Caught by the River

Ivy Cities by Matt Collins

2nd May 2016

Ivy Cities cover

Wendy Barrett enjoys Ivy Cities, a bespoke journal comprising a selection of garden diary entries, photographs and notes over the period October 2010 – April 2014.

I’ve just returned from a restorative stroll across Petersham Meadows, which hugs the Thames just upstream of Richmond. My visit was prompted by reading Matt Collins’ Ivy Cities, a four year gardening chronicle of a huge Petersham plot bordering Richmond Park.

The garden is vast by London standards and for me the soul of the space lies not near the house, lawns or borders but down by the wood, pond, log pile and meadow. For, although our gardener works unaided, he is far from alone. In fact, he is very much the visitor in a landscape inhabited by all manner of marvellous beasties.


His relationship with the wildlife is respectful and warming. He notices, watches, wonders and marvels. We are drawn into a world of grass snakes, nuthatches, stag beetles, frogs and toads. There is much accommodation, making homes and protecting habitats, knowing that his efforts will be rewarded as the garden responds and benefits from a healthy ecosystem.

As the seasons roll on, our gardener works hard clearing, chopping, digging, sowing and planting. The more formal parts of the garden nearer to the house need “careful consideration and attention”, horticultural expertise essential in the planning and planting of herbaceous borders. But the approach is not just about impressive planting combinations and botanical skill – there is a deep understanding of the reciprocal altruisms, which allow it all to happen.


So to the copse and the wilder spaces at the bottom of the garden and the slowed down respectful interaction which is both comforting and reassuring. Foxes, badgers, robins, newts and butterflies all live here. Touches of humour inhabit the pages.

“Watching a blue tit inspect and then clean out the sycamore nest box over the wood pile. A slight sense of embarrassment, like walking in on a house guest washing your dishes. Should have mucked out the boxes before Christmas. A job for this afternoon perhaps.”

There is a resourceful use of recycled materials, a dead hawthorn branch becomes a curtain pole for the shed and the curtain rings are made from the stem of a small fallen oak hollowed with a drill. We are invited to think about decay, and how new life and growth is wholly dependent on the decomposition that precedes it – the constant recycling of matter and nutrients in the form of rotting leaves, mulch and dead wood. There is a gentle nod to the carbon cycle as he links the warmth from his shed woodstove to the warmth of the sun on a Summer day. The sun once feeding the trees whose wood now keeps him warm.

Throughout the pages, we are alive to the light, the temperature, the sounds and smells of the garden. Here there is a different satisfaction with life, one that only comes with being outside and connecting with it. Here is a gentle reminder that there are many, many small worlds out there, which keep on keeping on whether we notice them or not.

Copies of Ivy Cities can be ordered directly from Matt. Visit his blog for details.