Gardening Podcast – Beardy Gardener

Byther Farm Gardening Podcast – Beardy Gardener. Season 3, Episode 4.

In this episode I talk with Leigh Johnstone, Beardy Gardener, about the joy of gardening and the positive impact gardening can have on our mental health.

Leigh on Instagram @beardygardener

Website Beardy Gardener

Byther Farm Gardening Podcast interviews Beardy Gardener, Leigh Johnstone

Transcription of Gardening Podcast with Leigh Johnstone, Beardy Gardener

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Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Byther Farm Gardening Podcast. I’m Liz Zorab and today I am very very excited and very pleased to have Leigh Johnstone, the beardy gardener with us. Hi Leigh!

Leigh – Yeah hello Liz, thrilled, thrilled to be here.

I’m really pleased to hear, so we haven’t chatted very much before, so for anybody who’s listening in on our conversation. Do you want to explain a little bit about where you are and what you do?

Well, so yes, I’m Leigh and I live down in Southampton. Day job wise, I still run a theater company. So that’s my day job. So I run an arts and health charity. But since the pandemic, as many of us actually, there’s a little group of us that have grown up through social media from the pandemic and have become gardeners.

It’s a bit of a… I’m in that moment of career change, actually, going from the arts world into the gardening world. And actually, there are many similarities. So I am still forging my path through that, doing some fantastic stuff along the way, meeting some wonderful people. And yeah, I suppose my mission statement would be that I talk about how gardening can improve and support mental health and wellbeing. And that comes from a place of lived experience, really.

So yeah, that’s what I do, that’s what I exist to do, that’s what I want to do. I want to encourage as many people as possible to get gardening, to start gardening, to get their hands in the soil, just to have that connection really with nature. Because, and again it comes from a place of my own experience, especially through the pandemic, where it was, for so many of us, helping us to sort of survive in that traumatic moment we had.

And then all of my past trauma, depending how dark you want to go Liz, my childhood traumas and things, which we can get into later if you want to, but sort of came back through the pandemic and it was my garden. Luckily enough, we just moved into our first house, me and my wife, and we had a garden and it was the garden that allowed me to start the deal with what was happening really with my mental health.

Yeah. I think the pandemic highlighted for so many of us how important that connection with outside, with nature, with sunshine, with fresh air, with space, with plants is. And, you know, Mr. J and I were in an incredibly fortunate situation. We had a good old chunk of land that we called home and I was out in the garden going, this is even better than usual because it’s so quiet.

But I was always, always conscious that, you know, how it would be such a different story if I was on the fifth, sixth, fifteenth floor of a block of flats with three small children at home. It would just be, it would have been so difficult.

Leigh – Totally. And I think for me what it did was it, you know, I connected to, you know, dawn and dusk a bit more. That sort of cycle of a day is actually, because you were just stuck in one place and you sort of got to understand, you got to understand the season, you got to, you know, you really take notice of the season you’re in. But absolutely, I mean, I used to go, I mean, that’s what partly encouraged my giving garden project a year, two, a couple of years ago. When I was on my daily walk during the pandemic, I live in the centre of Southampton, so there’s a lot of high-rise tower blocks near me.

And I was just thinking about the people that maybe don’t have access to space like I do, or even a balcony, and how that feels, and how we can expand green spaces for those people to help to sort of improve their connection with nature and the outdoors. And therefore, what I could be doing with my garden, because I was a lucky one, had a space, how I could use that to help other people. So, and that’s where actually the Giving Garden Project of mine came from.

Liz – Fantastic and what a great garden.

Leigh – I was just growing plants in my own garden to start with, for other people who maybe didn’t have a garden. So I was, you know, it was a WhatsApp group, it was online on Instagram, and I was taking people through a growing cycle. But then obviously last year I got the opportunity to do a representation of the Giving Garden at Hampton Court, which was a wonderful invitation. So I said, of course, yes, of course I’d like to do this for the RHS. Why not? So yeah, that project is really that, for me, is what gardening’s all about. It’s about that first connection.

