Horticultural heroes Paul Smyth and Diarmuid Gavin: Why gardening is 'bigger than ever'

Home Editor Eve Kelliher talks to Paul Smyth about how he teamed up with Diarmuid Gavin and they share ideas from their new book
Horticultural heroes Paul Smyth and Diarmuid Gavin: Why gardening is 'bigger than ever'

Paul Smyth and Diarmuid Gavin are co-authors of Gardening Together. Pictures: Mark Nixon

A new generation of gardeners has emerged from the pandemic. But now the world has opened up again, will this change?

Not if plantsman Paul Smyth is anything to go by.

Grabbing phone time with Paul, who divides his life between his native Carlow, his adopted Wales, and Dublin, where he spends two days a week for work, is fun and frantic.

He is literally sprinting from one garden to another, hitting deadline after deadline on his packed horticultural schedule as we talk.

I’m thinking this mania for all things green is here to stay.

“Definitely. I see it right here even in Dublin today. My phone has been hopping. The interest in gardening has not gone away,” says Paul.

“It has certainly been bigger than ever since Covid. It became a hobby for so many people and the thing about gardening is, once you’ve been bitten by the gardening bug, it has you.

Covid created so many new gardeners.”

So much so that Paul and I need to plot our conversation around the plots Paul is plotting for his clients.

Are these residential or commercial?

“I work mainly in private gardens, the planting of the gardens,” he says.

“And then Diarmuid and I work on projects together also.”

That’d be Diarmuid Gavin, the renowned garden designer who is Paul’s buddy and the co-author of a new book, Gardening Together.

Paul Smyth and Diarmuid Gavin.
Paul Smyth and Diarmuid Gavin.

This is designed as a super-practical guide to the basics of gardening, month by month, but it’s also aimed at and inspired by those new “lockdown gardeners” we are speaking of.

Confined to barracks during the pandemic, so many people were hungry for information on how to grow and care for their plants.

“This book explores the basics of gardening, and how to understand their soil,” says Paul.

“It breaks down the mystery of gardening and also explores the holistic benefits of gardening.”

Paul's garden in summer.
Paul's garden in summer.

But while Paul is quick to point out that he is the “nerdy” one and Diarmuid the “design” half, he adds that the book takes the irreverent tone their fans love.

Paul graduated from Waterford Institute of Technology in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. He worked as chief propagator in Crug Farm, the internationally renowned nursery in North Wales, for three years.

“I was working in a rare plant nursery as their propagator, [the job] took me all over the world collecting plants,” he says.

“I was doing all sorts of mad, different things. I even ended up in Vietnam, on a plant-hunting expedition.”

Closer to home, Paul’s career also involved creating award-winning nursery displays at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show — just like Diarmuid.

And, to my ears, it sounds like something of a cross between a garden festival and a comedy caper that set the scene for the pair’s first encounter.

Did their eyes meet across the ferns?

“The story involves houseplants and a tattoo parlour,” says Paul.

“I was working over in Snowdonia in North Wales, in the middle of nowhere, and I loved it. Diarmuid was involved in a planned project involving a plant shop with a tattoo parlour and coffee shop in London.

“Diarmuid rang me and I joined him on the project. The shop didn’t happen — it’s a very long story, and was all before Covid, in 2019 — but we went on to work on some garden projects, and just as Covid struck we had a few ideas on the horizon.

“The day we realised that lockdown was a new reality, Diarmuid called me, saying he had this idea and would I help him.”

During the pandemic, Paul moved back to Ireland and was based in Carlow and Diarmuid was at home in Co Wicklow and on March 18, 2020, Diarmuid pressed the live button on Instagram and started a daily broadcast committing that they and their gardening friends would be available right through the pandemic lockdown with advice.

That soon became a TV series Gardening Together, initially for RTÉ and more recently broadcast by the BBC.

Of course, Diarmuid has presented gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show on nine occasions from 1995 to 2016, winning a number of medals, including gold in 2011. He has also authored or co-authored at least ten gardening-related books.

Diarmuid Gavin.
Diarmuid Gavin.

“We decided to go live on Instagram and for the next year did so nearly every night developing a following of devoted viewers, who would watch us chat gardens, design, propagation and do our best to pass on the gardening knowledge we’ve been lucky enough to learn,” says Paul.

