JAMES ALEXANDER-SINCLAIR - GARDEN AND LANDSCAPE DESIGNER
James Alexander-Sinclair is one of the foremost garden and landscape designers in the United Kingdom and has designed stunning gardens from the Western Isles to the outskirts of Moscow. He is also an award winning writer and often seen on television covering the Chelsea Flower Show for the BBC. However James had absolutely no intention of being a gardener growing up. In fact he thought gardening was something that was “mildly dull” that his parents did at weekends, and frankly, did not see the point of it. Indeed realising that he had a passion for garden and landscape design was a “very lucky accident”, it found him rather than any intention on his part to dedicate his life to making beautiful gardens. I speak to him about how he fell into garden and landscape design, what he enjoys most about his job, the health benefits of gardening and spending time in nature, and his latest project.
After leaving school at the age of 17, James moved to London to try and find his calling in life. He spent a few years aimlessly drifting along, dabbling in acting and photography, without really knowing what he wanted to do. It was not long before he was on the bread line and started gardening, more out of a necessity to pay the bills than some deep-rooted passion for nature and plants. “I fell into gardening pretty much. I persuaded someone to let me dig their garden and then realised that I quite enjoyed it. It went from there really. By trial and error it sort of happened,” James says.
At the beginning of his career James relied on his boyish charm to muddle through. “My work was based on, if someone asks you a question and they do not know what the answer is, you can say anything and they will believe you. But the secret of it is the next time someone asks you a question you know the right answer,” he explains.
From an early stage he would get great satisfaction from seeing the tangible benefit of his hard work as weeding a flower bed and laying a lawn instantly transformed a space: “I would weed a flowerbed and you end up with something that is clean and beautiful. Laying a lawn is also a magnificent thing; a patch of earth that is brown in the morning can be made green in the afternoon,” he says. James equally takes great pleasure in planting something that he knows will take 200 years before it is going to look like anything. “Gardening is a pleasant mixture of instant satisfaction and planting something that is going to blossom. You have this balance between bang, I have planted it and that is fantastic. Then you walk away, and think I am never going to see this garden again but one day someone will be looking up at that tree thinking bloody hell, who planted that,” he says.
This was brought into sharp focus for James on a recent project which involved building new lakes and planting 20,000 trees; it will take at least 20 years for the design to start taking shape and it is certain that James will not be around to see some of the trees in their full magnificence. “It is satisfying to see things grow. We are all in a hurry and that manifests itself in gardens when people say I want a bigger tree or I don’t want to plant a seed, I want instant impact,” James says. He likens it to the pleasure of watching your children growing up. “You don’t want your children born as adolescents. It is nice to watch them grow and blossom. In gardening there is a balance between instant gratification and the satisfaction of waiting."
James spent a number of years working on small gardens in London before moving with his young family to the countryside at the turn of his 30th birthday. On the weekend of a prestigious local motor racing event, he decided to rent a room in the family home to a spectator. He joined the fan for a beer on the lawn one fine summer evening and starting engaging in the small talk that usually characterises such meetings. It turned out that the fan was the Editor of the Daily Express and was looking for someone to design the Daily Express garden at The Chelsea Flower Show. Naturally James offered his services, and that was that, from a chance encounter with the Editor of the Daily Express James had managed to land himself the biggest job of his career. James’s Chelsea Garden proved to be his big break, propelling him into the landscape design limelight. It was not long before he was on the television, with producers quick to recognise his natural presence and charisma in front of the camera. He made the most of his new fame in other ways too by writing articles for horticultural magazines and giving lectures. “There is a long list of things related to gardening and horticulture which gives you an amazing scope and means you can never be bored,” James explains.
Indeed he loves the variety of work his job offers. “The great thing about being a gardener is every day is different. Yesterday was lovely, today is a bit overcast and tomorrow it could piss down with rain,” he says. He also finds it fascinating that every day your garden changes, something moves and grows. “It is a living, breathing thing; you see these hedges full of energy waiting to explode. It is amazing watching the power of something that you have no control over. The whole idea of Spring is like a wave; we cannot stop it and we cannot hurry it up,” he says.
James thinks it is “a pity and a mistake” that the variability, excitement and creativity available in a career in horticulture is not promoted. The problem stems from the fact that gardening is not traditionally viewed as a skilled job. The Prime Minister once famously undermined the profession when he said that children who do not go to university, will end up as gardeners or chimney sweepers. “There is in fact a lot of knowledge, science, practicality and art involved in gardening,” James explains. “Look at it in a global perspective; without gardeners we starve. You have agriculture but you cannot grow everything we eat on an industrial scale and more needs to be done on a small scale. Furthermore, bees pollinate a lot of foodstuffs that we eat. Gardeners look after bees, therefore also look after nature and the world,” he adds.
