Ten Questions With Joe Swift

This week I’ve been chatting to  Joe Swift.  Fresh from mentoring the contestants on The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge and presenting duties for the RHS Chelsea Flower show, here’s what he had to tell me.

Joe Swift at RHS Chelsea

How did The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge come about?

The idea for the program came from the BBC and the RHS getting their heads together and thinking how they could encourage some new amateur gardening talent and engage viewers at the same time. They wanted to show people the real truth behind what a winning Chelsea Garden takes to make and how it’s judged. They asked me to get involved and I loved it. It was great fun watching the designers, the learning curve from the garden that they created from the beginning to the end. Seeing Sean at the Chelsea flower show was a very proud moment for all of us. The Royal family turning up to meet him, signing autographs for the public.

Why do think the show was so popular?

The characters involved in it, they were from such different backgrounds and seeing a garden coming together. You can bake a cake in two or three hours but it takes three days or four days to build some of those gardens plus the design process, the creativity and attention to detail, the physical effort, all of that really captured the imagination. It has the right combination of everything.

Gardeners have been very complimentary about it because we did it as it should be done and the judging process was completely honest. Also there was a nice spirit about it, with everyone helping each other out and being positive, no backstabbing or being nasty about the other garden and that’s what the real gardening world’s like, people are encouraging and try to help one another out.

Will there be another series?

I think there ought to be but whether there will be is down to the producers.

It also encourages young people and I’ve met a lot of young people, eight, nine, ten year olds that absolutely loved it, really got into it. I’ve never had that response from a gardening program before. It seemed to cut across all ages which is really important.

How do we encourage young people to consider horticulture as a career?

We need to put it on the school curriculum and make sure that people take it seriously at a young age. We know it’s fun and it’s engaging but we have to try and encourage kids at school. Make playgrounds more interesting. I started gardening when I was at primary school, I made a tiny flower bed with a few little stepping stones, I’ll never forget it. It totally captured my imagination the creativity of it.

It has to be attractive and valued as a profession, there are so many different aspects to it, garden maintenance, becoming a plantsman, working in a nursery, the landscape side of things, garden design. I think we’re getting there though. There were many more young people at Chelsea this year. I’m very positive about the future.

 Chelsea: designing a gardening or presenting?

Designing a gold medal winning garden was a lifetime ambition it was something I had to do and there’s nothing to beat it. It’s one of the best things in the world but also one of the most exhausting things at the same time.

For three weeks you’re on site from seven in the morning until eight at night, plus there’s all the planning and the preparation, which can go on for years in advance. For those three weeks you don’t sit down with your family for a meal or go to pub, or have any idea what’s going in the outside world. Plus you’re not sleeping very well because creatively your thinking doesn’t stop. Where’s this plant going to go or will that paving look good, all that sort of stuff.

There’s also a responsibility to the sponsers with all the money they’ve invested and to the BBC, so by the end of it you’re drained.

That‘s why every one just bursts into tears it doesn’t matter what medal you’ve got you just tend to burst into tears. It all seems so public but that’s the beauty of it as well.

At some point though I’d like to do another Chelsea garden, one day but I’m not sure quite when that might be. I would never have been satisfied if I’d not given it a shot, it was great and an amazing experience.

But it’s a real privilege to present the program so no one thing wins over another.

I think it’s actually helped having done a garden. I present the program and I totally understand what everyone’s going through to make it happen, it’s quite incredible.

Did you have favourite garden at Chelsea?

Dan Pearson’s, it wasn’t a classic ‘showy’ show garden but it was absolutely stunning and amazing. It was a huge feat of engineering but it was also it looked like it had been there for a hundred years and that’s not easy to achieve. It was very subtle as well, the plant combinations, the stream running through it.

When I went to recce it the day before the show it took me about 45 minutes to walk around it. I kept seeing things that I wanted to go back and re look at.

He’s a huge hero of mine as a garden designer so I thought it was the stand out garden.

What trends can we take from Chelsea?

It was interesting seeing the gardens designed by Dan Pearson and James Basson. They were the most natural, a bit looser with the planting, quite naturalistic with a few weeds, they somehow didn’t seem over pampered. I think people will be a little bit more sensitive to letting plants get a little bit unruly and rather that pruning into a lollipop just take a branch off here and there, work a little more with what they’ve got rather than pulling it all out and starting again. I think that might be the way we go. At Chelsea we always see really amazing things that are looking at their peak for that week but this time we saw gardens that will still look good in a couple of weeks, they weren’t trying to hit a day, they were just being themselves. It’s a very relaxed way of gardening I think we might see more of that in the future.

Your favourite plant at the show?

There was a beautiful iris on Dan Pearson’s garden it had a black stem, I need to look it up but it was absolutely stunning, it came out in flower while we were at the show. Beautiful.

Your advice for new gardeners?

Take it easy. Assess what you’ve got, don’t be too hasty with it. Know what soil you’ve got, that’s the most important thing. Look at the aspect. If you’ve got a sunny well-drained site you’ve got to work with that, don’t try and fight it, don’t try and grow lots of moisture loving plants. Take time to understand your garden. Let stuff come up, live with it for a year ideally. Definitely try and create something with what you’ve got rather than digging everything out and starting again.

What’s coming up next?

I’ve got Gardeners World Live, which is next week and The Hampton Court Flower Show. I’m also designing a garden for the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville which is a huge honour and quite a responsibility but it’ll be nice to be able to create a garden that’s outward facing that a lot of people can really benefit from. Transforming the space into somewhere that feels alive with lots of wildlife and birds buzzing around. So that’s quite a big project once I’ve got all my filming out of the way. And who knows there might even be another Chelsea Challenge but well have to see about that one!


Joe is currently working with Pro Bono Bio manufacturers of Flexiseq, a drug-free topically applied gel, clinically proven to safely relieve pain and restore joint function among osteoarthritis sufferers. I am grateful to them for making this interview possible.

RHS Chelsea 2015

And so to RHS Chelsea and despite of the cold, wrap up warm if you’re going, and early visit to The Red Cross tent to get my still recovering sprained ankle dressed, it was utterly glorious. I’ll keep the talk brief because I took about three hundred photos of the show gardens and the floral marquee and would like to share as many as possible.

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