Sunday 5 November 2023

The Gardening Book by Monty Don / Monty Don on love, class and his future on Gardeners’ World



‘I’m a sex symbol? That makes me embarrassed’: Monty Don on love, class and his future on Gardeners’ World

Emine Saner

He has presented the same show for 20 years, been married to the same woman for 40, yet his life refuses to stand still. Don talks about his unhappy childhood, his failed first career – and his war on fake grass


Emine Saner


Mon 6 Nov 2023 05.00 GMT


‘Sorry, Monty!” says the woman who opens the door to the glass-walled room by mistake (or was it?). She looks a little thrilled – we’ll come to Monty Don’s status as a sex symbol in a bit, and he will squirm slightly. But for now, in this meeting room at Camley Street natural park in north London, Don is eloquent and good-natured, dressed in a navy corduroy suit that opens to reveal a peek of braces. He is, to those of us who are fans of BBC’s Gardeners’ World – on which he is the lead presenter – exactly as you’d hope to find him.


Don left London in the late 1980s when he and his wife, Sarah, with whom he ran a jewellery business, bought a big house with 15 hectares (35 acres) in Herefordshire. They lost it, along with everything else, after the 1987 financial crash. He had lived not far from where we are now, on the Hackney border in north London, long before it became fashionable, buying a house when he was 25. His three children, now in their 30s, “couldn’t begin to afford to live in London”.


It was with them in mind that he has written his latest book, one as simple and basic as its title: The Gardening Book. “A generation of gardeners has emerged that has less access to a garden than any in living memory,” he writes. So, he says now, “they have to be more flexible. It might be a window box, pots in a shared house or, if they have a garden, it might be much smaller than they want or really dark. You can still make something that is rich and rewarding and creative, and may not be perfect, but it’s good.”


The book is not packed with Latin names, or complicated techniques, just Don’s no-nonsense advice that this gardener, with 10 years of mediocre results behind her, could also do with. I feel as if I fail every year, I say. “I’ve been doing it for 50 years or more, and I feel exactly the same,” he says. What do beginner gardeners get wrong? “They try to do too much, they expect to get it right.” He smiles. Some things will work; some, he says, “will really piss you off”.


Anyone interested in growing is now working with the backdrop of the climate crisis, which is making even the most experienced gardeners pause to rethink. At Longmeadow, Don’s hectare of Herefordshire that is seen regularly on Gardeners’ World, he has been dealing with flooding. “What we have noticed is just extremes – extremes of violent weather. Twenty years ago, I would have said we’re going to have a Mediterranean climate. It’s not as neat as that. We’re getting to the point where we can’t predict the weather.”


This year, Don noticed his tithonia, or Mexican sunflower – a plant he has cultivated for 40 years – grow twice as big, with half the flowers. “That’s a reaction to climate,” he says. He has also noticed more plants with fungal problems, such as box blight. He is considering making a big investment in collecting rainwater, and this will be the first winter he is not going to heat his greenhouse to protect banana plants and cannas. “I can’t justify heating a greenhouse for plants that won’t naturally survive. If they die, they die. British gardens are based upon a colonial past, where we took plants from all over the world and brought them in as trophies. But they never adapted to our climate. Instead of seeing them as trophies, I think increasingly we’ve got to say: ‘This is an anomaly.’”


Don started gardening when he was seven. He used to see it as a chore, until one day, sowing carrot seeds at the age of 17, he realised he loved it. “It was a complete revelation.” When he was living in London in the 80s and his jewellery business was doing well – David Bowie and Diana, Princess of Wales were customers – he preferred to tend his garden rather than go out clubbing with his peers. A few years later, when the business collapsed and he and his wife were saddled with £300,000 debt, it was his garden that helped save his sanity. “It heals, it salves, it sets you straight,” he says.


Don has been very open about his periods of depression. During the times he has been really low, not even gardening can help – for a while, he was prescribed antidepressants. This time of year, as darkness marches in, has traditionally been difficult for him, but he is feeling pretty good at the moment. “Being busy helps,” he says. “My wife always says the best thing for my mental health is being successful, and she doesn’t mean that as a compliment. I know what she means – people saying nice things about you and puffing your ego tends to make you feel a bit better, up to a point.” He says he knows he is lucky. “To complain about anything is not just churlish, but it also undermines other people who have a much tougher time. But the garden certainly helps. There’s no magic in this – it’s being outside, it’s doing something … I always say to people, if you’re feeling bad, do a tiny little simple thing.”


