VP's VIPs: Tim Matcham, Garden Designer

I have something new for you today: VP's VIPs, a series of interviews with people involved with the nuts and bolts of the garden industry in some way. First up is Tim Matcham, who battled through the snow last Wednesday to meet up with me at our local farm shop. After all that weather we'd both got cabin fever, so it was great to get together for a good old natter and feel like we were doing something gardeny for a change.

Tim is a local garden designer, based in Neston [about 5 miles from Chippenham] who takes commissions from the Bath and Wiltshire area. He's also the owner of The Garden Network, one of the larger, well-established online gardening 'clubs' and if that isn't enough he also blogs from time to time :)

What have you been up to during the cold weather? Getting to grips with Vectorworks [3D design computer software]. Whilst I can 'see' what a garden looks like from a 2D plan, most of my clients can't and this software has the potential to 'walk' them through a design and to see it from a number of viewpoints.

Why garden design? I spent 25 years in the print industry, but redundancy a few years ago coupled with a training cheque meant I could build on the introductory course I'd started at Lackham College in my spare time and start studying for a more formal design qualification [HNC in Garden Design & Planning - Tim was awarded Distinction].

That sounds a bit risky? Yes, we'd recently moved from Bedfordshire to start afresh, and some friends offered me a couple of hours work a week looking after their garden. That was enough encouragement for me to start my own garden services business whilst I retrained. That work simply snowballed over the two years I was at Lackham and then I found my first garden design client in 2005.

So are you now concentrating solely on garden design? No, I still look after a few gardens. I consider that to be part of my ongoing training as I can expand my knowledge of various plants and their care, which in turn means I can give better advice to my design clients.

You had a show garden at the Bath & West Show a few years ago? Yes, and it won Gold :) It was an amazing experience, though I didn't find any new clients there as most of the visitors were from the farming community. However, I do use it to show potential clients I can successfully deliver a garden to a set brief, on time and to budget. In this case it took £3,000 for a 4 metre square design.

I see the final garden was different to that shown in the original drawing, I thought there were marks deducted for that? As well as the original brief and design, I could submit an addendum. I soon realised the planting in the middle of the design was surplus to requirements. That's another thing I learned from my show garden experience: don't try to cram too much into a small space.

What's your key to delivering a successful garden design? Completing the briefing process well and in detail is crucial. The more time I spend getting to know my clients and what they want to do with their garden, the less problems we have along the way and the more pleased they are with the results. I'm told this is where I win over other designers.

Programmes like 'Ground Force' have led many to believe anyone can design a garden and deliver it in a couple of days. How do you overcome that perception? Yes, there's plenty of people who still think £500 for a 'garden makeover' is all they need to spend. That will do little more than pay for the skip hire and initial clearance. It's my job to talk to them about what they really want from their garden and to show them the amount of work that's needed to achieve it.

What happens if a client asks for something which you know won't work? Again, I'll talk to them about what they'd like. If we've got a good working relationship, then they'll take my advice and we'll find an agreeable compromise. Sometimes, if someone has very fixed ideas especially if it's the entire garden layout, then I have to say there's nothing I can do for them and I'll recommend someone else, such as a landscaper for instance.

So you don't build the garden then? No, I'll project manage and get the expert help I need in!

How much does it cost typically? Of course budgets vary enormously dependent on the scale and nature of the project. Most of my clients tell me I design something far better than they could have imagined, so they like the results. I also have some clients who also understand that using quality items such as a special water feature or sculpture will add value to their garden. After all a design, especially an expensive one doesn't have to be delivered all at once: we can take a phased approach and spread the costs. I'm doing this with a client in Box: the garden's spectacular and will be open for the first time this summer during the village's Open Garden event.

How do you market your business? Word of mouth is my number one source of clients, though of course you need some in the first place for this to work! I also get a good number of clients from my website following Google searches for garden design in Wiltshire. I've found advertising in local magazines like Wiltshire Life hasn't been that successful, so I'm currently having a think about how and where to advertise for my next campaign. I'm one of the sponsors of the local film club [that's how I got to meet Tim in the first place], which has been successful in the past.

What's the latest design trend? People still want low or straight-forward maintenance designs. They want to enjoy their gardens, not spend all their leisure time looking after them. Oh, and good garden buildings are coming up fast as working from home is increasing. Did I tell you I also have a rather nice sideline in quality self-build conservatories and garden rooms? ;)

Anything else you've noticed? Some garden centres are starting to include design in their landscaping. They're not a Chaumont or Chelsea, but they're showcasing a number of different styles and 'rooms' which will work in the area they serve. I wouldn't be surprised if some customers come away with the entire plant list from a design they've admired instead of the couple of plants they intended to buy in the first place.

Do you have a top design tip? Take time getting to know your soil [also a key part of Tim's briefing process]. Even in limestone areas like ours there's surprise pockets of sandy soil to be found. If you know the soil, you know what needs to be done to get it into tip-top condition and you can select exactly the right plants for the design that will thrive. This in turn leads to better established plants and less time needed to maintain them.

Do you have designs on your own garden? We're on top of an old quarry, so I don't have to dig down that far to reach solid rock. Ideally, I'd like to take out the current brashy topsoil, bring in a load of decent stuff and start over again!

Which gardens inspire you? My grandparents' garden at North Court Manor* on the Isle of Wight. I spent many happy holidays there as a boy and it was a garden which had everything. Locally, The Courts is a hidden gem as is the Peto Garden at Iford.

Thanks so much for agreeing to meet up with me Tim, especially on such a snowy morning! I'll be writing about about The Garden Network another time because it deserves its own space and this is quite a lengthy article already. We chatted for around four hours and this just scratches the surface of what we talked about. I expect other anecdotes will appear in later articles too :)

* = The next day I received a text from Tim, telling me North Court Manor is one of the gardens featured in the February 2010 edition of The English Garden magazine. It's interesting to note the garden has some completely different soil types within its 14 acres: both sandy and limestone areas owing to the island's interesting geology. It reinforces Tim's point about really getting to know your soil.


  1. This is interesting as I talk to Tim on twitter from time to time - now I know more about him thanks

  2. I love interviews. This was a good one. It's great to see someone change horses midstream and make a success of it. Sounds like he had some very decent shall we say grounding in the garden as a kid, though. I'm not sure our gran's (award-winning) garden in Rhyl would quite compare.

  3. Interesting reading, VP, thanks! We used to have a small landscape business two houses ago. Lots of work but lots of enjoyment too, not lots of money but that was okay, luckily. :-)

  4. PG - Ha, it's a small world! Like the sparkly hat BTW.

    Helen - that's very well observed. Tim and I spoke about his childhood/school influences a lot at the beginning. His other grandad was a head gardener in Lyme Regis, so there's influences from both sides of the family. At school he toyed with architecture or interior design before joining the other great family influence printing. So the seeds were sown at an early age and it's obvious Tim finds plants and gardening totally fascinating.

    I also need to point out I didn't actually ask these questions, they just reflect some of the subjects we covered. We had a very long chat rather than an interview!

    Frances - that's interesting. There isn't a lot of money in general for that kind of business on this side of the pond either, but as you say, enjoyment and fulfilment are the key aspects to that kind of work.

  5. Hi there VP, thanks for this, for one I really enjoyed it and secondly it reminded me of something I meant to do last Autumn! Sorted now thanks to you :-D

  6. Hi Shirl - only too glad to oblige :)


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