Have a seat with...

James Alexander-Sinclair

James Alexander-Sinclair is one of Britain's most prominent and well-respected garden designers. His work can be seen all over the British Isles and in Europe. A writer, lecturer, and regular presenter for the BBC's Chelsea Flower Show coverage; James is a genuine gardening renaissance man.

In this latest edition of Have a Seat With, we talk to James about his journey into the world of horticulture, his brief stint as an encyclopedia salesman, and his brilliant work at Horatio's Garden, Glasgow. Read on...

James Alexander Sinclair header

Hello, James! Thanks for speaking with us today. You’re an award-winning garden designer, writer, broadcaster, and work closely with the RHS in a number of different capacities. What does a normal working day look like for you? Or does no such thing exist?

I like days to be different and, most of the time, I find that being busy keeps me out of trouble. I am no longer on the RHS Council (I did my ten years and that is enough for everyone!) but am still keen on keeping my finger in the pie so do things with shows, community gardening, and I am an adviser at the magnificent RHS Garden at Hyde Hall.

Where did your interest in horticulture begin? Were you always one for getting your hands dirty in the garden as a child?

Absolutely not! Gardening was of no interest to me at all as a child and even less as a teenager: it was something boring that my parents did. I stumbled across gardening by accident in my mid-twenties having explored all sorts of other occupations. I was a (very good) waiter, I sold jeans in Chelsea, packed boxes in Fortnums, sold encyclopedias and double glazing door to door (high on the list of ghastly jobs), washed up in nightclubs and even had a job for a short time signing photographs for a very well known film star. Not much gardening!

You’ve said before that of all the gardens you’ve designed in your career, Horatio’s Gardens in Glasgow is your favourite. Can you tell us why Horatio’s holds so much significance for you?

Because it is not just a garden for a few nice people but a garden that will, over the years affect the lives of thousands of people. The unarguable truth is that the lives of patients (especially long-term patients like those suffering from spinal injury), their families and NHS staff are improved by access to a garden. This is something that Horatio’s Garden does brilliantly, and I am so proud to be a trustee of the charity as well as having designed the garden for Scotland.

"The unarguable truth is that the lives of patients, their families and NHS staff are improved by access to a garden. This is something that Horatio’s Garden does brilliantly"

James Alexander Sinclair water garden

How did you first become involved in the project at Horatio’s?

I was invited by Horatio’s mother Olivia. I think it was partly because I have Scots blood!

Having seen the positive effects of your garden at Horatio’s, how important do you think outdoor spaces and natural environments are for a person’s mental and physical well-being? 

Very. It is something that those of us who work in gardens have known for ages and I am pleased that the rest of the world has now realised! If you feel rubbish (physically or mentally) then some time spent outside with nature will make you feel better.

With such a hectic and varied working life, what do you like to do in your downtime? Is time spent in your own garden somewhat of a busman’s holiday for you, or is there nowhere you’d rather be? 

I wish I could tell you that I am an avid potholer/trombone player/juggler of chainsaws/cheese wrangler or ostrich rider, but I am a very sad person! When I am not rushing about designing or talking about gardens then I am never happier than when in my own garden. Ideally weeding with my headphones in and a podcast playing.

Sitting Spiritually bench at Horatio's Garden

"I find that being busy keeps me out of trouble!"

What advice would you give to anyone looking to begin a career in garden design? What advice would your younger self have appreciated when you were just starting out in the industry?

Be brave, listen hard, remember that it is your job to change the world and above all, don’t be sh*t!

Do you have any Golden Rules for garden design? Is function just as important as form—particularly when you’re creating a garden for everyday use?

Golden rules: pay attention to the building, gauge who will use the garden and make sure it suits them: nobody likes an unhappy client.

What’s your favourite garden you’ve visited—either in the UK or overseas?

Depends entirely on when you ask! Today it is Huntington in Los Angeles - I never realised that cacti could be so beautiful. If you had asked me three weeks ago it would have been the Barbara Hepworth garden in St Ives. Next week? Who knows? I am very fickle and inconstant…

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

I am designing a garden for a new hospice in Norwich. It will be called Priscilla Bacon Lodge and the eight acres of gardens and landscape will be vital for the wellbeing of patients. We all die and nobody should have to do it while looking at a blank wall or the bins.

Thanks, James. It's been a 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 August 11th 2022

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