I don’t claim to be a specialist in any particular field of plants or, for me, it’s just about that first touch, that first connection, because I understand how it helps me, so if I can amplify that for others, then job done.

Absolutely, so you are on Instagram as the Beardy Gardener. And in one of your introductory videos on Instagram, you say, and you dance.

Leigh – Yes. Well, see, dance is a very loose term. I move a bit. I mean, being, you know, so I did a drama degree, that’s what I did my degree in, and obviously set up a theatre company when I was in my second year. So performing and performance has been, has always been a part of who I am.

And actually in my childhood, was, was doing for me what gardening does now to support my mental health. So I was on stage, I was doing after school drama clubs, I was, you know, I was able to be someone else and express myself through performance. So obviously, the pandemic hits, and I start an Instagram account, and I was just dancing in the garden, moving my body, shimmering, doing some silly things, because that comes naturally to me, making myself look like a bit of a prat maybe at times.

We all do that one way or another.

Leigh – Making people laugh, making them laugh. And that for me was really warming and got me through a lot of the pandemic, was because people were sort of enjoying what I was making, I was doing a little boogie. And yeah, and that’s sort of been, I suppose people knew me for being that guy that danced around in his garden. Don’t do as much of it now as I’d like to, I need to, maybe, learn a new routine.

Bring it back. Bring it back.

So I did a bit of dancing on Gardeners’ World as well. I don’t know if you saw my episode, but they said when they were filming, just do a bit of the dancing. We probably won’t put it in because the BBC don’t, you know, it’s not something that we’re used to.

Liz – Of course they will.

Leigh – They kept it in! So if you want to see a little bit, then do check that out. Yeah, it’s not, I mean, I’m not a professional dancer. It’s not, probably no star… I mean, improvised, improvisation’s more probably the term.

Liz – Yeah, the closest I’m going to get is something like, you know, remember as kids we did musical movement? That’s what we did. In primary school, they didn’t call it dance. It was musical movement. It was like one step before you got to actually dancing. And that’s about my level of dancing.

Yes. Yeah. It’s just music’s on just moves. Doesn’t matter if it’s in rhythm. Just move.

Yeah. That’s the one.

That’s how I would define my own style.

You were saying about you’re not a specialist in any particular type of plants or types of planting, I think, but do you have plants that you particularly look forward to seeing each year?

I mean, I’m a sucker for a hardy geranium just because, well, I like the colour, I like the deep green and puruple. Actually I created a colour, my very own paint color, which was a lovely, wonderful invitation I had last year, based on a geranium leaf. So that my bathroom was painted in it. So it holds a particular place in my heart, geranium. But I mean, I love an allium. I love verbena. I like a purple. Purple is a feature of a lot of my planting plans and styles. I like a green and a purple together, a bit of white in there. For me, that’s me sorted.

Again, I like veg. I like growing a lot of veg, tomatoes, a lot of herbs. I’ve got a young daughter, we’re sowing herbs together. So for me, it’s stuff that I can use, I can eat, I can smell. I grow a lot for the senses because that’s part of the mental health connection. A lot of grasses, I’ve got quite a lot of miscanthus in my garden, which I just like seeing in the breeze and I like the height of it.

So there are a few things, but then every year is different. I always get excited about new things. You know, it’s not like I’ve got a, it’s not when someone asks me, what’s your favorite film? Well, it’ll change every six months. What’s your favorite food? Well, I haven’t got one really. I like all food. So it is hard.

So like, people always say to me, what’s your favorite veg? And it’s like, whatever’s about to come in season. It’s whatever I haven’t eaten for the last 10 months. And therefore I’m really looking forward to see it. So that is literally a movable feast.

I mean, I had a gooseberry bush, it’s gone now, but it’s very small, but I love gooseberries. I absolutely love gooseberries. They’re mine because I like that sort of sour bitterness. So I love, I used to have those sweets as a kid, those like really sour sweets. I love growing gooseberries and I think I used to grow them quite easily. My nan used to grow them. So they are actually, if I was going to pick a fruit, that and rhubarb for me, but I’ve never grown rhubarb actually, but that would be that would be cool.

