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A Birthday Tribute: Monty Don

At the time of writing it is the 9th birthday of Rochford Life and so we thought we would do something quite different on this page and give it over to some quotes from one who has brought encouragements to millions in his own inimitable way, mostly from his own garden of Longmeadow in Herefordshire. So here, with grateful thanks are some snippets from around the place, most from three of his books.  Enjoy and be encouraged.  

“Montagu Denis Wyatt "Monty" Don OBE is an English television presenter, writer and speaker on horticulture, best known for presenting the BBC television series Gardeners' World.” (Wikipedia)   “And so ends filming of Gardeners World for 2019. It has been a joy from the first freezing shoot in February in the 'Beast from the East' to this evening's last take as the light and rain both fell.” (Tweet 10:58 AM - 9 Oct 2019)  It’s been a constant pleasure and guide for us watching. Thank you, Monty and team, for being there for us to inspire and educate us, and showing us how much there is to see and learn from others. I’ll be sorry to see it go, but like the garden, know it’ll be back in the Spring. (Responder)

On a birthday many years ago, having just been given four plants, he wrote in his diary: “I was miserable all day. How can I plant these things, where the future will not be our future? The new owners will pull them down or ignore them. I have to shake this off, or else all hope is lost, all spirit defeated by bankers and accountants. Live for the day. Garden for your children.” (The Jewel Garden by Monty & Sarah Don)

Back awhile, in no.23, I wrote an article entitled ‘Growing Memories’. Later in a mini-series about ‘Appreciating Change’ (nos. 30-34) I quoted one of those things you see in gift shops, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.  Having lived with our garden for over forty years, Monty’s cry about creating your future with your plants, whether trees, bushes, shrubs or whatever, echoes with me. Having a garden – and doing stuff with it! – is a recipe for creativity. In the Introduction to his book, ‘Gardening at Longmeadow’, he wrote about Longmeadow, “I first saw this garden on a particularly dank autumnal day in 1991. The front was covered with piles of building rubble. At the back was a little yard with knee high weeds happily seeding themselves, and beyond that a paddock where a grumpy horse tried to find sustenance amongst the brambles. There was nothing here that could possibly be described as a garden. But beneath the years of neglect was a blank canvas that I could fill with the garden of my dreams.”

So there it was. He’s been there working on Longmeadow for what, in a couple of years, will be thirty years. No wonder pictures of Longmeadow, once a week on TV for about half the year, convey a paradise of maturity. But here’s the thing, he’s an amateur (he says) who has given his life to that garden: “Don had never received formal training as a gardener. He commented, "I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer. My only authority came from a lifetime of gardening and a passion amounting to an obsession for my own garden.” (Wikipedia) The odds are that you and I have not made a career out of our gardens and not had the time to devote such energies (and money) to it, but that should not stop us trying to create something that can bring pleasure to the family and to visitors, as well as ourselves.

I love his tale of the early years spending (again from the Introduction of ‘Gardening at Longmeadow’ that makes you wonder was this commitment, luck or providence?) Consider: “On the famously chaotic day of the Grand National in 1993 – April 3rd – I went to a local tree sale with a proposed budget of £200 intending to buy some good sized yew plants for a hedge. I came back five hours later having spent £1,300 on 1,400 trees and hedging plants. It poured with rain all day and by lunchtime the allure of the pub and the Grand National was enough for most people to leave the sale. A tiny handful of us stuck in, soaked and buying increasingly large lots at increasingly minuscule prices. The last batch of 15ft tall Tilia platyphyllis I bought – and now which makes up the Lime walk – were 50 pence each. However, only a frantic phone call to the bank – in the days when managers were real people – increased our overdraft to cover the cheque. But this was the critical moment that made the garden.” As I said, commitment?

In his earlier book, ‘The Jewel Garden’, he adds to that story, “This was a seminal moment, not least because it cost comparatively such an enormous sum of money that I felt honour-bound to make something of it. It also took the garden from a series of pored-over plans and notebooks full of lists and schemes into a reality that began to take on its own impetus. Gardens that are carefully designed and then enacted by rote have no soul. To come truly alive things have to happen of their own accord, out of synch with the best laid plans. The huge quantity of nursery stock that I had impulsively bought dictated the feel and shape of the garden as much as my imagination.”

