How Monty Don became the nation's gardener

Critics have declared him too posh and too dreamy. But the host of Gardeners' World has come to soothe and inspire a nation—and he's as outspoken as ever
June 11, 2020

The fine, dry April that passed earlier this year, in a surreal blaze of lockdown, was the first that Monty Don has spent at home in five years. One of the great ironies of being the nation’s favourite gardener is that there is often not the time to luxuriate in one’s own garden. But the presence of Don, who will be 65 in July, is reliably felt in millions of others. His 21 books, published over the past 30 years, have frequently been at the top of horticultural bestseller lists—this spring his Down to Earth is in pole position on Amazon’s UK sales list. He has more than 600,000 social media followers. He is the face of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and, more famously, the host of the BBC’s flagship Gardeners’ World.

To engage with gardening in the UK today is to engage, unavoidably, with Monty. And when gardening occupies such a sacred spot in the national mindset, the Don supremacy can be contentious. While his predecessors—the pipe-smoking Percy Thrower and the chipper, can-do Alan Titchmarsh—seemed at home in suburbia, Don took Gardeners’ World to his own sprawling, oft-flooded, semi-wild Herefordshire garden, Longmeadow. He’s a lifelong proponent of organic gardening and his dismissal of pesticides, weedkiller and peat is deemed unsupportive and unrealistic by many in the horticultural industry.

While such ruggedness has made growing-your-own fashionably sexy for the masses, it is sniffed at by an old guard, who regard Don—and his lack of formal training—as bogus. Other critics declare him too posh, too dreamy, tucked away in the countryside with his two acres of land. But during lockdown, for all those suddenly newly-dependent on their gardens, balconies or window boxes for solace, Don’s easy-going approach makes him a hero. Though filmed without a crew due to social distancing measures, Gardeners’ World has provided a soothingly familiar balm in a frightening and shapeshifting landscape. It has also enjoyed its highest viewing figures in a decade.

*** Despite his primetime prominence, Don still sees himself primarily as a writer “who happens to have lots of television work.” (And in his younger days, he actually wrote a couple of novels though, in his own words, he soon “destroyed” them because they were “excruciatingly bad.”) He is finishing his next book, about wildlife at Longmeadow, when we speak over the phone, and so I picture him at the desk that he has described in his books, in a converted hop kiln, with the beds of his adored dogs at his feet.

Outside, Don’s gardens, as seen on television, seem all the larger for their many different compartments: the mound, the wildlife garden, the orchard, the “writing garden,” the damp garden, the veg garden, the jewel garden, the paradise garden, the woodland garden among them. There’s an unrestrained ease, a giddy wildness about them all—the box hedge has blight, wigwams are constructed from pruning offcuts. Green-fingered traditionalists on Gardeners’ World forums cluck that it’s a mess, that too much is crammed in. But everyone else dreams of nurturing something similar.

By documenting this backyard—in books, on Gardeners’ World, daily on social media—Don has allowed fans a glimpse behind the garden wall of what is, in many ways, a deeply private life. No wonder he gets asked technical questions the world over. “You could be on a street in Tokyo and someone will say, ‘I’ve got this plant on my windowsill…’” he told me. “There is this absolute knee-jerk thing that they feel they can ask you a question. Which can’t be true of all television programmes. Somehow with gardening it is.”

Don admits that this familiarity, the well-meaning questions, can get behind the avuncular demeanour—and under the skin. And on those occasions when he’s not away working, he likes to be at home, in the Tudor-framed doer-upper that he moved into, in 1992, with his wife, Sarah—an architect who has long kept the fires burning and greenhouses tidy during his frequent absences—and their three now-grown children. “The truth is I don’t go out and about very much,” he told me. “I certainly never go for a meal locally, I don’t go to pubs.” At home, and with friends, Monty is Montagu, and there is one rule: don’t talk about work.

