It seemed like a good idea at the time. Get Diarm uid Gavin into his natural environment, one of Dublin’s great garden parks. Having done much of his early training at the National Botanic Gardens, he would surely feel right at home here.
hat Weekend had forgotten was that Ireland’s best known garden designer was going to be catnip for the green-fingered enthusiasts who descend on this beautiful patch of Glasnevin. So, as we walk and chat along the many pathways of the park, Gavin is stopped time and time again by excited admirers, most of them older women.
“How are you, Diarmuid?” strangers enquire of him. Others simply stop what they are doing and stare, before indiscreetly turning to their friend and whispering, “Look, it’s him!”
Weekend wonders aloud if he is horticulture’s answer to Daniel O’Donnell? He cracks up. He can’t deny it, especially when one lady — who, in a rare instance, is probably a good deal younger than Gavin — asks him if he wouldn’t mind delivering a birthday greeting, by video message, to a friend of hers. He does so like a pro, his eyes twinkling as he utters a kindly few words on cue.
It’s not just women. One man sidles over while we are sitting in a walled-garden part of the park and enquires about the plants he is planning to grow in his own green space in Donegal.
Gavin takes it all in his stride. He has been at the game long enough, and this is his audience.
His companion, Paul Smyth, is tickled by the attention Gavin gets, although his own burgeoning career in gardening hasn’t gone unnoticed. One young woman, who turns out to be a horticultural student at the Botanic Gardens, tells him she’s an avid admirer of his Instagram account (@paultsmyth). “I learn so much from it,” Michelle from Limerick enthuses. “It exposes you to gardeners you actually would never come across only for that.”
A cursory glance at Smyth’s Instagram feed reveals a fetish for beautiful plants. “I’m a plant man,” he says with a smile. “It’s less about designing gardens, like Diarmuid does, and more about appreciating plants themselves, in isolation.”
Gavin is keen to point out that Smyth has his own legion of admirers. “The snowdrop ladies,” he says, with a wicked smirk. Smyth blushes. “This guy,” Gavin adds, “is like Eoin McLove to them.” Eoin McLove, to the uninitiated, is a fictional, Daniel O’Donnell-inspired character from Father Ted. “But seriously, there’s nothing he doesn’t know about snowdrops.”
There’s a lot of ribbing between the two, especially from Gavin to Smyth, but it’s clear the pair get on tremendously. They have been collaborating for a couple of years now. There was a gardening series for RTÉ that was aired during lockdown; they have a popular podcast together called Dirt; and new book, Gardening Together — the same name as the TV show — has just been published.
The book feels like an obvious companion to the podcast and is aimed primarily at those who are new to gardening. “Yeah, we were thinking of those people who discovered gardening during the pandemic,” Smyth says.
“We wanted to demystify gardening,” Gavin says, as we stroll along the banks of the Tolka river. “And we’ve written it on a month-by-month basis. There isn’t much happening in the first few months of the year and the very first words of the book are, ‘January is a s**t show.’ It’s a bit like the way we talk on the podcast.”
“Gardening,” Smyth adds, “should be accessible, and not something that is there to intimidate anyone interested in giving it a go. I think you can really hear which of us is talking in the book at certain points.”
“A lot of that is down to Paul,” Gavin says. But before the younger man can enjoy the compliment, a playful barb arrives like an Exocet missile. “He hasn’t been brought up very well!”
Smyth says he and Gavin may have very different personalities but there’s at least one trait that unites them. “We both get very distracted easily,” he says. “For this book to happen, we had to be trapped together for a week during the 2021 lockdown in order to focus.
“So we went off to Cavan to this cabin place [Cabu by the Lakes] and we spent a week there where we couldn’t go anywhere else. And every single day, we went through, ‘What are we going to do for this month and that month?’ and we went through the things we both wanted to say, and we joined our thoughts.”
“We were like The Odd Couple,” Gavin interjects. “But it worked. He’d correct my copy; I’d correct his — I’d make it readable.” Smyth says, laughing good-naturedly. Slagging is clearly a large component of their friendship.
They may share a common passion, but different aspects of gardening excite them. For Gavin, it’s about designing extraordinary outdoor spaces by shaping the natural world in a way that’s thrilling and thought-provoking and, ultimately, man-made. For Smyth, the connection is much more simple; earthier even.
“It’s about appreciating the plants, about working with nature, and about understanding how amazing the natural world is,” he says. “I’m very much interested not just in how to grow plants but where they come from and what’s their story? I like to get nerdy about it — like why does such a plant need certain things to be polished? Or why did another plant’s pollinator go extinct a million years ago?”
Gavin does not share his friend’s deep-dive into the plant world. “Nowhere near it,” he says. “A lot of the stuff he’s into would bore the tits off me. I don’t even know how to spell any of them [the Latin words for plants] properly. But I love the fact that everybody can have a different appreciation of it, and Paul is one of the best communicators about it [plants] that I’ve never met.”
The pair are acutely aware that, for many people, having their own garden is a pipe dream, especially in an environment where house prices have skyrocketed to Celtic Tiger levels.
“There’s an enormous amount of privilege,” Gavin says, “and it comes down to who gets to own land on this island, who gets to garden and who gets to farm. And the people who do get to do all these things look like you and me.
