Matt James – the city gardener
Jane McGuire

Matt James – the city gardener

Matt James the city gardener

First published date March 25 2015 Amended date March 16 2016

If you are interested in gardening, the chances are you will have watched or read Matt James’ work at some point. Best known for The City Gardener on Channel 4, Matt has also appeared on ITV’s Love Your Garden, The Great British Garden Revival on BBC2 and is a regular contributor to Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4. Walking into the interview expecting to talk about all of the above, I was a little taken aback when Matt tells me, ‘I don’t think I’m naturally fit for TV.’ Humble, animated and ardent, it’s not hard to see why Matt has been so successful. Whether he’s stood before a room of students, a camera or a radio microphone, his unquestionable passion shines through. A man of many talents, I was keen to find out more about where his journey began, the inspiration behind his garden designs and the advice he would give to those hoping to follow in his wellington-clad footsteps.


Pardon the pun, but where did this love for gardening grow from?

I’ve always been interested in gardening really from the age of fifteen. My mum was a keen gardener and she would dunk our heads into flowers, encouraging us to work in the garden with her from quite a young age. I didn’t do particularly well in my GCSE’s – I wasn’t really academic at all. So I went and did an NVQ1 at Nescot – the North East College of Technology in Surrey, and then worked for a Market Gardner in Epsom. I absolutely loved it; I was very lucky, my tutor Mr Clark took me under his wing and I’d be driving tractors, picking carrots and planting broad beans. At 16 I liked to be outdoors and from that point on I wanted to make a career out of it.


How did things progress from there?

I went and did a National Diploma at Merrist Wood, which is a horticultural college in Guildford. I then did a degree in horticulture at Writtle College in Chelmsford. From there I set up a chain of farmers markets in North East Surrey and South London. I also went back to Nescot and taught horticulture, doing various bits of gardening and design work on the side. I started doing more and more design work, TV happened and the rest is history.


You’ve been in the industry for quite a long time, in your opinion, what are the main things that have changed?

I think certainly the professionalism of the industry has changed; I think there’s quite a strong appreciation for garden design, both by academic institutions and the people that I’m teaching. In terms of the student profile that is similar in the fact that it’s so varied – from youngsters to the more mature learner who comes into it for a change in career. Although I would say the numbers of young people taking up horticulture are in decline.


Why do you think this is?

I think the advent of technology has a lot to answer for. I think it’s quite seductive, a lot of youngsters are now interested in IT and so forth. Also it’s partly related to a change in society; with horticulture in general, people don’t tend to scream at the top of their voices about the industry. Horticulture has become savvier to selling itself and its benefits, but it still doesn’t compare to other industries screaming twice as loud.


To focus on the garden design element of your job, where do you get your inspiration from?

How long is a piece of string? It depends on the context, it depends on the client and it depends on the budget. In terms of inspiration for design ideas, you can get that from anywhere; it could be art and design, it could be a more conceptual based approach or an approach based on a necessity for sustainability or climate change. It varies and that’s the exciting thing about the job.


What’s the best part for you?

It all has its good points really. I find design invigorating and stimulating, I like liaising with clients, teasing out ideas and chewing over concepts with clients and colleagues. I also like the detailed design stage, particularly with plants – that’s my forte. And then, like every gardener or garden designer, I like seeing it onto the ground.


What made you want to teach your art?

I love teaching – I always have done. I was lucky to go through my education with such inspirational teachers and I always thought I really like this. I love bringing the best out of people and see them finish their course giddy with success. I like working with students coming up with design ideas, I like their conversation. I love seeing the light bulb go off when you are explaining something difficult and suddenly a student gets it. It’s incredibly rewarding.


Where did the media side of your work come from then?

I had two mates that worked for a production company and it was as simple as that really. I wasn’t really looking to go into TV. My friends were researchers for a production company and asked if I fancied doing a show reel which was send off to BBC and Channel 4. Flatteringly, both said they would like to do something with me.


And do you enjoy this?

Yeah I do, but I enjoy the teaching, design and writing sides of my job more. I don’t think I’m a natural fit for TV.


I’m sure many people would disagree...

Maybe, but I don’t find it as personally rewarding as teaching a group of students, working in a design studio or doing Gardener’s Question Time. That’s not to say I don’t like it mind, it’s just that if I had to put it in a hierarchy of the parts of my job I enjoy the most, I wouldn’t put it as high.


In your opinion, what are the most common problems people make with their gardens?

I think over complicating things and not doing research. Research doesn’t have to be the boring word it sounds – it’s about understanding the characteristics of the space and defining the aims early on. People often dive in without taking a step back and doing an appropriate appraisal of the site and budget. Most of the work to making a beautiful garden happens in the mind, it happens through looking, appreciating and critiquing your own work.


What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

In terms of design, my advice is to do a good course in garden and landscape design which teaches you all the different professional aspects, whilst introducing you to approaches and strategies. I think if you’ve got the opportunity to affiliate yourself to a designer, or work in a design practice as a junior that’s a really good thing to do. I have to discuss things with people or argue – it’s all part of the creative process, so embrace the opportunity to work with as many different people as you possibly can.


My final question – what’s your garden like?

Well up till recently it was a bombsite! We’ve bought a big field and have a fairly big garden now. I am naturally gravitated towards a slightly more traditional design, so I suppose it’s got a contemporary cottage feel. It’s very plant heavy with rustic materials – it’s a horrible term ‘contemporary cottage’ but that’s kind of what it is!


Thanks Matt!


If you want to find out more about Matt’s courses, have a look at his website. If he has inspired you to get outside and transform your garden, why not sign up to a garden design course and learn from the experts? Don’t forget to let us know how you get on – happy gardening! 


Photo credit: Photo by Marianne Majerus from RHS Urban Gardener (Mitchell Beazley)