Focus: Garden revolution

He says the gardening Establishment is full of snobs. They think he is a yob. But the passionate design guru Diarmuid Gavin is still trying to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. Here he explains why - and rejoices in the way television helped ordinary British people to seize gardening back from the aristocracy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Remember the way fruit and vegetables used to be when everything was seasonal and you really appreciated new potatoes or strawberries when they arrived each year? That excitement has gone from food now because of the supermarkets; but it's not gone from gardens. Gardeners still get madly excited this time of year, when almost everything seems ready to bloom.

Remember the way fruit and vegetables used to be when everything was seasonal and you really appreciated new potatoes or strawberries when they arrived each year? That excitement has gone from food now because of the supermarkets; but it's not gone from gardens. Gardeners still get madly excited this time of year, when almost everything seems ready to bloom.

The garden is where British people show their passionate side. We've got a fantastic climate in this country: people don't realise it but you can grow more in these islands than probably any other place in the world except New Zealand, and the big thing is the range of plants with seasonal differences.

Working on two new TV series about garden history, The Art of the Garden and Gardening Through Time, I have learned a huge amount. Growing up with the gardening establishment in Dublin, I found their whole attitude was that if someone like Gertrude Jekyll hadn't done it a hundred years ago then you weren't allowed to do it. I was very angry about that. I wanted to do something different, so once I got the chance to create, I rushed out and did so manically. I threw in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes without thinking too much about what I was doing. But then I realised that as a designer you have to understand history in order to move forward.

So I went back to Capability Brown, who was the beginning of English gardening. He brought in the English landscape style, so that from then on there was some ownership of a garden tradition. Before Brown, English gardens had been mainly copies of formal gardens from Italy, France and Holland.

There have been many different styles in gardening since Brown laid out the garden at Blenheim Palace, but in a sense they're all still around and being used today. Gardeners don't throw away good ideas. There have always been fashions in gardens, but gardeners like to get used to something, and then incorporate new bits along with the old.

The Victorians were the great ones for creating a mishmash of styles. In the Victorian era, in gardening as in everything else, there was this feeling that you could buy anything, any style. So you had people like Reginald Blomfield with a formal style with pathways and grass and urns and sundials placed carefully; and, on the other hand, William Robinson taking inspiration from the countryside, examining how plants grew in nature and using introductions from the New World to recreate a naturalistic scene.

Sometimes all these styles were presented in the same garden - larger than a town garden would be today but smaller than a great estate like Blenheim. And the Victorians would add eccentricity too, like fantastic grottoes or a model of the Matterhorn at Friar Park in Oxfordshire, where George Harrison lived. It's complete with a stone from the real Matterhorn as its peak.

The British gardening tradition is an aristocratic affair, even by the time you reach the 20th century and someone like Gertrude Jekyll, who gave us what we now know as the English flower garden - she was from a very comfortable family. She started off as an artist who went to the National Gallery and copied Turner's paintings before she became a gardener. But when people came back from the war in 1945, they were no longer prepared to work for menial wages in gardens for the gentry. So gardens had to be reinvented and redesigned. You had a new middle-class emerging whose members had learned to garden during the war, growing their own fruit and vegetables. They carried on that do-it-yourself tradition - there was the allotment movement - and ordinary people began creating simple gardens for themselves, finding out what worked and what didn't.

Then, in the past 10 years, there's been another tremendous change, led by television. You do still have the aristocratic gardening tradition in this country. It's prominent at places like Chelsea, where you have gardens that are very ordered and restrictive and designed to find favour with the upper echelons of society.

The Royal Horticultural Society has been led by the aristocracy and the rulers of the day. To my mind, it was TV in general and Ground Force in particular that woke ordinary people up to the joy of gardening and the idea that they could do whatever they wanted. Now you see people not only growing all sorts of plants but getting out and taking control of the plot and the design of their gardens.

Gardening isn't elitist any more. With the TV shows, it has a mass audience and is seen as trendy and somehow new - ironic when you think that it's one of the oldest of human activities. You even have people watching the gardening shows who don't have a garden, and I think that's great. Why not? I don't cook, but I watch Jamie Oliver - what he does is amazing.

