Diarmuid Gavin talks about his (very large) Chelsea Flower Show offering

May 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

I am sitting outside a busy seafront cafe in Dun Laoghaire. Seagulls are performing aerobatics overhead while a glossy starling keeps up a spirited commentary on the ground nearby. It’s a perfect day: not only is the sun shining, but Ireland’s most famous garden designer — who is famously difficult to pin down — has kept his appointment with me.

Diarmuid Gavin gets straight to the point: he waves at the lofty Italianate clock tower on the County Hall: “It’s about the height of that.” I gasp. He’s pleased, but forces himself to be more exact: “Well, maybe it’s just short of that.” Still, at 24 metres tall, his Westland Magical Tower is his highest Chelsea Flower Show garden yet. “The height is really a by-product of the design,” he says, with just a hint of self justification. “It’s not me trying to say” — and then he laughs in between every word — “I’ve… a… bigger… thing… than you!”

Quite a big thing, really

Whatever Gavin’s creation is trying (or not trying) to say, it is a rather wonderful item, and his most impressive Chelsea offering so far. The skeletal, pyramidal tower rises from a 16-by-16-metre footprint and tapers to an elegant point somewhere up in the heavens. The structure is unabashedly temporary, being built completely of scaffolding materials. The poles have all been painted ebony black, and the new couplers and clamps are burnished and golden. The colours are sumptuous and classy, like those of Chinese lacquer furniture.

Black scaffolding poles with burnished couplers

On the way to the top — which can be reached by an internal lift, or by metal staircases — there are seven different levels, partially decked over with scaffolding planks, giving the tower a floor area of 600 square metres.

The elevated terraces will accommodate self-contained gardens, each with a different flavour and mood, as if they are tended by different personalities. So there might be a vegetable plot (complete with compost bin and shed), a patch of jolly annuals and hanging baskets, a cool sophisticated balcony for ladies who lunch, and any number of other high-level plots.

Going up!

As with all of Gavin’s ouevres, a jumble of disparate ideas has inspired this design. Most have to do with the notion of city living and the need for increasing green space in unconventional places. Gavin is excited by the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) development in Milan, a pair of residential towers planted with hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs. And he’s energised by the High Line, the linear park recently created on an abandoned railway track in Manhattan. But he is equally influenced by Rear Window, Hitchcock’s masterpiece of voyeuristic tension where protagonist James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, becomes obsessed with the goings-on in the apartment block opposite. Gavin loves the obvious artificiality of the film, and wants to replicate the feeling of a “series of lives being lived in a succession of boxes, one on top of the other.” And he adds, displaying his talent for a good quote: “if there is a murder, even better!”

Do click for a better view!

The idea of making a garden out of scaffolding came last spring when he saw London’s Albert Bridge, then undergoing restoration, trussed in a densely packed and infinitely interesting web of poles and platforms.

Gavin’s magical tower, which is sponsored by Westland Horticulture, is being built near Stansted Airport by a crack team of British scaffolders. As soon as it is completed, it will be carefully disassembled, with all the parts marked and numbered before being packed into trucks and delivered to the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea — where the world’s most prestigious garden event takes place this month.

At the beginning of the nineteen-day build period before the show opens, the scaffolders will have five days to erect the tower. “I’m a bit apprehensive about the first few days,” admits Gavin. “We’ll have this amazing structure that everyone will be looking at and going ‘Oooohhh God, there goes Diarmuid again’, and ‘Who does he think he is?’ — and all that sort of thing.”

The Chelsea plot awaiting Gavin’s tower

The Irish designer always attracts scrutiny, and not just because of his brash and flamboyant designs. Over the years he has been embroiled in public disputes with other participants, and — last year — with his sponsors. Accordingly, his Chelsea Flower Show appearances have always garnered more publicity than those of any other designer. But his gardens also warrant the attention for themselves:  “We’re trying to be adventurous, and trying to have some fun, and trying to push it. We should, as designers, be offering something new. It’s an exhibition. It’s show business!”

Gavin admits that some of his gardens have been more successful than others — mainly because he becomes consumed with near-irrational enthusiasm during each project. He mentions one in particular: “at the time I thought it was the most magical thing in the world. And then to realise that it wasn’t — that was like a flat bottle of lemonade.”

