Diarmuid Gavin talks ahead of Gardeners' World Live at Birmingham NEC
Hanging baskets and decking. A decent shed and a neat little water feature. Those are the things most people tend to think about when they consider the great British garden.
But Diarmuid Gavin isn’t ‘most people’.
The garden designer is a dyed in the wool maverick; a true one-off who led a revolution among British gardeners when he conceived the idea of an ‘outdoor room’ on Gardeners’ World, Home Front and Great British Garden Revival.
The one-time Strictly Come Dancing contestant, who also made an appearance on Only Fools on Horses, The Chase, Sport Relief and Come Dine With Me, had little time for convention. Whereas some gardeners were inspired by fuchias and peonies – he was enthralled by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and the way the floor lit up every time Jacko’s feet touched it.
Diarmuid introduced rock‘n’roll to gardening, just as celebrity chef Keith Floyd had done in the kitchen.
And though Diarmuid is no longer a regular on British TV screens, he remains a huge draw among gardeners. His style changed the game and he’ll be a star guest at Gardeners' World Live at Birmingham’s NEC from June 14-17.
Along with Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Adam Frost, Joe Swift, Carol Klein, Nick Bailey and others, he’ll be offering expert advice at the Floral Marquee.
He is well qualified to do so. Diarmuid studied amenity horticulture at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin in Dublin before establishing his own garden design business. After twice winning the Royal Dublin Society Gold medal for garden design during the 90s, he displayed at the prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1995 and 1996. His modern vibrant city garden in 1996 caused quite a stir and led to a career in television where he developed a unique style in contemporary garden design.
The BBC made a five-hour documentary series Diarmuid’s Big Adventure, following Diarmuid building a garden which has subsequently developed an audience for his work in many foreign territories.
The year 2011 saw Diarmuid return to Chelsea with his ambitious Garden in the Sky design being awarded Gold, while this year sees the unveiling of his Chelsea Magical Tower Garden.
Diarmuid has worked for all the main broadcasters on both radio and television in the UK and Ireland. For eight years his main programme, Homefront, was broadcast by the BBC achieved top ratings. But he has also been presenter and garden designer on other programmes such as I Want a Garden and Planet Patio. He has worked on garden history programmes such as Art of the Garden in association with Tate Britain and Gardens Through Time, profiling the history of the Royal Horticultural Society over 250 years.
He’s looking forward to his appearance in Birmingham.
“I’ll be giving a talk about garden design and how to create the plot of your dreams by way of inspiration and budget. I’ll talk about all the tools that you need to do it.”
Diarmuid is a fan of the West Midlands. After all, his earliest inspiration was Shrewsbury gardener Percy Thrower, who was the town’s Parks Superintendent from 1946 to 1974. Percy was the leading face and voice of British gardening on TV and radio for many years, inspiring Gavin as well as such figures as Alan Titchmarsh.
“My first connections with horticulture came through Blue Peter. Percy Thrower was a huge inspiration because of the way he transformed space. Between that and the Willy Wonka movie, which also had a garden, I was off.
“When I left school, I worked in a garden shop for three years then I went to the college to learn my trade, to learn about plants. We have a temperate climate so we can grow plants from all around the world.”
His career plan didn’t include working on TV. He became a household name almost by chance.
“Doing TV was a remarkable journey for me. I decided I wanted to create gardens from an early age but I didn’t want any close bond or association with the gardens I saw around me, like suburban gardens with clipped privet hedges and rockeries. I didn’t like big gardens, either, like those at big country houses.
“I wanted something different. My inspirations were Michael Jackson and his Billie Jean video, where the path was illuminated every time he made a move.”
The only problem was, nobody wanted gardens like that. Diarmuid’s success at Chelsea changed everything.
“I talked my way into getting a plot at Chelsea in the mid-1990s and Alan Titchmarsh featured one of my gardens. My world changed almost overnight. I had been begging to do things for years and then it all turned around, with people coming to me. We had 10 years making gardens. It was great fun.
“That wave was very rock‘n’roll. It was quite extraordinary. It started quietly but then came Charlie Dimmock and the idea took off for make-overs. It was easy watching for TV audiences. Our programme was more fantasy and high design. And to be on that wave was extraordinary. It meant I was invited to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, as well as presenting Top of the Pops. It was brilliant fun.”
Success brought money and Diarmuid found himself driving to jobs in a convertible Jag with his gardening tools in the boot, or being interviewed on Radio 1 before heading off to make-over a garden.
“I didn’t do everything. I was offered I’m A Celebirty, but that wouldn’t have worked. It was a magical time and I made great friends before settling down into family life.
“Receiving an Honorary Degree from the Nottingham Trent University was a massive personal validation because I hadn’t done well in school and so that doctorate was astonishing to receive. Probably that was the highlight for me.”