Back on home turf


POINT OF VIEW:Diarmuid Gavin’s floating garden won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show and is destined for Cork. He says he didn’t spend millions to bring it to Chelsea, outlines the inspiration and teamwork behind it, and believes it will deliver value for money

ON THE ROAD from Killorglin going towards Ballinskelligs there’s a gentle curve and then a concrete bridge. Driving past in May each year I always peer over at the badly drained field full of rushes and sulphur yellow flowering flag iris. The same small pool of water is formed in a corner dyed dark through bog tannin, one clump of Arum lily standing proud and flowering brilliant white, with decadent leaves and a rude stamen. This was to be the starting point for the Irish Sky Garden at Chelsea. I brought a brilliant team from home to London on a strict budget, generously granted by Fáilte Ireland. The plan was to make an Irish garden, to create awareness of our beautiful little island that drips with natural and man-made riches and is definitely open for business.

The genesis of the project came about almost two years ago. I was approached by the Cork Midsummer Festival of the Senses to create an exhibit around the theme of gardens. I was to design a garden dramatic enough to grab attention at the Chelsea Flower Show. The garden would then be brought back to display at the Cork Midsummer Festival before being incorporated in a brand new city centre park in Cork. The total budget was €2.3 million, with 75 per cent coming from Fáilte Ireland, and 25 per cent from Cork City Council. The idea that developed for Chelsea, the notion of the Irish Sky Garden, was a beautiful green garden reminiscent of those Kerry bog pools on the ground, with a pavilion that floated into the air, to give visitors a new perspective on Chelsea, on London and indeed on Ireland and design. It was great fun to develop, but extremely difficult to execute.

I brought the notion to Bob Sweet, the head of shows development at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and Alex Baulkhill, the head of the Chelsea Flower Show. They were full of encouragement but mindful of the technical obligations. They were excited but nervous. Until they saw the garden rise, that didn’t change.

I rounded up a team. On the Niall Mellon Township Trust, I had watched the work of garden builder Dermot Kerins from Kenmare in awe. His no-nonsense approach made things happen. Sean Cunningham spent eight years with me working for the BBC building gardens. As a technician there was none better. Landscape contractor Bryan Cullen from Kilcoole in Wicklow is the hardiest of souls, wearing short trousers winter and summer, binding a team together with a smile the width of Ireland. And Gerry Conneely of Clontarf was the wise shoulder, the planting companion, the man with a great eye.

We spent months in planning meetings. I commissioned Arups in Dublin to engineer our structure. It had to be millimetre-precise if we were to hang 30 tonnes of steel over garden lovers in London. Arups embraced the spirit of our adventure and Nugent Manufacturing in Naas won the tender to build. Without a contract from the sponsors or a penny, Nugent borrowed to create this Chelsea dream.

I went plant-hunting, to Cork first, where the Nangle and Niesen nursery agreed to sponsor a truck load of birch. With my family, I drove from Dublin through Britain to mainland Europe, five countries in four days, looking at trees, shrubs and grasses.

And then, on May 4th, still without funding, we started in Chelsea. It was daunting to be faced with the largest ever plot given to an outside garden. I needed the space to house the crane. The overall design involved lots of plants and a minimum of hard materials. A ribbon-like path would shimmer through the sloping site, crossing more than 25 pools, half of them dyed ink black. Green planting, Irish style, would tumble down the hill as if in streams to be met by flowing rivers of grasses crossing east to west. The path would eventually lead to the pink pavilion, planted all over in turf, but inside there would be a profusion of delicious perennials. Two Lutyens benches faced each other and behind and underneath peonies and hostas, rodgersias and ornamental kiwi, campanula and geranium drifted. Six people at a time would be strapped into the benches and lifted.

There had never been a proper hanging or flying garden. Technically, to live up to the brief that I had written for the judging committees of the RHS, the garden needed to fly once with someone in it. During the previous 18 months I had been prepared for somebody to put a stop to this project. It hadn’t happened yet. Four-hour-long meetings took place on successive days – men in hard hats with calculating machinery and notebooks poured over every detail. I kept away, planting. Dermot Kerins negotiated many a tense moment.

But the planting was turning out to be a joy. We created a waterfall effect of beautiful bamboos and a screen behind them of Cork birch. I took inspiration from a photograph taken in Sligo, and made a stream of water running over moss-covered boulders, pure and dark green and beautiful. In the back of our plot I started placing taxus, yew. We built them up slowly so they appeared to tumble down a hill. Looking from the front of the garden, you couldn’t see the pathways it cut through. And beyond it the yew turned into pin-cushion Buxus sempervirens. Around their base swirled a sea of dwarf pine.

