Diarmuid Dishes The Dirt

Posted on: 14 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

He’s been dubbed horticulture’s rebel and the maverick of garden design, but Diarmuid Gavin tells 50connect that turning forty-four and becoming a father has mellowed him somewhat.


A regular on our television screens, Diarmuid Gavin became a household name ten years ago co-presenting Home Front in the Garden alongside Laurence Llewellyn Bowen. Known for his innovative style and ability to make people think differently about their outside space, be it a small patio or large garden, he is at Grand Designs Live this weekend with a garden that shows just how easy it is to grow fruit and veg. And, with the recent reports of global food shortages and riots at supermarkets in Buenos Aires, his theme is extremely timely.

“More and more people want to garden in a way that they feel is sustainable and rewarding,” Diarmuid says. “We will show people how they can rotate crops from year to year, and with a bit of management and successive planting, grow fresh lettuce leaves right through to the end of the summer.”

Divided into four and with each quarter representing a season, Diarmuid wants his garden to demonstrate that it is possible to have a variety of fresh food all year around, because he strongly believes that more education on the importance of eating seasonally is essential.

“We have to get used to a whole new way, and an even more exciting way of eating.  The fact we can buy strawberries or raspberries in a supermarket or restaurant in the middle of winter is quite simply crazy. The frightening thing is we have become used to being able to buy any sort of produce at any time of the year; we expect everything all year around, but after a while, it makes everything taste terribly bland.”

“If you fly over southern Spain or Portugal, half the country is covered in this plastic and you think something is wrong, but that is the food basket for most of Europe. It’s just mass-production. We should be excited when the first new potatoes of the season arrive, rather than not knowing where our vegetables came from.”

Diarmuid holds chemicals and our constant search for perfection responsible for much of our tasteless unseasonal produce. 

“When I studied Horticulture at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, which was in the dark ages now, most of my course was spent talking about chemicals and I couldn’t understand it. I have always been organic because I feel soil is a very precious thing, but I couldn’t understand that this industry which was so much about nature, vibrancy and production, was teaching us to encourage growth artificially, stunt growth artificially or to kill off other life forms. That sort of intensive gardening or intensive farming, whether it be just for pretty flowers or for produce that we will be eating, is just not right. It’s this constant search for perfection; the unblemished apple - but that’s just unnatural.”

The first to admit that the recent popularity in organic food and farmers markets is limited to those who can afford them, Diarmuid believes that awareness of good quality local food is filtering through society.

“Every other day there is something in the paper about there not being enough allotments or the number of miles our food has travelled, so I do think we are pushing against an open door now. Last year, for the first time in 20 or 30 years, sales of vegetable seeds were greater than the sale of flower seeds, which is definitely saying something, especially when there hasn’t been any big marketing campaign.”

“The thing is that growing your own vegetables can be achieved in even the tiniest of spaces, and people notice and even talk about how good their home-grown veg tastes. That has a huge effect on children, especially younger children. Everyone talks about learning from granddad, but very few talk about learning from dad or mum, so we are skipping back a generation, which is wonderful.”

Besides Grand Designs Live, Diarmuid is of course exhibiting at Chelsea, with none other than Sir Terrance Conran.

“We did a book together last year and had so much fun that we decided to work on the garden together, so for our sins and with much dread we will be there! We go on site in nine days – with trepidation.”

“Some years Chelsea is easier than others, but I think there is always trepidation, and although our garden this year is really quite simple, you always worry.”

When asked about his favourite new plants this year, Diarmuid says, for him, it is all about simplicity.

“My plant of the moment because I’ve been looking at them all morning, is Echium which with increased soil temperature are growing in more and more places now. I have planted then outside already because they are great at bringing up a great spark of colour. I use them peeping up between our carex.”

“I’m afraid I’m also stuck on lavender. I am developing a garden in Ireland at the moment, and I am tearing everything back to great simplicity and using things like box hedge, lavender, rosemary and sage - very simple garden plants that give a huge amount of pleasure.”

“I’ve never been into the unusual. Of course there’s always a bigger, better and more sparkly breed out, but I don’t think we need all that. I travel a lot, and in places like Australia, South Africa, in fact especially South Africa, they are hugely against anything that isn’t indigenous. Of course we can’t afford not to have anything which isn’t indigenous in this country, but we don’t need a billion plants.”

Turning forty-four this year, Diarmuid says that maturity is altering his perception of garden design.

“I spent my 30s really quite reactionary.  I wasn’t allowed to do anything that Gertrude Jekyll had done a hundred years before and I was in this crazy march towards modernity, using new materials and new ways of doing things - some of which were lovely and some of which were just idiotic.”

“I’ve always enjoyed whatever age I am, but now I am in my 40s, I’ve certainly refined but that’s what growing is all about. I am still excited by creation, digging, growing stuff and new plants, but I am refining ideas all the time.”

“I have learnt to look back and examine the history of other garden innovators whether they be William Robinson or whoever, so my style has definitely calmed down. Also becoming a Dad has made me begin to settle and think about another life. I just think this is what it’s all about, so relax a bit - you’ve nothing to fight against now; life is great.”

“Being a dad changed me massively, I feel very content with my lot. I am really glad to be the age I am now because I don’t have the worries of someone who is very young. I will probably always be able to work and I can really enjoy life, and I am a bit more confident than I was before.”

That said, his personal ethos is still the punchy Diarmuid Gavin we all know and love.

“You’ve one chance and if you like being adventurous be adventurous. Go for it; this is it. Don’t pay too much attention to what anyone else says. If you believe in something and you are doing it for the right reasons, then go for it and enjoy it.”

By Rachael Hannan

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