics Garden – was only given the green light five weeks before we were due to go on site. And things weren’t particularly pleasant when we got there.
“You have to really, really want to do something to do it under those conditions. It has to be an idea you’re obsessed with, an idea that won’t let you sleep at night.”
The Sky Garden was one of those ideas. Inspired by a trip to Sligo, where he stumbled across a stream flanked with orbs of moss-covered stone (“they were like pillows. I thought ‘I’ve got to put that in a garden’”), and the opening of a ‘sky restaurant’ in London, giving diners a bird’s eye view of the capital, it defied both rules and reason.
At the click of a button, the whole garden – lush, lovely and tussocked with green – was winched 60ft into the air. “We didn’t know if it was going to work until it actually worked,” admits Diarmuid. The Sky Garden scooped Gold.
Diarmuid’s last Chelsea entry, 2016’s Harrods British Eccentrics Garden, was every bit as quirky. Drawing on Heath Robinson’s much-loved cartoons – depicting ludicrously complicated machines, designed to accomplish the simplest of tasks – it came alive on the quarter-hour: operated by clockwork, bay trees twirled, box balls bobbed and a carousel of flowers danced around a central folly.
“We’d hide in the folly and watch people’s reactions. That absorption and the sense of wonder. . . It was lovely to see people smile.”
When he’s not wowing with show gardens, Diarmuid is running his private design business from the Irish home he shares with wife Justine and daughter Eppie. With many high-profile clients, who appreciate discretion, he can’t share much, save to say “we’re doing a lot in China at the moment, which is really interesting. And I’ve got the National Trust project: it’s their first contemporary garden and it’s going to be around a while, so there’s a responsibility comes with that”.
One thing’s for certain: Diarmuid’s passion for gardening remains, after 30 years in the business, undimmed. “I love everything about it, every element from the creative process through to the plants themselves. More than anything, I love the pleasure it brings: gardens bring people joy, don’t they?”