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A Life More Wild - Series 3 Episode 5

The Drag Queen Gardener

Tom Leonard, The Drag Queen Gardener, on the benefits of gardening and a good sit down

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What's the best thing to do when you're going through a bad breakup? How about getting allotment, develop a love of gardening, and find yourself an entirely new career? Well, it worked for Tom Leonard. In a matter of months, he went from knowing nothing about plants to professional garden design, and appearing at Chelsea Flower Show is his alter ego Daisy Desire, also known as ‘The Drag Queen Gardener’. 

Ultimately, a garden, the look of it, is only a percentage. It's how it makes you feel. It's what you connect with. So, rather than just you know, going in and planting in 500 hydrangeas, what actually do you enjoy, as someone, whether you're into gardening or not, what would that client really enjoy and what would they feel they connect with in that garden? 


I'm Chris from Canopy & Stars. And this is A Life More Wild. Join Tom now for a sunny stroll around Birmingham Botanical Gardens, where he learned his trade, saw how beneficial gardening could be for mental health, and worked out that one single thing, without which a garden isn't really a garden at all. 


So, currently, we are in the subtropical house of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. And as you can hear, there is a gorgeous little water feature right behind us. 


And there’s some amazing kind of banana trees, and some vanilla power plants. And it's just, it's just amazing to be here. I find these kinds of areas so interesting, because you've almost got obviously, there's places like Kew Gardens and stuff like that. But ultimately, you know, we need more places like this that are in you know, different areas – like Birmingham, you know, like Manchester and Bristol and places, because it allows you to understand plants on a different level, because of creating a space like this. It's just, it's just amazing to see, because you can get plants from so many different countries and cultures. And ultimately, it just, it widens your horizons on a horticultural level.  


So, one thing that we've just spotted, um, just outside the green, outside the glass, is that there's a wedding happening! I think that's so cute! Because basically, it's like, it's such a beautiful place to be at that, you know, someone's having a wedding here. I mean, I was like, looking at this glass house, you've got this amazing kind of landscape of like different varieties of like planting trees, and you've got a wedding happening just outside us. And then you've got behind that, you just got loads of people having picnics on the grounds. And I just think, isn't that just beautiful? Like, this space has been used for so many different things – other than gardening, which is just, it's just amazing. It really shows are like, these, these sorts of places are so important. And, and so vital to us, you know, again, it's so much more than just plants. 


Outside the subtropical house, there are some awesome, amazing little flower beds that go all along all these amazing greenhouses. And what I find really interesting about some of these flower beds is that, they've kind of brought the outside inside. I mean, that's why I also love gardens, because how do I put this? Do you know how people always kind of say that gardens you should, you should treat them like a holiday? I completely think that is so wrong. I think a garden is an extension of your home and it's almost like you bringing the outside inside and also vice versa, that you’re bringing the inside outside. So, what I really love about how they planted this cosmos is, they've got these amazing vibrant pinks and deep purples which really actually complement all the plants that are going on in the glass house. So, it's almost like a nice kind of matching Symphony going on there.  


We're looking at upon this huge kind of green lawn that like, it's just so lovely to see because there's so many people here, having picnics and having little family days out. I mean nothing beats kind of having a cider in the sun, surrounded by some great plants.  


So how I kind of got into gardening was probably a bit different from most people. About five years ago, I was working in the Birmingham city centre, and I was having to catch the train into town to, you know, go to work, and on that train ride I used to pass these allotments. And I just was really, really intrigued to what was going on and, and thought this was such a cool idea of people, kind of, you know, renting this little space of land. And I basically, to cut a long story short, I basically got dumped and got very drunk that night, woke up the next day and kind of think, you know, ‘oh, my life is over. What am I gonna do? You know, the world is still turning, and mine is still’. And I just thought to myself, ‘Well, why don't you go get myself an allotment’. And that's literally how my gardening journey started. I got an allotment. And I killed everything in that first year, other than one marrow, and I don't even like marrows. But one thing that I realised is, from getting so much wrong and making so many mistakes, I learned so much. Like, for instance, with the marrow situation, I always kind of say to new gardeners, if you're going to grow something that you're going to eat, if you're gonna eat, if you're going to grow, produce, grow something that you want to eat, grow something that you enjoy, because ultimately, why, what, what I realised was, why would I grow a marrow when I didn't even want to eat it in the first place? So yeah, I always recommend it, whether it's salads, radishes, pumpkins, strawberries, whatever tickles your fancy, grow what you enjoy, because that, that is the start of your inspiration. 


