Was Doffed, now Donned again

December 9, 2010 § 11 Comments

Today, I am going to hop across the Irish Sea to Britain, where a surprise announcement sent the TV-watching gardening community into a state of high agitation. Monty Don is to return to BBC 2 television’s Gardeners’ World show next spring. He replaces Toby Buckland, who had replaced him in 2008, after the older presenter suffered a minor stroke. Some viewers are delighted at Monty’s reinstatement to the programme, whereas others are less happy. In another backward-looking move, Rachel de Thame will be rejoining, and Alys Fowler will be leaving.

The excellent Arabella Sock’s take on the news is here [turn up the volume for the full effect]:

By the way, Miss Sock’s agreeably insane blog, The Sea of Immeasurable Gravy is here.

If you’re not a gardener in Ireland or Britain, none of this will be of any concern to you (and — equally — if you are, it may not be either). I don’t watch a lot of gardening television these days, so it won’t make or break my Friday evenings.

So why am I writing this? Well, because it gives me an opportunity to wheel out an interview — a cover story — that I did for the Irish Times with Monty Don in 2003. It was during his first season on his previous stint on the show. I liked the article that I wrote, but after publication it disappeared forever, as the magazine section of the Irish Times was not archived on the internet at that time. So, I thought I might revive it here. Why not? If Monty can come back to haunt us years later, then why not my much-slaved-over interview?

The day of that interview was scorchingly hot. I had flown from Dublin to Birmingham and then made my way to the Don family house, at Ivington, a small hamlet surrounded by flat farmland, a few miles outside Leominster. What seemed like a heroic journey to the normally stay-at-home me, with all its important train-bus-plane-and-taxi connections, was made all the more epic by the heat. It was so warm that I asked the taxi driver to stop for ice-creams before we reached the finish line at the Don home. When I finally arrived, I was suffused with a burned-out euphoria, as if I had completed a marathon. Now read on:

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The door to the very old timber-framed house in Herefordshire is wide open and welcoming. It’s a good start to my interview with Britain’s chief man of the soil, Monty Don. I send a questing “Hello?” along the flagged passage. A figure appears in the hall, engagingly casual in torn shorts and tee shirt: “You’re half an hour early”.

Well, maybe not such a great start after all. I feel a little put out, as I have been travelling since the crack of dawn and have arrived just two (well-judged) minutes after the hour appointed by his publisher. But professionalism reasserts itself and I pack away my feelings.

And, a while later — after telling him that I didn’t really like his fourth last book — I feel just grand. But it’s his latest book, The Complete Gardener (which I do like), that brings me here. And I want to see his garden, and I’m hoping to hear about his first season as the main presenter of BBC television’s Gardeners’ World — and anything else I can winkle out of him in two short hours. Because Monty is pressed for time. It’s the last hectic two days before his holidays, and he has already written an article that morning, and must write a script for an hour-long television programme when I leave (“you can stay as long as you like” he offers, “as long as you’re gone by 4.30”).

His time off will be spent at home: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to garden.” Monty doesn’t like leaving home for holidays: “I went to France for 3 days a few weeks ago. And two years ago I went to Turkey, which was horrible.” In fact, he doesn’t like leaving home at all: “I was filming up in Manchester a week or two back, and they couldn’t understand why I insisted on going home every night. It was simply to check the greenhouses. So I got home at half past nine at night, and checked everything and watered, and then at five in the morning did it again.”

It’s more than the greenhouses, though. Monty Don’s life is regulated, given meaning and made real by the rhythms and rigours of gardening. “I’m not interested abstractedly in plants. I mean I am, but only up to a point. I’m interested in places, and home, and it’s completely egocentric and self-centred and selfish and introverted. Everything I write about, or talk about on television is either personal, or based on personal experience. I do not garden for the nation, I garden for me.”

And while the occasional slot on Gardeners’ World comes from Monty’s garden, the two acre plot has a strong air of privacy, and contains no concessions to the medium of television — unlike the garden of the previous frontman, Alan Titchmarsh, where projects were continually developed for the programme. (In the current era, the series has a tenure on a place in Warwickshire, known by the fictitious name of “Berryfields”.)

Monty’s Herefordshire garden has been created solely to fulfil his and — just as importantly — his wife Sarah’s visions and needs. Her input is “fifty per cent, although obviously not physically. But I wouldn’t dream of doing anything in this garden without talking about it with her, and nor would she.”

Ten years ago, when the Dons first made their mark on this land, it was a shaggy field, filled with looping, snagging brambles  and builders’ flotsam and jetsam. Now “it is starting to get a permanent structure. It is starting to look as I imagined it would.”

