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Joe Swift - Evergreen

Joe Swift knows a thing or two about gardening. An established presenter at The Chelsea Flower Show, Joe also writes for Gardener’s World, makes a living from designing gardens and, did I forget to say, won a Chelsea Gold for his garden design in 2012. So as this year’s Flower Show kicks off Joe tells us all about how he came to love gardens, his efforts to control his kids’ desire to play football in his own garden and how he keeps active as he gets older.

I got into gardening because...

I used to garden with both sets of grandparents. They had very different gardens, one was suburban in Liverpool, the other more rural - the latter saw himself as a bit of a Percy Thrower. At home my mum tried to garden around us three kids but we just used the small garden in London as a football pitch. She didn’t have much of a hope really.

My children weren’t allowed to use my garden...

as a football pitch. I used to convince them the park was a much better option. This garden, any garden really, charts your family life. This one has changed about ten times in the roughly 14 years we’ve been here. The kids used to draw on the slate and I had a big structure at the back with tire swings. Back then it was a play space- cum-garden area. Now, with my kids being older, I feel I’m reclaiming it back off them. It’s important gardens are a versatile space for whoever is using them. If there’s a family there you want to encourage kids to get out there as much as possible.

Like the home, the garden...

evolves. When I designed this garden I wanted to get the structure in place but I knew that kids grow up so quickly. So there are times where you have to have low maintenance plants and then there are times when you can have things a little more delicate. When the kids are young you don’t have as much time to maintain the garden. When you get to my age you get a bit of time back.

I take my gardening inspiration from...

the natural landscape. When I’m driving around I sometimes see a rolling hill or a rock formation or the way a tree is growing sideways out of a cliff face and that inspires you as much as seeing other people’s gardens. It’s so easy to look at a garden designed by someone else and think ‘oh if they’d just put that there’ but on the other hand there are three or four gardeners who I really admire. I take inspiration from them. Often though good gardens are incredibly simple, when you over complicate them they get muddled and confused. They lose that relaxing, harmonious feel. I don’t like anything gimmicky, nothing ultra modern, nothing too old fashioned either. I like contemporary classic spaces.

The Chelsea Flower Show brings out….

a competitive spirit in gardeners. It’s the pinnacle for a lot of garden designers’ careers. Often it’s about not letting yourself down first. You’ve got sponsors’ money, it’s on show, there’s a lot of television coverage coming out of it. The last few days when people are planting up their gardens there’s a lot of internal competition between all the other designers. The RHS can hand out as many gold medals as they want but there is only one best in show for that year. Amongst the elite, those who have a few gold medals under their belt, they start looking for best in show and there is a sense of competition. I like that, especially when I’m doing TV, I see it as a sporting event, my producers love it, they tell me I’m the Gary Neville of gardening. Otherwise it can get where everything is ‘lovely and beautiful’ all the time.


No one wants to criticise the gardens but…

they are all lined up, even if they’re all different themes, you can’t help but judge them. I’d quite like a Monday Night Football big screen so I can say “look at these lines, what they should of done is this”. My producers have encouraged me to be more critical in the past few years but people hate me for it, asking me outside for a fight. They shouldn’t get upset about it, it’s such an open forum, everyone is talking and writing about it, there’s no point in getting precious about it.

Winning a Chelsea Gold takes...

a hell of a lot of work. An intense amount of work, detailing, designing...and money helps. Everyone knows the average price for a garden at Chelsea Flower Show is a quarter of a million pounds so you have to have that behind you. I’ve never accepted second best for anything. From plant quality to build quality. You have to keep refreshing the design. It took me about a year to design and source my plants. Then it takes three weeks to build. You pretty much don’t sleep or eat - it takes stamina. You can easily get exhausted and burn yourself out. It’s an incredibly creative and intense experience. I found it one of the most enjoyable experiences. It’s not a real garden it’s theatre, you’re not building a garden that has to last ten years, it has to last a week so you don’t have the client calling you up to say something hasn’t flowered. You do become obsessive about it, you don’t have that many people to talk to because as the designer it’s all up to you. You’re totally focused, the family wave goodbye to you and are probably quite gratefully when you’re in that frame of mind.

At the Chelsea Flower Show This year I think you can expect...

a lot of green spaces, a lot of inspiration taken from nature. There’s some charity gardens there, one going to Great Ormond Street designed by Chris Beardshaw. I think plants are going to be central. That sounds odd but there was a time not long ago where plants were secondary to the design elements. But I think now, again, they’re the main thing, not necessarily flowers, but climbing plants, so it’s exciting that plants are being put first. That being said Chelsea Flower Show Gardens aren’t accessible to most people, it’s the catwalk of garden shows.

I developed an arthritic knee...

As a result of gardening and playing football for many years. There’s a slight genetic thing there because my brother and dad have bad knees. But I like to think I’ve just worn it out grafting away. Let’s go with that. I do yoga and football once a week. I played last night so I’m still a bit stiff. I’m constantly walking and being active, I golf, I fish. I have to do something everyday to keep it moving. When I’m static it gets bad. I use Flexiseq on it and I’ve started using it on the other knee as well just in case. I stretch a lot, it’s when you’re sitting or standing for long periods it stiffens and becomes quite painful. I think the other knee is going the same way.

I first encountered Flexiseq when...

I’d just been diagnosed with my arthritic knee and my agent sent me this stuff. I started slapping it on and it really loosened up my knee. I don’t quite understand the mechanics of how it works but the joint feels more mobile. That combined with things like yoga and stretching really improves it. I used to use a painkiller gel on it but that doesn’t help the problem.

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