Gardeners' World guru Monty Don talks to Maureen Coleman about his upcoming visit to Northern Ireland and why getting out into the garden is still his big passion
When Monty Don declares that gardening is good for mind, body and soul, it's not just some new-age philosophy he's spouting. The 57-year-old prolific writer and presenter of Gardener's World is speaking from experience when he says there is a direct link between gardening and sound mental and physical health.
As someone who has suffered periodically from depression and has been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, caused by sunlight deficiency, Monty is all too aware of the benefits of being outdoors and working on the land.
"We all know that gardening is a good form of exercising, but there's no question that it's great for mental health as well," he says. "There is a direct correlation between gardening and mental health, not just to maintain good mental health but to repair it as well – that's anything in the gamut from depression to serious brain damage, schizophrenia or autism.
"Gardening can help people find new levels of personal satisfaction and social skills. But there's also something about being outdoors. It means you've invested in a process that has its own natural rhythm and that is something which has largely been lost from modern life, where everything's just a click of a button away.
"The natural world has its own rhythm and it's important to be in tune with that. As someone who has had depression all my life and suffers from SAD, being outside and working outside definitely helps me.
"Unfortunately, the time of year when it most inflicts me is when it's hardest to get outside, like when the November rain is coming down sideways or there's sleet on the ground and you don't feel too enthusiastic about going outdoors. But they are the times I try and get out as much as I can."
It's been a long, harsh winter for the presenter and his two-acre Herefordshire garden, Longmeadow. But when weather conditions aren't conducive to spending hours in the garden, Monty has found other ways to treat his disorder.
"I use a light-box, which helps," he explains. "The part of the world that I live in is very bleak in winter, but it's beautifully bleak. So I wrap up and take the dogs out for a long walk, even if I don't feel like it. We also have a small farm, so I go out and tend to the animals.
"Then all of a sudden, it's January and the snowdrops are coming through and the catkins start to appear on hazel. Then it's February and the days become longer and before you know it, it's spring."
This time of year, Monty tells me, is his favourite. He loves the period mid-April to May, not because it's the most beautiful, but because of the promise it holds.
"I get a great sense that everything is getting better with each day," he says. "There's a growing sense of excitement. I love high summer as well, but nothing beats a perfect May morning."
As we chat over the phone, Monty tells me it's a fresh, sunny morning in Herefordshire and he's looking forward to getting out into his garden. The BBC cameras, which follow him around Longmeadow when he's filming Gardener's World, are absent today. But that doesn't mean down-time for Monty. Gardening is his passion and pleasure, whether it's planning a new greenhouse or converting a soil heap into a rose garden.
I tell him it's raining heavily in Belfast and not feeling very spring-like at all. Monty vows to bring the sunshine with him when he visits Hillsborough Castle next weekend for the 2013 Airtricity Garden Festival, which runs from May 17-19. It's the first time the Castle has opened its gardens for a public event and will feature show gardens, plants and flowers, demonstrations and expert advice, children's gardening fun and home-made food and craft workshops. The three-day event is aimed at all age groups and the house itself will also be open each day with specially discounted rates for show patrons. Monty will be at the Castle on Friday, May 17, hosting advice clinics.
"I've never been to Hillsborough Castle," he says. "In fact, I've only been to Northern Ireland once before and that was to Enniskillen 20 years ago when I was presenting Tomorrow's World. I'm very much looking forward to coming over again."
The former Cambridge student, who met his wife Sarah while reading English at Magdalene College, is delighted that the Airtricity Garden Festival hopes to encompass all age groups. Gardening, he says, has long been part of the British psyche, but recently he's noticed an increasing number of young people pottering around garden centres, getting mud under their nails in allotments or brightening up their balconies with window boxes.
Has gardening become sexy?, I ask him.
The tall, tanned father-of-three – gardening's perennial pin-up – laughs this off.