But yeah it’s just yeah I do like a lot of, I do like a green, I just like greenery actually. I’ve got a lot of ivy, I’ve got a lot of ivy growing up the side of my, I’ve got a Virginia creeper which we shouldn’t have put it in,

Why shouldn’t you have put it in?

Leigh – It’s just going everywhere. It’s just creeping across the whole garden. And actually, I wanted it, obviously, for mass coverage quickly for the garage wall. That is quite a dominant feature of my garden. But it just takes a lot of maintaining when you think you’ve clipped it back. Actually, it’s just gone over the whole garden. It’s in all your raised beds and everywhere else but it does look beautiful and has done the job. So I’m 80% in favour of it. it’s just when you find it everywhere in the guttering I can see it now and I need to trim it back from the guttering.

Liz – I remember my parents planted one on our back wall when I was very young and the thing that I remember most about it was those sticky feet that stick to the walls. And they remind me of, they’re like tropical frogs that stick on things, aren’t they?

Yes, that’s a good answer, quite a good, yeah. Yeah, totally.

Liz – And I really like the frogs, so I like the plants.

Leigh – There’s something quite interesting watching how the plant does that, actually. In even ivy, where it sends out, I don’t know what the specific name is for what it sends out. But how plants cling and adapt and grow up things, I think that’s quite nice to watch, actually.

And it’s incredible when you think about just even slices of breeze, it’s going to be moving that constantly against the wall. How it actually gets a chance to get a grip and stay there is quite incredible.

That’s nature, isn’t it? That’s what, for me, that’s what helps me in my well-being journey, is that sort of awe-inspiring awesomeness of nature.

And resilience. Actually, resilience is a key word for me when we talk about gardening, but also my own mental health. And it’s actually seeing the resilience of the natural world really does connect with me and puts things into a bigger perspective for me which is very important to my mental health. So yeah, things like that, things like that, things that you think you’ve killed off but come back again. Wonderful moment when you see something come back. I mean there’s not a feeling like it.

Liz – Yeah and the great bit is you think you’ve killed it off but nature’s brought it back. It’s like you didn’t even have anything to do with bringing it back.

Leigh – Nope. Yes.

Liz – And actually, very often we have nothing to do with bringing it back. But we’ll still claim the credit for it. Totally. I constantly talk about being happy to take credit for nature’s capacity to survive, despite my interference with it. But I’ll still say, you know, I did that, I brought it back. Well, no, I didn’t.

Leigh – No one’s going to challenge you, so you might as well just, you know, the plant can’t say no, you didn’t.

In my year ahead I am concentrating on sounds in the garden. So I’m growing plants specifically, not just for their colour and their textures and all, but for what they sound like. So I’m choosing plants, things like sweet corn I’m actually going to be planting almost just as an ornamental, I’m still going to harvest from it. But the sound of the wind going through sweet corn is just fantastic. And when I started looking at, you know, noticing, more carefully noticing the sounds of plants a couple of years ago, I thought, right, I’m going to get myself ready and I’m going to do a year of planting for the sound and see what impact that has.

Great. Oh, that’s amazing. I love the sound of that. I mean, again, that’s back to my trying to hit all the senses with what I do, how I garden. For me, it’s about tall grasses, because if you’re sitting there, they’re at eye height, you can hear the wind through them. And I mean, actually, bamboo is quite interesting. Not that you necessarily want to put a lot of bamboo in, but bamboo’s nice with the wind. What else have you got then? What other things are you using?

I’ve got quite a big garden, so I have got quite a lot of bamboo. So my area that I’m cultivating is about 1.2 acres.

Oh, jealous.

