Cornwall LivingIssue #72

The country gardener

Landscape designer, author and TV presenter Matt James, AKA The City Gardener, swaps urban life for the great Cornish countryside.

While he may have escaped city life, landscape designer and all-round gardening expert Matt James shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, he seems to have about ten things going on, at any given time. By his own admission, he has “lots of fingers in lots of pies”, from tending to his own half-acre to designing gardens for others, and running the Landscape Design degrees at The Eden Project. He even finds a bit of time for ‘dad surfing’.

Cornwall is place you don’t want to leave once here, it gets its hooks into you. I can’t imagine not being here”

Matt is known to millions as The City Gardener, who burst onto our screens in 2002, offering a fresh and contemporary take on gardening, bringing much needed greenery to urban spaces. We’re eager to find out how and why the former ‘Londoner of the Year’ traded the big smoke for the countryside.

Matt’s passion for gardens blossomed shortly after school, working at a market garden in south London, “growing beans and driving around on tractors.” Following a degree in horticulture he began teaching, sharing his natural warmth and passion for plants. Things started to get interesting when a TV producer friend suggested he’d be great in front of the camera. So, he put together a showreel, kick-starting a fruitful media career, from The City Gardener to Selling Houses on Channel 4, and Great British Garden Revival on BBC2, plus stints working across America, and a string of books, several for the Royal Horticultural Society, the most recent being RHS How to Plant a Garden.

But while he’ll always have the city in his heart, the draw of Cornwall proved too much to resist. Matt and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, were looking to escape the London rat race and find a rural retreat to raise their family. With great childhood memories of Cornish holidays, and friends already in the area, it all fell into place when a post at Falmouth University came up.

“Cornwall is place you don’t want to leave once here,’ says Matt. “I get grumpy whenever I’m asked to leave! Cornwall gets its hooks into you. I can’t imagine not being here. We live in a lovely village, with great neighbours, it’s friendly and relaxed. People actually talk to each other – unlike in London! We have amazing scenery, sea and countryside right on our doorstep.”

Matt and Ellie love exploring the Helford and nearby beaches with the family. “Being able to go to the beach straight after work is amazing! We do lots of kayaking.” And, of course, for someone with a passion for gardens, Cornwall provides endless inspiration.

“I find places like Trebah Garden really inspiring. I sway towards natural, relaxed and atmospheric design, adopting a plants-first approach,” explains Matt. “If a client wants to build a wall, I’ll suggest putting in a hedge! I love natural materials, like oak – I have a particular penchant for rusty chains, and like visiting reclamation yards, exploring that hybrid between older materials and the natural elements.”

A case in point is a current five-acre project near Leedstown. The previous owner created their own interpretation of a Thai garden, with at least 50 Budhas on site, one of which scaling around 25 foot. Matt’s approach is to make the landscape more authentic, more sympathetic to the Cornish environment. He refers to this as “designing with a rubber, rather than a pencil” – the notion of stripping it back to create something less incongruous, embracing the natural environment and letting the landscape speak for itself.

As Matt explains, particularly in coastal regions like Cornwall, you have to follow this lead in choice of planting. “In every project, you pick plants that fit the climate, working within the demands of the location and environment. Cornwall has a warmer climate compared to many parts of the UK, but a wetter one too, so the palette of plants is very different. It’s subtropical, verdant, and larger than life; full of form and structure.”

Matt continues: “Any designer should embrace where they’re working, using plants that will thrive. I love coastal gardens – they demand careful thought and can be problematic. Actually, it’s easier to have a tricky site, as it naturally limits the options.” Essentially, you plant based on what is appropriate for the site itself.

If you’re inspired to redesign your own garden, Matt gives us some invaluable tips. “Time spent in the garden is important, getting to grips with the space, learning about its characteristics before making wholesale change. I really believe that the landscape tells you what’s best; you just need to take some time to let it do that! Work with the space, don’t impress upon it. My job is to help you realise that potential.”



"Cornwall is place you don’t want to leave once here, it gets its hooks into you. I can’t imagine not being here"