A conversation with Matthew Biggs

A conversation with Matthew Biggs

David Hurrion caught up with Matthew Biggs, while they were both accompanying a Gardeners’ World Magazine 25th anniversary cruise around the coast of France. Here’s what they talked about…

David:
How did you become involved accompanying gardening tours?

Matt:
I was working with the great plantsman Roy Lancaster and we were staying in a hotel in Wales. One evening as we were about to step into a lift, he said ‘Would you like to go to the Caribbean’? I couldn’t reply ‘Yes, please’ quickly enough and the rest is history!

David:
What has been your favourite itinerary?

Matt:
The most memorable visit was to Zimbabwe, a beautiful country with extraordinary wildlife, beautiful scenery and unbelievable plants. A helicopter trip over the Victoria Falls and along the Zambezi river was a highlight, a privilege and something I never expected to see.

David:
And what’s the most exciting plant you have seen in the wild?

Matt:
I am fascinated by the stories of the great Victorian Plant Hunters, who suffered great hardship and risked their lives to collect plants for our gardens. I once saw Rhododendron yunnanense, in Yunnan, in an area where three of the ‘greats’ – Frank Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest and Joseph Rock – collected. It was an honour to follow in their footsteps and view some of the plants they had encountered on their travels.

David:
We’re also used to hearing you on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. What the most frequently asked question?

Matt:
It has to be, ‘How do I get rid of slugs and snails’, with the regularity of the question varying according to the severity of the plague each season. It is interesting how the answers have changed over the years. Once it was to use chemicals, now biological controls and creating a natural balance of pests and predators in the garden is recommended. 

David:
And the most unusual question?

Matt:
Someone who thought that slugs were eating the carpet in her hallway. I eventually deduced that the slugs were somehow getting into the house, but that the wool based carpet was infested with the larvae of carpet beetle. So, for once, the slugs were not to blame.

David:
Now, what about your latest book, Lessons from Great Gardeners.

Matt:
I’ve loved compiling this book. Published by the RHS, it recounts stories and anecdotes encapsulating the lives of forty great gardeners, from history and the present day, then highlights what lessons we can learn from them. The gardeners represent a range of styles from oriental to exotic and cottage garden, and were selected in chronological order and were gathered from around the globe. The passion, skill and dedication of every one of these gardeners was unsurpassed and incredibly inspiring.

David:
Who was the most fascinating gardener in the book?

Matt:
I unearthed some fascinating new stories about great characters like Claude Monet, Christopher Lloyd, Vita Sackville-West and William Robinson but the most eccentric and fascinating of all was Madame Ganna Walska. She married six husbands, five of them extremely wealthy, before falling in love with gardening and creating Lotusland in California. She sold millions of dollars’ worth of Jewellery to finance her passion and create a remarkable conservation collection of unusual, rare and highly desirable plants. The garden itself reflects her personality, it is a flamboyant, eccentric extravagance.

David:
And have we got any more books to look forward to?

Matt:
I’m thrilled to be currently ghost writing the autobiography of a plant Conservationist at Kew, known to many as ‘The Plant Messiah’ who has saved some of the world’s rarest plants from extinction. At the same time, I am co-authoring a book for the RHS about Village Shows; both are due for publication next spring, so life is both hectic and fascinating, at the moment.

Pictured: The Gardeners’ World Magazine 25th anniversary cruise visited Bois des Moutiers, Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens house and garden, Northern France.

About Matt

Matt regularly appears on the BBC Radio 4 programme Gardeners' Question Time and has been a professional gardener for over 20 years.

Click here to buy Matthew Bigg’s book, Lessons from Great Gardeners