Award-winning landscape garden designer, Diarmuid Gavin, chats to Evie Kissack ahead of his appearance at BBC Gardeners' World Live (summer 2018). 



So firstly, how is your day going so far?

I’m on the road today, driving north with meetings in London, Derby and Newcastle so along with making sure I’m fully prepared, I’ll be drinking a lot of coffee and hoping for no roadworks!


You’ll be sharing expert advice with thousands of attendees at BBC Gardeners’ World Live this June (2018). Why do you love participating in this event?

You get to meet a lot of passionate people - either those who have created gardens and displays, or visitors to the show who love discovering new plants and seeing old favourites. So everyone at the event is united with a common interest. There’s inspiration and insight for all levels of gardener there.


You released your autobiography and 10th book back in 2010 entitled ‘How The Boy Next Door Turned Out’. When did you first discover your love for garden design and horticulture?

When I was young, I used to watch Percy Thrower on Blue Peter every week. He led the team in creating a sunken Italianate garden at Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. I was mesmerised by the design and the process, and hooked on the idea of creating and planting outdoor spaces. Funnily enough, years later after the recording of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny show, the rock group Primal Scream asked if I knew where famous the Blue Peter garden was.

So, at 3am in the morning, we snuck around the building, hiding in the shadows and once we came upon the plot we rearranged the furniture in the garden. Security guards ejected us all from the premises. Percy would not have been amused!


How would you describe your design philosophy?

Every garden must have some beauty, it must be generally functional and it must adhere to the clients’ desires. But then I feel each design needs elements which are delightful, surprising and magical. It’s the mix of all this which sums up my gardening philosophy.


What things do you look for when judging garden design?

I look for an understanding of the basics of good design, and that spark of imagination, which elevates a plot from something ‘nice’ to something ‘special’ and individual. I like to see the personality of the designer emerge within the creation.


“I feel each design needs elements that are delightful, surprising and magical. It’s the mix of all this which sums up my gardening philosophy.”


What emerging and popular trends have you noticed are occurring in garden design within the last year?

In terms of planting, vertical growth has become mainstream, especially in cities. Vegetable and fruit growing are becoming a standard requirement, even in the smallest of spaces. Also, the value of large specimen plants to create an instant effect and some maturity to enhance smaller planting is being acknowledged by clients.

Clients are becoming aware of pests and diseases which are attacking buxus, olives and palm trees at home or abroad and are asking questions of suppliers, which has shifted that particular culture. And finally, the incorporation of storage into the smallest spaces is becoming more inventive, because everyone needs more storage!


You’re also involved heavily in several charities and support The Rose Project and Cricklewood Homeless Concern (to name a few). Why is it important to you to be involved in projects such as these?

I feel that when you have a voice it’s important to use it. Some issues may be important through life experience, for instance, I was homeless for a while in my mid-twenties. I spent a few months sofa-surfing at friends’ places, so a homeless charity is always going to resonate with me.

Recently, I’ve also been working with a group of people who have Down’s syndrome – they’ve helped create their own training centre, which is garden-oriented, called Field of Dreams, just outside Cork city centre. Both these endeavours are very rewarding.


What’s your first memory of gardening?

Building a rockery underneath a Hawthorn tree at the bottom of our garden with my parents is right up there. Planting it with sun-loving alpines such as saxifrage and dwarf campanulas, despite the huge shade created by the tree, was to be my first lesson in choosing the right plant for the right space!


Could you name a career highlight, or a garden you’re most proud of designing?

Career highlights tend to revolve getting to create certain gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show. Creating a Flying Garden (or at least a hanging one) in 2011 was quite an experience. Also, getting to build a multi-storey plot: seven gardens, one on top of the other, using scaffolding poles and planks was a real adventure. And then there was our Mechanical Garden, where every 15 minutes the garden put on a two minute show with topiary balls bobbing up and down, conical shaped bay trees twirling around, and whole beds of planting rotating – that was fun!


How do you add humour and eccentricity into your creations?

I take inspiration from popular culture; illustrations by Heath Robinson or movies such as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory tend to remain with me, and I try to understand the magic and see how the essence of it can be manifested outside.


You’ve designed gardens all over the world – what are the demands and challenges you’re faced with when creating gardens in different countries with varying climates?

In China, I can work in the north of the country at the Changbai Mountains where the ground is frozen for six months of the year; or in the south near Shanghai where the climate is tropical. These of course require completely different plants to what we use here, so it’s important to know as much as you can about what you’re planting. Understanding the local skill base is also important – it’s always worth checking “can what I have designed actually be built?”


Finally, if you had one piece of advice for a budding horticulturalist (if you pardon the pun!), what would it be?

Understand the basics before you get creative. You need to know soil type, performance and how to condition it to get the best out of it, the climate you are gardening in, what the aspect of the plot is (where the sun is at various times of the day) and the wonderful world of plants which are available to us gardeners. Then it’s time to add your own flair, the elements that only you could bring to garden creation.


Diarmuid Gavin will be sharing expert advice, and judging the Young Landscapers Award at BBC Gardeners’ World Live at NEC, 14 – 17 June. Tickets to the show gain you access to both BBC Gardeners’ World Live and BBC Good Food Show, and can be purchased at 

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