Joe Swift’s been busy, following up his successful new show The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge by duetting with Monty Don on this years’ Chelsea Flower Show. We have a chat with the Hackney hort about hot gardens, flatulent vegetables and the merits of a mattock.
(Still basking in the golden glow generated by Arsenal’s resounding FA Cup success, Joe precedes the gardening questions with a lengthy discussion on the joy of Alexi Sanchez)
I’d imagine you’re still suffering from a Chelsea hangover, Joe? There were some really special show gardens this year, but what was your pick of the crop?
Dan Pearson’s was quite incredible. I think it was quite difficult for the viewers to get their heads around it, the tv cameras couldn’t quite do it justice somehow. A lot of people were saying, ‘I don’t quite get it, I don’t quite get it’, but one of the privileges of my job is that I get to go on the gardens and walk around them, and see things as they develop over the week, and Dan’s was just incredible. Not only was it a great garden, it was an amazing feat of engineering – he brought down 250 tonnes of boulders from Chatsworth and he took over the whole triangle.
It looked like it had been there for a hundred years which is actually a really difficult thing to do. It’s much easier to create a show garden where everything is whizzy, wowy and zappy, but to do what Dan did is really hard. I think that Dan is such a sensitive man and a sensitive garden designer… I think it will filter down actually, and have sort of a knock on effect and make people re-evaluate a way to garden – working with what they have got and with the landscape rather than ripping everything out and starting all over again. He’s always going on about a sense of place and trying to create that sense of something special about the environment. He managed to do that in the middle of the Chelsea Flower Show. Unbelievable.
There was also the L’Occitane Garden by James Basson, a garden which was really beautiful with olives and poppies that had self-seeded, veggies and a load of weeds and stuff in there as well. It did need sunshine to look really good, but, when the light caught it, it looked amazing.
So Dan says he doesn’t want to design next year?
I don’t think he’ll be back in a hurry. He hasn’t been there for 11 years, and I don’t think he’s gonna be back for another 11 really.
So that leaves the ‘Best in Show’ Chelsea crown vacant. Is it time for another Swifty garden?
Ooohhhh, well not next year – I would have already had to get my bloody drawings in. One year… I’m not in a mad rush, but I do keep coming up with some crazy ideas. Every time I go to Chelsea I do get very excited and think I really want to be doing another one of these, and I will at some point, but no mad rush. It’s funny because when I did my garden I was like, well, getting a medal doesn’t matter, the most important thing is that I’m pleased with my garden, but having got a gold…. if it was a silver gilt, I would have thought ‘I’ve got to go again, I’ve got to go again’, but having got the gold, there’s only one way to go from there. But I will do one one day.
What to you predict for next year’s Chelsea? Hot gardens? Conifers? What’s going to be the trend do you think?
Chelsea was so eclectic, but the gardens that stood out were the more naturalistic gardens. I think this approach is an easier, more relaxed way for people to garden. I don’t think people are going to go into highly stylised, or outdoor, or indoor or that sort of thing… I do think it’s going to be a case of trying to create quite natural environments that are easier to maintain which means cutting back a couple of times a year as opposed to having to constantly water stuff, pot stuff on, etc. That’s a hard way of gardening and I think the younger generation are after an easier way to tweak their gardens. And I think that’s what Dan Pearson was trying to do really, albeit on a massive scale.
It might just be me projecting myself on where it might be heading but I think there might be a lot of bright colours coming through… there were a lot of yellows at Chelsea. I’ve done a project with Zandra Rhodes in Berdmonsey recently, which is absolutely insane when it comes to colours, because she painted this building pink, orange and blue, and I had to respond to that in my planting scheme, and that was really good fun. It would look ridiculous in the country or in a rural setting but it works in central London, in what was quite a grim corner so I think it’s depending on what setting you’ve got and working with it.
One of the Chelsea show gardens was designed by the winner of your new show, The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge. How do you think Sean’s garden fared against the rest of the competition?
Yeah, really well. I mean he couldn’t be judged because technically the RHS were paying for his exhibit but if he had he would’ve done really well. He created a beautiful garden and it wasn’t on the same sort of budget level as some of the other gardens either, where some of the banks etc. are throwing money at these gardens.
The large show gardens on the main avenue, the average price is over £200,000. Some of them are way up there… it’s a lot of money! When I did my garden in 2012, my budget was £250,000. It’s loads of money, but you are literally spending it on… a mature tree… it’s £5,000 here, £5,000 there… a water feature, £20,000, so you are dealing in those sort of figures and on site you’ve got maybe 15-20 people finishing every bit of stone and plant, and they’ve all got to be put up somewhere, and then there’s transport. The costs just escalate.