His ideas often come to him almost fully formed, “and that is what causes me problems,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll refine it and you go and talk to everybody about it, and then a few weeks later, you will realise ‘That was the worst idea I ever had, and I’m so embarrassed!’”

Barrels of fun

When we meet, Gavin is at the not-sleeping stage of obsession with his current Chelsea offering. His iPad is crammed with images: besides the countless concept drawings and plant specimen photos, there are shots of scaffold fixings, wooden potato crates, rows of oil drums, and piles of rusted containers he found in the scaffolder’s yard — “Can you imagine ivy trailing over them? Or box planted in them? Or lavender in the sky?”

Potato crates

And there are dozens of pictures of the structure gradually ascending near Stansted. He’s thrilled by the way that the vertical scaffolding bars arrange themselves in regular ranks of columns — especially on the lowest level. “It’s absolutely classical!”

He’s crazily, madly in love with his scaffolding and all the beauteous shapes and dreams it conjures up all by itself. Yet he knows that he must put this infatuation to one side. “I can’t get carried away with the structure, I have to realise I am making a garden.”

“The planting stage is where you get it right or you get it wrong. The planting is whether this — like the Irish Sky Garden — becomes a garden that endears itself to people or not. You are a big show-off if you come along and make a scaffolding structure that size. But unless I can get the little old ladies standing there smiling at it, I haven’t done a good job.”

So, in order to make sure that the old ladies — and everyone else, including the judges — smile on him, Gavin is concentrating hard on the planting, along with Clontarf-based landscaping contractor Gerry Conneely, one of his team of sixteen workers. The hunt for perfect specimens has led them to nurseries in Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.

The lowest level of the garden will be full of shade lovers such as tree ferns, hostas and ivies. And rising into the next level will be a grove of chalky-stemmed birches. “I like really simple planting. I’ll always have box. And look at this!” — and he scrolls to a bold-leaved loquat. “I love it! It’s so Oscar Wilde. And what about this?” —  a huge flat-domed Portugal laurel. “That costs a couple of grand. But it would be great for a very formal garden, like the Ladies Who Lunch garden.” And on and on he goes, as plants fly by on the iPad screen.

Portugal laurel pudding — for the ladies-who-lunch

Gavin has mixed feelings about Chelsea: “Last year I felt it more strongly than ever. I am both massively excited and repulsed. And when I say repulsed, I really mean it.” And his voice thickens with horror. “Because it’s flower arranging. I absolutely love it, but I think ‘you’re just placing the plants.’  But then you walk away from it, and you realise that there is a bit of an art form in this.”

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Diarmuid Gavin’s Chelsea Gardens

1995: “To the Waters and The Wild”: the enchanting slice of Irish countryside and its romantic stone ruin was made on a shoestring, winning Gavin and collaborator, Vincent Barnes, a bronze medal.

1996: The modern city garden had glass slabs that lit up when stepped on, and although it won no medals, its designer’s ready charm and cheeky good looks landed him a presenter’s spot on television and launched a busy media career.

2004: “A Colourful Suburban Eden” was a jaunty creation, with a sea of giant lollipops and a Fabergé-egg-type pavilion. Probably Gavin’s most expensive garden: “I sort of lost the run of myself because it was so busy, and I left everything until late,  and you pay top dollar then.” The judges gave it a silver-gilt medal.

2005: The pretty “Hanover Quay Garden” with swathes of lavender and box balls was awarded a silver gilt.

2007: “The Westland Garden”, which won a silver-gilt medal, had beauteous planting by Stephen Reilly and a softly-curving garden studio by Irish company, Shomera.

2008: The Oceânico Garden, with Sir Terence Conran was a city courtyard populated by a flotilla of airy, metal mesh daisies. The designers’ blurb enthused “It’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets Roald Dahl!” The judges awarded a bronze medal.

2011: “The Irish Sky Garden”, sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council, featured a giant pink metalwork pod suspended from a crane. It earned Gavin his first Chelsea gold, but the project was not a happy one. Destined to be rebuilt in Cork’s Fitzgerald Park, the Avatar-inspired creation has been the subject of acrimony between Cork County Council, Fáilte Ireland and the designer’s office — which is no longer involved in the venture. “It is a great embarrassment,” says Gavin. “But it is not my embarrassment. I don’t believe we did anything wrong.” The Fitzgerald Park project has been put out to tender. “It’s difficult for anyone who wins the tender, because they have to redo our garden with us not being too happy about it, but it’s work, and everybody needs work in this country in this day and age.”

