Q&A with Matt Mattus, author of “Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening”

By Shelley Pierce | May 26, 2019
by Shelley Pierce
May 26, 2019

Matt Mattus is an American visual designer, artist, horticulturist, and futurist. He is also a third generation gardener of his family property in Massachusetts and the author of a popular gardening blog, Growing with Plants. Matt is very active in many plant societies and is a popular speaker at botanic gardens, specialist plant societies, and at horticultural conferences. In his latest book, Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening, Matt tells you how, where, and why to grow more than 200 varieties of vegetables and herbs from the 50 most popular groups. Read on to learn more and enter below to win a copy from Quarto Publishing Group!

In your book you mention that you are a third generation gardener.  What are some of the most valuable things you have learned about gardening from your parents and grandparents?

My parents were rather practical growers (mom canned, preserved and pickled while my dad focused on volume crops -like potatoes, bush beans and tomatoes.  They were depression era parents so that sort of ‘growing enough to preserve’ is something that has been hard-wired into me. Of course, it isn’t practical today with full time jobs, travel and an active lifestyle. – but it does remind one about effort and yields – a better bang for your buck, if you will. In spring I confidently plant 50 foot long rows of peas so that I will have some to freeze to enjoy in winter and long rows of potatoes because I know that I want to store them in the root cellar. Fresh-from-the-garden is terrific in July but there is something to be said about saving some of the reward for winter meals. Enjoying ones own green peas in January or opening a jar of whole canned tomatoes during a blizzard extends the enjoyment and magic of the summer gardening season for me.

You mention Julia Child, a personal hero of yours.  How did Julia Child inspire your approach to gardening?

When Judith Jones, the editor at Knopf who was charged with evaluating Julia Child’s landmark and influential manuscript for ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ she already  knew that previous publishers rejected the book based on it’s in depth content. “Why would anyone need to know this much about French cooking” said one early reviewer. I experienced the same thing with my manuscript, but I persisted knowing that the marketplace today  for gardening books is very similar how post war United States was moving toward with food and cooking. Social media edits and distills guidelines for gardening often down to over simplified bits of advice,  soundbites and ‘Easy ‘hacks’. That’s not what I am about. Like Julia, I felt that home gardeners today were in need of accurate guidelines. Real instructions not just shortcuts. Like cooking, vegetable gardening isn’t always easy and while there is often more than one way to  either grow a squash or tomato.  In cooking there are ingredients, right? There are inferior ingredients and there are superior ingredients. Most of us get that now, but in gardening, the ‘art’ part still needs to catch up. By ‘art’ here I primarily mean techniques.  Sure there are ‘ingredients to master like soils, fertility, training and cultivating methods and techniques from seed starting to proper timing. Like Julia, I couldn’t find the book out there that didn’t shy away from the hard stuff but one that would explain things in detail as I am one of those guys who also likes to know the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. A good baker today may know how to make a croissant with a laminated pastry, but the best baker will know why a low-water content high-fat butter works better, and especially what happens to the butter when they use the higher quality one. It’s very much the same thing with gardening.

How does your book help inspire us not just to sow something and let it grow, but to truly master growing it?

I think we’ve all experienced failures in our gardens which is normal, but I feel that once we fail with let’s say a crop that we’ve never grown before, we rarely revisit it. Most people just focus on what plants are available at the garden center in spring. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and maybe some easy-to-sow seeds like beans but I like to then ask people what they like to cook, and what do the get excited about when they see it at a farm stand or at the market? Knowing that you can actually grow some of the finest artichokes or watermelon in your home garden is often liberating for many gardeners who find that they really aren’t growing what they love, or what excites them. In a world where most of us can buy a fresh zucchini in the summer at a farm stand, why not dedicate that space to an interesting kale or a red brussels’s sprout? Something that you may never find at a market or even at a farm to table restaurant? As for ‘mastering’, I am a research nerd and rather obsessive about perfecting something that I have failed at a number of times. I try to share all of these tales in this book, often with surprising results that should inspire even beginner gardeners – for example, one of the easiest veggies to grow is Belgian endive. You grow the roots all summer like carrots in poor, dry soil, then you dig them in the fall, pot them up and keep them in a dark closet. In a few weeks you have a pot of the tastiest, crunchy Belgian Endive. It doesn’t get easier than that.

In your book, you suggest that we “treat our vegetable garden as our own private fantasy supermarket”.  What’s growing in your private fantasy supermarket?  

I am currently into celtuce, a stem-lettuce long popular in China but a veg that I am totally addicted to, as well as plenty of tomatoes. (because – come on!), about 15 varieties of cucumbers because there are so many different types available now that I have to try them all, and Asian long gourds for our new gourd tunnel. Actually I am growing less this year as I am growing other things for a new book.

How does this book differ from other gardening books on our book shelves?

I wanted it not only be useful, but attractive. A visually exciting book is something I enjoy, but only if it has good content in it too as far too many books lately often just look good, but end up on the shelf never to come out again. So I pushed my publisher to try and keep it looking more like a cookbook – with a large full page photo on one side, and some history, facts and useful guidelines on the other side. Keeping the structure simple was key, but we are all so visual today that nice photos make a book a useful object. – inspirational and easy to consume.

I noted that you are credited as the photographer in this book.  Your photos are beautiful and you seem to have a great eye for photography.  Do you have a formal education as a photographer?   

Thanks so much! I don’t have a formal background in photography but I my dad was a photographer and painter professionally, and while too was an artists early in my career, I later moved onto a corporate job with toy maker Hasbro where I stayed for 28. Years. I started in packaging design and later branding design. I also heading up our photo studio a directed photo shoots worldwide with some of the best photographers in the world, so maybe some of that rubbed off? I will say that I really didn’t take great photos until I went digital though but since I had an extensive career as a digital designer (most people know me as ‘that speaker from the design conference’ or even ‘that guy behind My Little Pony, Disney Princesses and Transformers’, that sometimes I feel as if I lead two different lives! Peers on that side of my career get confused  when they discover that I ‘grow those ‘flowers’.

Enter to win a copy of Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight (EST) on Sunday, June 2, 2019 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What aspect of vegetable gardening would you like to master?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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