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‘How can I atone for being white and middle-class? That’s not the point’ : Monty Don

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Published Time: 11.02.2024 - 15:40:19 Modified Time: 11.02.2024 - 15:40:19

Ahead of his new series on Spanish gardens, the Gardener's World presenter talks retirement, mortality and the King Marsha Arnold If Monty Don could show me his garden at Longmeadow (he can’t, alas – because we are on Zoom, and he is using a monitor rather than a laptop), he assures me that all I would see is water

Ahead of his new series on Spanish gardens, the Gardener's World presenter talks retirement, mortality and the King

: Marsha Arnold

If Monty Don could show me his garden at Longmeadow (he can’t, alas – because we are on Zoom, and he is using a monitor rather than a laptop), he assures me that all I would see is water.

He recently posted images of his lawn, oozing with thick greasy mud thanks to the recent heavy rain. This alarmed his 300,000 Instagram followers, who are used to seeing Don’s two acre garden merrily dancing with dahlias, tulips, zinnias and crab apple blossom on Gardeners’ World – the programme he has presented for nearly 20 years. 

But today, ensconced in his study in the Hereford home he has shared with his wife Sarah, a jeweller and architect, since 1991, he is in a bullish mood.

“It’s inconvenient, but the flood won’t do any damage,” he says. “We get in a terrible tizz in this country about our gardens. We panic if it hits 30 degrees in the summer and we have a few weeks without rain. That’s nothing compared to what people across the world deal with every week.”

Don, 68, says this having spent seven weeks in Spain last year filming a new three part series, Monty Don’s Spanish Gardens. The first episode airs on BBC 2 next week Feb 23. In a similar vein to his documentary jaunts around Venice, Japan and America, it features beauteous shots of Don, looking like a latter day Impressionist painter in artisan slacks, neck tie and straw hat, strolling melodiously through the sun-baked gardens of Toledo, Madrid and Valencia and chatting about drought, climate change, and how to coax a garden from the most inhospitable Spanish soil.

He visits gardens nurtured inside railway stations, gardens interwoven into the physical fabric of a school and, in Madrid, a garden designed by dogs. Literally – the dogs are encouraged to create trails in the soil and the designer then plants around their tracks, meaning the dogs stick to the paths rather than dig up the alliums.

Is this mind boggling concept something he is tempted to try out with Ned, his boisterous Golden Retriever? (Don’s beloved Nell, once as much a star of Gardeners’ World as Don himself, died of cancer in October.) As if on cue, Ned jumps up from under the table and slathers Don’s face with his tongue.

“God, no, Ned’s an instinctive basher. It wouldn’t work at all. But I did like how witty that idea was. We are very solemn about our gardens.” 

For someone who has arguably shaped how we sow, plant and think about our gardens more than anyone else currently on TV, Don can be a bit disparaging about our attitude to lawns and borders.

“We are spoilt in this country. One Spaniard said to me: ‘You English are the billionaires of horticulture!’ We have so much choice in terms of plants and climate, we have such an easy ride. But that’s not always a good thing because sometimes you have to fall back on your wits to create something interesting. In this country, we tend to get very stuck on the English country garden.”

He blames biscuit tins. And country pubs. And the novels of Thomas Hardy.

“We have a very complicated relationship with the countryside. We see it as some sort of Arcadia. It means we sentimentalise and romanticise our gardens terribly. We talk about them as idylls and Edens. No one else in Europe does this.”

Arguably this is also the fault of Don himself. During each season of Gardeners’ World, more than two million tune in each week to watch Don waft like a walking Toast menswear catalogue in his signature cotton twill through the Jewel Garden and Paradise Gardens at Longmeadow, the epitome, surely, of precisely the sort of lovely fantasy comfort blanket garden that lives in our imaginations, if not always outside our kitchen windows.

Recently Arthur Parkinson, the 30-year-old gardener who has appeared several times on Gardeners’ World, argued that the programme “still seems to rely on a large country garden that screams often of huge privilege while most of us have to contend with a view of dustbins”. 

I tell Don that my mum sometimes despairs her wind-pummelled patch of soil never looks anything like his, however many hours she puts in. And that sometimes rather than watch yet another shot of Don frolicking with Ned next to a weed-free rosebed, she’d like a bit of advice on how to deal with blight, thank you very much.

“Well, of course ordinary people can’t make their garden look like mine!” says Don. “For one thing, it’s my life. For another, I have help. And thirdly, we are making a television programme. If we had a sh---y garden battered by wind, full of weeds with things not growing well, people would turn off. It’s not just instruction. Gardeners’ World is relaxation, it’s entertainment, that’s clearly a built-in part of the programme.”

He intimated late last year in an interview that he might consider retiring from Gardeners’ World soon – after all, he’ll be 70 in a couple of years. “I got a bit of stick for that,” he says. “I said that at the end of a very long year and I was exhausted. I can’t go on forever. But I’d be very happy to do another five years. If the BBC renew my contract, I’d happily take it.”

He also said he thought his successor shouldn’t be a white middle-class man. Is he ashamed to be one himself, then? “Look, as a white, very middle-class middle-aged male, we have had a fantastic ride,” he says.

“My education was paid for he went to various boarding schools as a child, the NHS was at its very best for most of my life, the system worked for us and was built for us and we benefited from it. And we shouldn’t apologise for that.

“It shouldn’t be a terrible self-abasing humiliation – how can I atone for being white and middle-class, that’s not the point. And I used to think jobs should be about merit and not race or creed. But I now realise that you need to actively open doors. It’s about equality of opportunity. Gardening in Britain is a very ‘small c’ conservative set up. It wouldn’t hurt to twist that a bit. Although actually, when I said that about my successor, I was mainly thinking about a woman doing it, because there are many more women gardeners than men.”