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Diarmuid speaks:

– The best thing about Chelsea: “Working with the lads, and seeing it coming together. And getting to work with plants that you will never get to work with on a commercial job”

– The worst thing about Chelsea:  “The grasping for gold: nothing else matters, just gold.”

– The next big thing in gardening: “the environment, growing your own, cocooning, colour, herbaceous, conservation of water, composting, sustainability: all those things that I might have thought were boring 10 years ago.”

– Greatest inspiration? “I love what Philip Treacy [the Irish milliner] does: I absolutely love that genius because it’s fun and elegant and quirky in terms of design. It’s just… astonishing.”

– On being controversial: “I think our stuff is relatively tame. It’s quirky. If I wanted to be controversial at Chelsea, I would be projecting images of the queen, or of nude queens.”

– On past gardens made for television shows: “I was like a child in the sweetshop. We made the good, the bad and the ugly, and we threw everything but the kitchen sink in… But what with one thing and the other, I learnt a bit, and I calmed down.”

– On being middle-aged: “I love middle age for enjoying the simpler things, and not having frustrations any more. You are more confident in yourself, you’re not as shy. You just say ‘this is me’. A friend pointed out to me that my hair was receding, So I showed it to my wife, and she said, “Yes, it is. That’s what happens.”

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Diarmuid Tube

A series of short videos on Diarmuid Gavin’s Youtube channel comments on the making of this year’s Chelsea garden.

© Jane Powers  A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times. 

Going forth and scaling new horizons

October 15, 2011 § 21 Comments

This week, my own monument to the past came down. My office had had shelves and shelves of Irish Times newspapers and magazines — each of which contained my gardening columns and other articles.

In the 15 years that I was the paper’s gardening correspondent, and in the preceding two years where I regularly wrote about gardens, I rarely seemed to find the time to cut out my clippings and file them away. I’d have bursts of archiving on quiet days, but the mounds of paper continued to expand, hopping down onto the floor under the bookshelves, and depriving the dogs of their favourite bolthole during thunderstorms and fireworks explosions. In the days since I wrote my final column, which you can read here, I’ve been snipping and clipping, and working my way back from the latter end of 2011 to the beginning of 1995.

I have been rolling through time at the rate of about one year for every two hours of paper cutting and filing. Although I’ve written over seven hundred gardening columns, and hundreds of other pieces, distinct memories come floating up from many of the snippets of newsprint. An interview with the late and marvellously haughty Ambrose Congreve summons a vision of his rakishly red socks, echoed by the faded crimson of Burke’s Peerage close at hand; a piece on trees recalls the absurdity of sitting at a boardroom table while executives from a semi-state organisation briefed me on what they thought should go into the article; a column about a garden in Wexford brings back the day that started badly with a missed train and a pain in my belly, but that ended with my making a particularly special friend.

The Bay Garden: where pain ends, and friendship begins

Working for a newspaper, even when you’re a garden writer, is all about deadlines, and fitting into a monstrously huge and complex machine. Everyone is on a schedule. So the perky Christmas gift article from 1998 was written while our old dog lay fatally injured, waiting for the vet to come and end his life; and a lively piece on Airfield Garden was finished off while I dealt with the news that my father had been found dead on his kitchen floor four thousand miles away. In the last few days, the rapid and continual procession of memories has nearly overwhelmed me.

But there were many things that made me laugh too. Sometimes subeditors (who work under huge pressure) would have to compose headlines without seeing the photo that accompanied the writing. So, one column featured a portrait of one of Ireland’s most self-important gardeners with the headline “Our plump country cousins” (which was actually a quote about plants lifted from the text), and another (also extracting a fragment about plants) shouted “A home for the ugly duckling” under the picture of a formidable lady gardener. She, I’m glad to say, was a good sport about this newspaperistic misfortune. Headline-writing is often like calligraphy, quick and instinctual: “Hosta la vista, baby”, “Sow what?”, “Swards at the ready” and so on. Some headlines suggest themselves automatically, and have muscled into my 15 years of columns more than once, “Scaling new heights”, for example — usually applied to climbing plants.

