Monty Don is the biggest name in gardening in the United Kingdom, and this week he’s my guest for the very special 200th episode of “The joe gardener Show.” In our conversation, he shares his behind-the-scenes experience as Lead Presenter of the No. 1 British gardening show, Gardeners’ World during a pandemic and discusses the takeaways from his tour of the United States to film “Monty Don’s American Gardens.”
Monty is a prolific horticultural writer and the long-time lead presenter of “Gardeners’ World,” which the BBC has deemed “essential public service broadcasting.” The British magazine Prospect has named him “The Nation’s Gardener.” Monty has hosted numerous gardening shows set in Britain and others around the world, most recently “Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens” and “Monty Don’s American Gardens.”
Last year Monty published the Sunday Times best-seller “My Garden World” and an “American Gardens” book that complements the television series. His popular 2003 book “The Complete Gardener: A Practical, Imaginative Guide to Every Aspect of Gardening” will be re-released in a revised edition in May.
How Monty Don Got His Start
As a child in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he lived on five cultivated acres in the south of England. When the family’s gardener hurt his back and could no longer tend the land, Monty’s mother put Monty and his brothers to work. And it felt like work. He was 7 years old, and gardening was a chore then. But over the next 10 years, gardening became part of his life, and he couldn’t help but learn, he says.
Monty recalls that when he was a rebellious 17-year-old he came home from school on a late March day and instinctively went outside to sow carrots. He could feel spring unfolding, and at the moment of pouring carrot seeds into his hand to plant into the soil he had just prepared, he was filled with a profound feeling of happiness. That night, he had a dream that he put his hands into the earth and his fingers grew into the soil like roots. He awoke feeling refreshed, at ease and connected to the earth. “I’ve never really lost that feeling,” he says.
It was after that experience that his chores became pleasurable, and for the next five years he put that energy into growing fruits and vegetables with his brother. They found that they were good at it, and he parlayed that skill into earning his keep as a gardener in the South of France for six months when he was a university student.
Still, Monty’s ambition was to be a professional writer rather than a professional gardener. He says it wasn’t until he was 30 that it occurred to him to write about gardens. He and his wife, Sarah, were interviewed about their own garden for a newspaper, and he was soon offered the opportunity to write about others’ gardens.
Monty and Sarah later moved out of London to the country, where he was hired to write a monthly column and received a book commission as well. His column got him noticed by a researcher for a television company, leading to a screen test and an offer to be a daytime television gardening segment host. He never aimed to work on television, but he gave it a go anyway.
“I’ve always had this policy in life,” Monty shares. “If you say no, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what would happen. If you say yes, you’ll find out.”
Monty now has more than 20 books under his belt, most of which concern gardening and stewardship, and many, many television credits.
Getting to Know American Gardens
Monty presented “Around the World in 80 Gardens” in 2008 and followed it with other limited series highlighting the best gardens worldwide, like “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” and “Monty Don’s French Gardens.” But he says it took five years for him to convince BBC to commission “Monty Don’s American Gardens.”
“I’ve filmed in America and I visited gardens, and I knew that I just scratched the surface,” Monty says. “I wanted to see more.”
He says people in Britain do not know enough about American gardens — and he sought to resolve that. Finally, he got approval to film in 2019, and he made the companion book with photographer Derry Moore. Over the course of three episodes released in January 2020 on BBC, Monty visits community gardens in New York and historical gardens in the South plus the Arizona desert and the West Coast.
“It’s such a melting pot that, how could you expect any sort of coherent garden to emerge from it?” he says of the United States. “Whereas in Europe, of course, we’re used to Italian gardens and French gardens, and British gardens.”
With Japanese gardens and Islamic gardens, too, you know what you’re going to get, he says. “American gardens? Whoa! You’re going to get the world, and of course, that’s fantastic. And I think it’s exciting and interesting, and we’ve got a lot to learn, but you can’t pin it down.”
Monty says he’s painfully aware that he could have produced another three hours of television and written a second book on another set of American gardens. That being said, he did notice one recurring theme: “There is no one American garden, but there is a relationship that Americans seem to have … that you don’t find elsewhere in the world between the domestic and the great outdoors.”
An American suburban garden (with huge exceptions) is about being domestic, safe and part of a community, staking a claim on the land and conforming to a fairly limited pattern, he says. He encourages Americans to realize that what happens in their gardens also happens in the wilderness and to make those environmental and ecological connections.
British gardens are about individuality and creativity in a very conformist world, and each garden will be a surprise. On the other hand, Americans, while more dynamic and adventurous, have more conservative gardens, Monty says.
However, he adds, he’s very happy to be proven wrong.