Sean had to be very sensible with his budget. He’s very creative and he worked incredibly hard and did a fantastic job and I don’t think he could’ve done any better. He became an overnight celebrity, meeting the Royal Family… he couldn’t believe it but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Filming of the Garden Challenge looked like a lot of fun, if a bit stressful. It looked like you had to give some of the contestants a bit of tough love…
Well I had to. Some them have got their ideas on how lovely everything is going to be, and they quickly realise it’s incredibly hard work and they have to make decisions quickly and they end up spending hours on the wrong thing, whatever it might be, and it was my job to tell them pull their finger out. But I had to be very fair across the board… some them were more adept and more capable than others. It’s physically very, very exhausting – 3 to 4 days in a row – just building, digging and carrying and watering so I had to make sure they were eating properly, resting etc, which is all part of being a garden designer at Chelsea. You have to keep yourself fit, you’ve got to keep yourself on top of the game. I had to evenly give help across the board; if I gave 10 minutes help to one person, then I’d have to give 10 minutes help to somebody else, because otherwise it was unfair. But that’s all part of the format, It was fun to make, and great to watch people build gardens in front of your own eyes. I think people really enjoyed watching it.
So this year you’re back again presenting the Chelsea coverage. Going back a couple of years, you were paired up with Alan Titchmarsh and you seemed to have a real spark and rapport together. Do you miss your old pal, and do you ever meet up for a pint?
Me and Alan are good mates so we get to see each other on a regular basis, text each other, that kind of stuff. When I was on Gardener’s World, working with Alan, I learnt so much from him from a presenter’s point of view. He took me under his wing and was very generous as a presenter. He’ll throw stuff over to me a lot, even if he knew all the answers because horticulturally he’s incredibly knowledgeable.
It’s interesting because I think that Monty has done an excellent job coming in and presenting and he puts a slightly different angle on it and now we tend to probe a little bit and be a bit more critical of gardens where we used to be veering more towards the light entertainment side I guess. I’ve really enjoyed both sides of it and this year was really interesting with having a couple of separate debates with Monty and digging a little bit deeper and people have responded to that. I think the viewing figures have been really good and the feedback I’ve had was that people actually liked us being critical and trying to dissect some of the gardens, how they work or how they might not work. You can go around gardens and say everything is lovely all the time, but no one gets anywhere.
So I seem to remember a couple of years ago on Gardener’s World you had an allotment with Cleve West. Do you still have it, or is it as overgrown as mine currently is?
Yes, Cleve helped me out in the beginning. He put my shed up then left me to it…
I have’t got it anymore sadly. I had it for 3 years and I absolutely loved it. They divided it up into three plots and let 3 families have it. Unfortunately it was ridden with mare’s tail. It’s just that when I was filming up there and my kids were younger and my wife got into it… the problem was that it was 25 minutes each way in the car, it wasn’t nearly close enough. I live in Hackney and there’s only 110 plots here and a 20 year waiting list or something and it’s really hard to get hold of one but I miss the allotment life, I really do.
I find there can be a bit of a competitive edge on allotments, certainly on ours… I guess more so for you when people know you from tv. Is there added pressure for you to keep up appearances?
Yeah, there was a bit of that, I had to let it go because I wasn’t keeping it up to scratch and I’d be open to criticism if I let it go over too much. Also there’s a huge demand you know, there were waiting lists and other people wanted it and that’s the way it goes. I can’t keep it going so I had to give it to someone else. It was only fair, really.
Cleve has about 3 plots now, I think. He spends a lot of time down on them, but I’m not sure what he does. I think he’s planted a lot of trees on them.
We’ve planted a load of rhubarb varieties down on our allotment because they are relatively maintenance free, and rhubarb wine tastes fantastic. Do you have any other veg suggestions that we can plant and pretty much leave to its own devices?
I’ve found that Jerusalem artichokes are pretty good! Yeah, you just basically plant them, they come up and you’ll never get rid of them! And you can just make soup out of them all Autumn long, but you’ll be farting all Autumn long as well. And blueberries. Blueberries are brilliant, as long as you have a relatively moist soil. You’ll get a huge bush, I mean quite quickly you’ll end up with a two metre tall bush. You can get different varieties and they’ll pollinate each other. They are a really good way of covering ground but getting plenty of fruit.
(Laughs) Oh I don’t know, I mean we go and visit gardens together anyway and we bought James one of those flip cameras for his birthday, remember those? He started videoing us and started turning them into silly 2 minute films, and the next thing we knew he’d chucked it up on YouTube, and we kept coming up with ideas… people thought it was quite funny. We just like the idea that we can do some filming without any director or producer telling us what to do! Often you’ll start filming something properly and they’ll cut out all your jokes and funny stuff and we’re like, ‘Why did you do that? That was the best bit!’ So the only way to do it was by doing it ourselves. So we come up with various ideas and get roped in by various charities, the National Gardening Scheme, the RHS, whoever. And it’s really good fun.
What would be your Desert Island Veg?
Just veg? Can I have fruit as well?
Go on then…
Great. Raspberries. I just love raspberries. And purple sprouting broccoli, I do like that. And fresh asparagus is hard to beat. I’m not sure veg would do very well on a desert island though?
Ah, but it’s a very fertile desert island. And you can take one tool with you… What would you take?
I do like a mattock. You can do anything with a mattock!
And after a hard day’s mattock-ing, What would be your preferred tipple?
A well earned, cool pint of Guinness. Cheers!
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