Its development is chronicled in The Complete Gardener, which starts out with a compelling treatise on being organic. Organic gardening, as those who practice it soon discover, is not just doing without chemicals, it is making your place and taking your turn in the greater scheme of things. It is guiding a garden to be in tune with the soil, location, weather, and with the rhythm of the seasons. Of course, there are strategies to improve your lot (and Monty tells most of them), but you can never forget that nature is calling the shots.

The practicalities and aesthetics of planning and making the structural parts of the garden are dealt with in the book, but always with reference to Monty’s own patch (no pergolas or ponds here). Favourite fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and herbs are also covered. It is an entirely personal primer, but informative and thought-provoking.

After meeting the garden in the book, as it were, I am curious to see the real thing. It is an intensively cultivated area, and a monument to hard and sustained work. A pair of gardeners (a retired judge and his wife) come a couple of days a week, but Monty and Sarah work in it every available hour.  “I try not to pay people to do what I like doing” — such as planting and pruning, and trimming the topiary (16 yew cones, and 64 box balls).

Plants grow at a prodigious rate — owing in part to good husbandry, but also to the rich clay loam: “think soil on steroids”. It’s a gift when it comes to the hedges (nearly four metres’ growth in 8 years), and the two prolific vegetable gardens of 24 and 8 beds each, but it’s a mixed blessing for herbaceous plants. “Sometimes you don’t want all that leafy growth. We have to hack things back constantly.”

The garden is arranged in many, orderly compartments, divided by hedge-walled corridors of grass and paving. Although the growth within the angular spaces is luxuriant and — in some cases — fecundly overblown, the atmosphere is one of controlled restraint and cloistered seclusion. The tall Tudor house, monastic in its beautiful, rough simplicity, adds to the ambiance of a place of retreat. I feel as if I have penetrated a religious enclosure: even the dogs have taken a vow of silence — or perhaps they’re just too hot to talk to me.

And Monty is curiously removed, like a monk disturbed on his way to evensong, his daily rhythmic rituals interrupted. I follow him awkwardly around the garden, my notebook of unasked questions burning in my hand.

Buried away at the end of my list, but uppermost in my mind, is that I must ask him about the depression that he is widely known to suffer from. It seems an intrusion to pry, but later when I ask will he talk about it, he takes it graciously: “I’m fine about it. It is not a taboo subject. To me having depression is like having eczema or measles.”

And although he is fed up talking about it — “Nothing is so boring as one’s own depression. It has no glamour, no saving grace whatsoever” — he realises that by doing so he may help other sufferers. “There are lots and lots of people out there who get encouragement if someone who is holding their life together — more or less — says, ‘well, actually I too have to cope with this thing’.”

His depression is triggered by falling light levels: “I could set a clock by it. It’s almost on June the 25th. I think that the body senses that the light is going. It’s this sense of profound loss.” His worst periods are for a few weeks after the summer equinox, and again, in varying degrees, from late autumn until February. “Physically I start to fall apart. Mentally I’m either completely fragile or in pieces. And useless, useless. You are a third alive.”

Cognitive therapy and Prozac helped him cope in the past, but now he uses only lightboxes. Wisely, he never took to the drink, “I had hepatitis when I was 14, and my liver is fucked.” In his darkest moments, “I can’t garden, I can hardly write”. Yet he forces himself to grind out his weekly column for the Observer. “I’m highly disciplined, if I didn’t do it, I’d be in trouble.”

And Monty knows about trouble. He lost both home and livelihood when a jewellery business he ran with Sarah went bust in the early nineties. “Ten years ago, I was on the dole for a year and had no work. I will never, never forget that.”

Now he is grateful for whatever work comes his way. And this year that has included the top job in the gardening media in these islands. Gardeners’ World, now in its 36th year, is watched by around 3 million, and Monty’s appointment as its main man puts him firmly in the position of being the peoples’ Head Gardener.

With his introverted personality, and slightly aloof and soldierly demeanour on television, he is a complete change from the perky everybody’s-best-friend Alan Titchmarsh. But his devotion to the process and craft of gardening, his honesty and high principles (not to mention his strong-bodied good looks), make him an interesting and brave choice. The programme, — which pre-Monty had regressed into a laddish, bantering party-in-the-garden — may be coming out of its thirty-something crisis.

“I would like Gardeners’ World to be grown up — you can be funny and serious together, but you don’t have to be facile,” says Monty. And although television is full of compromises, he strives to adhere to certain standards. “I will never endorse anything I haven’t used, or don’t like. I will never promote any non-organic gardening in any way, shape or form, and I’ll never say or do anything that I don’t believe in.”