In my opinion, I don't think there's anything, there's no such thing as a bad gardener. I think, honestly, it's just about trying, I think, for you to be a good gardener, you have to have the qualities of just being nurturing, being sympathetic – if I can say that correctly. And well, just being open to learn, because ultimately, no one starts off knowing everything. And I think that's what I've tried to kind of do in my career as the kind of presenting side of it. Of, you know, being The Drag Queen Gardener, is to take away that intimidation of gardening, because I ultimately feel, people are, when, when you're not in gardening or when you haven't already started it, but you're interested in it, you can be intimidating because people feel like, you know, there's already so many people out there that know so much. And if I don't know everything, then I'm, I'm scared to learn I'm scared to get involved. But in my job, if you can see, you know, a 26-year-old young guy, obviously, who's also a drag queen, who works as gardener it might kind of take away that intimidation, just show, you know, not all of us have to be some big horticultural experts. All you just need, is just some inspiration and you know, just give it a go. 


So right now we are going through, I don't think this has a formal name, but it's, I call it the rhododendron pathway, because it is a pathway filled with rhododendrons and azaleas that just go metres up into the air, I mean, I'm six foot three, but these things are like skyscrapers towering above you. And it is just bursting with huge varieties of colour. And it just gives you so much inspiration. I mean, so, rhododendrons and Azaleas are from the same family, and they are acid-loving plants. So, this garden has really had to nurture the ground to make it more acidic. A good way to do this, by the way, is either some peat free ericaceous soil, or if you've got some conifers in the area, when they've dropped all their kind of pines and stuff like that, gather them all up, put them in a bin bag and just pop them in the shed really or in a dark kind of place for about six months. And that kind of gives you a natural acidic mulch that you can put around your, your plants. One area that I do find, that people do with their gardens is they put a rhododendron straight into a flower bed and they haven't actually tested the soil for you know for the pH levels to see how acidic it is. So, it won't do well in alkaline soil. It does need acid in that soil. 


Oh my god, did you see that amazing butterfly? That is absolutely gorgeous. It's about the size of your hand. It was gorgeous kind of deep blue butterfly, it’s still coming, isn't it? With kind of like tiger-like, leopard print patterns wasn't it? That was amazing. 


So, the kind of like the drag stuff came along. Well, no after the gardening. And basically, I kind of just did it for a laugh, really. I mean, we were in the, we were in lockdown and stuff. And I just thought I had this gardening Instagram before it changed to The Drag Queen Gardener. I just thought it would be funny, if all the other gardeners and people on Instagram just saw like a gardener, who's also a drag queen, in full drag at like the garden centre and on the allotment having like Vogue style photo shoots, just to have a mess around. I mean, it was just, you know, to make people laugh and in what was quite a difficult time. And yeah, post that on Instagram, I didn't realise that that would blow up. I think it's because I feel like in the kind of gardening industry, and in that kind of things, there is still this kind of perception of, you know, this kind of old school gardener and stuff, you know, teaching around on either on an estate or an allotment and stuff. But also making it a safe space for everyone. I mean, even when it comes down to being a woman like sometimes it has in the past been looked down upon. And it's been harder for women to get in or be taken seriously in horticulture. And I kind of just feel like well, a six-foot three Raven drag queen, kind of hopefully knocks down some of those boundaries as well and just it just opens up an even, evens up the playing field, I guess. 


Sometimes, you know, we go through life, and we do have moments where we are struggling to kind of nurture ourselves in a good way. And you know, probably look after ourselves. I mean, we've all been there and we'll go through those moments, what I'd recommend is just go nurture plant instead, if you're struggling to kind of get out of bed or stuff, you know, water your house plants, go out into the garden, do a bit of weeding, because ultimately by the time you go back to being in a good headspace and you're back to nurturing yourself, you'll walk out into your garden and see all these amazing plants. So, you know, that are in bloom that you've looked after.  