Gardening is also an “investment in a future. You’re growing hope, and that’s wonderful medicine for depression, anxiety and grief. It gets you through dark times because seeds will become a plant, and plants will flower, and flowers will fruit. If you can connect to a rhythm of the natural world, that’s incredibly important, and easy to lose in modern urban life.”


Barely a couple of weeks ago, the Dons’ dog Nell died – she, like one of his previous dogs, Nigel, was a favourite of Gardeners’ World viewers (Don has a topiary Nigel in his honour at Longmeadow). Don, too, has faced mortality in fairly dramatic ways – as a child, he survived cancer; in 2008, he had a stroke which, although minor, saw him step back from Gardeners’ World for three years. Does gardening – dealing with that cycle – help him come to terms with mortality? “Absolutely,” he says. “I always think the best analogy with the garden is a river, and you’re standing on the bank, and it’s transient, and you’re as transient as everything else. Rather than being depressing, that’s incredibly empowering.”


Don’s childhood was severe. His parents were distant, unloving even, and at seven he was sent to boarding school, which he hated and was expelled from as a teenager. “In many ways, it was very privileged – home counties, middle class – and tough in lots of ways, and that could have fucked me up. Some people would say it did.” His life now looks wonderful, I say – a long and happy marriage, grandchildren, dogs, a potting shed of dreams. “Two things happened,” he replies. “First, by being the black sheep in my family, I always felt able to escape it … Second, I was lucky enough – it’s really basic – to meet somebody that I completely fell in love with when I was young and we became the team,” he says. “I went from a life that was complicated and difficult, and I was troubled. I was a difficult person. In a different environment, I definitely would have ended up in prison.”



Don is 68, older than both his parents when they died, he points out. “I haven’t got endless time left. If I’m still going strong in 20 years, that will be brilliant, but 20 years ago doesn’t seem so long ago.”


Having joined Gardeners’ World in 2003, he says he will probably leave it “within the next five years” (he wants to conserve his time and energy to make more documentaries). This comes as dreadful news – the sight of him digging, and his casual “Hello” has long signified the start of the weekend to me. He is a beloved presenter; to many, he has reached sex symbol status. How does he feel about that? He laughs awkwardly. “Well, I feel slightly embarrassed, sort of smirky. My wife would say: ‘Look at you smirking at that question.’ I’ve been living with somebody for 43 years, who I love more and more, so on one level, it’s so irrelevant as to be silly. On another level, I’m human – I’d rather that said about me than not. But I can’t tell you how insular my life is outside work. I go in the garden. I see a few people every day, usually the same people. I like them very much and not one of them thinks I’m remotely sexy.”


How does Montagu, which is what his wife calls him, differ from Monty? “That’s a better question. Montagu is probably more gloomy, more serious, more difficult than Monty, who gives people what they want, to a degree. I always think of myself as Montagu.”


Is he the last presenter of the programme to have a huge garden? “What my garden cost, I couldn’t buy a parking space in London for now,” he says. Longmeadow, which he bought in the early 90s, is aspirational, but totally unrealistic for the average viewer to attain (or maintain). To keep it looking good enough for TV, Don has two full-time gardeners helping him. The younger presenters on the show now noticeably have small gardens or city patches. “I would like to think the next Gardeners’ World presenter ideally would be female, would represent either singly, or in multiplicity, the diversity in this country, that has at least some urban context. So I think all that leads to it not being just one garden any more, because if it is one garden, it’s got to be a big one.” And that would mean the presenter would have to be very wealthy, therefore hardly in touch with the average viewer? “Exactly. And it probably has to be in the country, and the further you get into the countryside, the less diversity there is. The world’s changing; we need to change with it. In many ways, it’s likely I’m the last middle-aged, middle-class white male with a large garden doing Gardeners’ World. Which is fine.”



