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WITH SO much bad news around how refreshing – and fortunate – to have Monty Don. He is a one man burst of positivity, as nurturing and calming in real life as you would expect if you watch him on BBC Gardeners’ World. His mellifluous tones wash over you like gentle autumnal rain, he seems to kneel into a conversation the way he does his perennial borders, earnestly pressing home a point until he is sure you’ve understood.
And his message is that the future is rosy and the natural world is not going to hell in a handcart, as we are so often warned.
He is reacting today to a State of Nature report that claims gardening-mad Britain has attained the ignominious title of the European country with the most depleted natural environment.
“It is sad but I don’t feel it’s terminal,” says Monty, 65, as if he were inspecting a drooping tomato plant.
“I feel very encouraged by younger people. Wherever I go and give talks or have contact with people in their 20s and 30s, I find they are really interested in the environment, in ecology and they realise it’s their world.”
He pauses, then adds: “And they do want to do things to put it right.”
Not that Monty – whose latest project is a book and documentary in celebration of American Gardens, with stunning images by photographer Derry Moore – is complacent.
After all, he was speaking out about organic farming in the 1990s when, along with Prince Charles, he was dismissed as a bit of a crank.
“I was a voice in the wilderness. I was considered sub-hippy, a privileged irrelevancy and now organic is in the mainstream,” he laughs.
“I take no sense of vindication in this – I am delighted; organic gardening is not a cult, we are looking after the natural world and human health.
“The single most important aspect of organic gardening is the health of plants and animals. The human aspect is secondary.
“It’s important and I value it highly, but why would we consider spraying pesticides to kill one pest not knowing what the impact will be on other insects and mammals?
“It would be like having a sore knee and randomly taking a pill to see if it helps. It’s uninformed and not wise.”
He is a huge fan of Charles, who is royal patron of the Soil Association, the charity founded in 1946 to raise awareness about intensive farming, local purchasing and the body which certifies organic food.
Monty was its president for eight years.
“I have great respect for Prince Charles for sticking to his guns,” says Monty. “He is extremely well-informed and he walks the walk and has never deviated.
“He’s always listened and been prepared to stand up for what he believes in and has had, unfairly, a certain amount of ridicule in the past.”
Like Prince Charles at his Gloucestershire home, Monty loves nothing more than pottering around his own garden in Herefordshire.
Unlike the heir to the throne, whose Highgrove House estate is exceedingly grand, Monty’s home, Longmeadow, was a derelict mess when he and wife Sarah bought it in 1991.
“The garden consisted of a two-acre abandoned field out the back and a much smaller area in the front covered in builder’s rubble,” he explains. “That was it. There was one hazel tree and everything else was rough grass, nettles and brambles.”
Now it is magnificent and, despite its unassuming moniker, The Garden – familiar to viewers of Gardeners’ World – it comprises four separate “rooms”.
There’s The Cottage Garden, The Paradise Garden, TheVegetable Garden and The Jewel Garden, the latter perhaps being a nod to the highly successful jewellery business Monty and Sarah ran in London from 1981 until the 1987 stock market crash bankrupted them.
Customers then included Diana, Princess of Wales, Boy George and Michael Jackson, and some pieces now reside in the V&A Museum.
Reflecting on the experience, he wrote: “We were lambs to the slaughter and we lost everything, we lost our house, our business. We sold every stick of furniture we had.”
It resulted in Monty being on and off the dole for years in the early Nineties, a bitter experience which, one suspects, has shaped his manic work ethic ever since.
Indeed, although he is quick to acknowledge how fortunate he is, he points out how much filming he has had cancelled due to coronavirus.
“No question, I am very lucky. I lost half my filming work this year but compared to most people I’ve had a very, very easy time of it,” he insists.
“Most years I have another fulfilling project. Last year it was America [for the new book and accompanying documentary], before that I went to Japan, India and Iraq and before that Morocco and Spain and Turkey. This is the first time since 2011 that I haven’t had something else on the go that has taken me away.”
Whilst he announces, almost boastfully, he’s not been to a single shop since the start of lockdown in March (he’s filled the car up with petrol and walked his four dogs – that’s it), he clearly laments the lack of travel.