© Jane Powers

Scaling new heights

A photo that I took of the dog above when she was a puppy, by the way, provided one of the magazine’s most popular covers. Lily became a pin-up girl all over Ireland, and also helped the Irish Times win a printing award in 2005. Our printers put “her” cover at the top of the pile, as they knew it would catch the judges’ attention.

Best in show

I was sorry to give up my gardening column, but now I’m a little relieved too. Gardening used to be something I did to free my soul and level my mind, but when I had to deliver copy every week, my relationship with it changed. I found it hard to set foot outside without feeling I should be taking photos, writing notes, or working out a better way of explaining something. I was seeing my garden at second hand: through the camera lens, or in chunks of 850 or 1200 words. And then, there was the curse of Ireland’s changeable weather. Because copy is written days (and sometimes weeks) in advance I would find myself praying that a horrible drought or fierce frost would continue so that my column would not be out of date when it eventually appeared.

All this may sound as if I’ve given up writing about gardens. But, no, I am working flat out on my second book — which will be published in 2013 (you can read about my first book here and here). And, as before, I’ll be popping up in Irish and British publications. I’ll also be here, on One Bean Row, so I hope you’ll drop in often — or better still, subscribe by email (at the top right corner of the home page) so you never miss a post.

Ménage à Trois (or even quatre)?

April 21, 2011 § 5 Comments

The dunnock is a small, brown bird that creeps about on the ground, foraging for insects and creepy-crawlies. Its plumage is drab and puritanical, and its movements, are — for the most part — those of a preoccupied old lady, shuffling down to the shops for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.

The dunnock: "humble, homely and sober"

Its apparent modesty and decency prompted the Victorian ornithologist, the Reverend Frederick Orpen Morris, to preach to his congregation that they would do well to emulate the dunnock: “Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”

F.O. Morris: worthy, but wrong

Morris was born in Ireland, near Cork, the son of a British admiral and his wife, Rebecca Orpen, who was the daughter of the vicar of Kelvargan, in Co Kerry. After attending Oxford and taking Holy Orders, Morris was posted to various parishes in Yorkshire. He was a serious amateur ornithologist and entomologist, publishing many essays and pamphlets, and editing and revising several books. Despite his great output and dedication, it is the quotation above that is most often wheeled out by writers today. And with some glee.

The dunnock is, in fact, anything but unobtrusive and retiring, and its habits are hardly humble or homely. The dunnock is — oh, Reverend Morris, if only you had known! — mad for sex. Arrangements where a female is mated with two males are not unusual. Or sometimes (less frequently) a male has two females. Or sometimes there is even a spot of avian swinging, where two pairs mix and match.

"Oh, look who is over there!"

I’m put in mind of this because for the past couple of weeks there has been a great amount of dunnock activity in our garden. And very little of it includes shuffling about on the ground looking for food. Instead, there are three birds dipping and diving, fluttering (and, I presume) flirting. The sexes look the same in this species, so it’s not easy to tell males and females apart. But, judging from the way that one bird (the beta male?) frequently skulks just out of sight, I suspect that we have the more usual dunnock ménage à trois of one female and two males.

Beta bides his time

According to N.B. Davies in Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1992) females “made life difficult for an alpha male by actively attempting to escape his close attentions and by encouraging the beta male to mate!” And later he describes that “On several occasions I saw females hiding away with the beta male under a hedge or bush. When the alpha male came by searching for them, they crouched down and remained motionless until he had passed by.”

Why would the female dunnock want to mate with more than one male? Well, it seems that it’s for the survival of her brood. When a female is raising her chicks, a male will help to feed them only if he has copulated with her earlier. So, it makes sense for her to have two regular partners, even if it means scooting off into the bushes with Beta while Alpha is looking the other way.

"Hello, Reverend Morris!"

As for the males’ motives: obviously they want to mate with as many females as possible in order to ensure the survival of their genes. Their mating approach is unusual, to say the least. I’ll let N.B. Davies put it into words: “The act of copulation itself is extraordinary, with a male pecking the female’s cloaca carefully for a minute or so before he mates.” The reason? So that she ejects the sperm of her previous mate. In the dunnock world there is a veritable orgy of copulating, as male birds compete for paternity. Nature, therefore, has given Reverend Morris’s “quiet and retiring” dunnocks particularly large testes: they weigh 64 per cent more than those of most birds of their size, and have sperm reserves about 1,000 times greater.