"Gardening has always been popular," he says. "But the media inevitably picks up on something and sets it out as a new trend or fashion. The truth is, people have always been gardening. What I do find exciting, though, is that more and more young people are getting involved.
"I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of the recession, there is less spare money to spend. When there is less money, people tend to spend time and effort with what they've already got, whether that's a garden or allotment.
"Secondly, there's the ecological and environmental awareness now. People are becoming increasingly aware of the food they are eating, from burgers to strawberries. They know a lot of this food is processed and packaged by multi-national companies abroad. But when you choose to grow something in your own garden, there's something rather unsullied about that.
"People are increasingly realising that what they eat is important. You can't put junk food in your body and be healthy. All sorts of problems can develop, like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, strokes. Gardening not only helps with exercise and mental health, but it can improve diet as well. It's pure and you don't have to pay for it."
Looking after his physical as well as mental health is crucial to Monty, who suffered a minor stroke at his home in 2008. He had woken on a February morning, feeling unwell, with symptoms he'd never experienced before. The left side of his face and hands felt numb. He was nauseous and disorientated.
In an interview with a national newspaper some time after his illness, Monty told how he feared he was going to die. "It was incredibly frightening because it was as if I had entered totally uncharted territory," he was quoted as saying. "I said to my wife Sarah: 'Hold me because I think I'm dying and, if I am, I want to die in your arms'."
Monty had been feeling off-colour for several months, which he put down to exhaustion and over-work. But an MRI scan in March of that year confirmed he had suffered a mini stroke. A self-confessed workaholic, who also writes regular columns for the Daily Mail and Gardeners' World magazine and has penned numerous books, Monty made the huge decision to quit his job as presenter of Gardeners' World. He also gave up other television duties while he took time out to recuperate. But that was five years ago and he's put the scare behind him now.
"I recovered in six months," he points out. "And these days I feel healthier than I've done in years. Anyway, most 57-year-olds are going to have some type of health problems. And it did make me rest. I feel great now."
When Monty left the popular BBC2 programme, he was replaced by award-winning gardener and author Toby Buckland. His arrival on set coincided with a controversial revamp and, unfortunately for Toby, a decline in ratings.
Then in 2011, three years after his departure and quite unexpectedly, Monty received a telephone call asking him to return to Gardeners' World. Monty had taken over from Alan Titchmarsh in 2003 and had proven a huge hit with the viewers. His return was broadly welcomed, with one fan posting on a Gardeners' World internet forum: "Great news. Monty is the Don."
Monty says: "Yes, I have to admit, it was nice to be appreciated like that.
"I had no intention of going back, to be honest. I had no idea the BBC was going to ring me about it. But what clinched it for me was that it was going to be filmed from my own garden.
"That's what the show needed, the authenticity of someone who really believed in and cared about what was happening. The audience can tell if it's for real. With the best will in the world, it's hard to replicate that and it's not fair to blame the people on camera.
"I think that's my strength, that I am an amateur gardener who loves gardening. I've read about it, I've written about it, I've done it all my life but at heart, I'm just a passionate amateur gardener."
And he believes everyone has the potential to be a gardener, dismissing the notion that people are either green-fingered or not.
"It's not a question of whether or not you're green-fingered, but whether or not you want to get involved," he says. "It's hard to engage with something if you feel cut off from it.
"The key thing is to feel part of it, to get in there and get your hands dirty."
The 2013 Airtricity Garden Festival runs from Friday, May 17 to Sunday, May 19 and is open daily from 10am-6pm with parking on site. Reduced rates are available for tickets booked online in advance of the show. For tickets and more information visit gardenshowireland.com
Amateur gardener who became a star
• Monty Don was born in July 1955 in Berlin where his dad, a soldier, was stationed
• In the 1980s he and his wife, Sarah – they married in 1983 – formed a successful costume jewellery company called Monty Don Jewellery
• He is best known as the presenter of Gardeners' World on the BBC
• Don never received any formal training in horticulture and describes himself as an amateur gardener
• He suffered a minor stroke in 2008