Jason Williams became known as The Cloud Gardener after deciding to share the highs and lows of creating a wildlife garden on the 18th floor balcony of a Manchester tower block during lockdown. He explains the mental health boost that reconnecting with nature’s tiniest things can produce – and the surprising benefits of walking round towns.
“The thing I love most about gardening has been seeing the wildlife it’s attracted to my balcony,” says Jason. “You wouldn’t think that 18 floors up you would get so many different creatures. But I’ve got pond flies, moths, caterpillars, ladybirds, bees and even worms and slugs.”
His experiment gardening for nature has drawn so many followers to his social media channels – which focuses on horticulture and mental health – that he’s branched out into vlogging and live-streaming his urban walks. His jaunt round Blackpool was watched by more than one million people on TikTok.
“I love living in a city but sometimes I just need to get away, and I find that going for a walk helps me to order my thoughts,” he explains. “I don’t drive and so I’ll go somewhere by bus or train and do a random hike. It’s a way to manage my mental health, as I suffer from anxiety and depression.”
He’s recently walked round Cleethorpes, Barrow-in-Furness and parts of the Lake District, and live-streamed a walk in Todmorden, Yorkshire. “I honestly didn’t think people would care, but several hundred people joined me on TikTok live,” he says.
These walks are an uplifting combination of ideas, observations and mini-disasters; like nearly missing his train home, and he shows through example that you don’t have to hike into the wilderness to gain benefits from being outdoors.
“I enjoy looking at people’s front gardens; I’ll have a nosy to see what they are planting,” he admits. “I’m often inspired by what they’ve done and might try to replicate it, or it could spark a new planting or colour combination idea.”
His commentaries are delivered with his trademark gentle amusement and honesty, which is probably one of the reasons his career as a gardening influencer has taken off so spectacularly.
As a child he’d enjoyed gardening with his grandmother but, staring lockdown in the face in Spring 2020: “I began gardening again because there was nothing else to do and nowhere to go, apart from the supermarket and the garden centre.”
When he started, the only living thing on his balcony apart from him was a marigold in a pot. Now he has a variety of vegetables, pollinator-attracting plants in containers, and even a small pond.
Over the early months, he made a number of discoveries about gardening, the first being that setbacks, such as plants dying or not growing as expected, are quite normal. “When these first happened, I started researching online for answers, but nothing really represented my type of garden,” he says.
“I realised there was a bit of science involved, in that, at 18 floors up, the balcony had its own micro-climate which included high winds, so I had to change and adapt the normal garden rules and do everything by trial and error.”
For people who suffer with anxiety and depression, gardening fails can reinforce negative feelings to the point where they may stop trying, he says. This is not helped by social media which can sometimes resemble an endless parade of perfect plants and immaculate plots.
“People go into it with enthusiasm but they just see perfection on Instagram,” he says. “If they have a gardening mishap, you’ll hear them say: ‘I don’t have a green thumb’ when, really, things going wrong is all part of gardening – you make mistakes but you learn from it and move on.”
To help people in a similar situation he created a social media platform, to share tips and encourage anyone who was struggling.
“Sometimes I get it right and sometimes it goes wrong and that’s OK,” he says. “It used to affect my mental health when I started; I’d spend all this energy growing and nurturing plants and I’d feel I’d done something wrong if they didn’t thrive. But I learned that it could be as basic as the plant being in too much sun, or not being happy where it was.”
As The Cloud Gardener, he posts about his successes, like ‘Simon’, the lemon tree he grew from a pip, and his failures; from ‘Disaster Pruning’, to ‘How Mealybugs Ruined Christmas’ and even the effect that a -3 degree frost wreaked on his beloved balcony.
He doesn’t use filters and not does he dress up for his videos: “Sometimes you’ll catch me in my dressing gown because I’ve just woken up, picked up the phone and gone out to the balcony and recorded,” he says. “There’s a real pressure for content creators to always look ‘on’ but I’m like; ‘Who cares?’”
His emphasis on small-space gardening, caring for wildlife and practical ways to improve mental wellbeing have lead to appearances on BBC Gardeners’ World. He won a prestigious Silver Gilt medal for the balcony garden he created for the 2022 RHS Chelsea Flower Show and in between supporting mental health projects, he also holds monthly houseplant and seed sales and swaps.
“I want to continue on my path of helping people connect to nature,” he says. “I think I’ve shown that when it comes to gardening, you don’t need acres of land, you just need to start today with what you’ve got and hopefully you’ll fall in love with it as I did.”