Irish garden designer Diarmuid Gavin offers some tips on how to live the good life
Diarmuid Gavin tells Jenny Lee about his new television programme and how the coronavirus lockdown and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg have inspired him to rethink his own garden design, re-explore Ireland and pursue 'the good life'
HE ISN’T quite turning his home into a self-sufficient farm like Tom and Barbara in the 1970s comedy The Good Life and yet the once avant-garde garden designer Diarmuid Gavin has plans for a hen house and a greenhouse at his Co Wicklow home.
As well as transforming his own garden, the acclaimed designer and broadcaster will be providing inspiration for local gardens this summer in a new six-part series airing this July on RTÉ One and BBC One Northern Ireland.
Having travelled all over the world with his job, Covid-19 gave the 56-year-old a rare opportunity to stay at home for an extended period and enjoy his garden.
“Of course I was watching all the news and was conscious of the terrible things that were happening; but thankfully I didn't know anyone personally who was ill and was able to get lost in my own little world at home. I almost didn't want to be let out again," he admits.
“The weather was so good and because of lockdown we've had the most amazing spring for wildlife. The countryside looks so beautiful and even the motorway verges have had a chance to breathe and grow.
Gavin has lived in his two-story plantation-style home, wrapped around with a veranda and terrace, for the past 12 years, but admits that due to work and travel commitments he only “got to grips with the garden” about five years ago.
He had further plans to develop it in 2020, saying that “this was to be the spring that it would look amazing”.
“In January I had made a decision to change half of it. I was really inspired by Greta Thunberg and wanted to follow what she was saying and understand that my garden should be for pollinators, attracting birds, bees and wildlife," he tells me.
“I got a lad in with a machine who dug half of it up, but of course that all came to a halt.”
With garden centres and building supply merchants closed, Gavin had to content himself with enjoying half his garden during lockdown.
“Thankfully the messy bit was at the far end,” he laughs.
Television viewers will be able to keep progress of his garden redevelopment when his new series, Gardening Together with Diarmuid Gavin, airs this summer.
“Gardening Together is a show born out of lockdown. It’s an informative, warm and humorous take on the craft of gardening and the skill of garden designers," he says.
“I’ve been holed up at home like everybody for the past 10 weeks, but in these desperate times I, like many people, have found enormous comfort in my garden, by getting out there for a couple of hours every day, even to do the most menial of tasks – there are enormous mental health benefits.”
Although reluctant to fully reveal his plans – as his wife Justine doesn’t know about them all yet – Gavin lets slip that they include: building a chicken coup; building a greenhouse from old windows from a salvage yard; constructing a gathering area with a sunken fire pit and sowing a wildflower meadow.
“I'm also going to fix the ponds that never worked when I did them originally,” he laughs.
With such ambitious plans, I enquire, how big is his garden?
“It’s a little bit bigger than average but it wouldn't be off Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh proportions,” he says.
One of the world’s most respected garden designers and a Chelsea show champion, Gavin’s bold, quirky and often structural designs have raised many eyebrows over the years. The playful quality hasn’t gone from his designing but he does admit that maturity and environmentalism have contributed to his evolving style.
“I was never into using peat or chemicals, yet I still came home and cut the grass. Being sustainable and environmentally aware is so important for gardeners and I’m now going full-on with this good-life gardening plan.
His only child Eppie is now 15, and while she regards anything to do with gardens with disdain, her dad is proud of her feistiness when it comes to what she herself believes in.
“She has no interest in the garden, but she is interested in going on protest marches and certainly does not agree with police brutality in America,” he says.?
Gardening Together with Diarmuid Gavin will see the transformation of six other gardens in Ireland and Gavin is encouraging everyone, from complete novices to seasoned gardeners, to submit their ideas.
“I’m going to select six very different types of garden to help. It could be anything from an inner-city backyard to a more dramatic suburban garden.”
The programme will also feature a mix of gardening advice from Gavin and a panel of experts, giving tips on everything from paving and water features to mossy lawns. This combination of gardening chat and music is something Gavin has been delivering throughout lockdown in his daily Instagram Live programme (@diarmuidgavin), weekdays at 7pm and weekends at 11am.
“We’ve had great fun and I’ve met some amazingly talented Irish gardeners through it, including Conrad McCormick from north Antrim and Paul Smith from Carlow.
“It’s been a great way of promoting gardening in general,” adds Gavin, who says the increased interest in gardening has been one of the positives of the recent lockdown.
Another has been the increase in Gavin’s vinyl collection. A big music fan, he has shared his love of soul and 80s pop with his listeners on Instagram. However, his music hasn’t been to everyone’s taste.
“People were complaining about my music so they started to drop off crates of vinyl at my front door,” laughs Gavin, whose favourite artists are Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.
So is there any truth in the saying that music helps plants grow?
“I believe there is. Gardening is all about rhythm, getting involved and forgetting about your worries. We always have music blasting from the decks in my garden.”
Gavin believes garden trends are no longer about vertical or structural gardening but about the “craft of growing your own”, and reducing waste by “making a brilliant compost heap”.
“It’s also about creating space for your mental health. I have a potting shed that looks like an Australian outback shack, but it’s so quiet and soulful," he says. “We're all worried about what is going to happen in the future but I think we need to look to the past and do what our grandparents when they were gardening.”
Covid-19 has also made Gavin rethink his travel and work plans.
“We had been planning for next year's Chelsea Garden Show a dystopian vision of the future. It was to be the biggest garden that Chelsea had ever seen, but I think we’ve had enough of dystopia with lockdown and Trump. We need to make it a bit more joyous.”
In terms of travel, he’s looking closer to home.
“This time has made me want to get to know the country again, so I’m hoping to hire a campervan and do the Wild Atlantic Way from north to south.”
Of course I couldn’t leave our chat without some advice. Has he any tips on creating a garden that allows you to embrace the outdoor life – even in winter?
“Think gathering spaces, lighting a fire and roasting marshmallows and converting an old garden shed into a retreat. You could even add a sauna.”
:: You can submit your ideas for Gardening Together with Diarmuid Gavin to email@example.com with a short description about yourself, why you’d like Diarmuid to design your garden and a short video, of up to five minutes, to show your garden and outline what you’d like to achieve in the coming weeks. You can also send a short video with your gardening questions and problems.