Getting down to earth with Monty Don

Tiffany Daneff / 14 December 2017

Monty Don reveals how his upbringing forged his driven nature – and how his garden has eased the blows of many personal setbacks.



The ground may be rock solid and shrubs rimed with frost, but even the harshest winter is unlikely to stop Monty Don from doing a spot of gardening. He arrives dressed, as ever, in rugged linen workwear, even though this interview is being conducted in the monochrome confines of the publisher’s office. We are here to discuss his latest book Down to Earth – unbelievably, his 19th – the garnering of 50 years of gardening experience. Plenty of people infinitely less busy than Monty (his parents named him Montagu) might congratulate themselves after writing a single book. But 2018 looks like it is going to be a humdinger for the nation’s favourite polymath, author, broadcaster and – absolutely not forgetting – owner of four dogs, notably Nigel, the golden retriever who has more Twitter followers than most humans.

New series Paradise Gardens

This month, Monty is presenting Paradise Gardens on BBC Two, which is about Islamic gardens and has taken him from Bradford to Morocco, around the Middle East and as far as Kashmir. There will be an accompanying book. Spring and summer will hurtle straight into the seasonal whirlwind of filming BBC Gardeners’ World, appearing at countless garden shows, giving hours of talks and writing a monthly garden column. As if that wasn’t enough to leave a grown man wilting, somehow he will scratch together the time, between pulling tulips and planting out lettuces, to write a memoir exploring the role animals play in our health and happiness, a subject that is understandably close to his heart. And, we’re not finished: he is also contracted to write a third memoir, this time taking the reader back to his childhood, growing up in Hampshire. He seems remarkably at ease, though, the sun shining on those famously chiselled cheekbones.

You’d never guess that he has been so busy this past fortnight that he has barely had time to garden. ‘Week before last I had two parties to go to, one in Kent and one in London, then I had a meeting with the BBC, so Saturday, Sunday, Monday, I was away. I filmed Tuesday, Wednesday. I then had to write all Thursday. I then had to go back to London on Friday to get a visa. I was writing all Saturday, filmed all Sunday and Monday, and then I went to Iran Tuesday to Saturday. Then a photoshoot Monday, filming Tuesday, Wednesday and a talk yesterday and came up here last night.’ It afforded him about an hour or two of gardening on one of those writing days and an hour the day before we meet. This clearly pains him. ‘On a very basic level, the garden is my constant point of reference, so when I put my hands in the soil – and it does always have to be hands and soil – I am grounding myself, and no matter whether I’m angry or I’m sad or bewildered or tired, or whatever I might be, it recharges the bits that need recharging and soothes away that which needs salving.’

Unlike most of us, Monty does have help in the form of two full-time gardeners with whom he remains in constant touch via text. But then his garden at Longmeadow in Herefordshire isn’t just his garden, it is the backdrop for his Gardeners’ World filming. Which begs the question, isn’t this rather like living above the shop? ‘The truth is,’ he says, ‘I don’t know whether I should say this, as it breaks a myth – home is work, and the only time it feels like not work is occasionally at the weekend – about one weekend out of three or four, when I just garden all the time.’ It might be tempting to say, well, tough luck, that’s a small price to pay for the devotion of the two and half million loyal fans who regularly switch on to Gardener’s World. But this seems ungenerous towards someone who has publicly talked about his debilitating depression and who has battled through more than his fair share of setbacks.

A tragic past, and finding peace through gardening

At the age of 19, his twin sister was severely injured in a horrific car crash that affected the whole family. Then there was the collapse of his jewellery company in the 1980s and a minor stroke. His way of managing has always been to throw himself into projects. He’s a large man, tall and broad shouldered, built to be a boxer (he won his blue at Cambridge) and to slice a shovel clean into hard soil.

His friend and fellow gardener, Sarah Raven, recalls that when he was making his first big country garden in Herefordshire he actually hired floodlights so that he could continue digging at night. Yet stirred in with the sturdy loam from which he’s made is a lighter, more unexpected layer, an elegance of thought and notable felicity of style. In Down to Earth he sums up what it is to garden in cold weather in a couple of simple sentences: ‘Mud becomes solid. You can walk dry-shod and push wheelbarrows full of muck or weeds over it.’

Immediately, we’re there, too, feeling the hard ground underfoot. Monty is both illuminating and passionate while not losing his train of thought. ‘I used to be a very driven person,’ he says, ‘and very competitive, not surprising given my upbringing. I had to get up and get out and do things.’ He talks freely about his childhood.