Gardening and regularly being amongst nature is also generally very good for one’s health and wellbeing. Firstly gardening in itself is healthy because it is exercise that anybody and everybody can do. Secondly gardening can improve people’s moods. You will find that anybody having a hard time will tend to gravitate to being outside. People will storm out of the office and look for a bench or a park, somewhere they can breathe proper air. “Looking at the trees move, the bees buzz, the butterflies flutter, it is undoubtedly soothing. Nature has an extraordinary effect on people and it does not have to be wild or crazy. Sitting on a bench and looking at nature, plants and the sky is, for me, as uplifting as climbing a big hill for a stunning view,” James says. Doctors regularly prescribe gardening as treatment for patients. For instance Dr James Cavanagh, from Brook Green Medical Centre in Hammersmith, has referred several of his patients onto the Growing Health scheme and has seen an enormous improvement in their confidence and happiness. The scheme is a national project run by Garden Organic and Sustain to see how community food growing can be routinely used by the health and social care services as a way of promoting health and wellbeing.
The most exciting garden that James is working on at the moment is in the middle of Glasgow. “It is sandwiched between the motorway and the hospital, and really hideous,” he says. It is for Horatio’s Garden, a charity that creates and lovingly cares for beautiful gardens in NHS spinal injury centres. The charity is named after Horatio Chapple, a schoolboy who was tragically killed at the age of 17 by a polar bear. Horatio was interested in gardening as therapy for spinal injury so to mark his memory the charity is aiming to put gardens in every spinal unit in the country. These gardens are not just for people to play in, they will change people’s lives. “Imagine being stuck in a hospital in Glasgow and your view is the motorway. You are sitting there and staring at the ceiling for months on end. A beautiful garden can change the way people feel and give them a moment of bliss,” he explains.
One day James is installing lakes and planting trees in the middle of beautiful countryside while on another he is in the middle of the imposing metropolis of Glasgow. I wonder whether he has a specific design style that applies to all his designs. He says he tries not to have a specific style because as a designer you are making gardens in different places and the same style is unlikely to suit every place. “If you have a striped t shirt, it is not going to suit everyone so you cannot force it on everyone”, he says. For instance if you are designing the garden of a house that sits on a hill and overlooks the most extraordinary landscape then you do not want to put high hedges around it, you want to bring the landscape into the garden and apply a light touch in terms of the plants you include in it. If, however, you are doing a garden in a town with four high walls around it you need to do a lot of work to bring the garden to life.
He likens landscape designing to painting a picture. “It is big broad brush strokes right down to little tiny things like a bulb the size of my thumbnail. You need to think of how many you are going to plant and then think how that relates to the next plant. It is like layers of paint, it has to start small with the first brush stroke and then you end up with an enormous painting that covers acres and acres and acres.” Each garden is a new painting so the colours, materials and composition are rarely the same.
Ultimately, the goal for every garden is to make it work. “If someone gives you a screw driver, that is unbelievably beautiful, made of impeccably polished walnut that has been organically harvested from an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the blade is made from glass blown by eunuchs on a Venetian peninsula it is going to be fuck all use for actually unscrewing screws”, James explains.
To ensure his gardens function properly as well as look beautiful James always pays close attention to three things: the building, the people and the surroundings. “If you get those three things right then you have a great garden. If you fight against them then it will not last that long,” he says. While he keeps scrapbooks of things that have inspired him over the years he rarely looks at them and often finds inspiration for his designs from the most mundane things. “I once did a garden based on a paper clip. You know how you unfold a paper clip and you get an S, I made a flower bed like that and it looked great. Garden design is making patterns,” he tells me.
It is a primal urge to be in touch with nature and earth. Gardening is something that we as a species have done forever; as James says, “it is the oldest profession, the first gardeners were Adam and Eve.” James is working hard with the Royal Horticultural Society to dispel the myth that it is an unskilled job, only suitable for school dropouts, and it seems to be working. In the past few years young designers such as the Rich Brothers and Hugo Bugg, all under 30, have starred at the Chelsea Flower Show. The growing interest amongst the young in gardening is in context of their lives becoming increasingly dominated by technology. Many spend their working day glued to a computer screen with the sound of their colleagues tapping away on their keyboards echoing in their ears. Gardening is undoubtedly relaxing and an excellent form of exercise. Encouraging people to take a break from their mobile phone, play station, tablet or laptop and pick up a gardening fork can only be good for their wellbeing.