Born George Montagu Don in Germany in 1955 (alongside a twin sister, Alison), by the age of 10 he had lost his first name. His “tyrannical” paternal grandfather, also called George, refused to have his own name associated with “Montagu,” a name he deemed preposterous. Don’s father Denis was an army major who left the forces when Don was five, and “never really found his feet in civvy life,” Don said on Desert Island Discs in 2006. Janet, his mother, declared that once her children had reached the age of five, she wished she wouldn’t have to see them again until adulthood, a wish the English public school system can go a long way towards fulfilling. “I’m certain she loved all of us, but she found it hard to show it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t “remember being cuddled much.” It sounds like the sort of reflection that might take years of therapy to unearth, and with Don there is always an air of uneasy depths, a sense that the “nature cure” is far more than a fashionable phrase.

He was expected to work hard in childhood. Janet set her five children checklists of chores: “chop wood, fill the coal scuttles, feed the chickens, wash up, gather vegetables for lunch, mow the lawn, weed the strawberries,” Don recalled in his 2016 book, Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs, and it instilled in him a Puritan work ethic that would emerge again with adulthood.

*** He grew up in an inherited pile in Hampshire—five acres, cottages on the house’s grounds—against the gloom of his father’s money worries and “profound” depression. Freedom came in the woods that surrounded the village, where Don would walk the family dogs for hours. At seven, he was sent to boarding school, thanks to a trust fund left by his grandfather. Home, he wrote, became “an absence, a heartache, where all the things I loved lived.”

Rebellion followed soon after: the self-confessed “black sheep” of the family, he was kicked out of schools until he wound up at a comprehensive in Basingstoke. Encountering girls for the first time at college, he flunked his A-Levels. But he also had an epiphany that would remain a solace for the rest of his life: that gardening made him “completely content” in a life where little else was.

It wouldn’t, yet, make him rich. While his classmates were going to university, Don took a job at a pig farm, working there in the mornings and spending the afternoons going through old Oxbridge entrance exams. At 21—the age when friends who had stayed on the conveyor belt would graduate—he was accepted to Magdalene College, Cambridge, after spending eight months in Provence, gardening for an eccentric old woman in exchange for lunch and lessons in worldliness.

“We were like those sticks of asparagus that come white out of the tin, and here was someone full of life, with blood in his veins,” remembers Adam Nicolson, the writer and grandson of the author and garden designer Vita Sackville-West, who met Don while they were both reading English. “He was amazingly alluring. Very vigorous, like a Thomas Hardy figure.” Don was the kind of student who took a Labrador (named Gretel) with him to university. Having stayed up late drinking whisky, he would drunkenly weep to taped recordings of birdsong posted to him by his father. It was at Cambridge that Don would meet Sarah, who was married to one of the others in his rowing crew, until she divorced after falling for Don. They married a few years later, a week after Don “rowed Sarah out to sea, and refused to row back unless she agreed to marry me.”

A smattering of occupations followed—being a bin man, a London School of Economics postgrad drop-out and a waiter at Soho restaurant Joe Allen—before Don and Sarah set up a jewellery company, Monty Don. Sarah had nurtured an interest in jewellery while living in Papua New Guinea, aged 19, with her first husband; after training in silversmithing, she and Don decided to make a business of it. Their garish designs captured the excessive appetites of 80s largesse and were worn by Princess Diana and Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue. “Monty Don earrings were hugely desirable in the mid-eighties,” Shulman told me. “They were very much a part of the scene then when costume jewellery came back into fashion.”

Don admits that “it was really glamorous.” He spent those days dressed top-to-toe in black and “covered in jewellery,” according to his wife. “We could always get a cab because he looked so amazing,” she wrote in their joint memoir, The Jewel Garden. He said they somehow “thought it was normal to hang out with pop stars and film stars.” Only, it wasn’t. The 1987 stock market crash and then the ratcheting up of interest rates the following year ensured a devastatingly swift end to Monty Don Jewellery that left the couple—who chose to pay back creditors, rather than declare bankruptcy—with a decade’s worth of debt and three children under five, ditching their De Beauvoir end-of-terrace for a crumbling ruin of a house in Herefordshire.

“That failure is key to understanding him,” said Allan Jenkins, who edited Don for seven years at the Observer. “The first failure was at school, then the business. It’s left him with a sort of insecurity.”

