How Joe Swift went from art school drop-out to best-loved gardener

  • Core
  • March 6, 2019
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Joe Swift, interview with the Gardeners' World presenter

A love of gardening was not instilled in Joe Swift from childhood. Though he would occasionally help out in his grandparents’ garden, he tells us, the small garden he remembers when he was growing up in London was mainly used for messy football matches with his brother.

“We used to ruin it really,” he adds with a laugh during his interview with Country Living.

“I got into gardening because I went off to work on a kibbutz (a community based on agriculture) in Israel in the 80s for about six months,” says Joe. “I came back to the UK, and after being in a band for a bit – sort of being an art school dropout – I got a job for a local gardening company up in north London.”

BOOK NOW: TOUR OF MADEIRA WITH JOW SWIFT

Joe quickly fell in love with it: “I was just completely hooked. I loved being outdoors – the creativity, the connection with the seasons. I’m a Londoner, so the connection with any green space – be it a park, a garden, a beautifully designed or planted front garden – can stop you in your tracks. I find the more time I spend in cities the more I seek out green space of any sort.”

Having fallen head over heels for the profession he’d stumbled into, Joe spent time working in Australia, where he was introduced to an ethos that made perfect sense in the temperate climes of the southern hemisphere but wasn’t widely understood in the UK at the time. The concept was idea of the garden being an ‘outdoor room’ – a place for socialising, entertaining and relaxing, rather than just a space to put plants.

On his return to the UK, he took up a degree in garden design, and saw his career flourish as he began writing and working on TV.

Gardening is good for the soul

Nowadays, Joe is an evangelist for the soothing power of gardening. “I think we’re finally realising how important it is, how good it is for one’s soul to see plants and greenery on a daily basis.

“There are no downsides really, especially these days when you turn the news on and everything’s a bit grim. A garden can still be incredibly uplifting – spending time surrounded by beautiful plants can change your attitude to the world.”

This belief is partly what motivates Joe to share his love of gardening with the public through his TV work and writing. He also regularly accompanies guided tours to some of the world’s most exciting destinations for green-fingered tourists.

Joe’s love of Madeira

In March, he departs on a trip to Madeira, where he’ll be taking a group around some of the Portuguese island’s most famous gardens.

A haven for horticulturalists thanks to its year-round warmth and sunshine, you can find plants from all around the world in Madeira, including some of the most beautiful flowers in existence. “In early spring, when things aren’t really kicking off in the UK and it’s still quite grim and grey, Madeira is a lovely place to go,” Joe explains.

“It’s quite grown-up in a way. There’s no loud music, it’s really genteel. I’m in my 50s now, and I never thought I’d turn into ‘one of those’, but it’s really nice that you can walk along the seafront in the evening, and there’s loads of fish restaurants and that sort of thing.”

“It’s an ideal winter break, especially if you’re a garden lover because the Botanical Garden is just phenomenal. It’s got an amazing range of plants – from huge succulents and cacti that they’re growing outdoors, to much more familiar plants that we might grow. Very few of them are native to Madeira, but it’s an incredible micro-climate with the perfect conditions to grow pretty much the widest range of plants you’ll ever see.”

From Chelsea to charity

Alongside his writing and presenting, Joe is also a judge at the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s an an experience he describes as being “like a music festival, where you get 10 or 20 bands all coming to the same place – I love the variety and experimentation.”

And, on top of all of this, Joe love to get involved in charity work. Most recently, he collaborated with Horatio’s Garden, an organisation which creates and maintains accessible gardens in NHS spinal units, on a project for Stoke Mandeville hospital.

“Horatio was a boy who was killed by a polar bear on a school trip, and his mother set up this incredible charity. We took out 2,000 tonnes of soil, so now wheelchairs and beds can go straight out. We’ve got garden lighting ponds, we’ve got lots of sensory plants out there, and there’s a head gardener who has been put in place.

“For me it’s the most important garden I’ve designed in my life, and probably ever will do. It’s transformed the way patients see themselves, and when family and friends come and visit they have a place to escape the sterility of a hospital environment. It’s just amazing.”

The future of gardening

Joe is optimistic about the future of gardening, suggesting that there’s never been a better time to take up the hobby. “We’re much happier with a slightly messier garden, and taking a more relaxed attitude towards your plants and when you cut them back, which frankly is better for wildlife.”

“Visually, we’re becoming much more diverse. I think that’s really nice. A garden should be a little bit like an interior of a home; it should reflect your personality and the amount of time you want to put into it. If you’re a bit of a messy person, have a bit of a messy garden. If you’re a control freak, it’s got to be nice and tidy or you’re not going to be able to sit in it. It’s really important that the garden works for you.”

His message to gardeners is simple: be confident, experiment and get stuck in. “Imagine you’re a professional designer yourself. It’s a bit like when I go in the kitchen – I pretend I’m some sort of TV chef!”

[“source=countryliving”]