`A lot of suburban style is boring, boring, boring'

Diarmuid Gavin considers modern garden design
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It was a shock to me to realise during my early twenties that I was never going to be a rock star and that my real interest lay in garden design. All those wasted Thursday evenings spent watching Top of the Pops... Maybe the change occurred when "Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree" was number one for what seemed like an endless succession of weeks. Anyway, my copies of NME and Melody Maker have been traded in for Hillier's Manual of Trees and Shrubs.

In music, the bright new things were always the ones to look out for. To 14-year-old girls at the moment that means Boyzone. To me, well, it's the latest trend in garden design that matters.

Every season the catalogues and brochures from nurseries are full of new, improved varieties of a huge range of plants. Remember when birch trees used to be green? Well, now names such as Sunburst and Dazzler jump off the pages and garden centres pile them high near the checkouts. Some, like the dreaded variegated poplar, become a blight on the landscape.

At least the nursery business is keeping up with the times and using the latest agro-technology to create and supply a new market. What's happening in the field of garden style and design, though? Are there the same forces pushing at the aesthetic and technological barriers? Happily, there are.

Thanks to television, and super-popular shows such as Chelsea and Hampton Court, we are all familiar with the vast number of influences that make up the modern garden. It's as easy to buy a concrete Buddah as a plastic gnome. A suburban style has evolved that is like a fruit salad of ideas.

On these islands, more people than ever before have gardens. And they use them. Over the past 20 years or so, the garden has evolved as an extension of the house: another room. Patios and french windows have become de rigueur for every householder, and one only has to watch Brookside to see their importance in everyday living (and dying). But a lot of the suburban style is boring, boring, boring.

Step forward Ivan Hicks. Ivan is a designer who likes to have fun with the gardens he creates. Responding to any materials he finds on site, his creation can have a fairly surreal quality. A rusty old piece of iron, for example, takes on a new identity when surrounded by warm yellow planting. Unfortunately, Ivan often has to temper his imagination to satisfy clients.

"People tend to consider what their neighbours and friends would think ... but things are changing. Even in the past two or three years there has been a change in attitude to modern design. Television and glossy garden magazines are now more open to new ideas. Once you explain the reasons for doing things a certain way, people appreciate what you're at and love the sense of freedom. If it's apparent that you are having fun with your creation, people will respond."

Susan Maxwell, a designer based in County Dublin, bemoans her clients' constant requests for lots of colour and easy maintenance. "It's wonderful to visit gardens like Sissinghurst, built for magnificent houses. But those type of houses are not being built any more. There is a huge trend towards nostalgia. However, I regard plants as a material like any other." The title of one of Susan's pieces of work - Pythagorus at Play - gives some idea of where influence can come from.

In Scotland there's a designer who stands at the back door of the house with a shrub. He throws it, and wherever it lands, it is planted. This is the start of his planning process and it displays a real freedom. Some of the more interesting designers these days choose to work without complicated drawings, which can take the spontaneity out of the design process.

Miranda Innes, gardening editor of Country Living magazine feels that, for many British gardeners, creating a modern garden is all about chucking a load of gravel around. "They daren't do anything that Gertrude Jekyll wouldn't do. Americans tend to be much more ostentatious in both their architecture and their gardens, and they are more adventurous in terms of the materials they use. English gardens are very nice places to rust in."

Helen Dillon, the well-known Dublin gardener, says she is dying to see people become braver in terms of design. "Most people in gardening are looking backward , but I love to see people doing things off the top of their heads."

"There needs to be a new way of looking at materials used," agrees John Brookes, author of the bestselling The Small Garden. "Rather than digging wide borders, should we not be planting through gravel, bark or another such medium? Designers have to take into account that most people can't afford 20 gardeners, even on large Gloucestershire estates."

The bad name that modern garden design has sometimes attracted may be partly due to its unfavourable presentation on TV. However one of the most controversial designers, Paul Cooper - who attracted attention at Chelsea last year when he projected slides of naked bodies across his garden - thinks the public is warming to the new ideas. "There is no excuse for not having a more adventurous style," he insists. "There is good new design in fashion and architecture, so why not in the garden?

"The function of gardens is often different these days, so it can be more sensible to use some modern materials, such as rubber flooring near play areas for children. When people see a purpose to what you're doing, they tend to appreciate it more."

Tony Laryea, executive producer with BBC2's Gardeners World, feels that part of his job is to show what is happening at the forefront of design, and he regularly features designers such as Paul Cooper and David Stephens on the show.

"The huge popularity of the cottage-garden series shows what the viewers want," Laryea says, "but programmes like the series on front gardens contain many ideas on progressive design."

However Danish designer Preben Jakobsen, who was awarded a gold medal from the English Landscape Institute in 1993, believes that garden design in Britain is stuck in a groove.

"The design idiom of 1920s garden books still prevails. People are hankering for the past, but now more than ever I believe that gardens are a place for living in. The modern family wants a garden to live in, to entertain in. People are very busy. They don't have time to cut lawns; they look for comfort in a garden. Saunas and showers are needed as much as a barbecue. Outdoor fireplaces are needed.

"If you look at engravings of old Italian gardens, you are likely to see naked ladies cavorting. Old pictures of gardens here show people in their best clothes sitting in a very rigid fashion. And the attitude of the Royal Horticultural Society is that a garden is a place for growing plants. However, a lot of post-modern gardens are built by people who are too young and too inexperienced."

One of the most encouraging recent signs of new ideas becoming acceptable to the public at large was the great success of Derek Jarman's book on his surreal landscape at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. The shingle garden, a work of real passion, has endeared itself to many. Perhaps it will encourage people to drop the barriers that have built up over the centuries.

One little girl, a visitor to Ivan Hicks' garden within the grounds of Stansted Park near Portsmouth, seems to sum up our preconceptions: "Mummy, it can't be a garden - it's too much fun."

Ivan Hicks's The Garden In Mind is at Stansted Park, Rowlands Castle, Hants (01705 413 149). Open Sun-Tues, 2-5.30pm. His latest garden is at Groombridge Place, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (01892 863 999). Open daily to 31 Oct. John Brookes' garden is at Denmans, Fontwell, West Sussex (01243 542808) open 9am-5pm daily.

Diarmuid Gavin runs the Dublin School of Garden Design. Anna Pavord returns next week.