Well, don’t be. It can be quite hard work and it can be, when stuff goes wrong on a really big scale. So, yeah, so, you know, and like last year when there was so much rain and so many slugs and you start thinking, how many slugs can you keep on an area that size? It’s quite a lot actually.

I can imagine.

So I’m doing quite a lot of plants that I’m allowing to spill onto pathways that we walk on them. So lots of thyme on the ground and letting that go because that actually that’s got quite a nice, particularly at this time of year, it was quite crunchy underfoot yesterday. I could hear it, you know, with the very dried stems, winter stems, that was quite crunchy. So I’m doing quite a lot of big leaves, things with big leaves, to kind of let that sound happen as a juxtaposition to the sound of grasses and bamboos.

Yeah. Oh, nice.

Because I think the tones will be different. The sound, literally the notes, I think, will be different of the wind going through them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But also, actually walking on them, through them, putting your hands on them, that’s obviously, yeah. Because I’m just thinking the wind. But actually, there are other levels in which you can hear how a plant sounds, isn’t there? Yes. Stepping on it, picking it, seizing it.

Liz – When you just brush past us, you know, you get that kind of whoosh noise or you get a very soft wiping noise. So lots of experimenting with those this year.

Leigh – I love that. Are you going to record any and try and record

Liz – Well, yes, literally record them. They will all be on videos. So, you know, but a conscious listen to this on videos. And then when I’ve got enough of them, I’ll do something fancy like I don’t know, create a course about sounds.

Oh, I am. I work with a we do a lot of with my theatre company, of outdoor installations and we go to a lot of festivals and there’s a guy, Jason, you may know him, does a hidden music of trees. He’s an artist, he records, don’t ask me specifically how he does it, but he records, like he goes out and puts something to a tree and records the sort of frequencies of the sound the trees make and creates a whole soundscape around it and then creates a piece of artwork where you go up and you stand next to the tree and it plays its signature set. It’s really interesting. I know people do that with fungi as well.

Liz – Yes, I was actually looking at something this morning where someone had put a sensor into, and it was a very small, it was like a small house plant or something, and you could hear it singing for want of a better sound.

Leigh – That’s amazing isn’t it? I mean that’s just something that’s like whoa! I just think how amazing. There they are speaking to us. See the plant will then go actually Liz you know you didn’t contribute to me coming back. It will then tell you.

Liz – Yeah we don’t I don’t know how much I want them to give the secrets away.

There you go you see.

Liz – So, yes, sensory gardens, I think, are hugely underestimated. And in some ways, they don’t need to be a specific conscious, this is a sensory garden. We can just build so many of those elements into our, you know, between the front door and the garden gate. Yeah. Yeah, because there are so many things we could just have underfoot that create different sounds in terms of your concrete path or gravel path or, you know, all those things that we used to notice as a teenager trying to sneak in really late at night. So we know, we know which step is the creaky step and all.

Leigh – I mean, I do that now, Liz, with my two-year-old daughter. I’ve got a specific floorboard on the landing I can’t stand on because she’ll wave her arm.

But we’re very attuned to those. And then suddenly we walk out into our garden and we kind of forget all of those things of, you know, there are all those lovely things around us that we can use.

And I think that, again, is what I try and do. It’s just about not necessarily about always engaging and doing in the garden, but just being present. Because a lot of what I do professionally is around the five steps to well-being, or the five ways to well-being, as people call it, which is the sort of five things that the NHS adopted, and it was created by an economics foundation, or something like that.

But it’s the five things that we all need to sort of thrive as a human being. One of which is giving to others, it’s connecting with others, it’s learning something new, it’s being active. So it’s all of that. And I think one of them is just paying attention to the present moment, which a lot of people call mindfulness. That’s a term in and out of fashion at the moment. But just by just by standing and being, and a lot of the stuff I do and I did during a pandemic was trying to tell people that you don’t have to always be gardening, whatever you think that means, if that’s a job or a task.

You can still be a gardener and just be watching and looking and being present. A lot of gardening is watching. Observation is a key skill for a gardener. And actually, it’s really important to identify that sort of just you being present in the space, which is quite hard to do in our busy lives. Just be still.

