Friday, 26 August 2011 3:55 PM
Matt James, Love Your Garden With Alan Titchmarsh's garden design expert, tells Ele Cooper about living the good life, why he hates New York and killing his first chicken.
The second series of Love Your Garden With Alan Titchmarsh is kicking off this autumn. Tell us a bit about it.
The show's all about how to design, prepare and maintain your garden. There’s a range of people involved: Mr T, myself, Charlotte Uhlenbroek who’s talking about wildlife, Valentine Warner who’s talking about growing your own food, and Laetitia Maklouf who’s looking at interior design applied to exteriors. The first series was well received so it made sense to do another one.
Did you know Alan Titchmarsh before you started on the show?
No. He’s very widely revered and a bit of a hero of mine, because I grew up watching Alan on Gardeners’ World. He’s an incredible man. That sounds a bit "Give me a job Alan" – but it’s not at all.
He's driven, incredibly passionate and genuinely enthusiastic about the subject he loves – and he's a great front man.
Is gardening for TV very different from gardening in real life?
I suppose in makeover shows it can be – take Ground Force for instance; Alan Titchmarsh would be the first person to say you don’t really build gardens in a week.
There is a place for shows like that because they’re bringing gardening and garden design to a broader audience, which is really important. But Love Your Garden is looking at normal people’s gardens and how to make them better. So it may be slightly more frenetic at times but it’s basically the same as gardening in real life.
You first rose to fame presenting City Gardener but you live in the country these days – which do you prefer, city gardens or country ones?
Ooh that’s an interesting question! I like city gardens because it’s brilliant to make something exciting and stimulating from something which might ordinarily be a neglected, damp, dark corner. Plus in a small city garden your money goes a lot further. But I like country gardens for the fact that you’ve got a bit more space so you can grow lots of things.
They’re both important but ultimately it comes down to making the most of your garden no matter how big it is. That’s what I get particularly peeved about, spaces which are neglected but have potential.
What are the key principles of turning urban space into a garden?
City spaces are often designed as much from a lifestyle point of view as a garden point of view. The 'outdoor room' is a clichéd concept but it is very much an extension of your living space, a green room, so it's about how you’re going to use it and how it's going to benefit your lifestyle, be it cooking, entertaining, sleeping, whatever.
When space is tight it’s pointless having a beautiful roof terrace, tiny balcony, or courtyard if you can’t use it.
If you're starting a garden from scratch do you need a lot of money?
Not at all. Good design does not cost money – there are ways to cheat, you don’t have to have an instant garden. In fact that growing phase – watching a garden develop, and they never really finish – is part of the fun. People that say that you need lots of money don’t know what they’re talking about.
Has your son (Frankie, three) got into gardening yet?
Totally, he doesn’t really have a choice! Since moving from London to Cornwall I’ve really got into the 'grow your own' thing because I've got a bit more space to do it in earnest.
I’ll be out there earthing up the potatoes and then I’ll look out the window half an hour later and Frank will be earthing up the potatoes with his seaside spade!
Do you think it’s important to get kids into gardening from a young age?
I think it’s important, but I’m not going to beat people around the head about doing it. Each to their own – but for me it’s important that Frankie learns where things come from, that he spends as much time outside as possible, and that he learns about wildlife and the country.
How about your daughter (Rosie, one-and-a-half) – is she showing any signs of becoming a gardening fanatic?
Yes, mainly because she's always following her brother around! We’re lucky enough to have a large field out the back which doesn’t belong to us but which we’re allowed to use. It's a meadow where everything grows up to about three feet and we mow patterns and hidey holes into it.
We'll ask "where's Rosie?" and she’ll be in one of the little pockets in the field, trundling along behind Frankie, who's got a pretend plastic mower. He absolutely loves mowing; he mows left right and centre!
Is your wife a gardener as well?
She wasn’t at all, but now we've got the space I think she enjoys the harvesting – and the eating!
What percentage of your fruit and veg is home-grown?