It’s a book!

March 24, 2011 § 15 Comments

My late father, J.F. Powers, was a writer of note in the United States.  His first novel, Morte D’Urban, won the National Book Award in 1963. There was some pretty heavyweight competition. His output was small and choice: two novels and three books of short stories. His last book took 22 years to write. I hate to think of the excuses he fed to his agent and publishers, or the guilt that he must have felt after a long day at the office deciding whether to plump for a colon or a dash.

Well, I’ve just written a book too. It took me a little over two years — a mere sprint compared to my father’s marathon. I took all the photos, except for six that my husband Jonathan Hession shot, and one (of my late mother) that my sister Katherine provided.

The book, The Living Garden, is published by Frances Lincoln — my dream publishers. When I started writing about gardening sixteen years ago, I used to look at the beautiful books produced by this independent London house, and imagine my name on the cover and spine of something published by them. So, I was delighted (and more than a little terrified) when I was actually asked by them to submit an idea for a book.

And, a month or two ago, when I finally got my hands on a single, precious advance copy, I put it on the shelf between Beth Chatto’s and Helen Dillon’s books (two of my favourite garden writers), just to see what it looked like. It looked delightful. But I took it down fairly quickly, as it seemed an impertinence to let it linger next to these two great gardening women. (It never even occurred to me to put it next to my father’s books. That would have been far too bumptious.)

If you feel like buying the book, there are links on this page to Amazon (but do try your local bookshop first).

You can read the introduction by clicking on the thumbnails here.

And finally if you want to meet me, I’ll be doing some book signings:

Newbridge Silverware, Newbridge, Co Kildare: 3pm, Friday April 1st.

Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin 2: 2pm, Saturday April 16th 2011

Launch of the West Cork Garden Trail, Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork: 11 am, June 11th 2011

Primrose-tinted Spectacle

March 12, 2011 § 7 Comments

Over in my weekly column in the Irish Times today, I wrote about the primroses that Joe Kennedy has been breeding in his back garden in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, and which have been introduced to the market this spring. He’s had an avid interest in plant breeding for decades: “rhododendrons, auriculas and all sorts: I can’t pass a stigma!”

He settled on primroses in the late 1970s, and using a gene pool of about twenty old, old Irish cultivars, he gradually produced his own distinct lines of Kennedy primulas. He didn’t sell them, and didn’t look for publicity for them. He mounted spectacular displays at flower shows, where they were seen (and much admired) by other gardeners. But, because of the specialist nature of such events, only a few hundred people would see his plants per year.

His cultivars got more and more refined as the years passed — and they continue to do so, as he is still working on them. Of the thousands that he raises annually, he keeps a hundred or so possibles, casting the others onto the compost heap.

Backyard breeding operation

Then, about five years ago, Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries contacted Joe, and offered to bring his primroses to the public. After a rigorous selection process, two were chosen to be launched this year: ‘Drumcliff’ and ‘Innisfree’. More will be released in 2013: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. It’s not that Joe Kennedy is related to JFK (that I know of), but Pat FitzGerald has a grand nose for a marketing opportunity. And this one is too good to be missed — especially since the primroses bring the Kennedy and FitzGerald names together in a useful coincidence. And, God bless Pat FitzGerald, sure didn’t he manage to bring Yeats into the mix as well, with the names of this year’s introductions. ‘Innisfree’, as you know, is the lake isle where the poet would “arise and go now”, while ‘Drumcliff’ honours the Sligo village where his mortal remains are laid to rest.

Unnamed primrose bred by Joe Kennedy

But, believe me, these little touches will make the primroses more marketable in the United States, which is where Pat FitzGerald is right now — with the aforementioned beauteous Kennedy cultivars. After being launched at the Philadelphia Flower Show, they will be available as plants from Burpee, I believe. When I get more details on that, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, if you’re Irish, you can buy them from the following garden centres. If you are travelling far, do phone first, just to make sure they’re still in stock.

