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Lee Burkhill

Lee Burkhill is an award-winning garden designer, horticulture expert, BBC Garden Rescue presenter, and the man behind the hugely popular YouTube channel and blog, Garden Ninja

In this latest edition of Have a Seat With, we talk all things gardening with Lee. From his career as a popular YouTuber and BBC presenter, to his own thoughts on the next generation of young gardeners. It’s a compelling read…

Lee Burkhill

Hello, Lee! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today. How did you make the jump from a career in IT into garden design? They seem like very different worlds!

No worries, it’s nice to sit down for a chat and put the design board and camera down! That’s a question I get asked a lot. I’ve always been a gardener even since a child, the garden has always been my sanctuary to leave the world behind. I always considered it just a hobby until my corporate life became ever more stressful. As I progressed up the career ladder, I found my need to garden also grew to deal with the pressures of work. 

My husband sowed the seed about making a career change in garden design after a particularly difficult time at work. He was the spark that pushed me to take the leap and pursue my true passion. What followed was a lot of studying, late nights, planning, volunteering and weekend garden design. All whilst still working full time. Then in 2016, I made the switch a reality! It’s the best thing I’ve ever done work-wise and now every day I get to do what I love.

As part of a new generation of gardeners, someone who embraces social media with your brilliant Garden Ninja moniker, how important do you think it is to get young people engaged in gardening?

The sad fact is that gardening and horticulture are seen both as an ‘older persons’ hobby and or the playground for the wealthy. Yet gardens and plants form a key part of our existence, all food comes from plants at source for example, and are so often overlooked.  

I work hard behind the scenes to encourage new younger gardeners by taking part in the RHS schools' outreach programs or banging my drum for why young horticulture students should be paid a better living wage. Gardening is not a hobby but an essential part of our ecosystem. By understanding plants and the planet we can better protect it. Working with nature can help free our minds from the rush to consume and make us more considerate of our impact on mother nature.

Lee Burkhill in the garden

And what do you think is a good entry-point for the younger generation to get involved with gardening, particularly if they don’t have one of their own?

Allotments used to be a good entry point. Especially learning to grow your own and reduce your carbon footprint. They also allow different generations and cultures to share knowledge. However, they’re under increasing strain from being gobbled up by developers or councils. Often waiting lists span years so it can be difficult to get started. There is an answer though!

Even if you don’t have a garden, a doorstep, balcony, or window ledge is all you need to garden. Try growing some microgreens in your kitchen and in a matter of weeks you have something you can eat! Plant up a container with a mix of pollen-rich plants and watch wildlife flock to it. Start small and then as you get the bug to garden, which you will, you’ll naturally find more ways and spaces to garden in!

Where did the name Garden Ninja come from?

Garden Ninja was born during one of my first designs for a client who commented that I was like a ‘Ninja’ that had come in and fixed their garden so they could use it. It stuck with me and so Garden Ninja came to life to engage with new gardeners. I always wanted to start a movement to help new gardeners and ‘Garden Ninja’ became the obvious choice to identify with. Garden Ninja is now a vibrant community with me at the head to get people gardening. 

"Gardening is not a hobby but an essential part of our ecosystem. By understanding plants and the planet we can better protect it. "

You’re a TV presenter, garden designer, blogger, vlogger, you have a large following on Instagram and Twitter. With so many plates spinning, is there such a thing as a normal working day for you?

I must admit sometimes it can be hard to remember which plate I’m spinning given they’re all garden design related! I tend to do all of my design work early morning when I’m my most creative, as I find later in the day my creativity wanes, so I reserve this for the more administrative tasks.

The variety does help mix things up and keep my working life very dynamic. I have a rule that if I’m not loving what I’m doing then I question whether I should be doing it anymore. I never want to just go through the motions. Some things like admin are never things you love but everything else has to tick that 'passion' box for me.

And with such an active and varied working life, what do you like to do in your downtime? Is there any place in particular that helps you unwind?

I love to travel whenever I’m not working. I have a motorhome which I travel in whenever I can with my husband and dog. Visiting off the beaten track places brings me peace. I get a lot of design inspiration from travel and being on the road. I suppose I’m a sucker for change, I thrive on new places, faces and challenges. 

I read a great blog of yours recently on Garden Therapy. During lockdown, it seemed that we began to appreciate our gardens more as a place of sanctuary and inner peace. Do you think as a nation, our relationships have changed with our outdoor spaces?

Most definitely. People have started to see their gardens as new rooms to the house rather than a green patch they need to mow or strim occasionally. During the lockdown, people were forced to look out each day into their gardens and watch them change. 

