'Ireland has lost some of the charm that the visitor valued' – Monty Don
It often seems Monty Don – author, broadcaster and the face of the long-running series Gardeners’ World – and his beautiful gardens at Longmeadow have always been there. A permanent feature of the British landscape, as constant, say, as that other great institution, the Chelsea Flower Show.
But, in fact, Longmeadow was created by Monty and his wife Sarah out of nothing, coaxed out of two acres of raw Herefordshire countryside over the last 27 or so years. And his life there has been salvaged out of loss. Their previous, much-loved old country house and gardens, The Hanburies, were sold along with every stick of furniture when the couple’s costume jewellery business went belly up in the early 1990s.
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Monty himself has been prey to periods of seasonal depression since he was 25.
Through all of these difficulties, gardening – and writing about it – has been both his emotional and financial support. And he has remained surprisingly upbeat. He has said of the jewellery business: “If that had not happened then other good things would not have happened, either.”
Monty, who will be 64 tomorrow, has been dubbed a national treasure in Britain and has the OBE to prove it. He has been presenter of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World since 2003, though he took a three-year break when he had a stroke in 2008, only resuming when it was agreed the show would be shot at Longmeadow.
We’re chatting because Monty is due in Ireland at the beginning of August to speak at the Carlow Garden Festival, an exhilarating 10-day mash-up of workshops, talks, demos, walks and long-table lunches held in venues across the county.
His talk is tagged “East meets West – and is entranced” and will focus on his recent travels for two BBC series, and discuss the lessons he took home to Longmeadow. “What I’ve learned from them and how that reflects in my own garden and my own world.”
He knows Ireland well. He has lost count, he says, of how many times he has been here, visiting gardens both for work and pleasure. Jimi Blake’s garden in Hunting Brook in Co Wicklow has featured a few times on the programme (“I’m always amazed what he can grow there, which I can’t grow here…”).
Monty recalls one trip in the early 1990s when he was building his TV career and was a guest presenter on the BBC’s Holiday programme. They were shooting a segment in a pub in Bantry.
“It was about 10 o’clock in the morning. It was one of those bars where they sell wool or knitting stuff on one side, and it was a bar on the other. I’m sitting there and filming. A tractor drew up outside. There was a noise, so we cut for some quiet. This guy walked in. Didn’t say a word, sat right in amongst us, cameras, sound recorders, someone holding a light reflector. Just sat in the middle of us.
“The barman didn’t say a word. Drew a pint. Put it in front of him. He drank it. Nothing. We just watched him. The barman pulled another pint. He drank it. Kept his hat on. No one said a word. Then he walked out. Got back on the tractor and drove off, by which time it was five past 10 in the morning.”
“That was his seat,” I say.
“Of course,” says Monty.
The anecdote might seem to smack of Paddywhackery, but that is not what he is saying. “I’ve seen [Ireland] change hugely,” he explains. “When I went to Dublin in the ’80s and early ’90s, there wasn’t this dreadful Tiger economy, and this sudden, slightly frantic – to me having come from London – Thatcherite, rather unattractive relish of money, and displaying it and all that sort of thing.
“I do think that certainly Dublin, and to a certain extent Ireland, has lost some of the charm that the visitor valued but clearly has gained a huge amount in terms of infrastructure, quality of life, opportunity.
“If you’re Irish, I reckon things are much better. As a tourist, some of the old Ireland has gone. That’s the price that’s been paid. Some. You can still find it, but it’s just harder.”
His two golden retrievers, Nigel and Nell, start to bark, interrupting our chat. The pair are almost as beloved as their master and Nigel even has his own best-selling book, Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs. Bonus point for fans – the audiobook is read by Monty himself.
It has been a busy few years. Monty has travelled to India, Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Spain tracing the influence of Islamic culture on garden design. The result – aside from a BBC series and book on the topic – was that he redesigned a section at Longmeadow into his own Paradise Garden with citrus trees and a central water feature.
“Every [Paradise] garden has that water feature, because that’s such a symbol of luxury and life, and extravagance, and also the fruit and the fragrance. All these gardens are essentially fruity and fragrant. That’s important.”