That is when something special happened. Groups of other gardeners started to visit every evening on their way out. They stood and looked and the green seemed to rejuvenate aching limbs. They were generous with their comments. We were on to something. It wasn’t the big pink thing that would fly that excited people; it was the delicate planting, telling the story of a garden through green textures.

By the end of the first week some money had arrived. Conditions remained tough. We had rented a cheap flat for the group an hour and a half away: two bedrooms, occasionally up to 12 people, sleeping bags all over the floor. But that meant an accommodation bill costing £12 per night per person. The daily routine never changed. We arrived at 7am and achieved real work before breakfast at 10am. That was an unhealthy bread roll stuffed with sausage or bacon. I took charge of lunch. I visited supermarkets, feeding the team for between £90 and £100. We were without fail the last to leave the site, straggling home exhausted at 9pm.

And yet the Irish boys were the most popular on site. Machines, JCBs, mini diggers whizzed around flying tricolours. The good humour that inhabited every leaf of our plot proved infectious with the neighbours. Reinforcements arrived. A woman in Tipperary read about our endeavours and rang her son Bennie, a boss in London’s Royal Parks. Bennie appeared daily and nightly, bringing Gareth and other workers, apprentices and trainees, day after day to give us a dig out. The Irish and the Royal Parks united in the week that Queen Elizabeth was visiting home. Others arrived, and worked hard.

Then suddenly it was all over. The garden was complete ahead of schedule, due to Dermot Kerins’s diligence, with plenty of time left over for detailing. The average cost of sponsorship for a garden in Chelsea is £250,000. That’s what sponsors pay to contractors to build gardens. The Fáilte Ireland budget for the Chelsea part of this project was €621,000. We finished €100,000 under budget. Every leaf of the garden is being repatriated to Ireland under the ownership of Cork City Council. So the cost of us bringing part of Cork’s new park to Chelsea, therefore, didn’t turn out to be €2.3 million as has been reported. That’s what we spent to build a garden twice the size of any other and now Cork will have the beautiful yews, the amazing hornbeams clipped into surreal conical shapes, the soft clipped box, acres of ornamental grass, over 30 steel circular pools and a flying pavilion.

On the Sunday evening, Alan Titchmarsh and the BBC featured our garden heavily on its preview show. We immediately received a text from Fáilte Ireland: “Congratulations, brilliant job, thank you for your patience. Job done.”

Our fee is the standard industry norm of 10 per cent of the project’s value. With part of my fee, I hired an agency in England, Stuart Higgins, to promote Ireland. I spoke to 40 stations about the Irish Sky Garden, about gardens in Ireland, about Cork and how we are open for business. I went on the Graham Norton Show on Radio 2, the One Show, breakfast television on BBC, ITV and Sky. I wrote articles for UK newspapers and printed 25,000 leaflets to hand out, encouraging people to visit Ireland.

The week of the flower show is a blur. I’ve never felt validated by awards or medals. But to be the subject of so much warmth from Britain and Ireland when gold was achieved took me completely by surprise. Gardeners loved it and the public loved it. The critics loved it. And to cap events, those who voted loved it. The Irish Sky Garden was awarded the prestigious People’s Choice Award.

The big surprise was how beautiful the pod was, inside and outside, but also its motion. It floated into the sky quite wonderfully. Inside, its turf-covered roof ensured a sense of seclusion and calm. Soon the celebrities were out and the surreal moments of Chelsea began. Helen Mirren stepped aboard; Bill Bailey kept her seat warm; and John and Norma Major proudly told me from our perch above London that he had been granted the freedom of Cork. Will Young bought his mother and Mrs Titchmarsh took a ride in my flying garden two days before Alan did. Hundreds followed them – people would wink at me and ask could they have a trip. I was asked to introduce some members of our team to Queen Elizabeth. So myself, mum, Dermot and Gerry talked to the queen about her trip to our island the week before. She said it had been wonderful.

Sean and Bryan, the final members of the team cleaning up in Chelsea, came home a few days ago. After the initial enthusiasm, I feel a bit battered because seemingly I’ve spent millions. A councillor has been on the radio and in the press saying the fault is mine, that I don’t know how to deal with councils. We deal with them successfully most days. One newspaper has run a story on how appalling my own garden is, and on a structure I am looking for planning permission for in it. Another is going to reveal what a failure my previous Chelsea designs have amounted to in their afterlife. Journalists or their scouts sit in cars, waiting outside my home. It’s not nice but I did get to build a garden and see it fly high