Don brings it up swiftly when we speak, shortly after I ask if the frequent claims of his workaholism are legitimate. “We had to sell everything we owned, including our house, our furniture, everything. Literally everything we had to sell, we did sell,” he told me. “That was a pretty traumatic experience. I don’t think that ever leaves you. That spectre is always slightly over your shoulders, you want to go against it.”

Unemployed and with bailiffs at the door, Don started the 1990s in a cloud of debilitating depression. Sarah, who was also struggling with crippling ill-health, in her case physical, gave him an ultimatum: to go and see a doctor, or the marriage is over.

“He’s capable of incredible unhappiness at the same time as this large embrace of the world and all its beauties,” said his old university friend Nicolson. “How those two things are related I don’t really know, but it’s very important for who he is, that they co-exist.”

Then, a combination of Prozac, time and the enormous challenge of transforming two acres of “scrubby, abandoned field” into Longmeadow, lifted the gloom. Don still suffers from depression now, particularly during winter months, but said he has “learned how to manage it.” Work, keeping busy, helps considerably. “Sarah always says that nothing has made me weller than success,” he told me, with a wry laugh. “It’s really crass but it’s much easier to feel mentally healthy if the world is going your way.”

And by the mid-1990s things did start going his way. A few writing gigs interrupted two years on the dole, including a piece about his escape to the country for the Daily Mail. He then landed a column in the Observer and his first regular television gig on ITV’s This Morning. Richard Madeley, who co-presented with his wife Judy Finnigan, still remembers Don’s first day. “The first thing that occurred to both of us was how all the women really fancied him. Here was this horny-handed son of the soil coming in. He had this sort of Mellors kind of sex appeal,” Madeley said, referring to gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, the titular character of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Much like his history as a fashion darling, Don’s sturdy good looks have, at times, been used as a stick to beat him with. “He was the perfect contrast to the age of Titchmarsh,” said Jenkins. “He was handsome, he was hot and he was good with his hands. I think he played to it.” Don still maintains a roguishness younger than his 64 years. When he joined in with the recent viral #MeAt20 challenge on Twitter, he stuck up a photograph of him brooding against the door of a Hebridean bothy with a Jack Russell around his neck, a typical response read: “Gosh, I almost fainted.”

While Titchmarsh stayed mostly focused on people’s back gardens, occasionally traipsing onto English country estates to draw inspiration or pick up a few tips, Don has roamed the world like a kind floricultural Michael Palin, taking viewers to foreign climes including Mexico, Morocco and Japan in series such as Around the World in 80 Gardens.

But appearances and exotic backdrops only get you so far; Don has a genuine passion for the earth, for plants, and a knack for making it infectious. He knew things, too. “In terms of his expert knowledge, he was quite innovative,” said Madeley. “He’d be telling you stuff that nobody really knew, and he was right.”

And there is no doubting Don’s passion for protecting the land, rooted in having watched a kind of arcadia “literally being ripped up in front of my eyes” in boyhood. “Hedgerows going, wildflowers going, birds disappearing, trees being cut down,” he said. “In today’s climate it is unbelievable what farmers got away with then in the name of greater productivity.” At 18 he “was the youngest by about 40 years” when something stirred him to attend a meeting of the Campaign to Protect Rural England “in somebody’s rectory in Hampshire” and realised he felt an “affinity with what they were talking about. Surely, we should be looking after the natural world and working with it, rather than destroying it in the name of commerce.”

In the era of climate crisis, such sentiments are going mainstream. But this was in the 1970s, when, Don said, “it was either dangerously Marxist or just uninformed. People would scoff at you, and look down at you and say, ‘When you grow up, you’ll understand.’ And if somebody says that to me, I want to fucking hit them. So very quickly, instead of joining [some] very conservative people with the right ideals, it became a rebellion.”

That attitude still gets him in trouble now. As well as raging at the use of chemicals and peat for profit margins, he keeps himself in the headlines with unpopular, and sometimes unthinking, social media updates. There have also been skirmishes with the BBC over pest control on Gardeners’ World. “Without being too grand,” he said in a statement at the time, “it is my show. With my views and my methods of gardening.”