Arboretum Garden Centre, Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow (059 9721558)

Ardcarne Garden Centre, Lanesboro Road, Roscommon, Co Roscommon (090 6627700)

Bandon Garden Centre,  Glaslyn Road, Bandon, Co Cork  (023 8842260)

Beech Hill Garden Centre, Montenotte Cork, Co Cork (021 4643254)

Blackwater Plantsplus Garden Centre,  Kinsalebeg, West Waterford (024 92725)

Canning’s Home & Garden, Sligo., Co Sligo (071 9160060)

Carmel’s Garden Centre, Kilworth, Co Cork (025 27276)

Clonmel Garden Centre, Glenconnor, Clonmel, Co Tipperary (052 6123294)

Coolaught Gardens, Clonroche, Co Wexford (053 9244137)

Dunsland Garden Centre, Glanmire, Co Cork (021 4354949)

Fernhill Garden Centre,  Cornamagh, Athlone, Co Westmeath (0906 475574)

Greenbarn Garden Centre, Inchiquin, Killeagh, Co Cork (024  90166)

Haggardstown Garden Centre, Co Louth (042 9337627)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Bundoran Road, Sligo (071 9138870)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Turlough, Castlebar, Co Mayo (094 9031435)

Johnstown Garden Centre, Naas, Co Kildare (045 879138)

Jones’ Garden Centre, Swords Road, Donabate, Co Dublin (01 8401781)

McGuire’s Garden Centre, Rossduff, Woodstown, Co Waterford (051 382136)

Nangle’s Garden Centre, Model Farm Rd Carrigrohane Co. Cork (021 4871297)

O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre, Mill Rd, Thurles, Co Tipperary (0504 21636)

O’ Meara’s Garden Centre, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (044 9342088)

The Secret Garden, Aghaneenagh, Newmarket, Co Cork (029 60084)

Northern Ireland

Craigville Garden Centre, Sligo Road, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh BT74 5QR (028 6632 6004)

Glenavy Garden Centre, 26, Main St, Glenavy, Crumlin, Co Antrim BT29 4LW (028 9442 2826)

Joe Kennedy's primroses at the Alpine Garden Society show in Dublin

Was Doffed, now Donned again

December 9, 2010 § 11 Comments

Today, I am going to hop across the Irish Sea to Britain, where a surprise announcement sent the TV-watching gardening community into a state of high agitation. Monty Don is to return to BBC 2 television’s Gardeners’ World show next spring. He replaces Toby Buckland, who had replaced him in 2008, after the older presenter suffered a minor stroke. Some viewers are delighted at Monty’s reinstatement to the programme, whereas others are less happy. In another backward-looking move, Rachel de Thame will be rejoining, and Alys Fowler will be leaving.

The excellent Arabella Sock’s take on the news is here [turn up the volume for the full effect]:

By the way, Miss Sock’s agreeably insane blog, The Sea of Immeasurable Gravy is here.

If you’re not a gardener in Ireland or Britain, none of this will be of any concern to you (and — equally — if you are, it may not be either). I don’t watch a lot of gardening television these days, so it won’t make or break my Friday evenings.

So why am I writing this? Well, because it gives me an opportunity to wheel out an interview — a cover story — that I did for the Irish Times with Monty Don in 2003. It was during his first season on his previous stint on the show. I liked the article that I wrote, but after publication it disappeared forever, as the magazine section of the Irish Times was not archived on the internet at that time. So, I thought I might revive it here. Why not? If Monty can come back to haunt us years later, then why not my much-slaved-over interview?

The day of that interview was scorchingly hot. I had flown from Dublin to Birmingham and then made my way to the Don family house, at Ivington, a small hamlet surrounded by flat farmland, a few miles outside Leominster. What seemed like a heroic journey to the normally stay-at-home me, with all its important train-bus-plane-and-taxi connections, was made all the more epic by the heat. It was so warm that I asked the taxi driver to stop for ice-creams before we reached the finish line at the Don home. When I finally arrived, I was suffused with a burned-out euphoria, as if I had completed a marathon. Now read on:

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


The door to the very old timber-framed house in Herefordshire is wide open and welcoming. It’s a good start to my interview with Britain’s chief man of the soil, Monty Don. I send a questing “Hello?” along the flagged passage. A figure appears in the hall, engagingly casual in torn shorts and tee shirt: “You’re half an hour early”.

Well, maybe not such a great start after all. I feel a little put out, as I have been travelling since the crack of dawn and have arrived just two (well-judged) minutes after the hour appointed by his publisher. But professionalism reasserts itself and I pack away my feelings.

