Don’t be fooled by the affable exterior – television’s most popular gardener is plotting a revolution in our own back yards. Here he lets us in on the secret and tries to recruit you as well.

Diarmuid Gavin
Diarmuid Gavin

Diarmuid Gavin, everyone’s favourite television gardener, is about to become slightly less popular – with developers at least. He doesn’t like the way they landscape common parts in their schemes, and he particularly doesn’t like those that he and his wife Jasmine have been looking down on from their seventh-floor flat in Dublin for the past five years. Anyone tuning in to or turning up at the Chelsea Flower Show this year will be able to see Diarmuid Gavin Designs’ idea of what should be offered instead.

I met Gavin in his studio in a tiny cobbled mews off Portobello Road. This is the delightfully informal headquarters from which he runs, virtually unassisted, his garden designing, publishing, and TV empire. He is slimmer and more dynamic than he appears on the box and “Dermot” is the closest I can get to the soft elision of the first two syllables of his Christian name. This sounds as though it ought to have a “j” in it, like djinn, and he is a sort of djinn of the gardening world.

There is no question that Gavin is a busy boy, and his enthusiasm for all things horticultural is infectious. And what he’s madly enthusiastic about right now is that prototype shared garden that he is presenting at Chelsea in May. “The BBC is always inviting me commentate so rather than just being a critic I think I ought to be offering something myself.”

A dig at developers

In other countries, such as Singapore, developers have to lodge 5% of the construction cost of a project with the local authority, which they only get back once they’ve completed the landscaping. Here, they seem to see it as their bounden duty to cut out as much of the landscaping as they can get away with. The result? Etiolated trees wilting in concrete drums amid claggy ill-tended lawns and swaths of windswept concrete paving. “I really hate it,” says Gavin. “When you compare what’s shown on the architect’s drawing with what you actually get.” You know what he means. Out goes Capability Brown, in comes West Side Story.

Gavin aims to change all that. He is already famous for digging his contemporary trowel into the cosy world of garden design. Blue concrete walls with circular openings (à la Barbara Hepworth) and large sheets of coloured steel may not be to everyone’s taste, but then they are only the most alarming of Gavin’s designs. The notoriety he has attracted because of his more controversial compositions obscures his fiercely imaginative attitude to the possibilities of modelling outside space, which is evident in all his work.

TV idol

Gavin was amazed to find himself on telly.

“I could never imagine that television would ever let me do to the kind of gardens that I wanted to,” he says. “But luckily for me, the media is obsessed with lifestyle. It started with people’s clothes, then it was the look of their houses and flats, now it’s plastic surgery, but for the past few years it’s been gardens as well.” Like everything else, people’s expectations of what their gardens should be are changing: “Until recently, the only gardens they’ve seen that are not extremely traditional have been designed for rich foreigners. Now people here are beginning to say, ‘I’d be interested in something like that’.” Gavin has in the past concentrated on bespoke gardens for specific individuals, but will now accept a commission only if there is something particularly interesting that he wants to do, such as putting a garden in one of the pods on the London Eye, or concocting a window for Harrods complete with live ducks, but he is clearly anxious to work at a bigger scale. “Developers are always asking me to design gardens for their schemes,” he sighs, “but they’re never interested in my ideas, they only want my name on their brochure.” A horticultural version, perhaps, of the property ads in the Sunday supplements, decorated as they are with the silken locks of Gavin’s former co-presenter, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Going to Chelsea

I could never imagine that TV would ever let me do to the kind of gardens that I wanted to. But luckily for me, the media is obsessed with lifestyle. It started with people’s clothes, then it was their houses, now it’s plastic surgery, but for the past few years it’s been gardens as well

Gavin has been thinking hard about how to make a contemporary a garden that is shared by large numbers of people in surrounding flats. One of the problems is that the scale of the space is at odds with the expectations of the individual. “The architect has put a bench there,” he says, “But it’s too public, so nobody wants to sit on it.”

