If you're a fan of Gardeners' World, you'll be familiar with the cheerful face of Joe Swift. With his charming manner, you'd think he could endear himself to pretty much anyone. Yet this year, he managed to split the gardening nation down the middle when it came to his allotment.
Never has one man's decision to rotovate a weed-infested plot in Enfield generated so much distress. Particular passion was reserved for his diamond-shaped raised beds. "One bloke emailed the BBC and said 'You've let yourself down, you've let your family down,' and I was like, 'Oh my God, it's an allotment: I put some diamonds in, and the whole world's gone mad,'" says Swift. "But everybody I've met loved it. Kids come up and say, 'We've got an allotment because of you!'"
The funny thing is, once the cameras are off, Swift is a proponent of a sleek, elegant gardening style that's slightly at odds with his cheerful public image.
In his new book, Joe's Urban Garden Handbook, I'm amazed to find restrained slate surfaces, stylish hardwood fencing, and sail shades soaring over city skylines. Calm and refined planning is much in evidence, particularly when it comes to seating areas. Not to speak of cunning ways to hide bins, bikes and other junk that messes up most gardens.
"Why, if you live in a city, where you've paid a premium for a place with a garden, would you you let it get overgrown?" asks Swift, who is evangelistic on this subject. "Go on an overland train around London, and you'll see so many wasted garden spaces, and that really winds me up. Or people have had a go – they've watched some programme and think it's easy, and they've found out it's not, and they've given up." His new book lays out the ground rules – a garden must be simple, stylish and useable, never requiring more time than the owners have to give.
Swift's message is clear: in most cases, calling in a professional garden designer is essential. "You should consider your garden to be part of the value of your house," he urges. "You'd never do a loft conversion without a trained professional; why treat a garden differently?"
I have to confess, I say, that although the gorgeous designs in the book are a million miles from my plant-crammed garden, I think I'd quite like to have a garden like that. For one thing, it would make life simpler: I could invite friends over and not have to do 12 hours of machete work first; I'd have a whole new room to my house, rather than a constant source of work and worry. He cracks up laughing. "Well, that's what I do! I try to simplify it, so people can get on with enjoying their life."
'Joe's Urban Garden Handbook' by Joe Swift is published by Quadrille at £20
Be an urban outfitter: Get the look on a budget
1. Small plots, big potsPlants don't like to be cramped, and a bigger pot is more dramatic than a number of small ones. Try "Christmas Box" Sarcococca,with its gorgeous evergreen foliage and wonderful winter fragrance. I like Sarcococca hookeriana for its slim leaves. £8.50 per shrub, www.burncoose.co.uk
2. Berry beautifulPurple-berried Callicarpa bodinieri, with its striking, almost fake-looking fruits, zing in a tiny garden setting. £8.99 for three-litre pot, www.crocus.co.uk
3. Lay the groundworkMulch properly to help existing plants get through the winter, hinder weeds, and instantly smarten the look of the garden. I like JA Bowers Cocoa Shell mulch. Around £8.49 a bag from DIY stores or www.gardencentre.co.uk