And, a while later — after telling him that I didn’t really like his fourth last book — I feel just grand. But it’s his latest book, The Complete Gardener (which I do like), that brings me here. And I want to see his garden, and I’m hoping to hear about his first season as the main presenter of BBC television’s Gardeners’ World — and anything else I can winkle out of him in two short hours. Because Monty is pressed for time. It’s the last hectic two days before his holidays, and he has already written an article that morning, and must write a script for an hour-long television programme when I leave (“you can stay as long as you like” he offers, “as long as you’re gone by 4.30”).

His time off will be spent at home: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to garden.” Monty doesn’t like leaving home for holidays: “I went to France for 3 days a few weeks ago. And two years ago I went to Turkey, which was horrible.” In fact, he doesn’t like leaving home at all: “I was filming up in Manchester a week or two back, and they couldn’t understand why I insisted on going home every night. It was simply to check the greenhouses. So I got home at half past nine at night, and checked everything and watered, and then at five in the morning did it again.”

It’s more than the greenhouses, though. Monty Don’s life is regulated, given meaning and made real by the rhythms and rigours of gardening. “I’m not interested abstractedly in plants. I mean I am, but only up to a point. I’m interested in places, and home, and it’s completely egocentric and self-centred and selfish and introverted. Everything I write about, or talk about on television is either personal, or based on personal experience. I do not garden for the nation, I garden for me.”

And while the occasional slot on Gardeners’ World comes from Monty’s garden, the two acre plot has a strong air of privacy, and contains no concessions to the medium of television — unlike the garden of the previous frontman, Alan Titchmarsh, where projects were continually developed for the programme. (In the current era, the series has a tenure on a place in Warwickshire, known by the fictitious name of “Berryfields”.)

Monty’s Herefordshire garden has been created solely to fulfil his and — just as importantly — his wife Sarah’s visions and needs. Her input is “fifty per cent, although obviously not physically. But I wouldn’t dream of doing anything in this garden without talking about it with her, and nor would she.”

Ten years ago, when the Dons first made their mark on this land, it was a shaggy field, filled with looping, snagging brambles  and builders’ flotsam and jetsam. Now “it is starting to get a permanent structure. It is starting to look as I imagined it would.”

Its development is chronicled in The Complete Gardener, which starts out with a compelling treatise on being organic. Organic gardening, as those who practice it soon discover, is not just doing without chemicals, it is making your place and taking your turn in the greater scheme of things. It is guiding a garden to be in tune with the soil, location, weather, and with the rhythm of the seasons. Of course, there are strategies to improve your lot (and Monty tells most of them), but you can never forget that nature is calling the shots.

The practicalities and aesthetics of planning and making the structural parts of the garden are dealt with in the book, but always with reference to Monty’s own patch (no pergolas or ponds here). Favourite fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and herbs are also covered. It is an entirely personal primer, but informative and thought-provoking.

After meeting the garden in the book, as it were, I am curious to see the real thing. It is an intensively cultivated area, and a monument to hard and sustained work. A pair of gardeners (a retired judge and his wife) come a couple of days a week, but Monty and Sarah work in it every available hour.  “I try not to pay people to do what I like doing” — such as planting and pruning, and trimming the topiary (16 yew cones, and 64 box balls).

Plants grow at a prodigious rate — owing in part to good husbandry, but also to the rich clay loam: “think soil on steroids”. It’s a gift when it comes to the hedges (nearly four metres’ growth in 8 years), and the two prolific vegetable gardens of 24 and 8 beds each, but it’s a mixed blessing for herbaceous plants. “Sometimes you don’t want all that leafy growth. We have to hack things back constantly.”

The garden is arranged in many, orderly compartments, divided by hedge-walled corridors of grass and paving. Although the growth within the angular spaces is luxuriant and — in some cases — fecundly overblown, the atmosphere is one of controlled restraint and cloistered seclusion. The tall Tudor house, monastic in its beautiful, rough simplicity, adds to the ambiance of a place of retreat. I feel as if I have penetrated a religious enclosure: even the dogs have taken a vow of silence — or perhaps they’re just too hot to talk to me.

And Monty is curiously removed, like a monk disturbed on his way to evensong, his daily rhythmic rituals interrupted. I follow him awkwardly around the garden, my notebook of unasked questions burning in my hand.

