By protecting plants, we are protecting life – an interview with Diarmuid Gavin

“Gardens in this part of the world are political.  We need to change the way we garden. Without soil health, without plant health we only have superficial health. Everything is connected and everything is political” says Diarmuid Gavin, who was appointed Advocate for the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH)* by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Diarmuid Gavin is an Irish gardener and television personality who participated in the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show nine times, winning gold in 2011. He has designed a wealth of gardens throughout Ireland, the UK, continental Europe, China and Africa. Speaking to us about the importance of plant health, Diarmuid explains the role that horticulture has to play in all contemporary affairs, from the Black Lives Matter Movement to the ongoing pandemic.

Biodiversity and the huge decline in insect populations

“If we don’t have pollinators, we won’t have food, it’s as simple as that” says Diarmuid in response to a question on the link between biodiversity loss and plant health. “If we keep pumping phosphates and nitrates into the ground to give higher yields all the time, we will wear out the earth’s natural resources” he continues. The FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report notes that reducing or eliminating the application of pesticides and adopting management practices that favour beneficial soil biodiversity would protect pollinators. Diarmuid makes clear that protecting pollinators can be undertaken locally, at the scale of our gardens, as well as extending these practices to the broader agricultural systems that we rely on.

“We must look after the whole ecosystem and that really does start with our gardens. We are not just gardening for ourselves, but for the whole ecosystem. The good thing is that people are getting the message, councils are getting the message and people are understanding that simple wild flowers are open to bees to collect pollen.”

Honey Bee pollinating flower
Bee pollinates a flower

“We have to realise that gardening is not a 1950’s version of housekeeping anymore,” says to Diarmuid, referring to the long tradition of impeccably manicured gardens. “It is not about perfect green lawns. The humble dandelion is a brilliant provider of pollen. Don’t believe the ads of the chemical companies, don’t believe our lawns have to be almost painted green by shoving chemicals into them. Let’s think ‘what do the insects and bees need?’ and maybe garden in a way that is a little bit untidy to create habitats.”

Horticulture and historic injustice

“There is a lot of injustice in gardening and a lot of social horticulture is tied up with aristocratic endeavour and the higher orders. It takes a while for that to break down.” Diarmuid says. The history of British landscape gardens has a long aristocratic tradition dating back to Charles I. It is difficult to detach this aristocratic heritage from the challenges of our current social reality, but this is a challenge that we must step up to.

“There has been a lot of plundering of distant lands for really beautiful plants which only benefits the big nurseries and seed houses. I think we have to come to terms with all that and bring BLM into it.  After George Floyd – people are bringing equality into every area of life and horticulture doesn’t escape that. I think it will have a dramatic effect on shows, on institutions like the RHS, and I think that dramatic effect is just around the corner.”

Plant health is not something to be considered independently from social circumstance, Diarmuid reminds us. The context of horticulture reflects our ever-present social context. Reiterating the importance of thinking holistically about gardening he adds, “I am privileged to go around the world talking to people about gardens, and there is a right way to look after soil, soil health and climate health.”

On the International Year of Plant Health

The FAO’s International Year of Plant Health provides a crucial opportunity to foster global awareness of how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, boost economic development and protect the environment. These benefits of sustaining plant health act as the foundations to the six central messages for the IYPH.

Keeping plants healthy to achieve zero hunger and Sustainable Development Goals; being careful when bringing plants and plant products across borders; making trading in plants and plant products safe by complying with the international plant health standards; keeping plants healthy while protecting the environment; investing in plant health capacity development, research and outreach; strengthening monitoring and early warning systems to protect plants and plant health.

Young boy in garden
Young boy waters plants

Talking to us about the dangers to plant health caused by transporting invasive species or plant diseases whilst travelling, Diarmuid Gavin elaborates, “There is damage caused by Westerners who travel. I was in Italy last year and saw hundreds of miles of olive trees that were damaged by the xylella fastidiosa pathogen and it caused havoc to olive oil production. If someone had come back to Ireland with a plant with that fungal disease in it there would be devastation.”

A message to the public and younger generations

Asked what his message to the public and younger generations would be, Diarmuid emphasised that the care with which we must look after the natural world can be fostered by looking after our local environments.

“What I would like to encourage everybody to do, if we don’t want sterile environments where no bird sings and no trees exist, is to look after any environments that you have around you. Think of growing organically, think of the resources that you are using, think of composting.”

Reflecting on the positive role that gardening is playing within the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Diarmuid continues, “We are all going through tough times at the moment, and this idea of escaping into the garden where most gardening work is repetitive – weeding, watering, hoeing, planting – it takes your mind off everything else. Gardening is inherently a hopeful thing and you come away from any activity thinking ‘what will I be doing next year, what will it look like this year?’ And it is wonderful.”

“The satisfaction in seeing new growth, new energy, new life, it’s the magic of nature. A David Attenborough programme in your own back yard.”


* The International Year of Plant Health was extended from 2020 into the first half of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


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