Garden landscape designer and writer Mark Lane is the UK’s first disabled presenter to join the long-running BBC Gardeners’ World team. He was born spina bifida and has myalgic encephalopathy, both of which he was diagnosed with in later life. Our writer Zubee caught up with him to find out more about his career to date and love of garden design.
Mark’s career as a garden designer is something that he came to later in life after a catalogue of misfortunes. He’d experienced back pain on and off as a teen and had issues with balance. But it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he was officially diagnosed with spina bifida.
He underwent surgery to help combat the problem. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, it made his condition worse. He started to lose feeling in his legs and the pain increased. Around the same time, he was also diagnosed with myalgic encephalopathy (ME), after experiencing extreme tiredness. But it was a second spinal surgery after a car accident that meant Mark had to start using a wheelchair.
During his recovery, Mark rediscovered his passion for gardening, which he believes saved him from a “very dark place.” He said: “Gardening has changed my life on a physical, emotional and mental level.”
He has gained recognition for his work as a landscape designer, having received a number of awards, one for being the ‘first garden designer in a wheelchair’. As well as presenting on Gardeners’ World, BBC Gardeners’ World Live and the Royal Horticultural Society’s flower shows, he edits the disabled gardening website Accessible Gardens.
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Please tell Disability Horizons readers a bit about yourself and your life growing up?
I was born in Hertfordshire in 1969, and my family soon moved to Hove, just outside Brighton. I was very lucky growing up where I did. We overlooked the South Downs, with the countryside in walking distance to the north, and the beach to the south. As soon as I could get outside I was fascinated by nature, wildlife and plants.
Art was also a big part of my life as a child – I started to paint and draw at a very young age. I would set up my easel to depict the rolling hills, the ocean, and the local flora and fauna. In also loved to perform and play the flute.
Art and music were the two main areas I saw myself pursuing as a career. When it came to choosing a university, I had to decide between the two. Art won the day, and with a fascination for the cultural, social and psychological aspects of art, I started to put together a plan for my future, incorporating my love for words and art.
After University, I fell into publishing, which was incredibly rewarding and great fun. I worked as the publishing director for the Royal Institute of British Architects and then become managing director of the art publisher Thames & Hudson. But my car accident meant I needed to rethink my career path.
What first inspired you to get into gardening?
I have very fond memories of being 6 or 7, following my grandparents around their gardens and learning from them. My paternal grandfather would teach me about how plants grow, how to care for them and how to identify pests and diseases. My grandmother used to do the flower arrangements for the local church, and she taught me about the use of colour and how to put plants and flowers together.
My maternal grandparents had a smaller garden, but it was full of roses. Every time we visited, all we wanted to do was to play outside. But instead of playing, they encouraged us to tend to the plants – deadhead the roses, pull off and collect diseased leaves, and feed and water the plants.
At the time, I used to hate it, primarily because most of the roses were old-fashioned varieties and had very large thorns. But I still remember what my grandparents taught me and use that knowledge and share it with others today.
When I became ill, I thought back to my love of gardening.
I realised that there weren’t any other disabled gardeners in the UK, so I decided to retrain as a garden designer through an Open Learning course. Setting up my own garden design business meant I could use my knowledge of architecture from my publishing days, too.
This then led me to combine writing and gardening as I started to create pieces for gardening magazines. The BBC saw one of my articles and got in touch. That’s what started my career in broadcasting.
I am now incredibly happy, presenting on subjects that I love and am passionate about. As well as creating new landscapes and gardens for future generations to come.
What do you love most about being in the garden?
As soon as I go outside my shoulders drop, my breathing slows down and I very quickly get distracted by the plants, flowers, colours and textures. Everything in my brain relating to work just disappears. I become very mindful of where I am, of every minute – although time does fly when you’re enjoying your garden.
Of course, the best bit is that I get to sow new plants, divide perennials, plant new shrubs and flowers and, of course, getting my hands dirty. Getting your hands into the soil releases endorphins in the brain and the chemical serotonin, which is the same as eating a bar of chocolate. What’s better than that?
What challenges have you faced with your disability and how have you overcome them?
I have to admit, I had very passionate and caring parents, who insisted that I went to a regular school, despite my undiagnosed issues. At the time, I never really saw my disability as something to overcome.
Names were thrown at me when I was at school, but that was more because I didn’t feel like I fit in. Retrospectively, these were my early encounters of being gay, not disabled.