He remains as outspoken on the Chelsea Flower Show, the centrepiece of the BBC’s annual coverage. “It’s a strange and rum do, this funny cross between a village fête and the Trooping of Colour,” he said with entertaining precision. “There’s no question that it is the highlight of the gardening year. But there’s also no question that it is horrendously overcrowded, that it’s based upon money and sponsorship and our relationship with broadcasters. I mean, a flower show, that has something like 17 hours of television a week on it, really?” He said the BBC would be better spending the money on “other gardening programmes, whether encouraging young people or different things.” Due to Covid-19, Chelsea went virtual this year, which may or may not prompt the corporation to rethink. But it takes some chutzpah for someone whose own success also relies on “our relationship with broadcasters”—indeed, to someone who is handsomely paid for fronting Chelsea itself—to point this out.

I prod him on those Gardeners’ World viewers who maintain that, as veteran gardening broadcaster Peter Seabrook once said, that Don “can’t garden.” He eventually rounds in on a reply: “I suppose the nub of your question is to what extent my own self-image is based on being the Bad Boy, bucking the trend. And I guess it is. But I’m much more interested in trying to see it through. I really like the opportunity to try and teach people that they can make beautiful spaces and look after this world without having to be disruptive. The two are not incompatible.”

It’s this kind of thing that’s has made Don one of horticulture’s more intriguing personalities: he doesn’t just tell how to grow your veg, he shows you why you should do it organically—something that genuinely matters at a time when insect populations are diminishing rapidly.

Don is not though—quite—in the militant mould when it comes to the climate crisis. “You don’t get anywhere by alienating people. If you stop people from going to work, they’re just going to get pissed off. I think the great danger of groups like Extinction Rebellion is the self-satisfaction and smugness of the moral high ground, which justifies other people’s suffering.”

He is in the midst of one of several long answers. Don speaks as he does on television. He vocalises his thoughts elegantly; the parables tumble out with the energy of a bounding Labrador, landing with heavy emphasis. “They’ll say, ‘it’s not real suffering, our planet is suffering, so what does it matter if you miss a holiday.’ And until you realise that human happiness is made up of little things, and you do respect that and look after it, then I don’t think you’re going to win hearts and minds.”

Ah, happiness. Ever since clocking that sowing carrots eased his teenage angst, Don has known he can find it in the soil, “from the garden, the dogs, listening to birdsong.” During those glittering, good times in the 1980s, he and Sarah would still spend every Sunday in their London back garden. “We were talking about it the other day, they were truly happy days. The happiest times.” Perhaps, but not sustainably so.

*** He broke a seal when he wrote about his depression in 2000, for the Observer. Jenkins, who commissioned him, said it “changed the way that people saw him.” Don confirms: “There was a very immediate response of people writing to me… “And I realised there was a great pool of unhappiness because people felt they couldn’t talk about it.” It was a few years later, while speaking at an event at the nearby Hay Festival, when he was touched by the bravery of “young men from farming communities” standing up to ask about mental health, that Don realised “that one must never stop championing it. I’m in an incredibly privileged position to be able to talk about these things.”

And one suspects he will continue to do so for some time. While he may say he’s old enough to “guide other people to make the noise—I don’t have to be the irritant screwing up the party,” he won’t be passing Gardeners’ World’s top job over to Adam Frost—his current deputy—any time soon: he’s just signed another three-year contract with the BBC. “The way I try to make that work is by constantly reinventing it,” he said, letting the steel crest through the surface. “I try to make each programme the last, the best, really keep the edge sharp.” Has BBC gardening ever sought a sharp edge before?

But there it is, that determination—perhaps the only bit of Montagu that Don succeeds in keeping buried. Just as quickly as it appears, like a glinting spade that briefly surfaces before being sunk below the surface again, and he regales me with more wistful things, such as his garden, and those tulips. “If I died tomorrow, at least I would have seen them flower,” Don says. “That’s enough.”