I point out that the landscape architect Bunny Guinness has said part of the reason women like to watch Gardeners’ World, is because they like to look at men like him. It’s certainly true that Don, with his trim black curls and honey-toned voice resembles someone out of an Evelyn Waugh novel more than Mr McGregor. Or perhaps it’s just a Lady Chatterley thing, that women just love men who get their hands dirty: like Alan Titchmarsh, there are rumours Don is often chased around Chelsea Flower Show. 

He looks a bit flushed. “Well, I couldn’t possibly comment on that. But then if I were a female viewer, I’d think, fine, you are giving me eye candy, but that’s also slightly disrespectful. It’s like saying, we’ll have a woman presenter who has to be good-looking, because men will like to look at her.

“The point is, on Gardeners’ World almost every conversation we have is about how to make things as accessible to as wide a group of people as possible. You have to remember six million people in this country don’t have access to a garden at all. So you have to balance that as much as you possibly can. And I don’t think that was the case on the programme 25 years ago.”

Don fell into gardening as a profession by accident. During the 1980s he ran a highly successful jewellery business with Sarah, whom he met at Cambridge University where he studied English Literature, and with whom he has three children. Yet the business collapsed during the 1987 financial crash, and Don, always a keen writer, began writing about gardening instead. He knew a fair bit about it because, as a child with one twin sister and two elder brothers growing up in Hampshire, it was part of the daily chores.

“We chopped wood. We fed the chickens. We weeded the garden, there was no negotiation.” He only learnt to love it when he was about 17; all the same, as a child he always felt a natural affinity with his surroundings.

“I remember coming home from boarding school for the first time when I was seven, I’d never been away from home before, and in that short month, everything in the garden had burst into flower. It had all happened without me. It felt as though I had missed Christmas. It was a gain, not a loss.”

He was a sensitive child, the sort happiest with his head inside a book, and so unhappy at his prep school in Berkshire that he has a lifelong aversion to ericaceous plants. “I associate dark, dull, horrible rhododendrons and pines and heathers with being at a ghastly school and not at my lovely home among the beeches and lilacs,” he says.

He has spoken in the past of a lonely childhood, his parents distant and unloving, but he nonetheless retains a strong emotional attachment to it that is as much bound up in the land as anything else.

“Once, in my twenties, Sarah and I were driving out of London to Kent past a field full of barley. It’s a very subtle distinction but barley ripples in the wind, whereas wheat tends to rustle. And barley grows in Hampshire. I realised with an incredible pang of homesickness that my whole childhood was associated with the ripple of barley. It was heartbreaking that this halcyon childhood, the good bits of it, was now lost to me.”

Don is now gardening royalty. He has presented Chelsea Flower Show since 2014. He has fronted numerous travel and gardening documentaries and published nearly 30 books. Through his work with the Soil Association, of which he was president between 2008 and 2016, he is also good friends with the King.

What does he think of His Majesty as a gardener? “He’s incredibly impressive. He has always been very well-informed. He does his homework thoroughly.”

He thinks the way that the King has always quietly promoted gardening has helped embed gardening itself in the national consciousness. “Our love of gardens becomes a completely unifying feature of the British personality if you have a monarch that clearly loves gardens and is good at it,” he says. 

Has Charles given him any tips? “Ha! I’m not going to talk about his private garden. But he and the Queen are both excellent. He certainly gets down on his knees and does it himself. I imagine for the last year he has been incredibly busy and obviously there are royal gardeners who help, but what the King knows and understands is that actually doing the gardening, weeding or pruning or whatever, is part of the great joy of gardening.

“It’s the activity itself that counts. And, of course, Charles is not deterred by being in a minority if he thinks he is right. All the things such as organic gardening that he was talking about 30 or 40 years ago that were at the time seen as marginal, if not crackpot, are now seen as mainstream.”

Like the King, Don also likes to speak his mind. He’s passionate about organic. He’s not a fan of fake grass.

And he’s not too keen on rewilding. “It’s not inherently bad. But it has become a brand, a logo, rather than a way of doing things. The concept has been completely hijacked by people who like to take the moral high ground and who argue that rewilding is somehow morally virtuous and that everything else is immoral.

“But gardens are a very broad church. You can have formal gardens, immaculate lawns, prairie meadows. A garden is a relationship between humankind and nature and it’s how that relationship plays out in all its subtlety that is interesting.”

Of course, there is no room for subtlety on social media, which is where arguments about things like rewilding tend to take place. “On social media everything is binary,” he says wearily. “If you are not for me, you are against me.

“Cancel culture is all about excluding people. It’s not conducive to creative thought. I now hardly use Twitter or X for that reason. Not because I’m worried too much about what people might say because I have a pretty thick skin. But it’s just dull to get into an argument about things that should be a discussion. Life is too short.”

He is aware of that more than many. In 2008 he had a minor stroke, which necessitated him taking a year’s break from Gardeners’ World. How did that change him? “My brother told me that every 50-year-old bloke should have a minor stroke or a heart scare, because it gives you great intimations of mortality, and it reminds you that you are not 35 any longer and you have to take care of yourself.

“You can’t be a slob. You can’t play hard and work hard because one of them will give. But as you get older, you also stop thinking about your mortality. It’s beyond your control. You live for the day.”

Still, he’s been open about his battles with depression, which have lessened in recent years, and he suffers too from seasonal affective disorder, struggling each year to get through the months of November and December.

“But it’s February now! The snowdrops are beautiful this year, and I’m soon going to plant out my dwarf irises. I’ve got thousands growing in pots.”

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