James Alexander-Sinclair talks Chelsea, design and some lucky falls

Rosa ‘Mutabilis’,” says James Alexander-Sinclair decisively when I ask for his favourite plant. He then adds that yesterday it was Salvia confertiflora while last week it was tulips that had stolen his heart. It is, of course, an impossible question for any gardener – my own choice changes like the weather – but it’s something I like to throw into the mix as you can learn a lot by the way people react.

James’ answer, given with barely a pause yet far from predictable, shows why he is in demand as a writer, compere and speaker while the gentle ridicule is typical of someone who doesn’t take himself or his achievements too seriously.

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Tulips were James’ favourite last week – next week, who knows?

Despite his position as a noted designer, award-winning writer, RHS council member and judge, he describes his career as a “collection of fortuitous trippings” that has seen him fall into first landscaping, then garden design followed by writing and broadcasting; he’s a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, presented Small Town Gardens and was a judge on the The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge.

It could have been so different if he’d followed up on early success as a waiter or selling trousers, or changed his mind about estate agency as a career.

“It was really what people used to do when they didn’t have any qualifications or any particular idea of where they were going.”

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James’ is a regular compere at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

Instead, a plea from his sister to get off the sofa and “dig the garden or do something useful” saw him turning over her tiny London garden and the realisation that it “was fun”.

Teaching himself how to pave, put up fence panels and lay turf, James started his own landscape business. Design came about when he decided “there must be an easier way to earn a living than through heavy lifting”.

As with the landscaping, he is largely a self-taught designer although his father sent him on a course at the Inchbald School of Design when he was starting out: “I didn’t turn up for most of it – which was unfortunate – because I had other things to do.”

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An illuminated rill snakes through James’ design for a central London garden

His writing started because of ‘old rectory syndrome’: “Somebody would ring me up and say ‘Can you come and look at my garden?’ and I would say ‘Marvellous’ and it would be The Old Rectory and I would go ‘Oh God, not another one.’ I wanted to do something else.”

Broadcasting followed, giving him a career that embraces just a few of what he describes as the tentacles of gardening, a profession that can range from landscaping and photography to scientific research and raising plants.

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James built one of the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens at Chelsea this year

“It’s nice to be busy in as many of those different spheres as I can possibly manage.”

This opportunity is something he believes should make gardening an attractive career for school-leavers.

“Gardening when I started was considered the last refuge of the unemployable and it isn’t any more.

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James used hostas, persicaria and thalia along the stream in this country garden

“It has enormous breadth to it and is something that can provide somebody not only with a satisfying life but also with a satisfying living.”

And he dislikes the idea that because it’s a popular hobby people underestimate the worth of professionals.

When to comes to designing, James works by three guiding principles: what the house looks like; what the views are; who’s going to live in it.

“It’s a matter of making sure you’re making gardens that are not only appropriate for the place but also for the people.

“You’re making a garden for people to use, to love and to enjoy and to make their lives better and happier so it has to work with the way that they live.”

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Water was central to the Zoe Ball Listening Garden

It was this sense of fun that came to the fore in his BBC Radio 2 garden for Zoe Ball at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where water in weathered steel troughs vibrated to the bass beat of music.

The five gardens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the radio station were a last minute addition by the RHS when show garden numbers fell short, thanks in part to post-Brexit referendum jitters. They proved popular with the public, partly James believes due to their size, and gardening on that scale is something that is likely to be repeated at the show.

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Bass notes in underground music caused ripples in the pools

Yet, he believes there’s still a place for the “great big theatrical experience” of Chelsea.

“Chelsea always throws up something that’s exciting,” he says. “You go to Chelsea and you will be entertained, gobsmacked and educated. You will leave there inspired by something.”

As for his own Oxfordshire garden, it’s constantly evolving: “It’s a work in progress and always will be because that’s the way gardening is. Nobody in the world has got a finished garden.”

Allomorphic in Stroud is hosting a lunch and audience with James Alexander-Sinclair on Friday November 10, followed by a talk in Painswick on garden design hosted by Painswick Gardening Club. Tickets are £45 for the lunch and talk, limited to 24 places. Tickets for the talk only are £15. For details and to book, see the Allomorphic website.