Have a seat with...

Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson is an award-winning garden and landscape designer, writer, radio and television broadcaster, lecturer, and regular panelist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time.

In this latest edition of Have a Seat With, we cover plenty of ground with Matthew. From his horticultural roots, his dreams of being a rock star, and his work—both past and present—at Chelsea Flower Show. It's a must-read!

Lee Burkhill

Hello Matthew, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Is there such a thing as an average working day for you? 

No! And I wouldn’t have it any other way to be honest. My day job as a garden designer takes me all over the U.K., and depending on what stage a project is at I might be discussing a design with a client, organising contractors, setting out plants or arranging maintenance programmes. When back in the studio - which is a converted stable block in our garden at home in Rutland - I’ll be working on designs at the computer or drawing board in a pretty idyllic setting, with periodic visits from dogs, cats or chickens. And then Gardeners Question Time calls and I’m off again!

Where did your journey into the world of horticulture start? Were you one for getting stuck into the mud and weeds as a child, or did your passion for gardening come later?

My parents owned and ran a cut flower nursery in Kent, having met as students at East Malling Research Station in Kent (famous for apple root stock selection) so horticulture was there from the moment I came into the world. But I wanted to be an actor, then later a rock star.  You may have noticed that neither of those have happened! So my career in horticulture only started in my mid twenties, but took off very quickly. By 33 I was curator of the RHS garden in Essex, Hyde Hall.

Matthew Wilson playing guitar

As a self-confessed ‘hands-on’ gardener, how much do you enjoy the actual planning and design side of your work; or are you just itching to get the tools and machinery out and start landscaping and planting?

I like them both equally. Contractors are often surprised when I start digging holes or jump on an excavator - it seems to be extremely unusual for designers to do that! 

After taking part in the Virtual Chelsea Flower Show in 2020, and experiencing the first-ever Autumn show last year, how happy are you to be back at Chelsea in the flesh in May this year?

It will be great. Gardening has taken a new and significant place in many people’s lives in the last 2 years, and I think Chelsea will be a real celebration of that.

To celebrate Gardeners’ Question Time’s 75th anniversary, you’ve been asked to design a GQT garden exhibit at Chelsea this year. How did that come about, and how did you feel to be asked to contribute to such a unique project?

It came out of the blue, and quite late in the day (!) but then Chelsea is a challenge even if you have a year to plan!  It’s a very different experience to designing a garden but so far it’s going well, and the production team from GQT have been amazing with their support.

And of course it’s a great honour, GQT is such a huge part of the radio heritage of the U.K. and the English speaking world.

"Contractors are often surprised when I start digging holes or jump on an excavator!"

Do you have any ‘golden rules’ for garden design? Is it all about the plant life, or is their coexistence with manmade objects like garden furniture, sculptures, and installations—like the medieval stain glass window that featured in your award-winning Garden for Yorkshire at Chelsea 2016—just as important? Is function just as important as form?

Form should always follow function. A garden is useless if people can’t use it. Chelsea show gardens allow one to step slightly away from that rule but only slightly. I don’t imagine many people have 15m Sq of stained glass in their gardens. I try to take a holistic approach to design, with hard and soft landscape integrated throughout. And as gardens are so important for biodiversity I am always looking for ways to enhance the environmental aspects of a garden.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a time when people were spending a lot of time at home and in the garden, do you think our relationship with our outdoor spaces has changed? Do you think we value our gardens more than ever now as a place of sanctuary?

Yes, completely. But not just sanctuary to be enjoyed passively. Low maintenance used to be a really big part of many client briefs, but I think people are now far more likely to want to actively garden, to actually grow things. The pandemic has opened gardening up to a huge number of people who just want to get stuck in - it’s fabulous.

Matthew Wilson garden

What’s the most memorable, unique or difficult question you’ve ever been asked on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time? Have you ever been truly stumped by a listener question?

I’m regularly stumped, but fortunately our three person panel means there is usually someone with the answer! 

Most memorable question I guess would be about tool maintenance. James Wong and I ended up trading accidental double entendres and then corpsing to the extent we could barely speak.

During the first lockdown, you wrote a great article for Le Chameau about introducing children to gardening. How important do you think it is to get people interested in the process of growing and planting at a young age?

I think we all realise that the teenage years are a something of a wilderness for interacting with things like gardening. So hook them in at a young age, let kids get covered in mud, grow some simple seeds, do a sunflower height competition and so on. The happy memories will all be there for them when they are older.

Matthew Wilson Chelsea Flower Show exhibit

"I think people are now far more likely to want to actively garden, to actually grow things!"

Which gave you more satisfaction: your People’s Choice Award at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show for your garden God’s Own Country – A Garden for Yorkshire or the Silver Gilt medal at Chelsea in 2015 for your Royal Bank of Canada Garden? Or is that too difficult a decision? 

I think very fondly of both, although the 2016 garden coincided with a sad time for my family as my mum passed away shortly afterwards. I am forever thankful she saw me pick up the Peoples Choice Award.

With such a busy and varied working life, balancing your garden and landscape design business, your writing, radio and television work, do you ever find it difficult to switch off? What do you enjoy doing in your downtime, and how do you like to relax?

My family are a great distraction. I love playing tennis and volleyball, and, believe it or not, I do enjoy gardening too! But my big passion, my therapy, is music. Either listening to it or playing it - I’m the singer/rhythm guitarist in a band.

What’s your favourite garden you’ve ever visited? Either abroad or here in the UK?

Ganna Walska Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California, while on honeymoon with my wife Jane. It’s an extraordinary garden that couldn’t exist anywhere else, and that, if you tried to replicate in the U.K. would be a disaster. It turns all sorts of gardening conventions on their head - there’s a cactus border planted with the same hierarchy as one would find the with an herbaceous border - and a very strong sense of its eponymous creator’s presence, even though she has been dead for 40 years

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

Projects in Yorkshire, Surrey, Cheshire, Leicestershire, Essex, Rutland and London. More GQT. I could really do with an afternoon spent relaxing in one of your swing benches but I guess I’ll see you on the road! 

Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Matthew. It's been a pleasure!

Photo credits: Head shot (Tessa Newmark) Terrace garden (Richard Bloom) God’s Own County – A Garden for Yorkshire at Chelsea Flower Show 2016 (Lynn Keddie)

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 on May 19th 2022


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