Buried away at the end of my list, but uppermost in my mind, is that I must ask him about the depression that he is widely known to suffer from. It seems an intrusion to pry, but later when I ask will he talk about it, he takes it graciously: “I’m fine about it. It is not a taboo subject. To me having depression is like having eczema or measles.”

And although he is fed up talking about it — “Nothing is so boring as one’s own depression. It has no glamour, no saving grace whatsoever” — he realises that by doing so he may help other sufferers. “There are lots and lots of people out there who get encouragement if someone who is holding their life together — more or less — says, ‘well, actually I too have to cope with this thing’.”

His depression is triggered by falling light levels: “I could set a clock by it. It’s almost on June the 25th. I think that the body senses that the light is going. It’s this sense of profound loss.” His worst periods are for a few weeks after the summer equinox, and again, in varying degrees, from late autumn until February. “Physically I start to fall apart. Mentally I’m either completely fragile or in pieces. And useless, useless. You are a third alive.”

Cognitive therapy and Prozac helped him cope in the past, but now he uses only lightboxes. Wisely, he never took to the drink, “I had hepatitis when I was 14, and my liver is fucked.” In his darkest moments, “I can’t garden, I can hardly write”. Yet he forces himself to grind out his weekly column for the Observer. “I’m highly disciplined, if I didn’t do it, I’d be in trouble.”

And Monty knows about trouble. He lost both home and livelihood when a jewellery business he ran with Sarah went bust in the early nineties. “Ten years ago, I was on the dole for a year and had no work. I will never, never forget that.”

Now he is grateful for whatever work comes his way. And this year that has included the top job in the gardening media in these islands. Gardeners’ World, now in its 36th year, is watched by around 3 million, and Monty’s appointment as its main man puts him firmly in the position of being the peoples’ Head Gardener.

With his introverted personality, and slightly aloof and soldierly demeanour on television, he is a complete change from the perky everybody’s-best-friend Alan Titchmarsh. But his devotion to the process and craft of gardening, his honesty and high principles (not to mention his strong-bodied good looks), make him an interesting and brave choice. The programme, — which pre-Monty had regressed into a laddish, bantering party-in-the-garden — may be coming out of its thirty-something crisis.

“I would like Gardeners’ World to be grown up — you can be funny and serious together, but you don’t have to be facile,” says Monty. And although television is full of compromises, he strives to adhere to certain standards. “I will never endorse anything I haven’t used, or don’t like. I will never promote any non-organic gardening in any way, shape or form, and I’ll never say or do anything that I don’t believe in.”

And garden makeovers, although “fantastically entertaining television, are bad gardening. I’ve done them. I can’t be too sanctimonious as I’ve taken my shilling. But I didn’t feel good about doing them, because I was doing things that I would never, never have done in a garden.”

Makeovers have also led to the development of a television vernacular, says Monty, using out-of-context devices such as decking and paint. “Decking is really easy to do on television: you can do it any weather, you don’t have to dig anything and you can put it on top of things. It’s the same with paint, but it’s really hard to use so that it looks great in November on a grey day. Yet on television, especially if you heat it up with a bit of light, it looks great. It looks great for ten, fifteen minutes. That’s all it has to look good for.”

Such transformations “foster this belief of gardening as magic, not something that you have to have patience for, not something that grows. I would much rather see gardens that are slow. The drama’s there anyway, the drama is stupendous. Anyone who gardens knows that.”

Britain’s Head Gardener never even filled out an application for the post: “I never applied for a television job in my life. It would be disingenuous to say I won’t mind when it goes, because no-one appears on television unless they want to, but it’s not everything in my life.”

Far more important is his writing, although “I never wanted to write about gardening. I see myself as a writer who happens to write about gardening. I’ve written lots of other things, but they have never had any success. It just so happens that people want to publish what I write about gardening. When I was 23 that would have depressed me hugely, by 33 I was glad to take the money for anything, and by 43 I just thought, well this is the way it is. As I near 53, I think, well, you play the cards that you are dealt, and that is just the way it is. There’s time to do other things.”

And because Monty Don’s time is precious and rigorously ordered, I leave shortly afterwards — at 4.32 p.m. — carefully closing the gate behind me.

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