He and his brothers grew up with a five-acre garden at the family home in Hampshire that was tended by a full-time gardener until Monty was about seven or eight, when the gardener fell off a ladder and damaged his back. ‘Mr Roberts lived in a tied cottage and my parents, of course, didn’t kick him out, but nor could they offer a cottage for the replacement, so they didn’t get one.’ Monty’s mother, who had been brought up in the house, determined that the garden would still be maintained to a certain level. And the family would do this. Duty called.

‘I don’t remember any aesthetic, cultural, sensual appreciation of the garden – it was entirely practical. We grew vegetables and fruit to eat, we had a big lawn, we had a grass tennis court – you mowed it in order that you could play tennis. I remember sieving leaf mould to make potting compost for chrysanths. It was horrible.’ He recalls endless digging and a lot of shearing, and edging and mowing.

‘No one seemed to have any love of plants. For my parents, particularly my mother, it was completely and utterly dictated by duty. Duty to everything – duty to the church, duty to God, duty to the community, duty to the garden. It was a kind of neurotic sense that you had to pay your debt – the great mantra was, “God first, others next, self last”. That was absolutely the motto. ‘The “self last” was as important as the “God first”. It wasn’t a sort of “be one with God”, it was “don’t get above yourself. Make sure everything else is done before. You are the least important person in every situation. You are the person that deserves and receives the least.”

‘That was absolutely their credo – my father, who was an Army officer, was absolutely “horses first, men next, self last”. So, in honesty, the whole culture was one of jobs and duty. The upside was they inculcated into all their children a work ethic, which is useful if you automatically can get up at any time and go to work and get it done. I don’t resent that at all. A lot of people never have that.’ He says he is much changed now and this comes across in his new book – gardeners are not bullied into seasonal tasks but gently enthused and encouraged through the year. ‘I used to have a kind of muscular Christianity – the garden was something that could be made and tamed and brought to heel.’

He talks with obvious passion about turning that around, of being less prescriptive and having more humility. One suspects that this is a reaction to those endless gardening tips he must deliver. The motto now is: forget the how and when and think more about the whys of doing what you do: ‘Rather than hands-on gardening, fingertip gardening.’ Perhaps this explains why he is creating a private garden, to be kept secret from the world. ‘We have a farm as well, where I do spend as much time as I can, and that is completely private. It’s in mid-Wales, in the Black Mountains. I’m making a garden there. But I’ve never written about it; I’ve never photographed it; I’ve never filmed it because I know from experience once that door is opened you can’t go back.’

A Q&A with Monty Don

In your latest book Down to Earth you are very gentle towards the gardener. Was that your intention?

Absolutely. Feel free to do your own thing. Don’t feel there are rules and jobs and chores that you ought to be doing. I try to say, ‘Look, here are some tips and advice based on my own experience; they may not work for you but they might. Give it a go but, above all, enjoy it and get as much wellbeing from it as possible.’ Otherwise there’s no point in doing it.

Why does gardening matter to you?

On a very basic level, the garden is my constant point of reference, so when I put my hands in the soil – and it does always have to be hands and soil, whether it’s weeding or planting – I am getting back down to earth, I am getting back down to the basics. I am grounding myself. And no matter whether I’m angry or I’m sad or bewildered or tired, or whatever I might be, it recharges the bits that need recharging and soothes away that which needs salving.

You stop thinking and you start doing, things that need your full concentration, and that’s always incredibly good for you. If you’re worrying, ‘Am I planting this at the right depth? How much mulch should I be putting on?’ you’re not thinking about the important thing, which is the plants and the relationship between the plants. Think about the empty bits, the spaces between things – you need to garden that. And yet as a society we obsess about technique. What I want to say in my new book is ‘Worry less about that and worry about when, why, who for?’

One of the things that this book is trying to sneak in is to stop obsessing about technique and start thinking about the bigger picture like health, like spirituality, like beauty, like poetry – all the abstract things that, in the end, are more important than whether you cut the roses at the right angle.

Can you relax when gardening?

It’s like living above a shop; that’s exactly what it feels like – it’s a shop that you want to be in, but you’re never wholly off duty.

The truth is – I don’t know whether I should say this, as it breaks a myth – home is work, and the only time it feels like not work is one weekend out of three or four, when I just garden all weekend. Within about an hour or so I’ve forgotten about filming.

