This week we’re talking to botanical enthusiast, Matt Collins, gardener at the historic Garden Museum in Central London, about swotting up on plants, forest bathing, tree hugging and how to plant the perfect city garden.
Brendan: Hi Matt, so tell us about who you are and what you do?
Matt: First and foremost I’m a gardener, but more recently, I’m also a garden journalist. I write mostly about gardens, but also nature and travel. I do various publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.
Brendan: How did you get into gardening?
Matt: Gardening was really a transition from moving from the city. I was living in Oxford and then moved to Wales where my parents had just started out a completely new house project and needed some help with the garden. I was just lending a hand while I was staying there. It was the transition in coming to somewhere that's so green and rural and realising I didn't know the names of any plants or trees. There was nobody explaining to me. So, it was actually just to pursue a slightly bigger education on that front. I felt it was weird that I didn't know the names of things. I didn't necessarily know I was going to go into gardening, the point was to educate myself a little bit more about what was around me. And that was about 12 years ago.
Brendan: What did you study?
Matt: I studied horticulture at the Botanic Gardens in Wales, while I was there for a year, and then continued my studies at Capel Manor College in London when I came back to the city.
Brendan: On Instagram you go by the @museum_gardener, where does that come from?
Matt: ‘Museum gardener’ comes from my role at the The Garden Museum where I am based in London and from my interest in the history of plants. It has developed my interest in where plants come from, and some of the plant introductions from the 17th and 18th centuries. When I first started gardening, I wasn't so interested in where in the world the plants came from. Which, now to me doesn't make much sense. It's more what plants do we use in gardens and how do we use them? Whereas now, it's where was that plant growing when it was found in the garden? How does that relate to how to grow it now?
For a long while people defined their gardening as craft gardening, which I suppose brought in influences from older techniques. I suppose it was just trying to label something that moved away from that ‘jump out of the van with a lawnmower and cut the grass’ style gardener. Flower gardening is another one. A flower gardener is someone who works a lot more with annual flowers, growing things from seed every year.
Brendan: Was the time at the Botanic Garden of Wales something that really steered your interest in museum gardening?
Matt:I look at that period as really fun because I knew so little about plants and about gardening, other than what I'd done growing up and helping my parents and things. But not necessarily in terms of the records and the history of where plants come from, but really just an amazing time getting familiar with garden plants really, and how to use them in a space.
Brendan: How do you approach building your knowledge? Do you visit a lot of gardens or do you use the information that you have to hand at the Museum Garden?
Matt: It's gone hand in hand more recently with travels and some element of seeing plants growing in the wild has become everything I write about. So, I think planning trips and looking into the history of the plants that I'm interested in, is mostly through reading. I've been spending a lot of time at the Lindley Library, the RHS library over the road from us at the Garden Museum, it's just in Four Gardens. So, that's been an amazing resource. I'm really interested in the original accounts of when people found certain plants growing wild and the library's got so many of those archives. Every gardener should always visit more gardens. It’s quite hard to find the time to do that. But tends to be if I'm traveling somewhere or if I'm abroad somewhere. There'll always be gardens to see. But so many more in the UK; Sissinghurst and Gravetye Manor in Sussex, I go to quite a bit. That's got a fantastic range of plants and really interesting styles and history as well.
Brendan: The Garden Museum was new to me and I live in London. So tell me, what is it and why should we all be going?
Matt: Well, everyone has a story of how they found it. It’s a common plight that people are amazed that they didn't know about it before. It's definitely more recognised now and more in the public eye and that's been building for quite a few years. In essence, it's a museum dedicated to the history and culture of gardening in Britain but also across the world. And it was founded on the basis of the Tradescant family, John Tradescant the elder and John Tradescant the younger, who were Britain's foremost, earliest plant hunters who went out and found plants from around the world and brought them back to the UK. They're buried in the tomb within the garden, what was then just the church yard of St Mary's Church in Lambeth, which now houses the museum. The museum is inside the church. And then outside, the churchyard has now been turned into a series of gardens. Because they were buried there, the original founders of the Garden Museum back in the 1970s, decided it was worthy of preservation and therefore turned this old deconsecrated church into a museum about gardening.