So is he happier away or at home with Sarah, whom he met at Cambridge University, their sons, Adam and Tom, and daughter Freya?
“Neither is true. I always like being at home but I always find travelling interesting – ideally I do both,” he says, before adding: “I’m not bored, not for one millisecond, never. Anyway there is a huge amount of work to do. I have written two books, kept my journalism going and I’m doing Covid-modified filming two days a week for Gardeners’ World.”
Born George Montagu Don in West Germany, Monty is an intensely private person and is clearly still smarting from a broadsheet newspaper interview last weekend which raked up his difficult childhood, his boarding school years, his authoritarian father, his battle with depression and a car crash which almost killed his twin sister, Alison.
He’s happier sticking to his favourite subject, gardens.
For his latest book, he and the crew visited America three times.
It is illustrated with shots by Derry Moore, 83, (otherwise known as Henry Dermot Ponsonby Moore, 12th Earl of Drogheda) and features 30 gardens, from Seattle to Palm Springs, the deep south and New York, via the Arizona desert, a landscape which fascinates Monty.
“I like the drama,” he says. “I hadn’t been to Arizona before and to see these desert gardens with the light and the starkness, it was amazing.
“Californian gardens are fascinating, not necessarily more beautiful, but more different to our own and more stimulating I think – that’s the essence.
“By the same token I loved South Carolina and Louisiana with very green Spanish moss and amazingly beautiful oak trees.”
In describing the extreme contrasts of gardens across America, Monty hits on the major difference between their approach and ours.
“Our gardens is in have evolved over a long time actually – not as long as, say, Italian gardens – but certainly over the last 500 years and through the Industrial Revolution to suburbia and city living,” he explains.
“Because we are relatively small, even if you live in a tower block in an inner city or in the 18th century worked in a cotton mill, you are never that far from the countryside.
“So our gardens are bits of English countryside, whereas in America it is so much younger and the outdoors, the wilderness, is colossal in scale.
“From the Rocky Mountains to the New Mexico desert and Death Valley and the Grand Canyon and lakes as big as the north sea – that’s how Americans get their wildlife kick. They are yet to see gardens as the conduit to the natural world.
“There is none of the soft easy access to a rural bucolic idyll that we have.”
Interestingly, Monty says that gardening is not really seen as a hobby in America. What they do have is an extraordinary combination of ambition and ‘can do’, he says.
“If you want to make a garden 100 acres and make it look like an Italian renaissance village and spend $100million, then go for it!
“They embrace modernity, particularly on the West Coast whereas the most popular gardens here are those owned by the National Trust or Chelsea Flower Show and they tend to pick up what was happening 50 to 100 years ago.
“People here don’t flock to see brand new dramatic outrageous design in the same way as they do to see historical gardens.”
As an environmentalist, how does he feel about the copious amounts of water pumped into the deserts of the west coast of America to keep golf courses and gardens green?
“Any garden made in the 21st century has to be sustainable,” he says. “If it doesn’t acknowledge climate change, the use of water and plastics and, in the UK, the use of peat, then it’s really not doing the job. Much of America has yet to really get to grips with the idea that resources are finite.”
He continues: “I asked one LA garden designer who is very well known for designing for film stars if these people ever work in their garden? He said, ‘Of course not, they don’t have time to do that’. But they do have time for yoga, golf and swimming in the ocean.
“[Gardening] is seen by many Americans as manual work, the same as washing a car or painting your house. If you can afford to pay someone else to do it, why wouldn’t you?”
Gardeners’ World, first broadcast in 1968, has, unsurprisingly, grown its audience during lockdown.
And there’s no doubt in Monty’s mind that it will go on flourishing.
He adds: “Britons underestimate how unusual it is in global terms for so many people to be interested in gardening. Very few nations have the same passion for the process of gardening.
“We are obsessed by it – we love the skill of raising plants and flower shows. It’s a special part of our cultural makeup.”
• American Gardens by Monty Don (Prestel, £35) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562 310 or order via www.expressbookshop.co.uk. Delivery 10-14 days
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