Diarmuid Gavin: Digging for victory

Diarmuid Gavin
Diarmuid Gavin
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Communities across Yorkshire are being given a second chance to bid for thousands of pounds and priceless expert advice for local gardening projects . Catherine Scott reports.

It was Blue Peter gardener Percy Thrower who inspired a young Diarmuid Gavin to pick up a spade and get digging.

Blue Peter was about the only children’s programme we were allowed to watch,” says the TV gardener.

“I used to love watching Percy Thrower creating the Italian sunken garden. He fascinated me and I decided that I wanted to be a gardener.”

Now Diarmuid is hoping a new generation of gardeners will be inspired to get planting and growing their own food.

He is launching the second instalment of the Royal Horticultural Society’s £100,000 grassroots gardening programme in Yorkshire, now supported by Kärcher.

The initiative was launched last year when more than 100 communities applied for funding and support from the RHS, and 32 groups received grants of up to £8,000.

Among them was Keyhouse, a homeless charity in Keighley, which received £5,000 to help build a Kitchen Garden for its service users.

Before the project at Keyhouse began, only two per cent of its 5,000 service-users got five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and most lacked the skills and confidence to find jobs. Helping with the build and running of the allotment has allowed service-users to develop new skills and fresh produce is now available every day.

Ian Fallon of Keyhouse said: “Gardening has benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing. Out allotments are used by service users, many whom have alcohol and drug dependencies and have very little positive in their lives. But they come down here and dig for victory.”

Another beneficiary was Horton Community Farm, a social enterprise located in a deprived part of Bradford where the health and life expectancy of people is generally worse than the national average. The group have transformed a neglected council allotment site from a terrible state of under use and dereliction into a community growing space which is being used to provide fresh local food, community gardening, education for adults and children, volunteer opportunities and social and therapeutic horticulture.

Rory Argyle is project and site co-ordinator.

“We have struggled a bit with the weather but we are hoping to hold a launch event in March. We have the support of the local community and we rely on our team of volunteers. Grants from organisations such as the RHS are invaluable, but we want to make our selves much more self-sufficient.”

A third recipient was Harris Road Allotments, where the fund helped transform a derelict piece of land which is enhancing the learning experience for 450 pupils of Marcliffe School by the creation of a poly tunnel which has been used as an outdoor classroom to enable children to learn about where their food comes from. The money was also used to transform the entrance to the allotment, from a wasteland to a community amenity.

As well as funding, the RHS Regional Development team, Libby Goodacre and Sarah-Jane Mason, both based at RHS Garden Harlow Carr in Harrogate, will provide additional support and expertise.

“We’ve received great feedback from communities who benefitted from the scheme last year and it has been fantastic to see the projects evolve,” says Libby. “To be able to provide hands-on expertise, at a local level, and funding to groups who need the money has been so satisfying.”

Diarmuid, who will be making a visit to one of the community projects, says gardening is far more than just about growing produce.

“A lot of people seem to have forgotten where food comes from. We are all so busy with our lives and the rise of the supermarket has helped us lose touch with where our food comes from,” says Diarmuid.

“To be able to invest in schemes that demonstrate to people that good food is very easy to grow is fantastic. Children love to have the chance to get dirty and to be creative. There is nothing easier than growing some spuds or some tomatoes. It gives you a real sense of satisfaction.”

Diarmuid says that school wasn’t for him and he decided quite early on that he would be a chef or a gardener.

“I did cheffing for three months and then decided to go back to gardening.”

But he admits it wasn’t always plain sailing and at one stage he ended up almost homeless.

“Things didn’t go so well for the first seven or eight years. I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to challenge the types of gardens I’d grown up with. But it wasn’t what people wanted.”

He was living hand-to-mouth when he managed to blag his way into the Chelsea Flower Show, won a host of medals and caught TV producers’ eyes when he was interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh and became Britain’s latest TV presenter.

“I was lucky they were looking for a new breed of television gardeners. I was the last person to be a TV presenter – I was cripplingly shy.” But he hasn’t looked back and as well as hosting TV gardening shows, he is regularly seen on the celebrity reality TV shows.

“They pay well and you get to do things you would never otherwise get to do,” says the dad-of-one who is currently learning to horse race for a new Channel 4 show.

He is married to psychologist Justine Keane, daughter of Ireland’s former Chief Justice Ronan Keane, and they have one daughter Eppie, nine, who he admits has no interest in gardening.

“She’d rather be twerking to Miley Cyrus,” he says.