“In Britain, it has been embraced as a topic. But here, we haven’t even begun to think about it. There’s almost a sense that gardening and the structure of gardening and the clubs that have been built up and evolved around it keep people who don’t look like them out. Having the annual lunch in yacht clubs and things like that don’t say ‘you’re not allowed’, but you don’t feel included. I feel we’re about to see a big challenge to that from the ground roots.”
Smyth adds that for many people of his generation — he’s 29 — home-buying, whether there’s a garden cobbled on or not, is simply impossible. “There is a class thing, for sure, but it’s a generational thing, too. The older generations have the privilege of gardening, but maybe not the younger ones.”
Despite such inequality, he believes those who do not own their own gardens should not feel fully excluded. “Public spaces and green spaces are so important,” he says. “We need more opportunities for those people who want to get involved to do so.”
To his credit, Gavin doesn’t pretend that Gardening Together will offer much to those who don’t have access to a garden, be it their own or a communal one where they can plant in. “Ours is what you do when you go out your back door,” he says. “There are books for people who want to celebrate the natural world and plants and things like that. That young lad, [the naturalist] Dara McAnulty, has written books that really tap into that.”
For Gavin, being in the Botanic Gardens brings it all back. “This is where I went to college so, for me, it’s packed with memories of finding what you really love to do,” he says. “At the time, the facilities weren’t great, but every day we’d spend at least four hours working in the gardens with the gardeners, and that was unreal. We had such great craic. Most of my fellow students were like him.” He nods toward Smyth. “From the country.”
“That’s why it’s so great,” Smyth, a Carlow native, says. “If you’re from the country, you can escape from the hustle and bustle of the city into this oasis. Kew Gardens [in London] is the same. And it’s been great to be here today, because even though we’re gardeners, we don’t get to come here too often.”
When Weekend meets the pair, toward the end of April, they have spent several weeks together, working on an elaborate mechanical garden in Co Antrim.
“It’s the Antrim Castle Clockwork Garden,” Gavin says, “and it’s based on a garden I did for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016. Since then, I brought it home. We built it at the Dundrum Town Centre in 2017, and it was there for four months. We’ve built it now for good and future-proofed it.”
The way the pair describe it, the Clockwork Garden seems to be as much about sophisticated engineering as it is about innovative gardening. A complex series of steel machines had to be made and installed underground. At the touch of the button, the garden moves.
It is the sort of project that made Gavin a horticultural superstar, not just in Ireland, but in Britain, too. He first made his name in the 1990s, and his designs were in demand all over the world. At one time, he was spending more time in airports and airplanes than in his beloved outdoor milieu.
The pandemic forced him to slow down — and not before time. The once-in-a-lifetime upheaval allowed him to step off the treadmill, and he is hugely grateful for that.
“I know this is a terrible thing to say, but it was just the best. I loved it. It stopped everything, especially the travel, which was 4.30am going to the airport every second day. It stopped having to go to China, to France. It stopped all the mad-cap schemes I’d planned. It cleared the deck.
“And I could stop without feeling guilty. I don’t think it was a case of me taking on too much, because I’ll never be happy unless I’ve filled the time available with this idea or that idea — behind the scenes, I always have a few crazy things going on — but it was a bit of a reset.”
He pauses, momentarily, lost in his thoughts. “As a gardener, the first time I got on a Ryanair flight to go to England to work, I felt it was an amazing success, and to be valued and needed and wanted became my life. And I kept thinking that way for years. Going out to China to work felt virtuous. But the lockdowns showed me it didn’t have to be that way. There were other things that gave me purpose.”
One of those was his own garden. “Everything changed in my place. I had a chance to see it every day. I’d been an occasional visitor to my own garden before that. I changed it all over those couple of years. I had all this time. I mean, I didn’t go outside my front door for six weeks at one stage. We pretty much have Avoca [the retail store and food hall] in the back garden.”
Gavin had plenty to work with. Weekend met him at his home near Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, in 2019. Dense with foliage and an utterly serene place, it was a far cry from his more outré creations. Replete with fine views of the distinctively peaked Great Sugar Loaf, the experience of spending an hour in Gavin’s garden ensured burning envy on the drive back to Dublin. Many people would consider sacrificing a body part to call that garden their own, but Gavin, as ever, wanted change.
Smyth wasn’t quite as enamoured by the pandemic. He had spent much of the previous five years in Britain, slowly but surely making his own name in the trade. For much of that time, he worked as gardener and field worker at the internationally renowned Crûg Farm Plants. But when the world turned on its axis, he decided to come back to the family home in rural Carlow.
“The novelty, at first, was great. I was back home for the first time in years, and I was able to do loads of things that I hadn’t gotten to do. And then, six months into it, and the frustration sets in. So many things that had been planned had to be postponed. I’m going to a wedding in a few days that was supposed to happen two years ago. There was a feeling about life being put on hold, and it got to the point where I was, ‘Let me out of here. Let me start living again.’”
“You’re free now,” Gavin says, kindly. “Pack up everything in the car and see where it takes you.”
Gardening Together, published by Gill Books, is out now
https://www.independent.ie/life/diarmiud-gavin-theres-an-enormous-amount-of-privilege-and-it-comes-down-to-who-gets-to-own-land-on-this-island-who-gets-to-garden-and-who-gets-to-farm-41638547.html Diarmiud Gavin: ‘There’s an enormous amount of privilege, and it comes down to who gets to own land on this island – who gets to garden and who gets to farm’