Shake up at RHS Chelsea

Alan Gardner, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, is set to shake up the gardening establishment by exhibiting a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show for the first time – as well as starring in his own Channel 4 TV series.

Alan Gardner RHS Chelsea 2015 Garden Designer
Alan Gardner RHS Chelsea Garden Designer Image: Matthew Appleby
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Aged 55, from Sutton Coldfield, he is designing a garden for Viking Cruises on the main avenue at the RHS show. He says his condition makes him obsess about the details of research.

Alan was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, when in his fifties in 2013. He attended a dyslexia appointment with his middle son Reiss, now 19 who was studying fashion at college.

At the appointment the doctor revealed to both Alan and his son that they both have Asperger’s syndrome.

Gardner said: “I went along because it was before a parents’ evening and they said I could sit in. The doctor said ‘I think you have it as well’. I looked it up on the computer when I got home and it ticked all the boxes.”

He added: “At school I didn’t do well academically and I was bullied a lot which is typical for someone with Asperger’s. Children sense you’re different from them and children pick up on that.”

“At 15 I bought a cactus and put it on my windowsill and that was the end of that and I had found a direction.”

“I worked for six years for Birmingham parks department and then set up on my own.”

RHS Chelsea

“Chelsea is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but the problem has always been that the main sponsors take on designers with track records knowing what they do and as a consequence the same faces appear year after year and move from sponsor to sponsor.
“There are 15 gardens this year and ones like the Laurent Perrier and the Telegraph are just taken and there’s not many up for grabs.”

“I met Viking Cruises through a friend of a friend – one of those things – and found myself sitting in front of them at the right time.”

“Last year they did an artisan garden at Chelsea and this year they are going to launch their first ocean-going liner called Viking Star the day before Chelsea press day on 17 May.”

“It’s quite a conceptual thing to build into a garden, the concept of a ship. It will be decks floating over decks above each other and have a very Scandinavian feel.”

Television Show

Gardner has now filmed a TV series for Channel 4 called The Autistic Gardener, making over four gardens, including three in London. It begins in early June. The 4 x 60 minute series will follow Gardner as he leads five autistic, green fingered amateurs who will use their unique skills to transform neglected gardens across the country.

He said: “We took five trainees and did a garden makeover series and showed them how they can do this. The way it works in their minds, they are really good at things, how they can see things visually in 3D and how they can produce something very special.”

Gardner says his Asperger’s manifests itself in “social aspects normally. I see things in completely different ways.”

Special Interest

But Gardner says his disability has been the making of him: “It has been my career because one of the things about Asperger’s is they have a special interest or obsession and in this case you know what mine is, and that’s why I’ve done 40 RHS gardens since 1996, and why I go round the country designing beautiful gardens for people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m totally obsessed. I don’t stop, I just move from one to the next to the next.”

He added: “A lot of people use the term ‘suffering’ about autism. Some suffer, some don’t. I like to think of Asperger’s not as a broken computer but with a different operating system.

“It is a disability but there are so many people on that scale and there’s people at one end who can do things and people at the other who can’t do anything.

“I really hope this inspires people with autism because that was my main aim for doing it and there’s a lot of people who are autistic like Einstein and Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg.”

“A lot of people who do Chelsea play safe because there’s so much money involved and no-one wants to throw away a quarter of a million pounds on a bronze medal so the pressure’s on you.”


The Viking Ocean Cruises Show Garden will feature on Main Avenue, RHS Chelsea.

More information visit Viking Cruises.

Matt Appleby

About Matt Appleby

Matt is a former teacher turned journalist. He took up writing while in New Zealand and trained as a journalist there. He has since written five books (three on cricket and two on gardening) with The Children's Garden due out in spring 2016 published by Frances Lincoln. He writes for Horticulture Week and other publications. Married with two boys, aged 3 and 6 he lives in London.
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