We have a farm in the Black Mountains as well, where I do spend as much time as I can, and that is completely private. I’m making a garden there, and I’m doing stuff there. But I’ve never written about it; never photographed it; I’ve never filmed it for the deliberate reason I know from experience that once that door is opened you can’t go back. So I do have an escape where I can do my thing; it’s as different as it could be – really, really different.

Do you ever get cross with your gardening self?

What does happen, which amazes me, is I now forget to do things or they just get overlooked, and it’s usually to do with sowing seed; thinking about so-and-so and realising that ‘now it’s too late’. That happens all the time but I think it’s maybe because I’m really busy. I’m not a very good delegator; I try, but I don’t think I’m a natural delegator.

How much help do you have with the garden?

I have the equivalent of two people: one full time and two part-time, who do two days a week. Whatever I’m doing when I’m at home, I walk round the garden first thing in the morning. I check the greenhouses; I check every pot. I will meet the one permanent gardener, and we talk through what has to be done that day. I know exactly what he’s doing – it doesn’t matter where I am in the world.

With such a busy schedule, how much time do you have just to be in the garden?

Week before last, I had two parties to go to – one in Kent and one in London – I then had a meeting with the BBC in London so Saturday, Sunday, Monday I was away. I filmed Tuesday, Wednesday. I then had to write all day Thursday. I then had to go back to London on Friday to get a visa.

The only gardening I’ve done outside filming in the last two weeks was about an hour or two on one of those writing days and about an hour yesterday when I moved four standard bay trees. I couldn’t delegate that, because I didn’t know where I wanted them.

What was your earliest gardening memory?

I don’t ever remember gardening being done by anybody just for pleasure. When I grew up we had a five-acre garden in Hampshire and a full-time gardener until I was about seven or eight years old, but he fell off a ladder and hurt his back and he lived in a tied cottage. My parents, of course, didn’t kick him out, but as they couldn’t offer a cottage to the replacement gardener they didn’t get one.

My mother, who had been brought up in the house, felt it had to be maintained to a certain level. I don’t remember any aesthetic, cultural, sensual appreciation of the garden – it was entirely practical. We grew lots of vegetables and fruit to eat, we had a big lawn, we had a grass tennis court; you mowed it in order that you could play tennis. We had two greenhouses – one heated – and you grew pelargoniums and things like alyssum in wooden seed-tray boxes. I clearly remember sieving leaf mould to make potting compost for chrysanths. It was a horrible job.

The positive side was that by the time my two brothers and I were in our late teens, we had an eccentric but quite extensive education in gardening. We were completely confident about growing any type of vegetable. We didn’t think twice about how to prune raspberries or how to take cuttings or prepare compost. I seemed to do endless digging, and a lot of shearing, and edging and mowing – in other words utterly unromantic activities. There was no question of an older person showing me how plants grew or sharing their own love of plants. No one seemed to have any love of plants. For my parents, particularly my mother, it was completely and utterly dictated by duty. Duty to everything – duty to the church, duty to God, duty to the community, duty to the garden. It was a kind of neurotic sense that you had to pay your debt. The great mantra was ‘God first, others next, self last’. That was absolutely the motto.

The ‘self last’ was as important as the ‘God first’. It wasn’t a sort of ‘be one with God’, it was ‘Don’t get above yourself. Make sure everything else is done before. You are the least important person in every situation. You are the person that deserves and receives the least.’ That was absolutely their credo – my father, who was an army officer, was absolutely ‘horses first, men next, self last’. So in honesty, the whole culture was one of jobs and duty. The upside was they completely inculcated into all their children a work ethic.

What was the first garden you made?

In 1981, Sarah [Monty’s wife] and I bought a house in London in an area called De Beauvoir, between Islington and Hackney, because my grandfather died and left me a legacy. Sarah got divorced and there was a little settlement and we got a little mortgage – it all added up to around £30,000. My parents were horrified that I had a £15,000 mortgage, really thinking I was irresponsible and saddling myself with a problem. It had a large garden because the house next door had been bombed and the owners of our house, unknown to us, had simply nabbed the other garden, which caused all kinds of legal problems later.

By then I loved gardening even though I didn’t have my own garden, and Sarah loved gardens, and so it was an important thing to us. In our twenties, when we were making jewellery [Monty Don Jewellery in Knightsbridge] and were much involved in the whole New Romanticky movement, we would have our garden that no one else shared. I literally didn’t know another human being who was interested in gardening.