Liz – Yeah.

Leigh – Even for five minutes though, makes an amazing difference. And I think, stripping it all back and going back to that basic is fundamental, I think, to try and get more and more people engaged in the natural world and what gardening can do. So yeah, so I do talk a lot about taking notice, as I call it. Yes. Of what’s around us.

Yes, absolutely, and it’s the number one thing I talk about.

Yeah, yeah, I mean I think a lot of us do these days. I think it’s quite a, it’s something that’s becoming a bit more known, is just being present rather than the hundred jobs you might have to do. Actually it’s okay not to do that today.

One of the things that I started trying to campaign on a very, very low level about a couple of years ago was not to talk about gardening in terms of jobs and work and to actually change the language that we use. So we don’t have, you know, and I’m really sorry gardeners world, but we don’t have ‘jobs for the weekend’. We just have things to do, things to explore this weekend. Because there’s a different mindset about this is a job, this is a task, this is something I’ve got to do, as opposed to this is an experience I can have, this is a bit of nature I can go and touch.

And if we take it away from being a job and make it something we want to do, wow.

Leigh – And I think in all the work I do with different groups, I think that is a fundamental barrier, actually, to why people don’t engage in gardening in the first place. Because people see it as a task. They have to understand the right conditions and the Latin names of stuff. Obviously, knowing Latin names serves a purpose.

But actually, for the stuff I do and that sort of real first touch accessibility stuff, it’s not about that. It’s just about, like you just said, having an experience with nature and plants. And I think for a lot of people, they think, well, I have to know a certain amount of things. I have to know the different types of soil, the different, and yes, in time, potentially.

But you don’t, but that doesn’t need to, I think that’s the barrier for lots of people, both young people and adults, who I try and engage in gardening. It’s that it’s a job I need to do a little bit of learning around, and that then stops people from engaging any further.

Yeah. Yeah, it’s hard work, and it’s not, you know.

Not at all.

Not at all. I haven’t yet seen a rose sitting in the garden with a book trying to learn all the stuff. You know, they just.

No, no, no.

They just do it. Just do the thing.

Exactly. And it is trial and error. But it’s understanding that that’s an enjoyable process as well. And as gardeners, things won’t come back that year. Or they won’t necessarily go as we thought they would. I don’t like to say failure. I don’t like the word failure because everything’s a learning process.

So but it’s taking joy from that. And that is hard. That is hard to do. You know, trying to change your mindset and not sort of get beaten down by what you might think are failures and flipping them around a bit. But yeah, that’s getting a bit more philosophical maybe.

Liz – I’m up for a bit of philosophical thinking. The thing around about gardening that I think is so nice is you can literally just walk outside and stick some seed heads or flick a packet of seeds around and see what happens. Or you can dig deep, not literally, but you can dig deep into your imagination and into the library and into research and get stuck in a whole different academic level, or you get stuck in a practical level. Or you can just go, actually, I’m quite happy just to scatter a few seeds around and wait. Yeah.
And I like that there is the room for every style of gardener there.

And actually, what I like banging on about as well is the fact that I’ve said this a lot in interviews, is that my garden, at any one time, is a reflection of my mental state. So at the moment, I don’t do well in winter. I’m not always, I’m not out there every weekend, I’m not. I’m just not.

And actually, the garden’s a reflection of how much time I’ve given it, but also what it’s giving me and how much I’m engaging with it. And it’ll always be evolving. It will never be a finished garden, whatever that is. And I think people are hung up on that as well, the fact that there needs to be this finished product or this…

What are you going to do? What do you do when a garden is finished? Because to me, you go and start a new garden.

Yeah, and I’m always changing. There’s always… I mean, you’re probably like this as well. You do something and then you’re like, that’s actually not… I need to change that again next year or whatever. And there’s always something that just needs tweaking or changing or developing. Or so again, it’s that evolving.