And then there were his trips to Japan. He was fascinated by Japan’s culture and their minimalist approach which he describes as completely ‘other’.
“You can always make an emotional connection to beauty,” he says, “even if you don’t understand what the beauty is or why you feel the way you do. Emotion will bubble to the surface from some source, even though you can’t put your finger on that source. But in Japan, it’s never just beauty. There is always a spiritual and cultural connection. That’s when things get complicated, because the spiritual and cultural connections are based upon seemingly very, very different and almost paradoxical sources.
“Shintosim and Confucianism and Buddhism and Zen are as different as could possibly be. It would be like, in a very modest way, a household in Ireland being both Protestant and Catholic with a touch of Hindu thrown in. Not batting an eyelid at that, just absorbing it in everything they do. The Japanese seem to have just evolved to accommodate all that.
“One of the ways they’ve done that is by loyalty to the group above the self, and that it is very visceral behaviour that they celebrate through Shintoism, and yet incredibly formal cultural behaviour that comes through Buddhism and Zen. The austerity of it, coupled with the delight in drunkenness and bodily functions. It’s completely fascinating.
“You can’t understand the gardens until you at least get to grips with that. You may not understand it, but you have to try.”
And this being Monty, he has translated the experience into something very earthy and practical – pruning. “When [the Japanese] prune a tree, or a shrub, or even an individual little bunch of flowers, really what they’re doing is modelling space. Actually, in Japan, that applies to speech as well, and to music. The pauses in speech are as informative and as relevant as the words themselves. They call it ‘Ma’. That’s a really interesting thing to apply to your own garden.”
Monty says: “I don’t think there’s an Irish style of garden. Obviously, it’s influenced by climate and the weather. For example, you share a lot with Welsh and Cornish and west coast Scottish gardens in some ways and yet with standard English gardens in other ways, so I think what you have in Ireland is quite a wide selection.”
He is an advocate for organic approaches to gardening and in the past has said that using peat in the garden is an act of eco-vandalism. For all that, he is remarkably philosophical about the havoc that climate change might wreak on gardens. He has, he says, been noticing the impact for the last 20 years.
Chief among those changes is the shift in timing and length of our seasons with spring arriving two weeks or so earlier, and autumn two weeks later.
“We’re getting fewer instance of really cold, dry winters, and really hot dry summers,” he says.
“We’re getting wet and warm winters and summers.”
For gardeners, this means that fungal problems are on the up. “And also, there is – I mean I don’t like the word ‘pests’, because it implies that there’s a hierarchy of wildlife – but problems, conventional ones like aphids or slugs or whatever, where winter is not killing them off in the same way that it used to more reliably.”
There’s a great deal that gardeners can do to offset the effects. “Obviously, they gear around trying to sequester more carbon, digging less, trying to avoid using energy where energy is no longer appropriate.
“We have to think about how we heat greenhouses, and where our pots are made from plastic, and that takes oil, and so on and so forth.
“I think, apart from anything else, the most important thing that gardeners can do is reuse, recycle, mend, and just try and consume less in terms of, really obviously, driving to the garden centre to buy one plant.
“These are the all the sort of things we should be applying to our everyday lives anyway.”
He is no doomster, however. “In terms of growing things, it’s not a big deal. It’s happening slowly. You react. That’s gardening. That’s life.” And that could be said to sum up his philosophy.
Monty Don appears at Arboretum Home and Garden Heaven (July 27-August 5) on Saturday, August 3, as part of the Carlow Garden Festival.
Other highlights include * A nature walk led by Irish filmmaker Colin Stafford Johnson * A tour of Patthana Garden in Kiltegan led by Fionnuala Fallon * Shirley Lanigan touring the garden of artist Philippa Bayliss * Aaron Bertelsen, gardener and cook at Great Dixter, preparing a plot-to-plate feast * ‘The Guardian’ columnist Alys Fowler sharing her green-fingered expertise.
For more information see carlowgardentrail.com.
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