Brendan: Throughout the world there are very keen gardeners, from the Italians to the Americans. What is it about the British garden that is so unique?
Matt: I think it's two things really. First, it's the climate and the fact that we're so temperate and we have manageable winters and not blazingly hot, dry summers, although that seems to be changing more and certainly our springs are getting warmer. But, the climate is absolutely perfect for growing so many of the world's plants; we can get away with tropical plants and we can get away with Alpine plants that can tolerate colder temperatures. Second, although many countries were out pillaging plants from around the world, Britain developed an ornamental taste for it quite early on. So, as opposed to just going and collecting plants that had scientific or medicinal value, there was quite a trend fairly early on and even right across the economic and demographic scale in terms of people actually taking an interest in growing plants just for ornamental sake. Italian gardens have these very structured, ordered systems and it's very topiary with hedging and greenery; often that's a response to quite a fierce summer climate. Whereas we can blend both, we've been mixing all sorts of plants from around the world. And so I suppose that just developed and was taken seriously. Also nurseries started opening in the UK that put a high price on these plants, which generated interest in growing exotic plants. That's how we became a nation of gardeners really.
Brendan: So, what has your approach been at The Garden Museum? Are you more interested in the aesthetic and the layout of the gardens? Or are you interested in the medicinal history and usage of the plants?
Matt: What's quite nice is there's only a few areas of the museum that I can really play with because much of it is designed. There are a few quite eminent garden designers who have designed certain sections of them, which is great and it's really fun working to that kind of prescribed design. There's Dan Pearson, he designed our courtyard garden which is dedicated to the history of collecting plants and plant introductions that continue today. So, plants that are still being found or were found recently are in that garden. Then Christopher Bradley-Hole, who's another eminent designer, designed the front garden. So, there's a few areas that I've been designing and slowly progressing for a long time. I used to focus on aesthetic design and how to make the whole space coherent and pleasurable to be in, which is still the ultimate goal, but I'm far more interested now in a museum exhibit way. What plants can I grow? What takes my interest? What do I find exciting? Usually because it has a story or because it was growing somewhere that I visited. It's a way of preserving that geographical memory. I tend to do that more often. So, if I become obsessed with a plant, I try and grow it at the museum and find the right spot for it.
Brendan: How do you build the mix of plants in this age of well-being and people have more time to focus on their homes and their environments? Have you any strategies and advice around about building an urban garden, for example?
Matt: Well, I guess when you say urban garden that often implies premium planters and raised beds, as opposed to necessarily having a large garden out the back. If you have a garden with soil in it, working with soil is the key point. If you've got clay you don't want to be growing plants that prefer free-draining soil and vice versa. So, start with understanding what soil you've got - you can't change what it is - and try to improve that soil. The beauty of planters, obviously with raised beds, is that you can throw in what you want, to grow what you want in there first. Then look up a range of plants that are going to be suited to that kind of soil. If you're doing a garden from scratch, especially with smaller spaces, you really want to be looking at it to get a sense of harmony and not to feel stressed by a garden. You want to simplify your plant palettes, you haven't got a full kaleidoscope of different colours and plants. Other people might differ on that, but I would really aim to grow a select group of plants that are well suited to that site as the basis for your garden. Then you can start adding little brushes of colour between the plants.
Brendan: I have a garden in Suffolk and it was a ramshackle arrangement on clay, with a bunch of stuff that I would just poke in. I pulled it all apart about two months ago. You go to the specialist garden centres in Suffolk, they're telling you to dig three times the depth of the plant, replace all the soil, replace all the clay. I must've removed 30 barrels of soil and replanted everything. And I've ended up with an attempt at a cottage garden. But I look at Instagram and people with their homes in Wiltshire where it's a different type of soil, and I think, why are their plants so beautifully flourishing and mine are not growing in the same way?
Matt: Well it's about finding a plant that works and then just repeating that a few times to get the base patchwork essentially and different structures with trees and shrubs, different types. But really, finding either a colour palette or a type of plant that's good and just repeat it.