And garden makeovers, although “fantastically entertaining television, are bad gardening. I’ve done them. I can’t be too sanctimonious as I’ve taken my shilling. But I didn’t feel good about doing them, because I was doing things that I would never, never have done in a garden.”

Makeovers have also led to the development of a television vernacular, says Monty, using out-of-context devices such as decking and paint. “Decking is really easy to do on television: you can do it any weather, you don’t have to dig anything and you can put it on top of things. It’s the same with paint, but it’s really hard to use so that it looks great in November on a grey day. Yet on television, especially if you heat it up with a bit of light, it looks great. It looks great for ten, fifteen minutes. That’s all it has to look good for.”

Such transformations “foster this belief of gardening as magic, not something that you have to have patience for, not something that grows. I would much rather see gardens that are slow. The drama’s there anyway, the drama is stupendous. Anyone who gardens knows that.”

Britain’s Head Gardener never even filled out an application for the post: “I never applied for a television job in my life. It would be disingenuous to say I won’t mind when it goes, because no-one appears on television unless they want to, but it’s not everything in my life.”

Far more important is his writing, although “I never wanted to write about gardening. I see myself as a writer who happens to write about gardening. I’ve written lots of other things, but they have never had any success. It just so happens that people want to publish what I write about gardening. When I was 23 that would have depressed me hugely, by 33 I was glad to take the money for anything, and by 43 I just thought, well this is the way it is. As I near 53, I think, well, you play the cards that you are dealt, and that is just the way it is. There’s time to do other things.”

And because Monty Don’s time is precious and rigorously ordered, I leave shortly afterwards — at 4.32 p.m. — carefully closing the gate behind me.

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§ 11 Responses to Was Doffed, now Donned again

  • Thanks for the plug and also for the very interesting blog. Unfortunately most of it just increases my irritation with Monty. If he doesn’t like being away from home why did he fly all round the world to do ’80 Gardens’ and now the forthcoming Italian garden series? He did nothing but mope about the former. If it’s going to depress him that much he should stand back and let some other presenter, who would be glad of the opportunity, do it. I also get bad SAD but I find not going for the self-absorbed, self-indulgent wallow helps me! Pah!


  • Anne Wareham says:

    Very nice (ahem!) piece of writing.Glad you rediscovered it – it’s what the internet is for!


  • Fiona Gilsenan says:

    Sounds like Mr. Don has a lot of theories about himself and about gardens. Like most theories, they are, well, theoretical. So reality-based gardening intrudes in the form of the quick fix, the first-class flight, the painted wall (I won’t argue with any of them). As for his principles, I wonder where the bit about scurrying out of twitter the day before a controversial re-hire was announced fits in?

    But I know little of Monty Don as he clearly doesn’t export well (who does?), so thanks for this bit of insight. Nicely done. Hope he gave you lunch.


  • VP says:

    A good article. It reinforces my question on why he’s granted permission for filming at Ivington this time around. It doesn’t seem to stack up with someone who’s so protective of his own space.


  • Anne Wareham says:

    VP – think of the travelling he’s saving. He doesn’t like that either…


  • An interesting read Jane – glad you revived your article here.


  • great article. love arabella’s video.
    great advice on the volume 🙂


  • Jill Croydon says:

    Thanks for resurrecting your well slaved over interview! I am in two minds over Monty’s return. I think he lends a certain gravitas to proceedings but then I feel there should be some balancing humour to the programme. I haven’t seen what is happening to Joe Swift – is he still involved?
    For my part I think there is a place for gardening programmes but maybe a different night may help.
    But there again the blogging posts are far reaching for most of us – except to my Dad who has only TV but still likes a spot of gardening and isn’t ashamed to say he doesn’t know it all!


  • patientgardener says:

    I enjoyed this article, firstly as I know the area of Monty’s house so I appreciate your heroic journey. Secondly I have a mixed response to MD I like hsi writing and much of his presenting but I get weary when he gets evangelical about compost and I think he can make some gardeners, especially novices, feel inadequate. However, I will always be grateful to his book The Jewel Garden in which he talks about his depression as it made me recognise my own symptoms and this has helped me cope better


  • I feel my first comment may have been a little harsh and in view of what Patient Garden has said I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I have no sympathy with people suffering from any form of depression. My problem with Monty Don is not that he talks about his various problems but that he so frequently sells them to the newspapers and in many ways I think this devalues them.


  • Ali O'Connor/Drumanagh says:

    Hasn’t Monty Don moved to a farm somewhere in Wales? Maybe that is why he is happy to have the cameras at Ivington now?


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