And also gardening, you are forced to slow down, which is something that I struggle with. You’ve got to wait. You’ve got to wait. It’s not instant gratification unless you’ve got thousands of pounds to spend on plants and architects and landscape designers. But it’s a waiting game. And you’re not going to get instant results. And I think that’s also something that’s very powerful.

I think so. I think for us all, learning to accept the seasonality of our lives. You were saying earlier on about during lockdown, you suddenly learnt the rhythm of the day. And you had to do all the dusk thing. And like you, I have difficulties in winter. I have low-level depression all the time.

And then I get clobbered by SAD by about mid-November. I say, middle of November, that’s pajama o’clock for me. And I start getting out of bed again around this time of year. And I really do have kind of two months of complete downtime where I just work with the seasons.

I get up when it gets light and I start going to, I don’t actually go to bed as I start getting dark, but I’ll put my pyjamas on and I’ll go, yeah, I’ve had enough of today by 3.30 in the afternoon. But I have learned that I have to, if I just live with that and I work with it and go through it, I come out the other side of it.

So again, that’s something that I’ve learned as well. It takes time and it’s not easy for everyone, but I talk about it as well a lot, is the fact that accepting you are like that, that’s part of who you are, that’s not, you know, it’s nothing to be frowned upon. It’s how your life works and how you react to life, and just go with it and roll with it and understand and then you start to learn and understand how you start to deal with it and that gets better every time it happens.

But it’s just a bit you know there will be days where you don’t want to face going outside or but that is okay. I think that’s the biggest thing that is okay. That’s you, that’s who you are and that and you don’t need to change.

Liz – No and actually your friends and your family would accept that quite quickly from you.


When you actually say this is how I feel. And I’ll feel okay in another day or two. I don’t need lots of tea and sympathy. Just today, I’m not doing it. And it’s, yeah, so that’s been a good one to learn. And it’s also allowed me to kind of think about what plants do and how actually that behavior of shutting down for a couple of months before you then start building up. It’s exactly what plants do.

Totally. Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Building the energy for the next season. Hibernating, if you will. Reserving. Well, yeah. And it’s what we, it’s that, you know, I tend to eat a lot in the winter because it’s that bolting that energy for the winter months. That comes from our ancestral DNA, isn’t it?

It’s that sort of winter’s coming, we’re out in the cold, we’re living in a cave, we have to take on bulk, we have to eat more because we need to keep our energy across the winter. And it’s that again, isn’t it? It’s going back to that comfort in that sort of something bigger, that world that’s out there, nature that we’re all connected to.

Again, that gives me some sort of nice comfort. There’s comfort in that to me.

Liz – There is.

Leigh – It’s not when I look at a flame. There’s something that does something to me. I was looking at a candle yesterday, I mesmerized with it for 10 minutes because it was that flickering, that goes back to our, you know, to our ancestors. Safety with fire, you know. So it’s all about.

Liz – What a nice conversation. This has been lovely. This has been really nice. So I am going to move on because we’ve only got about five minutes left.

Where are people going to be able to find you in the coming months or so? So they can find you on Instagram, they can find you on your website.

Leigh – On Instagram,, yep. I am, so I’m creating a showcase garden at Gardeners World Spring Fair at Beaulieu. That’s sponsored by New Forest National Park. So it’s based on the idea of how our national park is going to help us support our mental health. Again, all of what we just talked about. So I’ll be doing that. That’s beginning in May. And then I am hosting the tips and tricks stage at RHS Malvern, which is the week after BBC Gardens World. So that garden as well, so that’ll be fun. And then who knows what the rest of the year holds, but I’m doing a few other projects around for people as well, so I’m around.

That’s good. That’s good. Leigh, thank you so much for joining in the conversation today.

Thank you, Liz.

Liz – Can I ask you to come back again later in the year and let’s have a look at how the season’s been.

Leigh – Yes, yeah, delighted to.

That would be brilliant. Excellent. Leigh, thank you very much.

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Liz Zorab
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