The Constant Gardener

Gareth Austin. (SUNINT0409AQ01)
Gareth Austin. (SUNINT0409AQ01)

A tall man in his early thirties waits at the side of the road in a small white van in Bridgend, Donegal. His clothes offer clues as to how he spent his morning. There’s clay on his hands and his dark sweater is a sure sign that he’s been working hard in his garden. The back of the fan smells of fresh compost and soon he will meet with several trainee chefs from Derry to teach them about the importance of fresh vegetables and how to grow them.

The tall man’s name is Gareth Austin and he’s perhaps better known as the voice that offers expert advice on BBC Radio Foyle’s weekly gardening programme.

Gareth is also well known throughout Derry and Donegal for his work with local communities.

In recent weeks he has helped to launch a small allotment plot near Leafair Park and he explains that there are plans for a large green area in the Springtown Industrial Estate through his role as horticultural studies lecturer at the North West Regional College (NWRC).

“I get so much out of working with people from all over Derry, I get a real buzz when they enjoy themselves and long may it continue,” says Gareth smiling.

Gareth was born and reared in a little suburb of Edinburgh called Ratho Station in 1979. His father, Norman. is a butcher by trade but runs a small wholesale food business and his mother, Louise, works in a whisky bottling factory. Gareth has one older sister and her name is Michelle.

“One of my earliest memories is of picking strawberries and rhubarb with my mother in the back garden of our council house home in Ratho Station,” recalls Gareth happily.

Gareth attended the very small Hillwood PS before moving on to Craigmount High School in Edinburgh. He said that he found the experience of moving from a relatively tiny school to one with over 1500 pupils quite daunting.

“There was only five pupils in my year when I was at Hillwood,” he says. “When I went to Craigmount I wasn’t used to being in a class of 30 never mind a school of 1500.

“I was very poor academically. I was good at Mathematics and Physics but I just couldn’t click with any of the other subjects. When I was young I wanted to become an engineer but looking back that must have been because I was good at subjects like Mathematics.”

At the age of 16, Gareth left school and got a full-time job working in a local garden centre.

“A friend of mine worked in a local garden centre and he got me a Saturday job - I was the young laddie who’d carry the compost to your car.

“I then started working on Sundays too, then school holidays and soon after I left school I started working there full time.”

Gareth admits that he got his green fingers by chance. After a while he soon realised that he was happy working with plants and decided that he wanted to make a career out of it. He attended Oatridge Agricultural College West Lothian where he attained qualifications in horticulture.

After answering an advertisement for a garden centre job in Mayo, Gareth travelled to Ireland.

“I was totally taken by the people in Mayo. I wanted a change to what I was used to in Scotland so I moved to Ireland - it was everything and more that I hoped it would be.”

A month passed by before Gareth met a girl from Donegal Town called Leanne and over 10 years later the pair are happily married with two young daughters; three year-old Connie and four month-old Gracie.

“I would love to have another three or four daughters and then they’d be able to look after their daddy. No sons, just daughters - they could make me tea, give me biscuits and look after me,” he says laughing. “When I talk to Leanne about she just rolls her eyes and laughs but hopefully we’ll have another few.”

Gareth spent over four years working in and around Mayo before he was offered a job working at, the now closed down, Ness Nurseries in Derry. He stayed with the family owned business for almost two years before moving to a garden centre in Newtowncunningham in Donegal but the move was short lived as the company ceased trading as a result of the recession.

“When my job went at the garden centre I managed to get a lecturing post at the NWRC. My first class was teaching horticulture to a handful people on Saturday mornings and now I have a full teaching calendar - I love lecturing, it’s really satisfying.”

If he’s not busy planting vegetables or spending time with his family Gareth manages to get away to spend time answering gardener’s questions every Tuesday afternoon on the Mark Patterson show on BBC Radio Foyle.

“I’ve been doing radio for some time – starting off with Mid and North West Radio, then Highland Radio then onto Radio Foyle.

“My radio work is something I’m really proud off, I think myself and Mark Patterson [BBC Radio Foyle presenter] manage to make gardening sound fun and enjoyable and as such listenership and participation in the gardening show on a Tuesday is exceptional.”

It’s evident that Gareth enjoys working with people and showing them how to grow their own plants, fruit and vegetables. He says that there’s something “unique” about the people of Derry and explained why it took a local man to tell him why no one answered their door when Gareth knocked.

“The people of Derry are just amazing,” he says. “They have such a unique sense of humour - I’ve never experienced it anywhere else.”

He continued: “I remember I was asked to judge the garden of the year competition at one of the interfaces in the town a few years ago.

“A local man came along with me to show which houses I had to visit to give them the good news. As I arrived at each door I gave a heavy knock but no one answered.

“The man I was with said that it was probably because I was knocking so hard that the people inside thought they were about to be raided by the police,” describes Gareth laughing.

“I have visited some amazing gardens in Derry. I remember visiting an old man who lived in Blucher Street and he had turned his flat roof at the top of his home into a rooftop garden - it was quite remarkable.”

Gareth’s grow your own revolution has still some way to go and he says that he would like to do more work with communities in the Waterside. He says that there’s plenty of land right across Derry that could be used for allotments and he believes that the more people growing their own fruit and veg the better it will be for everyone.

The definition of true happiness is having a hobby and getting paid for it; Gareth’s hobby is gardening and he’s getting paid for it, so is he happy?

“I just tell people that I am a poor hard working gardener,” he smiles. “But seriously, I have two children and a wife at home so what’s not to be happy about.

“I love my job and I know that many people say that but I honestly mean it. I wouldn’t do what I do unless I enjoyed it.

“Myself and Leanne have just had another wee girl [Gracie] and with the eldest [Connie] just starting school it’s a busy time in Austin HQ.

“In the community we’re looking to develop more grow-your-own-spaces and more community focused environmental works in the city,

“I have a good relationship now with all the main stake holders in the city and we have a number of exciting projects on the cards – Ballymagroarty Allotments, Hazelbank Plots, Bogside extension, Brooke Park, Ballyarnet Allotments, Shantallow plots, Galliagh plots, to name but a few, and the NWRC are extending the Horticultural Classes on offer so with the new Horticultural Training facility built in Springtown - it’s going to be busy.”

Follow Gareth on Facebook or on Twitter ‘@gardenergareth’ or listen to him on the Mark Patterson Show on BBC Radio Foyle every Tuesday afternoon.