“Our book ‘Gardening Together’ is an extension of that and features lots of the topics we’ve talked about and photos from the last two years.” Gardening Together is divided into 12 chapters in a month-by-month format and demonstrates exactly what to do in the garden and when to do it so readers can make the most of their outdoor space, whatever its size.

  • Join Paul and Diarmuid at Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway, on Friday, May 27, at 6pm as the gardeners, podcasters and authors record the latest episode of their podcast DIRT
  • ‘Gardening Together’ by Diarmuid Gavin and Paul Smyth is published by Gill Books

PAUL SMYTH’S ADVICE ON GARDENING IN A SMALL SPACE

A small space can offer lots of potential and any outdoor space is invaluable.

Here’s a few tips to get the most out of it:

Ditch the lawn

Lawns have their place, but in a very small garden they are often shaded, becoming full of moss and are mud baths in winter. If you pave or gravel the lawn space, make plenty of extra space for plants around the sides and extend the planting areas to compensate for the loss of lawn. Perhaps you’ll keep the lawn but do consider letting a small patch grow and add native wildflowers in the autumn for a sustainable and beautiful patch next summer.

Look up

We often think of a small space as a limited sized area, but there’s no limit on how high up you own, so use that space! Most small gardens have walls or buildings near them, giving the perfect opportunity to plant a host of climbers, to give coverage and flowers.

Ivy is a classic that many may turn their noses up at, but it’s a native, evergreen and flowers in the winter, producing pollen at a critical time of the year when little else does. Climbing hydrangea are a favourite, and you can get them in both deciduous and evergreen forms. They have the added advantage of doing well in a very dark garden or against a north-facing wall.

For a sunnier wall, Solanum Crispum ‘Glasnevin’ is a fantastic plant that flowers for months on end and is covered in cheerful blue to purple flowers. It is very vigorous and evergreen too.

Plant a tree

You may be lucky enough to have space for a tree, if so a small columnar tree is a good idea. Cherry trees are always a favourite and Prunus serrulata ‘Amanogawa’ is a classic columnar cherry.

Hornbeam makes neat narrow trees and can take some shaping too, try Carpinus betulus ‘Columnaris Nana’.

There are apples available that take up very little space and reward you with fruit later in summer and flowers in spring. Keep an eye out for coronet miniature apple trees, which have been bred to take up minimal space.

Think pots

Diarmuid Gavin, the renowned garden designer and the co-author of a new book Gardening Together.
Diarmuid Gavin, the renowned garden designer and the co-author of a new book Gardening Together.

Pots are just wonderful; you can get pretty much any style these days and any size to suit your space. In fact, you can grow an entire garden in a few pots if you choose small trees, shrubs and long flowering perennial plants.

If you have a very tricky space, you could even consider building your own planters. Just make sure to add drainage. That’s one key rule of growing plants in pots, ensuring you water regularly but also have good drainage holes in the bottom of whatever you plant into.

I use old tin baths, but drill plenty of holes in them before filling with soil.

Investing in a good compost is another boring but important point when planting up a pot, remember the plant may stay there for years so a good John Innes soil-based compost is usually best.

Liquid feeding your pots is the final thing you’ll need to do to ensure a fabulous garden in a pot. A general-purpose feed is good for most plants, and tomato feed is great for anything you want lots of flowers from!

Layer it

One of my favourite things to do in a small space is to make bulb lasagnes, which isn’t as daft as it sounds! You can do these in pots or in the ground.

Diarmuid Gavin and Paul Smyth. 
Diarmuid Gavin and Paul Smyth. 

Pick your favourite spring-flowering bulbs in the autumn: Crocus, dwarf daffodils, scillas, fritillarias, tulips and iris all can be packed into a tiny space, the idea being that you bury the largest bulb first and then work your way up through the sizes, with a layer of soil or compost between each different species. As long as the bulbs don’t touch, they will be fine.

If you choose lots of varieties, you can have your lasagne pot or bed flowering from February to May.

Summer colours

Once your lasagne pots are finished you can think about summer colour. Frost has now passed as we’re coming to the end of May so you can fill pots with all the bedding plants you can wish for.

Cosmos, marigolds, petunias, salvias, and a host of annual plants that will fill your garden with colour all summer long until we get a frost in autumn.

These plants are real divas, but they’ll reward you with months of flowers if you continually water, deadhead and feed them. They are great to add a splash of colour and worth the extra effort. 

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