How an autistic gardener uses his special gift to design award winning gardens

For many, it's a condition which evokes pity and even fear - but to Alan Gardner, autism is a gift.

Despite only receiving a diagnosis at the age of 55, Alan always knew he had a unique brain.

“Autism is not a condition or disorder - it’s a different way of thinking,” he explains.

“We just see the world differently.”

Throughout his life, Alan’s uniquely-quirky take on horticulture has helped him to become one of the nation's most celebrated gardeners.

“Autistic people are not broken computers, we just run on different operating systems,” he explains.

“I have the ability to see things in three-dimensional space.

“I can draw something on a piece of paper and, while I’m lying in bed at night, picture it in 3D and walk through it if I want.”

This superpower has helped him to design and conceptualise more than 40 award-winning gardens at the nation's most prestigious flower shows - most recently winning a silver medal at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015.

Alan’s love for gardening started at the age of 15 when his parents bought him a cactus which he lovingly nurtured on his bedroom windowsill.

Little did his parents know, they had ignited in their son a passion for horticulture which would see Alan dig up their entire garden within the next six months.

“Gardening became everything,” he says.

“Autistically, we tend to be drawn towards things and then we go at it full pelt. I had to take it as far as I could.

“It’s like an obsession but it’s not an obsession, it gives us autistic people a sense of control.

“It’s where we feel happiest.”

The gritty, urban jungle of Erdington might sound like a strange place for one of the nation's most lauded gardeners to grow up - but Alan’s creative use of space, light and colour in urban environments soon earned him the title ‘Champion of Suburbia.’

Despite having no formal training, Alan would go on to work for the Birmingham Parks Department before becoming a full-time garden designer in 1986.

In this time, he became renowned for his original approach to landscaping which saw him combine flowing turf and flower installations with man-made, industrial constructions.

After being spotted by a Channel 4 Producer on YouTube, the first series of critically-acclaimed ‘The Autistic Gardner’ aired in 2015.

“Almost overnight I became the autistic gardener,” he explains.

“I used to get stopped in the street all the time.”

And rocking luminous pink hair at the time, it’s perhaps easy to see why. 

As a - very - visible member of the autistic community, Alan used his platform to educate the wider public about the often-misunderstood condition.

Disability charity Mencap said the programme showed “autistic people being accepted for who they were, as well as functioning human beings.”

“I always thought that if just one person was helped by my TV series then that was my job done,” Alan says.

“There are lots of us who can’t speak out, which is why I thought it was important that those with a voice, like myself, did.”

To this day, Alan continues to support members of the autistic community as a patron of a special school in Birmingham.

“I can relate to them and they can relate to me,” he says of the children at The Pines Special School in Stockland Green.

“It’s like we’re a tribe.”

According to the National Autistic Society, one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

“We’re in every walk of life from the government to road sweepers,” he says.

Speaking to local charity Autism West Midlands, Alan said much of his outreach work focused on promoting “acceptance.” 

“Autistic people are individual human beings and the best thing to do to help any autistic person is allow them to be autistic.”

“We’re all human beings who have our own way of doing things. We are just a bunch of quirky people.”

Four years ago, Alan’s life was changed forever.

He suffered a heart attack which left him with just 20 per cent function in one of his body’s most essential organs. 

“The heart attack changed everything,” he says. 

“When you’ve only got 20 per cent of your heart left you’re not going to live forever - you have to take each day as it comes and enjoy yourself.”

One such source of enjoyment has been experimenting with make-up which Alan wears proudly as I sit to interview him.

I’m informed this particular look took an hour-and-a-half to perfect.

“About two years ago I wondered what it was like to wear a bit of eye-liner. Over the years I’ve learnt how to do it properly.”

“I really enjoy decorating myself.”

“People tell me I’m brave but there’s nothing brave about it - running into a burning building is brave.

“Autistically, there's nothing in my head that says ‘what will people think?’ - I do it because I enjoy it. Even if a lot of people who I walk past in the supermarket think I’m a lunatic!”

“Live your life the way you want to live it, don’t worry about what anyone thinks.

Nearly 50 years since he first started planting seeds in his parents back garden, Alan is still as passionate as ever about the power of nature to change lives.

He is currently developing a number of autism accessible gardens in hospitals around the country which allow autistic people to explore their senses in a safe environment.

Still native to the Midlands, where he lives with his wife Mandy and their three children, Alan says he is proud of the city he calls home.

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“I love Birmingham, I love the architecture here - I support everything about Birmingham - apart from the football teams!”

“I’m really proud of the city, I don't want to live anywhere else.”