An Interview with Matt James – The City Gardener

118Matt James talks to Reckless Gardener’s Sandy Felton about his favourite gardens and plants and why he’s proud to be a 21st century tree hugger.

If you ask Matt James when he first became interested in horticulture you will get the answer that he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t! He is the fresh-faced presenter of Channel 4’s popular ‘The City Gardener’ and ‘Selling Homes’, willing to take on those neglected, dark and uninspiring outdoor spaces that would send most of us running for cover.

Matt, who studied horticulture at Writtle College, near Chelmsford, admits that no matter what the style of a garden, it’s always the ones full of plants which grab him: “However, I do believe that the success of a garden is in part due to how you feel when you’re within it,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the most significant design or have the most grandiose planting scheme just as long as it makes you smile and most importantly, breathe.”

So is there a particular garden that he really loves? “York Gate garden, near Leeds is probably my favourite. There’s a wonderful feel to this place. That said, it’s well planned, with different parts cleverly divided into rooms. For urban gardeners it’s an ideal place to go and get inspiration, especially on the correct positioning of focal points, how to inspire movement, and how to successfully create all-important tension and surprise in a small space. Living in London I haven’t been back for a while, something I must remedy soon.”

His other inspirational garden is The Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park. For him this garden evokes a similar reflective mood with its woodland oasis amongst the oaks and bracken: “It’s incredibly tranquil, even when packed with Sunday walkers, somewhere to recharge the batteries.”

He admits to being inspired by several designers such as Piet Ouldolf, Noel Kingsbury, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto, Andy Sturgeon and Cleve West, to name a few. And it is not surprising that added to that list are names such as John Brookes, Tom Stuart Smith and Richard Sneesby – for Matt that list just about sums up the ideals which inspire him such as brillance, expertise, passion and enthusiam.

When he sees a run-down plot he knows that the first thing he has to consider is the client: “I spend a lot of time working through their wants and needs and honing their ideas into something that’s realistic when you factor in the budget, timescale and the space itself,” he explains. “Understanding the characteristics of the space is also essential. The soil type, pH, orientation, topography and locality for example combine to dramatically affect what you do successfully. Ignore tham at your peril!”

At this point I make a vow to stop asking designers what their favourite plant is! Of course it’s impossible to answer and as Matt points out: “It’s like asking a DJ what his favourite record is. I have so many favourites and the list changes each week!” I should be prepared for this sort of answer by now as I have received the same one from so many designers in the past. But he does admit to a pretty sizeable list, nevertheless, including Wintersweet, Lilium regale, Itea, Star Jasmine, Rosa rugosa, Virburnum x burkwoodii, and honey spurge as being a must. “And of course I love trees”, he says. “Prunus serrula, Prunus maackii, beech, Persian ironwood and the candyfloss tree. I’m really into my perennials too – Asphodline lutea, Verbena bonariensis, Eremurus, foxgloves, there’s nothing better than long perennial borders in full flower.”

He sees trees as being vital in an urban garden as they act as focal points providing privacy and shade: “They are also useful for concealing eyesores and of course they attract wildlife” he says. “And yes, if I see a wonderful specimen I’ll give it a hug …… why not!” Why not indeed, I have been known to hug a few trees myself in the past.

One project which has given him a lot of satisfaction has been the number of gardens he built last year in Los Angeles of which two designs won Gold at the Annual California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) Awards.

More recently, Volkswagen challenged me to build a garden in the back of their new Golf Plus,” he explains. “The Challenge was to make a clever use of space, showing urban gardeners that space does not need to restrict creativity or design. I decided upon a wildflower meadow complete with a Sunday picnic – what better opportunity than to bring a slice of the country smack bang into the middle of the city! Without a doubt the oddest but most satisfying place I’ve ever built a garden!.”

Matt’s ‘garden in the back of the Golf’ was constructed with the help of Clifton Nurseries and certainly caused a lot of interest

His achievements have not gone without recognition in the UK either – in 2000 Matt was honoured as ‘Londoner of the Year‘ for his work in Environment and Regeneration. He has also put together the Matt James Collection of plants – stylish plants for modern living and perfect for modern and low maintenance gardens – for information, log onto

Very much in keeping with the Reckless Gardener philosophy, Matt also believes that you should enjoy gardening and to do so you don’t need to be a garden expert. Here he gives us his top five tips for anyone who wants to get into gardening but is afraid to take the leap:

  1. Do a little research – browse through books, magazines and the internet. Casually visit shows, garden centres and nurseries and talk to the experts. Chat to your neighbours too. There are so many people out there who can help the beginner so there’s no need to feel isolated.
  2. As tempting as it may be don’t buy on impulse! You’ll only end up with a load of costly failures.
  3. Get up close and personal with the characteristics/ microclimate of your space. Once you know what you’ve got you can choose safe in the knowledge you’re picking the right plant for the right place.
  4. Keep it simple!
  5. Take your time. As Sylvia Crowe wisely said ‘a garden is a process not a product‘.

Sound advice Matt and thanks for the interview.