Gardens also acted as an escape route from working from home all day. I think people wanted to improve their gardens and make them more engaging which of course involves plants! 

The value of being outside and watching the seasons in a garden has been transformative for our nation. I think most people now realise how active gardens are and engaging they can be. Even watching a tree come into leaf, flower, fruit and then drop its leaves can suddenly awaken an interest in what else is going on in the garden. There’s definite magic to the seasons.

You’ve won numerous awards in your career. Which gives you more satisfaction—those you’ve received for garden design, or for your social media ventures? Or is it too difficult to choose?

Gosh, awards are a tricky one. I treat awards with appreciation and care but try not to get too caught up with 'achievement badges'. 

Awards are lovely to receive, and they provide acknowledgement of your hard work from peers or the industry. However, if you’re not careful they can also become an obsession to compare ourselves to others. Which then can turn into a negative trait of wondering why you’re not good enough if you don’t win awards.

Which is a road to nowhere in our digital age. Garden Ninja is about inclusivity, not exclusivity.

I’m always appreciative of the awards but I try not to become an award chaser. Sometimes the best reward is if you’re happy with what you’re doing, the contributions you make and who you are. Not always easy but something I strive for.

Lee Burkhill with his dog

"The value of being outside and watching the seasons in a garden has been transformative for our nation. I think most people now realise how active gardens are and engaging they can be."

What advice would you give anyone looking to get into a career in garden design?

An introductory course on garden design is the place to start along with horticultural courses to fully understand plants is a must. After that design for friends and family to help gain experience and learn as you go. 

It’s not going to happen overnight, and you have to enjoy the process of learning and developing. 

I’ve volunteered to help clean plants at show gardens as a beginner to soak up as much experience as possible or visit different nurseries and ask about their specialist plants to boost my knowledge in the early days. All designers/plants people are different and welcoming so it’s great to hear or see their experiences or specialisms. 

Do you have any Golden Rules for garden design? Is it all about the plant life, or can garden furniture and features play just as key a role?

My golden rule is to design a garden with a function in mind for the end-user. A design could look gorgeous but if the client is not going to use it or engage with the garden, they won’t get the benefit. So, I always start with the function of how you are going to use the garden? Even before putting pen to paper. The function is so important whether the garden is for relaxation, growing your own food, home working or attracting wildlife etc.

You’re obviously a natural in front of the camera. How much did your successful YouTube channel help towards landing a presenting role on BBC’s Garden Rescue? Was the transition made easier because of your background?

That’s a good question! I was spotted via my YouTube channel alongside my award-winning designs and the BBC got in touch. YouTube is a great way to put your skills to the test as audiences take no prisoners. Sometimes being a ‘YouTuber’ can be seen negatively by more traditional media however it’s a really hard gig to do. You have to film, edit and present all on your own to an international audience. Taking instant feedback via the comments and keeping the ideas flowing can be tricky. I do love the challenges of it though in showcasing my how-to guides. 

Filming for Garden Rescue with a crew and co-presenters is another ball game though especially on tight timescales. There are no scripts so it’s a case of thinking on your feet and trying to get the essence of the subject matter across warmly and enthusiastically. That’s where I think my presenting skill set lies in encouraging and explaining the ‘why’ of gardening easily. YouTube has made that easier for me compared to other new presenters for sure.

Of all the many gardens you’ve visited across the world, which is your favourite?

Oooh, that’s really tough one! I’m going to pick two very different gardens. The first is the formal gardens of Marqueyssac in France. A feast for the eyes as its set on a mountain plateau and uses a geometric set of clipped box plants in wacky shapes as its main design feature around the main châteaux. 

The second is the breathtaking Benmore Botanic gardens in Scotland. It has a mix of world gardens such as Himalayan and Asian inspired planting. It also takes in the surrounding mountains as part of the backdrop and is a hidden gem of the UK. If you want to feel like you’re in a forest in Canada or up a mountain in Nepal without leaving the UK then that’s the place to be!

So, what’s next on the horizon for you?

I’ve got a busy year of exciting Garden design work, TV presenting, writing and YouTube content lined up for this year. I also like to keep a little bit of spare time for those unexpected opportunities, or travel, which can lead to the all sorts of new challenges!

You can watch the new series of Garden Rescue with Charlie Dimmock this May on BBC1 where I bring even more Garden Ninja to the nation!

Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Lee. It's been a pleasure!

The Sitting Spiritually 'Have a Seat With' series takes a look behind the scenes at how we switch off from the bustling modern-day lifestyle. We speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles around the country as we seek to explore the different ways of relaxing and just taking a moment.

Posted by Alex Rowe on April 4th 2022

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