Interesting! In ‘Gardening at Longmeadow’ he adds, “Although I had played it all out in my head before we began planting, there has been quite a lot of trial and error at Longmeadow. I never think of it as finished – just where it happens to be now. We have moved trees and even entire hedges and we are constantly replanting borders. I am a great believer in moving plants until they are absolutely at home, and I do it all the time.”

Refreshing – never finished, always changing. A bit later on he added, “I do believe that good gardens are personal, private, domestic and above all, intimate. The measure of their goodness can be reckoned to some degree in abstract terms of design, planting or horticulture but not to any meaningful extent. The truth is that our response to gardens is invariably subjective and, if they are our own, completely so. To an astonishing and powerful degree they are loved, and love cannot be reasoned or measured.”   

Wow, there’s a good philosophy to take away the pressure of achievement. Now when looking for general quotes in the midst of a book of helpful detailed information, which Monty’s books tend to be, then the beginning or the end are good places to start. Looking up online the number of books Monty has written, you wonder how he has had time to garden. I came across ‘The Jewel Garden’ (which is subtitled, ‘A Story of Despair and Redemption’, a number of years ago in a charity shop for 20p. The temptation (for 20p!) was too great but proved to be a gem. The ‘Despair’ is his remarkably honest account of his struggle with depression and, of course how the Jewel Garden at Longmeadow came into being. If you like biography mixed with a walk through the gardening year, you would like that book, but it was written back in 2004 and many changes have taken place since then.

But it was the closing paragraph of the book that I felt was something that would fit here: “Any beginning and end in the gardening calendar is arbitrary. The year flows through the garden like a river that brings you back somewhere near to where you started. But by the end of February there is an atavistic, irresistible urge to be outside. Half an hour of warm sunshine and a drying wind in February can wipe away weeks of December gloom. As we get older we realise that the days are more precious and half-moments of intense joy are more valuable than jewels.  Making this garden has so far taken us over ten years of hard work and has become completely interwoven with our history. But in the end the most exciting time of all is always the shining here and now.”

Wow yet again! I like that.  I like the picture of the gardening year being similar to a river that winds back to where you started a year before. I like the primitive urge to get outside again as Winter recedes, and the effect of sunshine and ‘a drying wind’ that lift the spirits as Spring approaches. I like the recognition that age makes days more precious and the bits of joy that gardening brings are worth everything. I like the reminder that good things take quite a while to achieve, and yet the joy is not only (and this is my addition) looking back with thankfulness, and looking forward with expectation, but the joy of being out there – now!

The challenge of ‘The Jewelled Garden’ is that a man who suffered (and I don’t know if he still does) from depression can have nevertheless achieved what he has done, not only with Longmeadow but in bringing so much pleasure week by week on TV. Good one, Monty!  

On the back cover of ‘Down to Earth’ Monty writes, “This is the distillation of 50 years of gardening experience. It has all the tips and essential pieces of knowledge that enable you to make your garden grow well, and it also shares my view that gardening is the secret to living well too.”

As we gaze on new housing estates being forced out of the ground with tiny postage stamp size back yards, one cannot help but wonder how long it will be before planning authorities (and government) set minimum plot-sizes that are at least twice the size of what developers are giving us today. That final comment that, “gardening is the secret to living well” may not be understood or appreciated by many, but I guess that one of the changes that will be forced on our pressurised society is to look around and say how can we encourage a healthy lifestyle? Some doctors are even prescribing outdoor gardening activities for some who struggle with mental problems and the general stress of modern life.

With that in mind, here are a few of his quotes from the monthly Gardener’s World magazine:

- “Put man and nature together and you have beauty, good food, happiness and health.”  

- “A garden is the yardstick from which the rest of life can be measured.”  

- “I would argue that there is no other activity, available to so many people, that promotes and sustains as much good health , as gardening.”

- “Dig, rake, sweep, lift, bend, carry, kneel, reach, saw, stoop, stretch, grip, walk – and do it all again and again. Do it in the hot and do it in the cold, and the wet and the soft spring air. Do it.”

- Gardening makes you feel good. There are lots of ways that this works. As a depressive, I know that just going outside does some good. Moving around does even more.”

- “By becoming in tune with the seasons of growth and fall, preparation and harvest, you make your mind and body happier and healthier.”

OK, probably enough said. These ‘Growing Stuff’ pages have always been brought with the intent of encouraging you outside to that bit of land you call your garden. May Monty’s words add to all that has gone before.  Enjoy your garden, postage stamp or a few acres, enjoy.                                                           Top of Page