Joe Sugg: ‘I spent 14 hours a day on my phone – until I discovered gardening’

Joe Sugg's new book 'Grow' recounts his attempt to break free of social media by seeking inspiration in the garden - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
Joe Sugg's new book 'Grow' recounts his attempt to break free of social media by seeking inspiration in the garden - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

For most readers of this newspaper, the boyish face of Joe Sugg will be best known for being a finalist in the 2018 series of Strictly Come Dancing. Perhaps you caught his West End theatrical turn in Waitress, saw him on Who Do You Think You Are? or caught his television acting debut in The Syndicate last year.

Despite his increasingly broad appeal, though, Sugg will always be known to a generation of British young people as “ThatcherJoe”. The 30-year-old’s YouTube channel, which launched in 2012, is followed by 7½ million people and features the Wiltshire-born creator making music, drawing and playing pranks on his girlfriend (Dianne Buswell, his dance partner on Strictly). For many millennials and those of Generation Z, ThatcherJoe was an internet staple.

As such, some fans might find Sugg’s new book, Grow, unsettling. Behind the jolly, excitable YouTuber persona was a young man addicted to his smartphone and the online world, feeling increasingly unhappy and anxious.

“I experienced social-media burn-out,” Sugg admits. “There was a pressure to better everything I did online, to stay across everything.”

Sugg’s new book, Grow, describes his anxiety caused by social-media burn-out - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
Sugg’s new book, Grow, describes his anxiety caused by social-media burn-out - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

Rock bottom

In 2015, the creator hit rock bottom, waking up every day to feelings of anxiety and dread, knowing that his emails would be bursting with deadlines, reminders and unkept promises. He describes the unrealistic expectations he set himself, desperate to come up with the next big thing, to blow his previous videos out of the water. He was constantly comparing himself with others, feeling exposed and self-conscious. “Spinning plates” is how he puts it.

He remembers when Apple first unveiled its Screen Time feature, which allows users to see exactly how much time they spend on their iPhone each day. “That, for me, was a bit of an ‘Oh, my word’ moment,” he says. “When you’re on social media, it feels like no time is passing at all, but the data don’t lie.” The data showed that he was spending “at least 10 hours a day, sometimes up to 14, on [his] phone”.

Being online was his default. He would skip breakfast to gawp at other people’s on Instagram; he couldn’t sleep properly due to constantly needing to check for new updates; he could barely hold a conversation, such was his nonexistent attention span.

Around him, Sugg was watching friends in the same boat developing severe cases of anxiety, stress and depression, yet he couldn’t help but return to the online world. Any moment of silence, from a lull in conversation to standing in a queue at the supermarket, sent Sugg lunging for his phone. “You take so much content on board, but I would ask myself how much I could even remember, and the answer worried me. That’s when I realised it wasn’t good for me.”

Breaking free

Grow, part memoir, part lifestyle guide, part beginners’ gardening manual, recounts Sugg’s attempt to break free from the internet. To do so, he sought inspiration in the garden.

“I had a small terrace outside my London flat, so I started doing a few little bits: making a terrarium [see his DIY guide, below]; repotting the plants I already had; building a vertical garden; doing what I could with what I had,” he recalls.

“Doing those things took me back to my childhood and unlocked a lot of memories of helping my mum out in the garden. You’re getting your hands dirty and working slowly, away from the relentlessness of social media.”

'Gardening took me back to my childhood and unlocked a lot of memories' - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
'Gardening took me back to my childhood and unlocked a lot of memories' - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

What started purely as a means of passing the time during lockdown grew as Sugg began to see the effect that reconnecting with the natural world was having on his life.

“I learnt that this could be a good remedy for the craziness of the online world. When you’re outside and working on the garden, it clears your mind. During lockdown, when we were allowed that one walk a day, it really made me appreciate the outdoors and reinforced how much I needed that. It changes your mood. You feel so much more relaxed and calm.”

Throughout our conversation, the word Sugg continually refers to is “learning”, and so Grow feels an apt title for his book. With endearing earnestness, the YouTuber approaches concepts such as biophilia (the idea that the natural world is necessary for our mental and physical health) and mindfulness in the context of his journey of self-discovery.

