An Interview with Matthew Wilson
Making a Garden, Always a Pleasure
by Barney Bardsley
There is a beautiful garden in Essex – my home county – which stands out as a beacon of elegance and ecological understanding. This is Beth Chatto’s garden in Elmstead Market, near Colchester: made with infinite loving care and skill over the past fifty years, during which time she has transformed an intransigent piece of land – dry and arid at one end, with poor gravel soil, and a waterlogged bog at the other – into a varied and colourful oasis. Tall, heat loving Agapanthus and stately Alliums sing out from the high shingle; land melts away down a dip towards the water’s edge, into a lush profusion of Gunnera, Phormium and soft Miscanthus grass. If you truly love gardens – it’s worth a trip south, just for the Chatto experience.
Beth Chatto is now one of the Grandes Belles Dames of British horticulture: she was a pioneer in her creation of a drought tolerant gravel garden, using ever greens and ever greys such as lavender and cistus and willowy grasses, and her combination of artistry and design, together with a deep respect for the environment around her, is an inspiration.
“My inspiration is nature”
It comes as no surprise, therefore, when I ask Matthew Wilson, horticulturist and author/presenter of new book and television series Landscape Man, who his gardening heroes are, to hear him reply “my late father” (parents often plant the gardening seed early in their offspring, however long it then takes to grow) “…and Beth Chatto”.
Curator first of RHS Hyde Hall in Essex, and latterly of our own RHS Harlow Carr, Wilson shares Chatto’s three dimensional feel for the garden – the awareness of natural rhythms, of the need to work with, rather than against climatic and regional conditions, in obedience to the pull of the land. All his work shows a realisation of the bigger picture, the great, undulating landscape to which our nation of small gardens belongs. “It’s something,” he says, “I embraced in my previous garden, Hyde Hall, in Essex, where the garden was surrounded by arable farmland, and integrating the land with the horticulture was a real challenge.” It is present too, in the sweeping open borders and river walks of Harlow Carr, where Wilson left his indelible imprint from 2004 to 2008. He says, “My primary inspiration is always nature.”
“Gardening is an art form”
But there is something else present. An extra quality which marks Wilson out from many other well known and knowledgeable gardeners. It gives him extra depth. An aesthetic sensibility which crosses from the land, into the world of art, and back again. “In my opinion,” he says, “the best gardeners are able to take inspiration from a variety of sources, including architecture, music, art and so on. Gardening is an art form, after all.” His new post, as Head of Gardens Creative Development across all four RHS gardens, reflects this bigger picture. Matthew Wilson, it seems, is a man with a vision.
I am wary of garden makeover shows. The memory of Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock hamming it up on Groundforce still brings a shiver to my bones. It has inspired a life long aversion to big diggers, concrete and decking in any garden. It is a format which is well tried by television and easily feels contrived. So is Matthew Wilson treading into dangerous territory when he undertakes to help six couples landscape their own gardens for his new book and series? Only the series itself will answer that question. But the text which accompanies it is considered and thoughtful.
“Sing out of the gloom”
He has chosen very varied gardens. From rambling castle grounds, to a mid Wales valley farm holding, to a wild cliff top in Guernsey. He casts his sharp designer’s eye over each. This is no quick fix, and things don’t always go smoothly. I was particularly intrigued by his description of the Guernsey rock, which is granite: “one of the toughest of all rocks. Above this the soil on the island ‘floats’, held down largely by the plants that grow on it.” This makes weeding a problem. Pull up a plant and the whole garden might collapse! What a perfect excuse for a lazy gardener. As Wilson admits: “Guernsey worked well – but not quite as planned!”
In the end, however it’s his artist’s vision, and the quality of the writing itself which arrests. Here he is on colour – use bright reds for the sunshine, and let cool colours “sing out of the gloom”; on texture – “A smooth, diamond cut slab of sandstone or a piece of dressed slate will be just as irresistible to touch as a softy velvety leaf”; and sound – “The crunch of gravel underfoot, the explosive pop of the drying seed pod of a Californian poppy, or the languid buzzing of a fat bumblebee. These sounds alone give reason for making a garden.”
“In love with the land”
Good gardeners come in many guises. Matthew Wilson, I am sure, would despair of my approach. No hint of a plan has ever been drawn on paper. My gardens evolve and grow by some uncanny instinct for shape and space. And I make mistakes all the time; I am messy. Whereas he seems organised and disciplined. Nor I think would he have much time in his busy life to do what my gardening mentor, film maker Derek Jarman used to love in his bleak and beautiful Dungeness shingle garden: ”I can look at one plant for an hour, this brings me great peace. I stand motionless and stare.” But he is clearly in love with the land, its sensuality – the great gift of enjoyment which comes when you invest yourself in the earth itself.
As a parting shot, I asked him what he most likes to do in a garden. “A favourite job would be planting. In particular designing, setting out and planting a new part of a garden.” But best of all, he said: “I am happiest sitting in a beautiful garden with a glass of wine in that wonderful time in the hours before sunset.” Perfect.
Matthew Wilson’s book “Landscape Man” is published by Quadrille