Gavin has an extremely innovative solution, which is to dot his communal garden with hollow concrete spheres, each about 2.4 m in diameter. These have one or more large round openings in the external skin giving physical and visual access to the inside. These “pods” will provide the privacy that’s missing in so many shared gardens. He is insistent that communal gardens must provide a background to some sort of social activity, so that even if onlookers never set foot in them, they can enjoy the human life that animates the parkland: “Otherwise it’s just dead.”

Gavin’s pods will be fitted with some sort of garden seating, or with Roald Dahl-style workrooms, or even as spa baths. Indeed, they can be tailored to any specification deemed appropriate. The regular spherical shape of the pods and their circular openings guarantees the necessary homogeneity in the composition, and provides a habitable element.

The horticultural element in the Chelsea prototype is an undulating surface planting, seemingly quilted, like a giant eiderdown, stepping down from a wall 2 m high at one end. The intersecting points of the “quilt” are pinpointed by “box bundles” – box as in boxus sempervirens – a device for providing 600 mm spheres of greenery, like the little square pieces that infill the corners where large octagonal floor tiles abut. The diagonal lines are expressed by dense planting of purple lavender. “It’s a pity the show’s not in June,” Gavin says wistfully, “the lavender would be just fantastic.”

What makes the whole thing work is a raised stone path, like a catwalk, which connects the entrances to the pods. Gavin wants the people walking on this to derive spiritual nourishment from the garden rather than to engage with it physically – “like Chinese gardens of a thousand years ago”, he says with obvious respect the ancient practitioners of his noble craft. Access to the path is through a tunnel – another Gavin device – so onlookers will see an undulating geometrical garden landscape, with beautifully finished perforated concrete spheres dotted along this path.

Quite a challenge for an exhibition garden of 23 × 10 m. However, Gavin’s co-director, Mark Robinson, was the project manager at the Serpentine Gallery for five years where he was responsible for building the magical summer pavilions by Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito, so a few concrete spheres in an organic lavender eiderdown should be no problem.

Planting the seeds

Once he can show that this brilliant idea works, Gavin will find all kinds of mass housing providers banging on his tool shed. But to stack it up, he needs to establish a way of fabricating the spheres commercially (see “Can you help?”, below).

Gavin explains why Chelsea is the best showcase for this intriguing proposal. “Ninety per cent of the audience see the show on television. The picture they get from the bird’s eye cameras will give them the same view of my garden as people in a high-rise neighbourhood would have of the real thing.”

Although he is renowned for using surprising materials in his compositions, what really makes any garden is the planting. “In my gardens,” says Gavin “I leave most of the heavy stuff to the client’s own team, or I recommend someone to do it for them. But I absolutely insist on providing the plants and doing the actual planting myself. And, even more importantly, looking after it to ensure that it happens the way I want.” No doubt hordes of his fans – he has not been dubbed prime “potting shed totty” for nothing – will be keen to watch him planting thousands of lavender bushes around his prototype 21st-century communal garden in SW3.

Personal effects

Where do you live? We’ve a flat in London but have just bought a rundown cottage in County Kerry.
What bit of landscaping do you find impressive? The garden outside Canary Wharf station. It’s very simple and has just a very few elements. I also like the grassy part of Charles Jencks’ garden of cosmic speculation in the Scottish borders for its dramatic contemporary effect.
Do you drive around in a gardener’s van? No – a Jaguar XJ6
How would you best approach a blank piece of yard behind a spec developer’s house? Keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate, just remember material, form and proportion.
What is your most essential garden tool? No question: my secateurs.

Can you help?

Diarmuid loves concrete as a material and wants to use it to fabricate his pods – essentially large hollow spheres. But as yet he has been unable to find a company that can make them. The pods might contain a simple seating area or be a chill-out space with audiovisual equipment.

If you can help, please call Diarmuid or project co-ordinator Hester Leneghan on 020-7727 2002 or email