That journey eventually led Sugg and Buswell out of Clapham, in south London, to a cottage in deepest ­Sussex, complete with a kitchen overlooking rolling hills and a large garden on a steep slope. It was an expanse of grass with untidy borders and looming conifers around the edges.

Sugg imm­ed­iately knew he was home; that sorting out this garden could be the project to help him restore his sanity. He pictured the ad­ven­tures his future children could have in this green space and threw himself into planting and planning with gusto.

For Sugg, gardening was the project to help him restore his sanity - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
For Sugg, gardening was the project to help him restore his sanity - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

Throughout Grow, Sugg reminisces fondly on the gardens of his youth: the “maze” his parents made by trampling down the long grass behind his childhood home; discovering a severed fox’s head in the bushes; the pristine lawn that was the “pride and joy” of his beloved grandfather Richard “Chippy” Chapman.

“Oh, I started from scratch,” laughs Sugg when I ask whether the family’s green fingers had been passed down to him. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I was bothering my mum: ‘What’s this?’; ‘What does this John Innes soil type mean?’; ‘How do I deal with these shoots springing up in my lawn?’ [The shoots were snowdrops and daffodils, his long-suffering mum told him.] It’s a great hobby because I have had to completely start from the basics.”

The YouTube star is the first to admit that his book is “very entry-level stuff”, aimed at encouraging other young people to discover the wonders of the garden, rather than being encyclopaedic; not that young gardeners need encyclopaedias any more: “It’s much more convenient to use your phone. I’ve learnt loads on apps. On Google Lens, you can take a picture of a plant, swipe up, and you can identify it. It’s brilliant.”

Therein lies the tension at the heart of the book: celebrating the joys of being offline and escaping social media for an audience that will probably know him for his online presence.

“By no means am I saying that social media is the devil,” he assures those readers. “Social media and the internet are still a big part of my life, and I tried to make sure that came across in the book.” This is true, the text is snappy and conversational, attuned to the attention spans of the perpetually online, and ­littered with websites to visit for more resources.

“The technology that we have is still very useful for us,” Sugg eventually decides, after pondering for a moment. “It’s about finding that balance between both. That’s the part that I, and I think a lot of people of my generation, have struggled with.

"My hope is that [the book] will make them start to have the conversation within themselves – have I got the balance right? How am I feeling? What could I be doing differently, if anything, that might make me feel better about the online world? And going out to appreciate the world.”

Sugg hopes that Grow will prompt readers to think about their use of social media and go out to appreciate the world - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
Sugg hopes that Grow will prompt readers to think about their use of social media and go out to appreciate the world - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

Smelling the roses

During the pandemic, online plant store Patch Plants reported a sales hike of 500 per cent, while the Royal Horticultural Society noted a 533 per cent increase in the number of 18- to 24-year-old visitors to its website. In 2021, the Chelsea Flower Show began featuring a “container gardens” category for small spaces, while the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival celebrated “Get Started Gardens”, with smaller designs fitting inside the average plot of garden allotted to most new-build starter homes.

So, what’s propelling so many young people into gardening? “The common thread with the anxiety and burnout I’ve experienced in the past from the online world is that there’s no schedule to it,” Sugg offers, explaining how he has found routine in plant-care, making sure to water and dust all his plants every Monday morning.

“The more content you upload, the more time you spend on social media, the more you’ll receive in likes and comments, and, once you get big enough, money as well,” Sugg explains. “It’s hard to sit back and appreciate the work you’ve done, because you’re always on to the next thing.”

In contrast, he says, plants also give him something to work on, but there’s only so much you can do to a plant before you need to simply sit back and let it do its own thing.

“It’s that thing of taking time to smell the roses: putting in the work and then sitting back to appreciate it and share it with other people is the whole point. It’s a nice feeling when you go to see family and friends and you can take them some of your homegrown produce,” he says.

Sugg’s grandad “Chippy” is noted to have always grown “the best” new ­potatoes, and it was an emotional moment when he harvested his first crop.