Don is hard to classify, which I’m sure is how he likes it. For years, he wrote a column for the Observer, but also for the Daily Mail. “I have not an ounce of tribalism in me,” he says. “I feel no affiliation to any political party. I will vote for who I think will do the best job, which, for the record, is none of them at the moment. But somebody who would look after people, enable people and not be venal.” He remembers what it was like to have no money, when the family survived on unemployment benefits. “Nobody wants to be poor, nobody chooses to be poor. The disparity between the rich and the poor is obscene.”


Is gardening a radical action – should people seize bits of unused land, do a spot of guerrilla gardening, seed bomb everything? “I really don’t approve of that,” he says. “For one reason, you’re imposing your ego on to something that isn’t yours and there may be a good reason it has been left. To throw seeds everywhere is incredibly vain, in a way – it’s about you, not about what’s there. It’s much better to get a community to agree and work together, and there are brilliant projects all over the place.”


Has he changed his views on rewilding gardens (earlier this year, he described the trend as “puritanical nonsense”)? “No,” he says. “The irony is I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for organic, but I don’t understand what people think they’re going to get from rewilding.” The more we’re divorced from nature, he says, “the more fiercely people support rewilding because it becomes a utopia, where if only we leave it alone, everything will be lovely, nothing would eat anything else, every plant would grow – and it just isn’t like that.” The thugs will win, he says, whether they’re brambles or rats. He softens slightly, admits those on both sides often misunderstand each other. “I’m really anti the incredible binary nature of life at the moment. Things are complicated.” Done well (rather than just “abandoned”), on a large scale, rewilding can work, he says. But as much as he already advocates having a pond and letting grass grow, he also thinks “a garden comprised of mown grass and clipped hedges can be incredibly beautiful. There is no hierarchy of beauty.”


What about fake grass? “I’m absolutely 100% anti it.” He was quite circumspect on the subject on Gardeners’ World recently, I point out. “I know. I had a lecture from the management – BBC impartiality had to come into force.” He smiles, then backtracks slightly. “If you’ve got a couple of hyperactive kids, and they want to play football, and you’ve got a patch of ground that would just turn to mud, the temptation of fake grass must be great. I understand that – but I hate it. Why call it grass, for God’s sake? Just call it green plastic. It seems to me the antithesis of everything that gardening is.”


There’s just time to consult him about my own horticultural woes. I should probably ask about slugs, but Don seems like the sort of man you’d go to for more spiritual advice: my frustration is that a garden’s moment of perfection is so easily missed, because of bad weather, or a heavy workload, or too much time scrolling. It never stands still long enough. “I think that’s actually why it’s so wonderful, and if you could hold it still, it would lose that magic,” says Don. “In the garden, when things are looking absolutely at their best, that’s it. Without getting woo-woo about it – and I am very woo-woo – you have to embrace that tenuous, fragile, fleeting moment. This is it, this is all there ever is.”


It’s a hard lesson, but for years I’ve listened to Don’s advice on everything from pruning roses to pinching out side shoots, so I’ll take it.


 The Gardening Book by Monty Don (BBC Books, £28) is available now.


A fresh approach to gardening by bestselling author and the nation's favourite gardener Monty Don.


'Think of your garden like a meal. When you select a recipe, you're choosing it based on inclination, experience and circumstance. Making a garden, big or small, uses exactly the same process.'


If you are new to gardening, it can seem daunting - with Latin names, various soil types and seasonal requirements, it feels like a lot to learn. But with Monty Don's new book as a guide you will discover just how joyful and rewarding gardening can be.


Whether you want to grow your own veg, create a child-friendly garden, connect with nature, or make the most of houseplants, Monty will help you unlock your space's potential, showing you what, where and when to plant. The Gardening Book gives you the basics to grow over 100 popular flowers, foods, shrubs, houseplants and more - each one has a clear, concise, format: what you need, timing, method, and step-by-step photos, all on one spread. It's a refreshingly accessible approach that will help you build a garden which best serves your needs and enhances your lifestyle.



1 comment:

Jd said...

Good morning and thank you for your interview with Monty Don. I love the cadence of his voice, it calms me. My thought was I’m an animal and always do better outside. No matter what. jd