This would be Monty Don, a fellow who needs no introduction in England, where he has presented the BBC’s flagship gardening program for 18 years and where he is a household name — and a rather catchy one, at that.
Faithful viewers know that the opening sequence is but the prelude of an hour of horticultural theater or, more precisely, therapy. We might be taken to a flower-filled bishop’s garden; to a walled garden that houses the nation’s collection of rhubarb (about 130 mouth-puckering varieties); to a houseboat on a London canal that is home to a hip, young model, dozens of potted plants and a three-legged cat. Then there is Don himself as the glue that holds it all together, linking segments with timely, practical gardening jobs from what may be the most well-known garden in England since Vita Sackville-West began writing about Sissinghurst in the 1940s.
Don’s floral idyll is Longmeadow, a two-acre garden in western England close to the Welsh border, which millions of viewers have seen grow and develop over the past few years.
It may go without saying that the program, alluringly retro, analog and tranquil, has offered succor to its stuck-at-home viewers over the past year. As a new series begins both in the U.K. and the United States (available on the streaming service BritBox), it promises to keep supplying its doses of pandemic medicine.
But at least in its own country, “Gardeners’ World” has always functioned as much as an escape from life’s tribulations as gardening itself. First aired in 1968, it is a program that could only come from Britain, where gardening is part of the national identity, and where a garden show needs neither explaining nor hyping.
It airs during prime time as a place for the practical gardener to get advice and inspiration and the armchair gardener to be entertained. An early host was the avuncular Percy Thrower, who showed up in a starched shirt and tie, and dispensed guidance while puffing on a pipe. He was known as the nation’s “head gardener” but was booted off the show in the 1970s for appearing in commercials.
The Cambridge-educated Don, who once designed jewelry for the London jet set, is more difficult to pigeonhole. Articulate and smooth, he delivers his advice with the gusto of a Shakespearean actor. The ladies love him, perhaps because he is that rarest of male creatures, suave and handy at the same time.
I have come to admire him a lot, because he had a dream for an ambitious garden, then set about creating it with very few resources and a lot of hard work. No doubt, much of the garden now is maintained by behind-the-scenes labor, but when Don and his family came to Longmeadow in 1991 to establish their rural sanctuary, he had his work cut out.
“The house was beautiful but uninhabitable,” he wrote. He worked on it for a year. The land “had been uncultivated for a number of years and was a jungle.”
This ethos of maintenance and improvement persists in the show, where he is doing the work himself (at least on camera), and is showing us how to make an impressive garden on the cheap. He is forever starting things from seed, or taking cuttings, or dividing perennials.
Its success comes down not only to the craft of gardening but also to the less obvious craft of making a television show. My theory is that TV programs that attempt to show a garden, even the most splendid, fall flat because the camera cannot adequately convey the dimensionality of a garden, its sensory effects or its temporal qualities.
Don has presented travelogues from around the world featuring fine gardens, but I think these shows don’t work as well as “Gardeners’ World,” whose strength comes from applying high production values to a down-to-earth subject: the process of gardening. Think of it as a cooking show in slow motion.
It’s this slowness that is calming. The camera reposes on Don’s beloved dogs — until recently, two languid retrievers, Nellie and Nigel — that seemed awfully unimpressed by their fame. Nigel has since died, replaced on the show with a cheeky Yorkshire terrier, Patti.
During the pandemic, the show has invited viewers to send in their homemade films, and what these segments lack in polish, they make up for in the authentic value of gardening during the coronavirus crisis. A young woman named Nicole has turned her community garden into a place to grow dahlias, and she has given bunches to front-line workers. “I feel dahlias fell out of fashion a few years ago,” she says. “I don’t know why.”
We cut to Don in his garden. “I do remember in the ’80s and ’90s that they weren’t just out of fashion, they were somehow seen as the mark of someone who didn’t have good gardening taste,” he says, pushing his wheelbarrow. “Just ridiculous, because dahlias are fantastic.”
Tip of the Week
Old seed is good for about three years, depending on the variety and how it has been kept. You can test the germination rate by placing a few seeds in a damp, folded paper towel inside a plastic bag. Check for growth after a week to 10 days.
— Adrian Higgins
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