Gardens to the British
Gardening content is hugely popular on British television, and Monty attributes that to the role of the garden in British people’s lives. He said it’s completely normal for someone to be a keen, avid gardener, and what plants everyone is growing is a common topic of conversation when meeting friends for dinner.
“Because we’re so much smaller than you and we are so much more densely populated and have much less space, your garden becomes really important — because that is your freedom,” Monty says. “These little back gardens are your world.”
When Americans want to get into nature, they leave their garden, Monty says. For the British wanting the same, they go into their garden. And by the latest figures he’s heard, 84% of British people have a garden.
When the U.K. went on lockdown due to coronavirus, those gardens became the only outdoor space where people could go. The lockdown also stopped production of many television shows, but “Gardeners’ World” was able to resume filming, albeit remotely.
“People have said incredibly kind things about how we kept the nation’s spirit up. We kept things calm. We kept connecting to a life that is bigger and broader than pandemics, and that would continue and flow, and seasons, and this sense that we could all have a shared life even though we were all confined to our homes,” Monty says.
“Gardeners’ World” premiered on the BBC in 1968, and Monty took over as lead presenter in 2003. He hosts from his own garden in Herefordshire, and the most recent season is 33 hourlong episodes.
Monty’s part in each episode is filmed the same week that it airs. Footage from weeks or months earlier cannot be used because the BBC’s “truth and honesty” charter prohibits portraying old events as if they are current. That means filming in the rain if it’s raining, which Monty finds liberating. When he films on the road, filming is at the mercy of the weather and the light.
Normally, two teams work on a season, alternating. Because of COVID they are now working with three teams on rotation, so Monty works with a fresh, rested team every week. Two days of filming take place in Monty’s gardens each week, and five segments are filmed elsewhere for each episode.
Monty never uses a script, but he knows what he wants to say and has the luxury of a second take. Normally, there are two cameras in the garden, one following him and one for shots of the garden. At the beginning of the COVID lockdown, however, he was mostly on his own. He set up a camera on a tripod, Sarah operated sound, and a director talked to him over Zoom.
Eventually, the BBC decided “the show must go on” and installed 5 miles of cables around the garden and put up cabins in the driveway. The director has one cabin and the sound crew has another. The cameraman operates cameras on tripods, via remote control. Monty hides a walkie-talkie in the garden to stay in touch, and this year they have added an iPad for a monitor of the shot the cameras are recording.
Filming without people around for reactions and immediate feedback has been no fun for him, but the audience has liked the programs, he says.
Another new thing “Gardeners’ World” did in 2020 was to ask viewers to send in cellphone videos from their gardens. Producers had anticipated using one or two, but received more than 10,000 and estimated at least half of the videos were of broadcast quality.
“They were so rich in human life,” Monte says. “They were funny. They were tragic. They were informative. They were surprising. We have people who were lonely, who had been locked down, who hadn’t seen or had spoken to anyone or hadn’t touched anybody for months, but had their gardens.”
Three are chosen for broadcast each week. Monty says televising the videos advances his passion of getting more people in their 20s and 30s interested in gardening. It’s shifted “Gardeners’ World” to be more about sharing than just learning. Though the videos were originally intended to fill time in an emergency, they are now an essential part of the show that will stick around after the pandemic.
Monty anticipates a new normal will come post-pandemic, and that includes a greater appreciation for gardens: “I think people have really valued the privilege of having a garden, to be outside, to watch nature.”
Monty Don’s Longmeadow
Monty and Sarah’s garden is named Longmeadow, on two acres they purchased in 1991, when it was basically a barren field.
Having no money but some time on his hands, Monty set out to make himself aware of everything that was there. It was abandoned, but there were less tangible things to take note of: “Where does the cold wind come from? Where’s the warming wind? In April, where does the sun rise above the horizon? And in high summer, what was the hot spot in the garden?”
“This sort of very intimate relationship you have with a plot is really important in terms of how you design it, how you use it,” he says.
He also cut the grass and raked it all up — all two acres — three times, and discovered in the process that grass was thin in some places and lush in other places, which spoke to the quality of the soil in different areas. He also found fallen trees and investigated what types they were, discovering where an orchid had been.
Monty became acquainted with the land before growing anything, and that affected where he grew his vegetables and where he planted an orchard and windbreaks.
“The best thing you can do when you take on a new garden is nothing,” he says. Instead, just pay attention. Learn which direction the rain comes from for example, and where the garden is warmest and coolest.
“You need that knowledge,” he says, “and then you start to create a space that is about you and your life in tune with what is happening.”
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Monty Don, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What do you think is the unique quality of American gardens? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
Watch “Monty Don’s American Gardens” (Only functional for viewers in the U.K.)
“My Garden World” by Monty Don
“American Gardens” by Monty Don and Derry Moore
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company and Wild Alaskan Seafood Box. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.