ANYONE who has the remotest interest in gardening will surely have heard of Joe Swift.
The garden designer son of actor Clive Swift and novelist Margaret Drabble, he has been a familiar face on our TV screens for many years, fronting the BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show as well as a contributor to its Gardener’s World programme.
And as well as running a successful landscape design company he also writes a column for The Times and Gardener’s World magazine, has appeared on Celebrity Masterchef and Celebrity Bake Off, is heavily involved in community and school garden projects including a pocket park project with Zandra Rhodes, is an ambassador for the National Gardens Scheme and is patron of the Horniman Museum’s garden in Forest Hill.
With so much on his plate it’s a wonder he finds time to do anything else but he has recently started going out on the road giving audiences a fascinating insight into his life and career.
The 51-year-old is coming to Blackheath Halls on November 27 with his latest show, A Man About The Garden in which he will discuss all manner of things, from his rock n roll youth to his career as a landscape designer and gardener and a look behind the scenes at what really happens when he films Gardeners World and the Chelsea Flower Show coverage for TV.
And in a chat he tells me he’s looking forward to it - although stresses he won’t be answering any questions about dead plants.
However, when I introduce myself on the phone he immediately asks if I’m Kate Gould the award-winning garden designer. Sadly I have no hidden talent for gardening at all but it makes for an interesting start to our conversation!
Indeed Joe is chatty and full of humour from the off, regaling me with stories, so much so that anyone who is thinking of going to his show will undoubtedly have a great time.
“It’s not going to be panto, but it won’t be far off!” he jokes. “It’s what I call light entertainment. It’s a bit of a departure from what I normally do and what most people would know me for which is being that bloke off the telly.
“What it isn’t is a lecture! I want it to be informative and entertaining so I do two 45 minute sets and some Q&As - and it’s all about me!” he adds laughing.
“I start off with how I got into gardening, how I went to art school, dropped out of that, how I was in a rock band in the 80s and wanted be a global rock star, left school with no A Levels, went travelling and then ended up studying garden design.”
It turns out he came to gardening and garden design quite late after having done a fair bit of travelling and trying and failing to make it in the cut throat world of rock n roll. He ended up working in a Kibutz and it was there that he truly found his passion for gardening. He came back after six months and blagged his way into a job with a gardening company. A garden design course followed and the rest is history.
“I had always had an interest, and did a bit of gardening when I was a kid, but it wasn’t til I went away that I found my calling as it were,” he says.
“I actually wanted to be a rock star but that was never going to happen - and is still unlikely to! I was a bit nerdy at school but my parents were very encouraging. They were very academic though as were my brother and sister whereas I just wasn’t so I ended up rebelling and playing in a band.
“Gardening and teenagers don’t really go together - as I am finding out with my three kids! So it wasn’t until a lot later that I decided that was what I wanted to do.
“What’s funny is that when my mates were in their 30s they just didn’t get it at all but now they are all a bit older they are all asking about black spot!
“Anyway, the second half of the show is about what it was like to design a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show and how I turned into a media luvvie,” he laughs again.
“Everyone thinks my dad got me the job in TV but it wasn’t like that at all. Also during the show I give a few of the secrets of filming away - how we have to plant and dig up the same plant over and over again to get the right take!
“Then I open up the floor for people to ask questions. By that time people have got the hang of the evening so I normally get a whole load of really good ones - but I draw the line on answering questions such as why has my hydrangea died as that gets a bit boring for everyone - besides it’s not Gardener’s Question Time!
“There are always a few random ones chucked in but that’s what I like. I also like the feedback you get from doing something like this - there is always a real buzz and I really enjoy it.”
Throughout our chat Joe is cracking jokes, engaging and down to earth - much like he is on our TV screens.
But there is also a serious side to him with his strong work ethic and determination to succeed and do a good job - evident when he talks about how he fulfilled his ambition to design a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show.
It is the most prestigious flower show in the world and plenty of designers apply to enter the competition. However as Joe explains it takes a huge amount of time, work and dedication to get it off the ground especially as the desire to get a coveted gold medal is so high.
“Every garden designer wants to do it,” he says. “It’s like the catwalk of garden design and is the ultimate in your career.
“I had wanted to do one for a long time and realised a few years ago that I was becoming more of a commentator rather than designing.
“So I decided to enter. However I don’t think people realise how bloody hard work and intensive it is planning it, creating a design, then working on it, getting a sponsor and raising the money for it and making sure the plants flower and come to life at exactly the right time - it’s all consuming and extremely stressful.
“Basically I didn’t go to the pub, see my family, go to the cinema, have a holiday or do anything else for a whole year as I was totally in the zone working on it. It was insane. And then there is the three weeks when you are on site all the time - it’s emotionally and physically draining.
“But at the same time it was so exciting and thrilling because it’s Chelsea, there’s such a buzz about it and it’s such great thing to do and have achieved.
“And then once you’ve exhausted yourself doing it,” he adds chuckling, “you get these people who come along during the show who just want to walk all over it!”
Joe got a well-deserved Gold medal for his efforts and admits to “crying openly” when he got the envelope with his certificate inside.
“Everyone cries,” he says. “The thing is you’ve worked so hard for so long that you are utterly exhausted and so when they hand out the envelopes you just cry automatically regardless of what medal you get. It’s not like you take it in at the time - it’s only afterwards that it starts to sink in - and you have to be careful because the bronze and gold colours look quite similar!
“I was very pleased though. However for me it wasn’t about the medal, but rather creating a garden that I really liked and was proud of - which I was and still am - that was the most important thing for me.
“It’s a lovely accolade to have though and it is nice to be able to say I have done it.”
So would he do it again I ask?
“It’s a big ask but it would be nice to think I could, but I’m not sure when. Every now and then when I present the show I get that itchy feeling to do it again.
“Trouble is I would have to make sure I got at least a gold again!” he laughs. “And there is no chance of getting Best In Show because Cleve [West] always gets it!
“Chelsea is a strange one though because everyone knows real gardening is all about weeding and digging and things not going to plan, but at Chelsea all you see is the perfection.
“I like the other shows too like Hampton Court and Malvern, which are more relaxed.
“It’s a lovely world to be part of though” he concedes, “It’s creative and you are always outdoors.”
And with that he’s off to another job - this time to finish a gardening project at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s spinal unit.
“I do love these projects,” he says. “It’s so satisfying doing something that benefits so many people - especially for schools as it gets kids outside and looking at nature which is really important. They would much rather be outside than being stuck inside on a computer.
“It’s one of the best things about the job.”
Joe Swift, A Man About A Garden is at Blackheath Halls, Lee Road, on Sunday, November 27. Tickets cost £18. Visit www.blackheathhalls.com or call the box office on 020 8463 0100 for full listings.