Tonight Alan Gardner returns to Channel 4 to work his horticultural magic on suburban wastelands.
In the second series of The Autistic Gardener, he also does something he thought he never would: he boards a plane to the US and visits gardens in New York, California and Texas.
He tells us why he’s never flown long-haul before, how he coped and what he loved about New York.
Have you travelled much?
This was the first time I’d been on a long-haul plane. The idea of going abroad on holiday is total hell to me. My number one coping strategy number is: don’t go there in the first place. I don’t like pubs, nightclubs and that sort of thing, so I don’t go to them. Luckily my family all feel the same way. So if we go on holiday, it’s a week in a rented cottage and we have control because we can eat what we want and do what we want.
So how did Channel 4 persuade you to fly to America?
When the idea came up, I didn’t want to go. Then I started talking to friends and thinking about it, and very quickly realised it was an opportunity that I’d regret throwing away. A lot of autistic people don’t like new experiences but luckily I do.
How did you cope with the flight itself?
I like aircraft – I like the sound and the sensation of an aeroplane taking off – so I got in it quite happily. Several hours and an awful lots of episodes of The Big Bang Theory later, we start to come in over New York and I was feeling: Oh crap, this is different. There were freeways with cars and lorries but they didn’t look like our cars and lorries. It was like being in a film. We landed at JFK, got in a taxi to the hotel, and I sat on my bed and thought: My god, I’ve got to stay here two weeks. And after the first day, I fell totally in love with New York.
What did you love about it?
I liked the hustle and bustle of it. A lot of autistic people don’t like loud noises but I tend to. You could walk everywhere. Manhattan is not tiny, but it’s not like Los Angeles where you can’t go anywhere without getting in a car and going on a freeway. You could see all the sights quite comfortably without travelling any long distance.
The One World Trade Center is the tallest building in New York
I got totally obsessed with the One World Trade Center, which is the highest skyscraper in the northern hemisphere. I got back and realised 50% of the photographs I took in New York were of that building, so I’ve come to the conclusion I’m in love. I’ve always liked things that are bigger than me – always liked trees, always liked cranes. I also liked the fact that the light is not directly from the sun; it’s reflected from buildings, so there are these weird rays.
How did you get on with New Yorkers?
I found them incredibly friendly. People were not put off by a pink-haired guy one little bit. In fact, they were quite curious and would want to talk to you about your nail varnish or whatever in a polite way. I really loved them.
Did you ever find it overwhelming?
There were a couple of occasions when I found it incredibly difficult. I think the worst one was probably Times Square where I found the noise, the people, the TV screens and the flickering lights just a little bit too much. Imagine your sensory capacity gets crossed over – you can taste colours and things like that. It’s total overload. We filmed there for about an hour and a half and then I had to put my hands up and say: Ok, you’ve got to get me out of here or I’m going to end up in a little ball in the floor.
What did you make of Austin and LA?
Austin was a bit of a culture shock after New York: single storey buildings, flat roofs, fans outside blowing cold air with water to stop you from dying. It was 107 degrees fahrenheit which is 40-odd celsius. Very hot, very humid and very big trucks. If you don’t have a pickup truck the size of a double-decker bus, you’re not trying. Poisonous snakes, vultures and 1.5 million bats that live underneath a bridge, which was a hell of a sight to behold when they come out at night. The food is alright as long as you like barbecued stuff.
Lady Bird Lake is a water reservoir on the Colorado River in downtown Austin
Austin is incredibly green. That came as a shock. It has a river that runs through the middle of it but it’s dammed at both ends so it’s like a giant water feature. Lots and lots of trees and lots and lots and lots of sky – very beautiful cumulus clouds that dangle downwards. I know it sounds silly but this is my autistic take.
I started gardening when I pestered my mum and dad to get me a cactus when I was 15 and grew it on the windowsill. I’ve seen cacti growing in the Wisley and Kew, but in Los Angeles I saw 10 acres of cacti growing in their native habitat. It turned out there were 15,000 species of cacti. So that was a thrill, to say the least.
It’s a thrill to grow Californian poppies in your garden. It’s an even greater thrill to see them growing by the side of the road in California.
Which was your favourite garden?
A garden I’ve got books on – the High Line Park. It was an elevated train track through Lower Manhattan that used to carry meat to the Meatpacking District. In 1986, they pulled the plug and it fell derelict, and it was taken over by a group who built a linear park. You’re elevated 20 or 30 feet above the road below in a park that is the width of a double railway track which snakes between buildings and skyscrapers. It’s totally awesome.
The High Line public park
So will you do any more long-haul trips in future?
Only if I did it for a TV series and they paid me! I loved going to America but I was escorted the whole time and I didn’t have to concern myself with anything – when the flight was, what we did when we got there, how do we get to the hotel. So that was a brilliant way to see America as far as I was concerned.
The Autistic Gardener is on Channel 4 on Saturdays at 7pm. For more holiday inspiration, see visitcalifornia.com, nycgo.com and austintexas.org
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