Brendan: Have you written or contributed to any books on woodlands and forests? Are you a tree hugger?
Matt: I did do some of that! Not by nature, but part of the book took me to British Columbia, to Vancouver Island, where there was a little bit of tree hugging going on in the process of journalistic endeavour.
Brendan: I asked because I know a few tree huggers, and I tried it myself. Curious, I went for a walk and I was just like, what is this emotion of hugging a tree?
Matt: Did you get something? Did you feel it?
Brendan: It encourages your body to react because you want to react. I admit it, I would be a skeptic. But do you feel you can be rewarded in doing such things?
Matt: It might be down to the tree you were hugging to be fair. You can't just assume that every tree's going to hug you back. I don't know that I practice it, but I don't know that I wouldn't believe in it. I think all organisms have a kind of energy. So absolutely, unquestionably they do, I think. The trees that I was hugging were very big Douglas-Fir. So, I definitely got a sense of it. It was part of a walk that we did that I was being introduced to the concept of forest bathing. Which obviously is quite popular these days and it's a therapy and being outdoors and concentrating on certain elements of a forest. I think what was interesting about that forest in particular was that there's a lot more studies more recently about trees. How they engage with one another and these subterranean networks of roots and fungi that showed when one tree was felled or was knocked down, the network of root systems it was still part of would still feed the stump. So, we came across all these stumps of various trees - Hemlocks and Douglas-Firs - that had been knocked down but they were still kept alive by the subterranean network. There's a lot more study now about how trees are talking to each other basically, and not necessarily in competition but as part of a unit. That's a much wider subject.
Brendan: Have you found this quarantine period stressful? Have you just got on with life and working in the museum? Has anything changed for you?
Matt: Well, it came hand-in-hand with having my first child. So, we had a baby just before lockdown so it skewed my whole vision of Covid 19. I was so focused on that as we went into lockdown that in a way it didn't really fully hit. I was in this slightly altered state anyway of being amazed and wowed by having this baby girl, but at the same time going back to work. The Garden Museum was closed for a while, we were one of the first museums to reopen, and we worked really hard to get the place back open again in a safe and healthy way. So, I was actually going back and forth to the museum throughout that whole period and just keeping the garden going. It was a really weird experience because the museum is so generally full of people and we have lots of fans and it's generally a very vibrant and community spirited place. So, it was very weird to be going there with only maybe one or two members of staff still in the office. And working right in the centre of London opposite Westminster in this garden completely absent of visitors and just to myself for a while. So, I slowed my pace a little bit. I was on reduced days anyway, so I was only going in twice a week. But coming through the empty streets of London, arriving in this garden that was empty and just getting on with it on my own. I haven't done that in years, not since I was the sole gardener for an estate down in Surrey. But it was lovely in a way to return to that. It was good for me. I felt very lucky to have the whole space, to have employment during that period. It's been awful in every conceivable way, but at the same time I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this little period of going back to just pottering around the garden on my own and coming up with plans.
I also got to do a lot of things and clean up a little bit while there were no visitors and do some hard pruning and all that stuff that I might want to avoid if we had our usual visitor numbers. So it was good. It's been a real change. But it's so good to have people back. We opened a few weeks ago with a new exhibition all about Derek Jarman and his place in Dungeness. And that's been really well timed. It's been very popular and sold out for most of the time. We've opened with a bang and it's really lovely to have people back.
What's the last place that inspired you?
Kew Gardens. It sounds silly because it's so obvious, but I hadn't been throughout lockdown. I went for an article just as it opened, so it was empty. The last time I'd been there on my own was when it had snowed really hard and I stopped working a garden nearby and went just to hang out. Having Kew Gardens almost to yourself was just an incredible experience. The rock garden at Kew Gardens is amazing.
What's on your reading list at the moment?
I just love the classic writers of the mid 21st century. Good, well-rounded, narrative-driven gardening books; Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Gertrude Jekyll - the old masters. There used to be an art to the garden book before it became filled with photographs. So, old, non-photographic, semi narrative-driven garden books.
Where are you hungry to visit now that we're all allowed to travel again?