Easily 50 per cent, because I believe in eating quite seasonally so we tend to eat the stuff that we’re growing. There are certain things that I don’t bother growing because it’s just as easy to buy them or they don’t taste better picked fresh at home.
For example, I grow onions for pickling but you might as well get main crop onions from the supermarket or the greengrocer. Similarly I grow young salad potatoes but I don’t bother growing main crops because they get diseased too quickly.
Is it important to you that your food is locally sourced?
Definitely, it’s very important. Does that mean that I strictly adhere to that rule? No. Sometimes it’s a cost thing – I'll think "I’d love to buy that but I can’t afford it". But it does taste better and it’s nice to know that that piece of lamb came from the farmer down the road.
Is it just fruit and veg that you produce yourself?
No, we’ve got our own hens too so we've always got lots of eggs. I'm also thinking about getting some pigs, purely for slaughter.
I’m not into animals because they look pretty; the second my hens stop laying that’s the end of them! We've stopped naming our chickens. When you kill your first chicken you sort of think…oh right. But it’s all part of it.
How did you kill the chicken?
You’re supposed to pull up and twist at the same time, quite sharp, but the first time I tried I pulled slightly too hard. You can imagine what happened… I was not impressed with myself, I felt incredibly guilty about it.
Is it true that a headless chicken will run around before it dies?
This one did, much to my extreme alarm. It was quite worrying, I began to wonder if I'd actually killed it. But, yup, I’d got it.
So other than the chicken-maiming it sounds like you’re living the good life.
Part of the reason why we moved to the country is that I was invited to start teaching on a landscape design course which I revered – but I also wanted to raise my family in the country.
I can open the door and let my children run feral and I think that’s absolutely brilliant. So I’m living a good life in more ways than one at the moment, it’s good.
What’s your own garden like?
A mess! It’s an eclectic mix of rusty objets d’art from antiques yards and reclamation yards. It’s full of plants – not all of them thriving! It’s full of fruit, lots of veg, there's a big lawn for the children to run around on...
Garden design is about responding to place and we’re quite deep in the country so it’s a country garden. It’s not full of swanky, contemporary features because it doesn’t really suit that aesthetic. It’s full of plants both in the ground and out.
I expound the importance of not impulse-buying but I’m one of the world’s worst! I go to a garden centre and I’m like "I’ll have ten of those, five of those…" I really like my garden, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. And when you’ve got kids it needs to serve them as well, and it does.
You've worked in the States in the past – what was that like?
I did two series in America where I worked in LA and New York. Building gardens out there is a whole different kettle of fish. I didn’t like building gardens in New York; it’s not a good place for gardening.
You don’t get many materials. I would say the Americans on the East Coast are about ten years behind where gardens are over here, and perhaps even ten years behind where gardens are in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Gardens are about rest and relaxation and that’s not really what New York's about. I just found it too much.
How about LA?
LA is a beautiful place to build gardens. We worked everywhere from Orange County to Venice Beach. I had a lovely contractor with some fantastic craftsmen, all of them Mexican. They didn’t speak any English, I don’t speak any Spanish, but we got by! We won two fairly prestigious awards in California, so that’s probably the most exciting place I’ve ever built gardens.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
At the moment I’m in the process of setting up the Falmouth Landscape and Garden School, which is a collection of short courses and professional development courses, at the university college I teach at. I'm also doing the National Home Improvement Show again this year.
What will you be doing there?
I'm giving some lectures looking at creating beautiful yet sustainable gardens and gardening on a budget. It’s quite nerve-wracking. Public speaking’s not natural is it? But after the first day it’s always alright.
Do people tend to recognise you a lot?
In garden centres, yes, because I’m always striding around looking like I might know what I’m doing. People come up and ask where something is and then they say "Ooh you’re off the telly"! But people only recognise gardeners in garden centres.
Matt James will be at the National Home Improvement Show, which runs from September 30th-October 2nd 2011 at London's Earls Court. For tickets or to find out more, visit ImproveYourHomeShow.co.uk.
The second series of Love Your Garden With Alan Titchmarsh starts in the autumn. To apply to appear on the series, visit ITV.com/LoveYourGarden.