A Life in Five Gardens, by James Alexander-Sinclair

In October 2021, Grayshott Gardeners welcomed James Alexander-Sinclair, who gave us a really entertaining talk about his Life in Five Gardens.

In fact, the title above undervalued James’ talk because, with his rapid fire delivery and enthusiasm, James gave us 10 gardens for the price of 5.  On introducing James, our President came armed with an A4 sheet listing  James’ curriculum vitae but the modest  James soon asked Gordon to cease his recital before he had reached halfway down the page.

From an unpromising start to his working life as waiter,  jeans salesman, Harrods’ Father Christmas  and being an unwilling helper in his parents’ garden James designed his first garden in 1983 although “design” was probably a loose term as against a backdrop of corrugated iron it comprised only a few flower pots on a pile of bricks “borrowed” from the adjoining building site.  Despite this small venture, James received a few requests to dig relatives’ gardens, tasks he found he rather enjoyed.

In 1992, James moved into an old farm building which provided plenty of scope for him to design his first proper garden.   As with all his gardens,  James aims to make a seamless transition from garden to the adjoining countryside often including in his gardens strong structures softened by additional planting (which he describes as “loads of fluff”) such as the use of square columns of beech with softer planting around.   The beech keeps its leaves throughout the year with lovely autumnal colours and, in Spring, the new green leaves appear, the trees avoiding a boring interim of bare wood through the depths of winter.  James manages softer planting by instructing his Bulgarian gardener to scatter plants and bulbs on the ground to fall in a haphazard manner thus producing no tight, neat groups.   He enjoys watching the foliage plants going through their seasonal changes; grasses add movement and look particularly lovely in frost and snow. 

When designing clients’ gardens  James is a great believer in not retaining something just because it has always been there.   He suggested that, if a plant doesn’t give one pleasure, then get rid of it but resist being too hasty to cut back everything in the autumn.  He urged that seed heads and foliage can look wonderful as the season changes and also provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In 2016, James became involved with the design of the gardens in Spinal Injury units in Scotland and Salisbury.   Horatio Chapple, the son of a doctor who specialised in spinal injuries, was inspired to create a garden area in each of the 11 Spinal Injury Centres throughout Britain where patients, their families, and staff could relax and enjoy the surroundings.   Patients typically spend up to 6 months recovering from spinal injuries and peaceful, accessible, and beautifully planted areas are particularly important for their recovery  Sadly, Horation didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled as, in 2011, he was killed in a tragic accident at the age of 17.

In 2017,  James designed “The Garden of Five Senses” for Chelsea in which sound is transmitted through water, the different frequencies making different patterns across the surface.

One of James’ least successful ventures was at Chatsworth where a large imitation bowler hat was made to rise slowly from the ground to expose a garden beneath.   In its second season the electric motor caught fire turning the mobile into a flaming disaster. 

During his delightful talk we all warmed to James’ easy, unstuffy, and joyful approach to gardening.  His message was that, whereas a garden doesn’t have to be perfect, it must give pleasure.   A final bon mot: “When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it and, if it comes out easily, it is a valuable plant”

Jan Bebbington