Have a seat with...

Andrew Timothy O'Brien

Andrew Timothy O’Brien is an online gardening coach, author, host of the wonderful Gardens, Weeds & Words podcast, and hugely popular figure on Instagram. In his own words, Andrew’s mission is to help us to understand our place in the world through the plants with which we chose to surround ourselves. 

We get right into the weeds with Andrew in today’s Have a Seat With. From his nascent roots in horticulture, his philosophy and outlook on gardening, and his brilliant new book, To Stand And Stare: How to Garden While Doing Next to Nothing. Dive in and have a read!

Andrew Timothy O'Brien pruning

Hi Andrew, thanks for speaking with us today!

You’re so welcome, I’m delighted to have been asked!

Could I start by asking about your journey into the world of gardening? Have you always had a passion for the great outdoors? Did you have a garden growing up?

I’ve always felt comfortable outside, but I didn’t really realise until my early thirties that I really had a strong need to incorporate an outdoor office and an in-depth appreciation of the natural world into my working life. For a few years, I managed to combine working full-time managing a graphic design studio, studying for my RHS qualifications, being a National Trust volunteer at Scotney Castle Gardens and apprenticing with a local gardener, before striking out on my own.

You have a distinct outlook when it comes to gardening, typified by your brilliant new book, To Stand And Stare: How to Garden While Doing Next to Nothing, which came out in February. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the book?

I think in everything from the blog to the podcast to the book, I’m influenced not only by my experience of plants and their growing environments, but by the people I come into contact with in the context of gardening. Our gardens are a domestic space where what we want runs right up against what nature has been doing for centuries, and, of course, there’s potential there for stress and confusion and overwhelm, but also – if we can relax into that dynamic – for a wonderful, enriching relationship that puts us back in touch with a natural world we’ve kind of built ourselves out of.

So many of us can find gardening an intimidating thing to approach – not helped by an over-reliance many of us have on jargon and never-ending lists of things that ‘need’ to be done – but I truly believe we can strip gardening back simply to being present and taking notice. These are the ingredients for any good friendship – and the best way I’ve found to begin to gain an understanding of the natural world on our doorstep.

What would you say to someone who wants to start gardening, but feels they don’t have enough time or resources to sustain it? What small steps would you suggest to make it a realistic endeavour?

I love a resource question! It’s so important to consider the time, energy and money that we have available for gardening, and to set this against the kind of garden we want to create. If we’re short on all three, then having a neat cottage garden style, for example, is going to be an unrealistic goal – but if that realisation causes disappointment and pain, then it’s at that point we can make decisions about other areas of our life that we might be able to tweak in order to get the garden we want. Or, we just adopt a more achievable garden vibe – the garden, after all, doesn’t actively need us, and will grow away quite happily of its own accord.

It’s our expectations of neat lawn and a weed-free space that begin to put pressure on our time and resources – but even when we’re feeling overwhelmed, there are strategies to help us gain traction on the space. My friend Laetitia Maklouf writes about this with such wit and wisdom, with fabulous ideas such as laying one of the kids’ hula-hoops down on the ground and just weeding within that space for an achievable daily dose of gardening, to hurling yourself out the back door as soon as you get home, coat still on, and tackling the first thing you see before you have a chance to let other domestic pressures distract you.

Then there’s what you want to grow – nurturing plants from seed is wonderful but time-consuming, so if you can manage the FOMO of watching everyone else play with annuals on Instagram, you could achieve similarly satisfying results with half the time investment using perennial plants, and maybe bulking up with cuttings and divisions. It boils down to having an honest conversation with yourself about what you really, really want from the space, and how much resource you have to commit to the endeavour.

To Stand and Stare book

"I truly believe we can strip gardening back simply to being present and taking notice..."

You host the critically acclaimed podcast, Gardens, Weeds & Words, on which you’ve had some brilliant guests: from renowned authors Alice Vincent and Marian Boswall to award-winning garden designers Jack Wallington and Jo Thompson. Can you tell me how the series sprang to life and is there anyone in particular from the world of gardening you would like to have on the show who hasn’t yet appeared?

