What age did you begin and what inspired you to become a professional gardener?
15, when I was 15 my parents bought me a cactus, and within 2 weeks I had dug the entire garden up! As an autistic person, a common trait we have is a Special Interest, which either flicks on like a light switch and we’re really interested in something, or we don’t do it at all. I never had a mobile phone until three years ago, so I bought a magazine about them from W H Smith, now I’m a complete expert on them – I have people asking me for tips all of the time! So I read up on all the breeds of plant. When I was 16 I had my first show garden in Birmingham, which was on Gardeners World live. I’ve now done over 40 professional garden shows including Chelsea, and Hampton Court. There is so much more expense involved in building a garden then people realise, it’s a very expensive industry when you consider delivery, plants, workers, lifters and the design elements. But I love doing show gardens, especially the challenge. It takes a real dedication as you have to submit your garden to Chelsea in August when the show is in May. It’s that old saying – failure to prepare…
What are you looking forward to about your talk in Worthing?
The Seaside! I hear it’s known as Sunny Worthing, though in April it may be chilly. I once spent three days in Edinburgh, it was like the arctic, though very pretty and friendly. This is my first time in Worthing, I’m new to the south coast as I live in Birmingham. So the nearest seaside is about 3 hours away in Weston Super Mare as we’re right in the middle of the country. Though there are some benefits… we don’t get flooded! A Tsunami will take a long time to get to us! Well the talk is a lot of self-reflection, a 55 year old man who only realises he has autism a few years ago, looks back on his life. I always wondered and over-thought things, one time I went to my daughter’s school, and as the female tutor walked towards me we shook hands, and instead of letting go we walked down the entire corridor hand in hand! I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes so it’s hard to tell if I’ve been inappropriate sometimes, but she was very friendly so it was okay!
Do you prefer to work with a clear brief, or letting your creativity run wild?
I want to see how a client wants to use a space, I let them talk, I listen and don’t ask too many questions, they always get what they want but never how they expected it to be. It’s all about trying to read between the lines, what is the house like? If you sit in a house, you’ll learn more about a person then they could ever say things like furniture layout, the surrounding landscape, is it by the sea, in the country or industrialised? It all influences my work, and it’s more a case of reading the location and environment than the client. If I visit a new area I will go for a walk around the block to take it all in, I wouldn’t build Cotswold bricks in London for example, it just wouldn’t work. It also depends on what the function of the garden is to the client, are they using it for parties, to show it off or personal gardening? With some people they will hire an outside gardener and admire the work, others fully engage in it themselves. One of the advantages of having autism is that when I plan a garden in the early stages, I can visualise exactly how I want it to look in my mind, and hold the 3D image so strongly I can walk around it and replicate that in my designs. One disadvantage however, is that I now remember the building dates of most of the bridges in London, which won’t be of use to anyone really, unless the question pops up in a game show.
What was it like having your own show The Autistic Gardner on Channel 4, and were you happy with the way it raised awareness of Autism?
I likened it over the year, I was involved in many aspects of the production. For every 50 hours of footage; there was 47 minutes aired on TV! We filmed for 2 weeks, and then I would be in the edit suite for the voiceover, talking with press, all the different phases of the show. It’s like when your wife is pregnant, and you’re having a baby! When I was sent the file, I sat there and looked at it saying oh my god, it’s a real baby! It’s a real shock! I enjoyed the experience. I have lots of plans for a new show which I have to keep top secret for now, however it may involve lots of travelling around the world and working with a few celebrities…but you didn’t hear that from me. I’ve only ever been to Jersey, so people will be able to follow me on the journey before making the garden which I think will be really nice. Hashtag watch this space. The National Autism Society raises awareness, however it can be very complicated, not 2 people with autism are the same, their mind-set can completely differ. In the first hour of the show we have 962 people contact us on Twitter in the first hour. I’m completely happy with the representation. The team would either be made to look like idiots, or heroes. We needed to show the problems the participants faced but also how they overcame those issues too. I think it was good to show a variety of wonderful individuals working together. Thomas struggles to put words together, but when we gave him a garden to design for the first time it was perfect, I couldn’t have done it any better. All the feedback we had was really positive. It was a huge moment when it was about to air, because autistic people have special interests, autism also becomes one itself. There are 700,000 people in the uk with autism, that’s 1 in every 100 ready to watch to see if we got it right! Thankfully on the #AutisticGardener we had fantastic feedback, and now I’m already worried about the next potential program! But I love the interaction with my followers, it’s great to be able to talk directly to fans, I just put the kettle on and when I’m back I can respond to a few people!
What is the most beautiful garden you have seen, what makes a garden perfect?
I don’t actually have a particular favourite; inspiration for me comes from other sources not other gardens themselves, because things change, my ideas are constantly evolving, so my favourite will always be the last one that comes off the drawing board! I don’t reflect too far on the past, it’s a garden design practice. If you ask me to design a specific project, on one day the results may completely differ than if you asked me on another! I do the design in the moment, as there are so many life influences around you. Sometimes with a project such as the Chelsea garden show, you can sometimes over prepare, as you are painting the picture so far in advance, the idea changes, I don’t want to draw something just for the sake of it, so it’s a good challenge to keep refreshing ideas. What I do is design my garden with everything I can imagine in, then I remove about three quarters and calculate if that can fit the designated space. I work to a specific mathematical formula called the hibachi mathematics formula, which ensures everything is perfectly placed and measured precisely. The spaces between the objects are more important than the objects themselves at times. Some people will come up to me and show me a picture of a shrub, and tell me it has red berries, and ask me which one it is. Well the red berries narrows it down to 10,000 different species! In the plant world you can never see everything, which makes it more interesting, there is always a lesson to learn, wildlife is constantly adapting and changing, and that makes it even more exciting!
You can join Alan at the Connaught Theatre on the 18th April in his inspiring and fascinating talk.