How did you make the move from jewellery to gardening?

We made this garden – it was a nice garden, it was a good garden; we loved it and spent a good amount of time in it. A magazine came to do a lifestyle feature on our house because by then we were becoming quite successful in our own little way and they looked out of the window and said ‘God, who did you get to do your garden?’ We explained that it was nobody, we did it ourselves, and part of the feature was Sarah and I in the garden. Several papers picked it up and a newspaper supplement asked me to write a couple of features about other people’s gardens and they liked the way I wrote and asked me to do more.

We moved to Herefordshire in the summer of ’88, and I wrote a book about it [now out of print]. So what had happened was this very private activity that was almost a bit odd, suddenly became my mainstream work, and then I got rung up by television, literally out of the blue. I was in the garden, and the phone was going and I ran indoors to answer it, cursing because I had muddy feet, and it was a researcher from Granada Television asking would I come and do a screen test because they were looking for a new young gardener. They paid a hundred quid for the screen test and literally the next week they said, ‘Come and do a live item.’ I just happened to be the right person in the right place, and that’s the way the world worked, and with a few glitches, it just rolled on from there.

What, even joining the team at Gardeners’ World?

I was writing a book when I got a phone call out of the blue from Jane Root, who was then head of BBC Two, saying, ‘I suspect you know why I’m calling?’ I had NO idea, but I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ She said, ‘Well we ought to talk about it.’ I said, ‘Well we must.’ So I went to the Television Centre, not having any idea what was going on, and it turned out Alan Titchmarsh was retiring from Gardeners’ World and they wanted me to take over. It was about half an hour into that meeting before I was absolutely sure that that was what was being talked about. It was one of those very surreal experiences. So that again was utterly out of the blue.

Has gardening changed you?

I used to be a very driven person and very competitive, not surprising given my upbringing. I had to get up and get out and do things. I’m much less like that now. I wouldn’t say it’s completely gone – and in my approach to gardening I’m much less like that. I used to have a kind of muscular Christianity, so much so that the garden was something that could be made and tamed and brought to heel – albeit, I hope, with a sensitivity to beauty and creativity – but I now see it as something that comes to you and, while my garden was designed and I have plans to show it, I don’t feel that the execution of those designs is what the garden is about. That was the starting point and I now think that gardens don’t properly come alive until you don’t know what to do.

Does this mean letting go more?

We all know that given enough money and time you can do anything – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. In the past ten years in particular, but I suspect it’s been a gradual process going back 20 years, partly through Sarah, partly through travelling a great deal, partly through just growing up, I’ve been trying to have the lightest touch possible – rather than hands-on gardening, fingertip gardening. Let things happen, and they may well be much nicer than anything you could come up with.

The gardens I like best are the ones that tremble on the edge of arrogance. You feel like they are only one week away from falling apart and the juxtaposition of quite carefully controlled elements with potential insurrection is very nice – that’s what makes gardens interesting.

Monty Don's timeline: from the boxing ring to the potting shed

1955 Born in West Berlin where his father, a soldier, is stationed, but grows up in Hampshire.

1960s and 70s Despite failing his A-levels first time, he reads English at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he wins a blue for boxing and meets his future wife, Sarah.

1980s With Sarah, a jeweller, he opens Monty Don Jewellery, designing and selling costume pieces to Princess Diana, Boy George and Michael Jackson from their Knightsbridge shop.

1990s After ‘Black Monday’ and the stock market crash in October 1987, the business goes bust. The Dons lose everything, including their home and furniture. He publishes his first book The Prickotty Bush about moving from London to Herefordshire.

1991 A ‘painful and difficult’ time in which depression hits Monty badly.

1994 Starts writing for newspapers and magazines and gets his first TV work presenting gardening on This Morning.

2003 To the shock of many, Monty takes over from Alan Titchmarsh as the first self-taught presenter of Gardeners’ World.

2006 On Desert Island Discs he picks the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night as his favourite record, plus works of the 17th-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan and a Rembrandt.

2008 Following a minor stroke, Monty stands down from Gardeners’ World

2011 After viewing figures tumble, Gardeners’ World asks Monty to return. He agrees on condition he broadcasts from his home garden, Longmeadow in Herefordshire (another first for the show).

2016 Ends eight years as President of the Soil Association.

2018 Look out for Paradise Gardens book and TV series.

Down to Earth by Monty Don is published by Dorling Kindersley, £17.99

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