It takes me such a long time to edit an episode that I’ve got a fabulous list of people who’ve kindly agreed to be interviewed, and I’ve yet to get around to. I’m really looking forward to talking to Cleve West, for example, not least to hear how his veganism informs and influences his view of gardening – I just hope he’s not gotten fed up of waiting for me! And of course, it’s not just gardeners on the podcast, but plant-inspired creatives from all disciplines: poets, sculptors, ceramicists, illustrators – I want to hear from anyone with a love of nature.

So someone like Nigel Slater, who’s had a huge influence on me for not only his cooking but his story-led approach to writing about food, as well as his thoughts on ingredients in the garden – would be my ideal guest.

Along with the book and podcast, which are both wonderful showcases of your approach and philosophy toward gardening, you also run an online gardening coaching course. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Is it aimed solely at garden novices, or can even experienced horticulturalists gain something from the programme?

After a few years in the gardening business, it dawned on me that there are only so many gardens I can get around to by myself – and the number dwindles further if you factor in how much I want also to be writing and photographing gardens.

It struck me that I could help far more people if I were to use those same tools I was using to communicate in a general way about gardening on the blog and social media, only shifting to a more structured and certainly more personal approach. I spent a year or so developing the format of the online coaching programme, and launched the Christmas before the world went into lockdown, when suddenly everyone was forced to become more comfortable with working remotely.

It’s definitely something for novice gardeners – because who couldn’t use a little guidance, encouragement and cheerleading with a new venture? – but more experienced horticulturalists gain a sounding board, someone to challenge ideas and to hold them accountable, so there’s something for every level.

What is your favourite garden in the world?

I’m fortunate to live within easy distance of some world class gardens – Great Dixter and Sissinghurst among them, and while I love the latter, it’s Dixter where my heart truly takes flight. There are so many gardens internationally I’ve yet to visit, immersing myself in them through books and blogs. I often spin my office chair around and pull a book off the shelf behind me – probably the most dog-eared one being Louisa Jones’ Modern Design in Provence, through which I can enter Nicole de Vésian’s garden La Louve in the Luberon. One day I’ll get there for real.

To Stand and Stare garden image

"I’m fortunate to live within easy distance of some world class gardens – Great Dixter and Sissinghurst among them, and while I love the latter, it’s Dixter where my heart truly takes flight."

With a particularly hectic working life—populated with writing, podcasting, garden coaching, and, of course, gardening—what do you like to do in your downtime? How do you like to relax?

Spending time catching up with friends is such a tonic to work and helps to put everything into context – and if that can be done in a garden, and involve tea and cake, even better! Otherwise walking our lovely but bonkers cocker spaniel Nell, running (slowly!) and reading. But also, it won’t surprise you to hear, gardening!

As spring approaches and gardens start to burst into vibrant colourful life, what would you say is your favourite season to be outside in nature? I get the idea you quite enjoy braving the winter months!

I do love the winter! But honestly, ask me on any given day and I’ll almost certainly tell you that THIS is my favourite season, and the best day to be alive! Even in summer – which, if I’m pushed, I’ll have to admit I find the most difficult of seasons to deal with (I wasn’t built for the heat) – but then, of course, you have the wonderful long, light evenings, and the promise of blackberries...

What’s next on the horizon for you, Andrew?

There are still some events coming up to support To Stand and Stare – among them giving a talk at the Garden Museum around Chelsea time – which will be announced soon. In the meantime, I’m working on the proposal for my next book, and planning some more downloadable content to complement the online garden coaching. Two of the sheds need new roofs, and this afternoon’s task is to coppice an overstood hazel in the corner of the garden without either dropping a huge branch on one neighbour’s fence or another’s greenhouse! So that lot will keep me out of mischief for a while.

Thank you, Andrew! It's been a real pleasure.

The Sitting Spiritually 'Have a Seat With' series takes a look behind the scenes at how we switch off from the bustling modern-day lifestyle. We speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles around the country as we seek to explore the different ways of relaxing and just taking a moment.

Posted by Siobhan on March 16th 2023

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