“In my head, it felt like my grandad had made sure those potatoes grew in that ground. I’d actually made that area of the garden my grandad’s. I’ve put a wooden chair down there and I call it the Chippy chair. He died in 2021 and I always think that if he were alive and could come round, that’s where he’d like to sit. I like to think he was looking after my potatoes.”

Sugg’s first potato harvest was an emotional moment, as his Grandad "Chippy" had always grown the best potatoes - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY
Sugg’s first potato harvest was an emotional moment, as his Grandad "Chippy" had always grown the best potatoes - (C)2022 DAN KENNEDY

Fostering connection with other people is another key theme of Grow and Sugg has used his garden to do so both in real life and virtually.

“You do have to be careful when you ask for gardening advice online,” he chuckles. “People can say anything they like, so you’re going to come across different people with very, very different opinions.” He relates how he became embroiled in a debate about whether or not to deadhead his daffodils, and at the moment he’s wondering what to do about his suet bird-feed balls.

“It’s been an ongoing battle,” he says. “First, I had to learn the right time of year to put them out for the birds, and now I’m dealing with squirrels. I guarantee, as soon as I put fat balls out in the garden, there’ll be squirrels all over them.”

Still, whatever happens, at least Sugg can be confident that, according to his Instagram followers, he’ll be doing it wrong.

“One of the things I learnt very quickly about gardening on social media is that you can’t do anything right. But I think one of the best things about gardening is that you can only really learn by doing it yourself and making your own mistakes.”

While the garden is still in its infancy, Sugg has big plans. “I’d love to have a greenhouse and a proper vegetable patch – I think that would change the way I grow things. I also love the idea of having a pond: I grew up with one and I think that’d be very tranquil. And I’d like a pathway going through different compartments in the garden, like rooms in a house, each with different themes, weird quirks and little spots, so that every time you go round a corner there’s something new to explore.

"The kind of gardens I loved as a kid were the ones that were awesome to explore and get lost in, the ones that let you use your imagination. You can only achieve that when you’re not plugged into the online world: it gives you time to think and come up with ideas. That’s what I think is missing from the virtual world, and we can only find it in the garden.”

‘Grow’ is out on Thursday; Penguin, £20

Joe Sugg’s absolute beginner’s guide to garden planning

Find the right month for planting

January-February: You can get your summer bedding flowers going from seed now, as long as you’ve somewhere warm to house them until they’re ready to go into the ground.

May: If you’re planting seedlings for flowering from late June onwards, now’s the time.

October: This is the perfect time to get your spring bulbs in the ground. That’s your daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops. Tulips can generally wait until November, but the smaller bulbs should go in while the earth is still warm from the autumn weather.

Track the sun in your outdoor space before you start planting

Some plants and flowers, such as foxgloves, begonias and fuchsias, will fare better in the shade, whereas others, such as petunias, marigolds and geraniums, prefer to bask in the sunshine.

Plan your borders carefully by putting the taller guys at the back and make sure you plant everything with enough space in between – the label or the information on the packet will tell you how far apart they need to be from each other in order to have room to bloom.

Some flowers are easier to grow and maintain than others – if you’re a beginner, the following guys are a great place to start:

Marigolds – These beauties are quick growers, especially if they’re planted in plenty of sun. 
Plant: May-June

Sugg recommends Marigolds as quick growers, especially if planted in the sun - Geoff Pugh
Sugg recommends Marigolds as quick growers, especially if planted in the sun - Geoff Pugh

Sweet peas – These colourful climbers look great and smell even better, and don’t need much space. They are also fantastic for cutting. 
Plant: late May

Sunflowers – Plant from seed and watch them shoot up throughout the summer and keep going well into autumn. 
Plant: April

Geraniums – These guys never let you down. Such stoicism! And more colours to choose from than you can shake a stick at.
Plant: May

Pansies – They are the gift that keeps on giving, if you deadhead them often enough. You can get summer and winter varieties for year-round colour. 
Plant: summer pansies, May; winter pansies, September-October 

If you’re growing veg, some make better ­companions than others

So plan what will go where ahead of the planting. For instance, carrots grow well with lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes. Most veg will grow in a sunny spot, but be mindful that they will need shelter from strong winds.