There are still too many rules and pretensions in British gardening. People feel they have to follow fashion, and that's the biggest mistake you can make, especially with gardens. A lot of people are going for a contemporary look at the moment, and I think they get it wrong. It's as if everybody bought shiny, stainless steel kitchens, and then they tried to move that look out into their gardens. In most places, it doesn't work. I started doing that look originally as a reaction, because I hadn't been allowed to do anything different, so when I got the chance, it flowed right out of me. But I think the gardens I do now are actually quite gentle. They're contemporary, certainly, but contemporary doesn't mean modernist or hard-edged. Contemporary means having a pavilion so the garden can be used at different times of the day.

Or it's using plants that are beautiful but low maintenance if you're not a passionate hands-on gardener.

Contemporary is influenced by what's happening today, and that can include nostalgia and refuge. Nostalgia's back in because of all the wars and terrorism. And the idea of a refuge includes ecology, which has entered the gardening mix in a very important way in the 21st-century, when a lot of people think of the domestic garden as a refuge for nature and wildlife. It's why my company never uses any chemicals in a garden.

People sometimes think my work is controversial or dramatic, but that's not my aim at all. I have a desire to create things and to do things. My brief for my Chelsea garden is to create something I feel is fun and unpretentious, while Chelsea experiences a great deal of pretension from year to year. You should be allowed to look at a garden and just smile and not dig for any deeper meanings.

Like a love affair, gardening should be fun before it's anything else. You should think about what you really want for your place, whether it's traditional or contemporary, quirky or formal.

Then you should just please yourself. In the 18th-century, a garden meant a great estate like Blenheim, but in the 21st-century it's the suburban plot, which makes us all Capability Browns. A garden is something to get involved in, to touch, to smell, to roll around in, to do unmentionable things in, such as procreating - maybe that's why the British love their gardens so much: they're places to have fun in and throw off repressions!

Diarmuid Gavin was talking to Mike Bygrave. 'Art of the Garden', which Gavin presents, is on BBC2 on Friday, at 9pm

Sir Terence Conran, Designer presenting his third Chelsea garden

Some say that Chelsea has become too much of a display and exhibition in recent years but I think it has to generate the chutzpah to get people to come. However, there is the tent for the more serious gardener who doesn't want ideas thrust upon them. I go to Chelsea for a bit of amusement. A garden is not just for plants ­ look at Diarmuid's balls in his garden. Any adult or child seeing that will be enchanted.

Matt James, Presenter of Channel 4's 'The City Gardener'

Chelsea has at last realised that gardening isn't just about massive country house gardens ­ it's about you and me with our north-east balconies and allotments where we try things out. That's why we are seeing more city gardens and courtyard gardens this year, along with a thing called Sunflower Street which is great for beginners ­ it's about front gardens. It's the practical inspiration that novices want.

Hirst, ferns and spaceballs

Inspired by modernism, County Kerry and popular culture, or as the man himself has put it, "the Festival of Britain meets Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", Diarmuid Gavin's Chelsea garden is all futuristic curves and 300 multicoloured sci-fi spaceballs under and over drifts of green planting. Damien Hirst's spot paintings and the Teletubbies are other suggested influences on Gavin's design, which leads visitors through to a small pond on a curved pathway echoed overhead by a pergola formed of the same metal spheres. More coloured balls cover the high-tech garden shed, which is shaped like a Fabergé egg and has a voice-activated door.

The mainly green planting features Gavin's favourite exotica such as dicksonias (tree ferns) and structural plants such as Betula pendula (silver birch) and gleditsia. Alliums, eremurus, verbascum, irises and heuchera pick up the colours of the spheres. The tongue-in-cheek title is "A colourful suburban Eden", courtesy of Camelot, operators of the National Lottery.

Gavin is not the only one going green at Chelsea this year. So is Sir Terence Conran whose garden, designed by Nicola Lesbirel as a sleek, modern version of the garden behind a restaurant, features restios from South Africa, like a cross between bamboo and tall grasses. They are tipped as the hot new plant this Chelsea. Green is the colour for Chelsea 2004 - green for Ireland, ecology or high fashion. Combined with an interest in exotic species, it means ferns and grasses are popular. With the Royal Horticultural Society celebrating its 200th anniversary and looking to tradition, there could be tensions between Chelsea and its top designers increasingly adopting a contemporary look. Reportedly, the society was appalled when it received this year's planting lists and saw that some of them had hardly any flowering plants.

Mike Bygrave

Comments