I think life puts challenges in front of us on a daily basis. Today, I feel like a ‘normal’ (whatever that word is supposed to mean) person, just like everyone else. I believe in approaching challenges face-on with determination, strength and will-power.
You have gained recognition for your work as a landscape garden designer in a wheelchair, how did it make you feel?
Mixed emotions. Firstly, I feel sad and disappointed with the horticultural industry that I have been labelled as the UK’s first ‘landscape garden designer in a wheelchair’. But, I am also delighted that I have gained the recognition.
Someone very early on in my career told me that in order to be recognised, you need to keep your head above the parapets, which is what I do. I feel very proud of my achievements and love the fact that most of the time new clients don’t even know that I am in a wheelchair. That means I am being judged on my work, rather than on who I am.
I do, however, believe it is important for me to hold the ‘baton’ for disability and hopefully inspire others to follow.
How did you get involved as a presenter for BBC’s Gardeners’ World?
I wrote an article for BBC Gardeners’ World magazine and a researcher from the TV programme read it and got in touch. They sent a director and camera to my home and asked me to do a piece to camera and then show them around my garden. She left and I didn’t think I would hear from them again.
However, a couple of days later I had a phone call from the TV series producer asking me if I would like to present at RHS Chelsea Flower Show that year. At first, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. But I soon realised that it was a real phone call and that’s how it all started.
How do you feel being a disabled presenter on the Gardeners’ World programme?
I don’t feel any different to the other presenters. I think it is great that BBC Gardeners’ World has increased its number of presenters. We all have different interests, knowledge and skill sets.
As we know, gardening is good for us, so having a broad range of presenters will hopefully mean another 50 years of air time, inspiring and entertaining viewers.
What do you enjoy most about presenting BBC’s Gardeners’ World programme?
I love meeting people – whether they’re gardeners or community groups – and I love visiting gardens that I may never have got around to seeing. I also think it’s great that someone with a disability is now showing others that gardening can be done.
The Gardeners’ World team are wonderful and made me feel at home very quickly. I had to pinch myself a few times in the beginning. It’s great being part of a series that has been going for 50+ years and viewed by 3 million people per week. It still feels like a dream.
How do you find gardening and presenting with a disability?
When gardening in my own space at home, I have to pace myself as I tire easily. There is no point in making a large list of things to do and then finding that I have only achieved a handful of them. Being realistic helps me a lot. I often use an egg timer, so that I don’t overdo it. I do 10 minutes of gardening and then 10 minutes of rest, normally with a cuppa.
I have to do the same when presenting on BBC Gardeners’ World. When we do a six-minute piece for BBC Gardeners’ World, it takes a full day of filming, so it’s full on. But I love every minute of it.
What do you think about the representation of disabled people on our TV screens?
I think programmes, independent broadcasters and the main broadcasters are getting better at representing disabled people on TV. But there is still a long way to go.
Hopefully, individuals like myself can show broadcasters that disabled people can do a lot of things, rather than just being a token gesture. But, it’s not just on TV screens that things need to change.
If anyone with a disability wants to consider taking up gardening as a business or hobby, what advice would you give them?
Gardening or garden design can be done by anyone, no matter what level of ability they have. It’s also good to remember that gardening is good for both our physical and mental health. The trick is to find out what you can do, whether you need tools or just need to think outside the box to make things work.
There are some great courses across the UK, many now online. I would say have a go. Once you get the gardening bug, there is no turning back.
What are your top tips for making a garden accessible?
The first thing is to think about how you get from inside to outside. Our house is in the middle of our garden. To make sure access is smooth, we have raised the height of the path so that I can go straight from the front door into the garden.
Pathways need to be firm with a stable base and ideally have some texture for grip. I always recommend that pathways have a raised edge of stone so that you or your wheels can feel where the pathway ends and the flower border starts.
Make life easy by planting low-maintenance plants. Where possible, bring the planting up to a workable level. This can be a raised table or bed, a living wall or a collection of varied height pots.
I’d suggest using lightweight pots so that they can be moved around easily. It doesn’t matter whether you have a patio, balcony, window box or large garden, there are always ways to make a garden accessible.
Work out what you can do, considering not having to stretch too far, bend or kneel.
I find it’s useful to think about what you have done to overcome things inside the house. These can often ben transferred to the outside, too. One simple example is that I use rubber grips to go over panhandles in the kitchen – I use the same grips on my garden tool handles.
If you would like to get in touch with Mark or find out more about his career and garden designs, please visit his website www.marklanedesigns.com.
Main image © Mark Lane and second © MSL Creative.
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