A split second of silence. Suddenly, the faint sound of birdsong and a close up image appears on the screen, – a bird perched on a branch, a close-up of a rose, a bee hovering over a flower – stunningly vivid if you own a high def television. I sip my tea. Cut to a widescreen shot of the garden. The man himself walks into the frame, scruffily sartorial, performing some minor garden task and accompanied by at least one — if not both — of his two golden retrievers. Make no mistake, Nigel and Nell have their own fan base. Monty Don looks at the camera, smiles as if he’s been expecting us — as indeed he has. “Welcome [brief pause] to Gardeners World.”
Since 1968 British gardeners have tuned into this longrunning BBC program, which explores the very best of English gardening trends. Monty Don is the 7th (2003-2008) and 9th (2011-present) host, having been briefly replaced by Toby Buckland. Upon his return in 2011 the show was moved to Longmeadow, his personal garden located in Herefordshire. While Don films almost exclusively from there, making the occasional foray into the world for a flower show or limited series on international gardens, the show has a slew of presenters who act as roving correspondents. These include Carol Klein, Adam Frost, Rachel De Thame, Joe Swift, Arit Anderson, and Mark Lane – many, if not all, award-winning garden designers in their own right. And each with his or her own distinctive and endearing quirks.
Gardeners World became available to viewers on this side of the Atlantic in 2018, just in time for the 50th Anniversary series, as part of Amazon’s Britbox channel. It’s gathered a loyal following. There’s nothing like it on US television. The closest equivalent would be PBS’ The Victory Garden, which ended 2015. And still, from what little I remember, that show lacked the British show’s sense of panache.
Gardeners World popularity derives from it being the perfect combination of the practical and aspirational. My front and back yards will never attain the glory of Longmeadow in late Spring – but it won’t be for lack of trying. In May, my husband and I planted five yews to create a hedge. In preparation, we watched and re-watched a video of Monty demonstrating the steps involved, and then followed his instructions to the letter. My husband has no interest in gardening… but his attention to detail is incredible. Those yews are perfectly lined up, spaced exactly three feet on center, and planted in carefully mounded soil. I mulched them with leaf mold I made from last years leaves, something else I learned from Monty Don video.
But that’s not the end of our endeavors. Our property is too small for a potting shed, so we’re turning the workbench in our detached garage into a potting bench. Beneath it, I’m storing my black plastic nursery pots, which I’m more conscious about reusing thanks to Arit’s exploration last year of non-recyclable plastics in the British gardening industry. I’ve also bought my first Clematis, which is currently planted outside the back door. I fully intend to move and train up the brick side of our house next spring — now that I know how to create a wire support.
Of course we could find instructions on how to do all these things on YouTube, but I find it’s not the same. Over time you come to form a relationship, albeit one-sided, with the show’s presenters. There’s an investment as you follow their progress over multiple episodes. Last season we watched as Monty turned an area at Longmeadow that once housed an old greenhouse into a paradise garden. And experienced the trials and tribulations of working on an allotment (the closest U.S. equivalent would be a community garden) with Frances Tophill.
After watching an episode of Gardeners World, projects that once seemed intimidating are suddenly less so. I’m eager to get back outside. There are things I can do in my own yard that contribute positively to the environment… or at the very least do no harm. I find a general sense of contentment settles in when working in the garden. One of the prevailing themes of this year’s series is gardening as a source of mental wellness. God knows we can all use a respite from the chaos of current events. Or a reminder that the natural world is still beautiful… something we allow ourselves to forget much too often in the looming shadow of global warming and the environmental crisis.
Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of discussion of books on Gardeners World. Monty Don has written several, and Adam Frost just released a very good gardening how-to called (somewhat unimaginatively) How to Create Your Garden. There’s always been a connection between gardeners, writers and readers. I’m not sure what that connection is or why it exists, but gardens have always figured prominently in literature. I’m reminded again of Voltaire’s advice that we tend to our gardens. Or a wonderful quote from Robert M. Pyle, “But make no mistake: the weeds will win; nature bats last.” Perhaps it is that we — gardeners and readers alike — are all homebodies at heart. Or that gardening, like reading, requires vast stores of patience and concentration.
Recently, we visited family in London. It was my first trip to England and we timed it to coincide with the Chelsea Garden Show. It was wonderful – and while the show gardens, themselves, are high theater, I did see a few things I’ll be using at home. And it helped to souse out my tastes… It seems I don’t hate hostas as much as I thought. And that I lean towards the more unkempt, wilderness gardens. The more rusted metal debris scattered around ornamentally, the better.
The running joke was that a Monty Don sighting would make it a perfect day. And then my husband spotted him – no mean feat considering the man was on the top of a tower, recording the BBC program with Joe Swift. I only managed to get a photo of the back of Monty’s head, despite the crowd around me yelling “Stand up Monty!” and “Turn around Monty!” Eventually, he and Joe did stand up and wave. A polite cheer went up from his fans, none of who appeared to be (shall we say?) in the Spring of their lives. But this was a gardening show. And, as I said to our friends, — everyone has someplace where they get to be a rock star.