When you know things come into bloom, or when something you know, really surprises you or when your plant is doing well. It just filled, filled you with like so much pride and joy because you, you know, you haven't spent, you know, days on end, but you've spent moments actually caring for something and when that thing kind of does the thing it's you know, when that plant does what it's supposed to, it just only someone who's you know, done that with you know, with plants for really understands, but it just feels you was so much joy. Because I kind of think you know, you don't look after your houseplants hoping that they will die and you don't prune a rose hoping that won't bloom even better the following year, or, you know, put a seed in the ground hoping that it won't germinate. And I kind of just think that, you know, gardening no matter what you're doing, is you actively participating in hope. And another thing that I absolutely love about it is, you can't multitask when you're gardening, you can't rake and sow seeds at the same time. And we're never really giving ourselves time to process things anymore. When my hands are covered in mud and I'm digging around, I can't pick up my phone and do stuff. And I kind of think that when you're gardening, because you can't multitask, you are concentrating on that one task in hand. 


I think we can get him through that side? One thing that wouldn't surprise me, if you found a Birmingham Botanical Gardens, is actually peacocks, though they naturally have a peacock that like roams around or a couple of them, because I remember when I was training here, I used to be eating my sandwiches and I don’t know if you’re allowed to feed them but I used to take off bits of my bread from my sandwich and just throw it to them. But they're lovely. Sometimes they can attack some of the plants but yeah, it’s their home as well. You can't really fight with nature can you?  


Also, where we are at right now, is in front of this huge aviary where they have some amazing kind of like birds, like parrots and stuff. But in front of it are these great, kind of almost estate-like rose gardens and all these amazing rose beds. And it was really interesting when I was training here, because to look after roses, you know how to kind of prune them and how to look after them was very much part of the course. And it's great, because having a place like this really allowed me to develop as a gardener, because I mean when I first started gardening, I was like I have no idea how to even prune a rose. I know there's like a way of doing it and there’s a way of cutting it. And ultimately, like being here was really, really useful because now when I go into other people's gardens because most people we know with big gardens, they generally do have roses, and it's really interesting and I never like, oh what I can see in front of me is just, it's just, it's just beautiful. I absolutely love roses. And I always say to people like you should always stop and smell them. And they smell amazing. It's just so floral and fragrant. And I think that's just amazing. If you have, if you've got like a dining table or near your seating area, always plant things that have like a good sense of whether it is like a rose with a high scent, or a salvia, or something like that, because you want to kind of think about all three senses, all three! Or five senses. Didn't realise there were three senses, or five senses when you're gardening as well. Because ultimately, things can look nice, they can smell nice, think about touch. So, something like, something like a lamb's ear, or maybe like an ornamental grass, and taste as well! I mean growing your own food and also like herbs, and some herbs are really easy to grow. 


So I looked after a client and redid her garden, and she was partially sighted, with the possible chance of her actually losing her sight fully. So, what I did, was surround like, the kind of perimeter of, the kind of patio part of her garden with loads of high fragrant plants, because I knew that if there were to become a time in the future where she would fully lose her sight, she'd know where the plants are just from their scent. And I just think that's, that's just lovely as well, because ultimately, you're not just seeing a beautiful garden. It smells amazing too. And I think we got to remember that sight because ultimately, you know, when people go to like the garden centre or grow their plants, they just think oh, that will look nice, but again, gardening is not a one-dimensional kind of place, it, the garden is so much more than just a pretty looking place. 


I kind of feel like the look of a garden is always 10/20%, the rest of it is how you enjoy it. I mean, I always say to people, I don't care if you've got weeds in your garden, often when I've been on my allotment if they're not up to my knees and not coming out. I'm just here to enjoy myself and to connect with plants and not necessarily make it always look pretty. But one thing that I would give as a bit of advice for anyone who's going into gardening or anyone that has a garden or windowsill boxes, make sure that you have a seat, because a garden or your little kind of balcony, it’s not a garden without a seat, because how are you ever supposed to sit down and just enjoy if you're just constantly working on it, you need a moment to sit down and go oh my god, this is beautiful, you know? 


If that's planted the seed, sorry, of a love of gardening for you – then check out Tom's Instagram for helpful tips and more of his absolutely infectious enthusiasm. Tom came to gardening almost by accident. But next time you'll be out walking with Jack Harry's whose own passion, filmmaking, has been with him his whole life. Join him in London's Victoria Park as he talks about capturing climate change on camera, community activism, and the terrifying prospect of interviewing Barack Obama. Remember, if you haven't already, to give us a follow on your podcast app, tell a friend about the podcast, and check out @canopyandstars on Instagram to see footage and photos from our days out recording.