Prune regularly

By doing so, you will reap the benefits of fuller flowers for longer.

Beware of garden pests such as slugs

They will do their level best to destroy all your hard work. There are lots of tips and tricks for trying to keep them at bay and it’s worth having a go at as many as possible.

You could try putting a container of beer in a flowerbed to lure them in – they then fall in and get stuck. Forming a barrier of pine needles or crushed eggshells around plants may help to act as a slug deterrent, too. And plants such as fennel and ­rosemary can also give off a scent that drives them away. Good luck!

Sugg recommends trying as may tricks as possible to get rid of slugs - Paul Williams
Sugg recommends trying as may tricks as possible to get rid of slugs - Paul Williams

Raising plants from seed

Buying seeds and then raising the plants yourself, before transferring them to the ground, is a much more cost-effective way of gardening than buying ready-grown seedlings from the garden centre. And you will find the job satisfaction when it goes right is immense.

How to create an outdoor space without breaking the bank

Plant flowers that will come back

Plant colourful perennials, such as geraniums. They will keep coming back year after year and you’ve only paid for (and planted) them once. Plant them in the spring, so they have two seasons of warmth in which to establish and grow before the colder weather sets in

Light it up

Solar-powered outdoor fairy lights can transform a space into a twinkly oasis

Be clever with space

If short on space, create your own vertical garden by hanging boxes on hooks, and planting violas and lobelias for colour. You can also plant things such as strawberries, lettuce and spinach

Grow veg from scraps

Make a vegetable garden from kitchen scraps. Root bases of spring onions and celery are great for this

Try an outdoor rug

Lay down an outdoor rug to make any space feel a bit more stylish

Add some colour

Add a pop of colour by giving a fence a lick of bright paint. Make sure you prep it first with a pressure wash and a primer. And check the weather forecast! It’s pointless doing this in the rain

Divide and conquer

Go forth and multiply! Divide your perennials by gently digging up the clumps, separating the root ball into two or three sections, and replanting apart. It’s really easy to do and also helps to keep the plants robust and healthy

Upcycle

Try upcycling. Sometimes, what may be considered bits of junk to some people could be perfect for transforming into a plant pot or windchime or anything else. Pinterest has some great examples of some of the amazing things you can do with old bits and pieces, and it’s really satisfying when someone asks, “Ooh, where did you get that from?”, to be able to reply in a smug manner: “I made it myself.”

Extract from ‘Grow’ by Joe Sugg, available to buy Sep 15

How to make your own terrarium

Terrariums, or bottle gardens, were a big trend back in the 1970s and they are currently enjoying a revival. 
Quite right, too! They are a great way to bring nature indoors, they look really cool and they’re 
super-easy to make from scratch

terrarium - DAN KENNEDY
terrarium - DAN KENNEDY

What you will need

  • A glass container (this could be an old jam jar, if you’re starting really dinky, a larger cookie jar or a goldfish bowl)

  • Some small pebbles to help drainage

  • Activated charcoal (you can find this at your garden centre)

  • Potting soil

  • A chopstick or a long spoon

  • Plants, obviously (some good starters for closed terrariums include the spider plant, ivy, moss, peperomia and miniature ferns)

Method

  1. Start by layering your pebbles in the bottom of the container, about 2cm deep, and then scatter the charcoal across on top

  2. Next, put in the soil, making sure it’s deep enough for the plants’ roots to be comfortable. Using your chopstick or spoon, make a hole in the middle of the soil and place your plant gently into it. You can add more than one plant if you have a big enough container

  3. Add a few more pebbles to the top of the soil, and you’re done

  4. Tropical plants are better off in humid conditions, so it’s best to keep a lid on these guys. It’s fine to leave the top open for succulents and cacti

  5. You can add decorations, such as moss or figurines or shells. Get creative!

  6. Check the soil every few weeks and give it a little drink if it’s dry. And if you have put a lid on, take it off once a month to avoid condensation and help increase airflow