Creative Genius: Matt Mattus, Plantsman
Guaranteed to inspire gardeners and landscape enthusiasts of all skill levels.
Reliable expert gardening advice is hard to come by, but we've given Growing With Plants a stamp of approval for those of you looking to garden smarter. Matt Mattus is an expert horticulturist, and uses his blog as an extensive journal to chronicle his learnings, travels, and projects related to his home garden. His excitement about plants and the science of growing them right is infectious, and he’s rich with insight on everything from rare species, to greenhouse gardening, and what it takes to cultivate a successful garden year-round.
The garden that he and his partner maintain in Worcester, Massachusetts was established over three generations – Matt’s own grandfather built the house he lives in how, which his father was raised in, and Matt would eventually grow up in too. The historian in all of us can appreciate how valuable it is to understand how our space has evolved, but to bear witness to it firsthand for 40+ years is a true gift. Read the full history of Matt’s garden on his website.
You have an extraordinary garden, one that many would dream of having, and what a unique opportunity you’ve had by witnessing and controlling its evolution for your entire life. Can you tell us about how your gardening efforts have grown and changed over the years? Are you always introducing new plants? And dare I ask – is any of your garden “on cruise control?"
Ha, cruise control – I’m not even comfortable using cruise control in my car – not that I’m a control freak, but I like to feel as if I am in control, especially in the garden. Having worked in the same garden for most of my life one realizes that an old garden has both its benefits and disadvantages. I remember planting some trees here when I was in high-school, yet here I am 40 years later having to cut some down so that I can have more sunlight. I feel less attached to them than I thought I would. Old gardens or heritage plantings also come with a burden – invasive plants which can over-run a garden, weeds come with time, so while the soil is rich and deep, so are the weeds and invasive species. Nostalgia can also interfere with bold design decisions but like remodeling a house or moving to a new place, a garden does benefit from some reimagination. It keeps things fresh and one rarely misses a beloved tree once a greenhouse takes its place.
Having a greenhouse like yours is a far-fetched dream for many of us, but we love how you make it work for you. Tell us more about it.
I bought the greenhouse after 9/11. I was flying that morning out of [Boston when the terrorists attacked], and it was just too close. Building a greenhouse was the smartest (and stupidest) thing I have done in my life. It was smart, because I felt that I didn’t want to wait until I was retired as I knew how much it can cost to heat a glass greenhouse in New England, yet it might not have been the wisest decision as a greenhouse rarely adds any value to a home, like a pool; few buyers may see the value a big, glass greenhouse brings, but I certainly don’t regret it. Sitting at my potting bench in a t-shirt on a sunny day in when the snow is 3 feet deep beyond the glass amid fragrant jasmine and camellias is invaluable both mentally and holistically.
[In the greenhouse] I focus on winter blooming plants, especially bulbs from the Southern Hemisphere which naturally thrive in the unique conditions a greenhouse offers – a hot, dry summer condition when most are dormant, and a long, cool and damp growing season in the winter months. Most of these bulbs which emerge with the first cold snaps of autumn naturally bloom in such conditions, they include cyclamen species, and countless species of South African and South American bulbs – most of which were quite common in Northern greenhouses in the 18th and 19th centuries, but rarely seen today.
Which plants have you had the most success with over the years?
The Winter-blooming bulbs from the southern hemisphere like Lachenalia, Nerine and anything in the amaryllis or hyacinth family which are basically care free in the cold, winter greenhouse aside from occasional watering.
Also, camellias, citrus and cactus. I never have to buy a meyer lemon, and have so many kumquats and citrons that I have to make marmalade every February to use them up. There are many plants in large tubs that I winter-over under the benches as well, which provide amazing displays in the summer garden like (blue lily of the Nile, bay laurels and sub-tropical shrubs) which I otherwise would not be able to grow.
I have a 40 year old gardenia and a calla lily which is perhaps the largest in New England.
I’m really inspired to know how involved you are in industry groups – after all, surrounding yourself with other experts is the #1 way to foster your own curiosity and grow your understanding. Would you be willing to share a list of a few gardening society resources, or groups which have helped you directly enhance your know-how?
For greenhouse bulbs I was highly influenced by the Scottish Rock Garden Societies BulbLog written by Ian Young; also, I find for bulb information, the best comes from PBS, or The Pacific Bulb Group which goes far beyond ‘the Pacific’, their web site offers the best information on various species.
Any of the alpine plant societies offer great seed exchanges but you would need to join each group.
The North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) goes far beyond alpine plants, offering seeds of shrubs, trees and rare annuals and perennials. I think most people think that alpine plant societies are limited to rock garden plants, but that just isn’t true – most attract the elite, or the expert gardeners, as well as curious newbies – as long as you like interesting plants, you’ll find something in these groups as well as good plant journals and local clubs with interesting speakers.
Thanks again for maintaining a wealth of information and inspiration on your blog; we’re eager to learn more by reading years of article archives and apply your advice to our own gardens. You can learn more about Matt Mattus on his website, GrowingWithPlants.com.