I'm headed up to Greece really soon which I can't wait for because I've never been, especially to see a lot of those Mediterranean plants. I'm half South African, my father's from Durban, and I'm desperate to go and see the Cape flowers and the very southern Fynbos flora. They're amazing.
Do you have a personal motto - what is it?
“There’s never as much time as you think”. Depressing, but ultimately grounding. I'm obsessed with time. My wife would say I say, “there just isn't time,” more than anything else. I've become horrifically obsessed with time more recently and maybe there’s a healthy element to that as well. I always assume I won't have time and then I’m always pleased if I manage to fit something in.
Do you have any role models that inspire you?
It sounds corny, but I'm super inspired by my friends. I think people that keep me aiming higher in life are those friends that I've grown up with who achieve great things and are doing cool, artistic things, or just embraced different fields. I'm always most inspired by people that I know quite well, doing well.
I’m inspired most by friends and colleagues achieving great things in their respective fields. Seeing contemporaries fulfil their ambitions makes me immensely proud, but also pushes me forward.
The last place that inspired you?
The unclipped grass verges at Blackheath, South East London. This summer they were absolutely stuffed with native wildflowers, which literally glowed through the evenings.
What garden in the world inspires you?
Aberglasney Garden in South West Wales has been a regular source of inspiration for me over the years. It’s a heritage garden with a wonderfully contemporary outlook.
Is there a gardener or botanist you admire?
I return again and again to both the writing and garden of the late Beth Chatto. Her fascination with where our garden plants come from promoted a wonderfully sympathetic form of gardening, never separating a plant from its preferred environment.
Is there a botanical you hold a passion for?
Thankfully my obsession with giant and colourful African/Mediterranean echiums is subsiding, but it’s given way to all new fixations.
Woodland, coast or fields and why?
More recently coast,. Having spent nearly all of 2018 in one woodland or another, while writing a book about the Northern Hemisphere’s forests.
What is your morning routine?
Wake at 6:30, talk nonsense to my five month old; coffee then writing. If I’ve got a few paragraphs of something down by 11am then the day is off to a fine start.
Describe your perfect garden
I’m forever treading a line between tidiness and wilderness. The perfect garden therefore has both in equal measure — formal paths and feral borders.
When are you most energised in the day?
What do you do to energise yourself?
I run around somewhere pretty. Running is the only fitness exercise I actually find enjoyable.
What do you snack on during the day?
Raisins and spoonfuls of honey
How do you relax?
Generally by reading - ideally something that takes me off the British Isles.
What recent book that you have read have you found inspiring.
Every book I read by Jonathan Raban exceeds the last — I just finished Passage to Juneau with a sense of bewilderment and awe. Somehow his books manage to perfectly weave travel, history, nostalgia and nature writing into a personal yet never indulgent narrative.
City break or rural retreat?
A fly-by city tramp on the way to somewhere green
Weekend food indulgence?
Do you have any role models and how do they inspire you?
I’m inspired most by friends and colleagues achieving great things in their respective fields. Seeing contemporaries fulfil their ambitions makes me immensely proud, but also pushes me forwards.
Coffee or Tea?
There’s always room for both.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Learn to use a freaking diary!
What is your favourite music to relax to?
Relaxing music is actually quite hard to get right. A blend of familiarity and minimal vocals maybe? There are specific, favourite albums that do it for me — King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’s ‘Diamond Mine’; Brian Eno & Harold Budd’s ‘Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror’.
What is your favourite music to energise you?
‘The Sea and Cake’, Yo La Tengo
How often do you digitally detox?
Not often enough, unfortunately. An easy rule to follow when abroad though.
Silence or noise?
Sweet, sweet silence.
Health tip for living?
If possible, work hard in the mornings, do something else in the afternoon.
What inspires you?
Plants, smells, music, travelling alone.
How do you stay balanced?
I think I’ve given up on trying to be balanced. Much as I would love it, I don’t think it’s in my nature, nor conducive to pursuing ideas.
How do you try and get the best work-life balance?
Babies are really good at enforcing that. I was hopeless before!
How do you de-stress?
Good Italian wine cuts through any stress fog, as does untainted country air.