Digging Monty Don: TV's favourite gardener on turning 60
Ahead of opening the Allianz Garden Show Ireland in Antrim this weekend, the green-fingered presenter tells Una Brankin how working outdoors helps him keep his depression at bay
If the latest research into ageing holds true, Monty Don will enter his middle years in July. The lantern-jawed presenter is facing 60 — the new 40, apparently — having survived a minor stroke in 2008, and a bout of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen wall caused by an infection.
But while the gardening guru looks younger, his problematic knee joints tell a different story.
“My health’s good, apart from my knees,” he says, on a bad line from deep in the English countryside.
“One of them needs replaced — it’s painful — and the other one is dodgy, so walking tends to be restricted.”
Whether it’s the two sore knees or the wavering phone signal, he’s not in the best of moods. He can’t blame the weather; the late spring sunlight and longer evenings mean that he can dispense with the light-box he uses to “endure” the dark days of winter that bring on his Seasonal Disfunction Disorder (SAD). In his memoir, he describes “great spans of muddy time”, in which there is nothing but depression, and how he tried cognitive behavioural therapy and Prozac before settling for the light therapy.
“Light boxes are helpful — I’ve used them for years. The trick is starting to use them earlier in the year, before the light goes, before you’re aware of it,” he explains, a Cambridge education evident in his fairly plummy tones. “I use them from September onwards and it’s important to get outside as much as possible, even if the weather's awful. I can't walk as much as I used to but I still go out."
A true son of the soil, the father-of-three has claimed "Earth heals me better than any medicine". He grows French beans, several lettuce varieties, tomatoes, chard and beetroot, among other vegetables, on the two acres surrounding his brick and half-timbered Tudor house in Herefordshire, where he lives with his pretty, fair-haired wife Sarah, a former jewellery designer whose clients included Princess Diana, Boy George and Michael Jackson.
The couple met in Magadalene College, Cambridge after Monty re-sat his A-levels, having failed them at first. They married in 1983 and have two sons, Adam and Tom, and a daughter, Freya.
"I don't want to talk about my children," comes the brusque reply when I ask about them. He does mention that one of his sons helps on his sheep farm - he keeps 500 ewes - and that one grows vegetables, and that none of them are particularly interested in gardening. He wasn't either, until late into his teens, although he toiled in his parents' garden since early childhood.
Descended from the Keiller family of Dundee, inventors of chip marmalade in 1797, and from a line of prominent architects, Monty was born in Berlin, to British parents, Denis TK Don, a career soldier posted in Germany, and his wife, Janet Montagu, both of whom died in the 1980s. He has a twin sister, Alison, who suffered a broken neck in a car crash, at 19 and an elder brother, David.
"My parents had a large garden on chalk, about five acres with lawns and lots of vegetables," he recalls. "My job was mowing and edging, cutting the flowers and herb borders, weeding the veg - everything."
Was it love at first dig?
"I hated it," he exclaims. "It was a chore as a child. I had to chop wood and look after the chickens, too. I didn't get a thrill out of it at all. It was only when I was 17 or 18 that I began to enjoy it."
But gardening wasn't to figure in his life again for many years after university. He and Sarah lived in Islington, north London while he pursued postgraduate study at the London School of Economics, worked as a waiter at Joe Allen restaurant in Covent Garden and later as a dustman. He also completed two unpublished novels.
The separation from the land seems to have coincided with the onset of his depression: "There are often times when I would like an injection that would put me to sleep for a week in a white room," he has admitted.
He has also spoken of becoming heavy-headed and unable to concentrate, and of once going into hysterics at the sight of cow parsley being mown down by a council verge-cutter, and pitched his car into a ditch. On another occasion, he hallucinated that a heifer was charging towards him across a hotel dining-room.
Sarah has written candidly of their subsequent period of bankruptcy, in their joint book, The Jewel Garden: "When it came down to it, Monty was a loony and I was ill all the time. How did we ever believe that we could have saved the situation?"
By 1992, the family was living in a rat-infested rental in Leominster, with no heating. Monty was 37 and on the dole, his only source of income, a weekly tenner from mowing the local churchyard. With his depression deepening, Sarah made him go to the doctor, which led to his salvation by light-box. Then his mother left him enough money to put a deposit on a doer-up house in the country, which he laboured on from dawn to dusk.
Their luck changed with the move. By 1994, Monty was working as the Observer's gardening editor, with a regular weekly column, and had a slot on This Morning and reporting stints for the BBC's Holiday programme. But even though he now has the coveted position of presenter of Gardeners' World, he's reportedly afraid of turning work down in case it dries up.
Hence his frequent appearances at gardening shows. He launched the Hillsborough one in 2013 and is coming back this week to do the honours at Antrim Castle Gardens. He has a great-great grandmother - a Richardson - from Northern Ireland, but no idea exactly of the whereabouts of his long lost relatives, and no time to look them up either.
"It's my first time in Antrim; I'm looking forward to it. Ireland is a rather beautiful country. The terrain varies so much, from the barrenness of the Burren (Co Clare) to lush gardens ..."
He's cut off by a burst of crackling on the line but rings back to give me a tip. For someone who killed a hardy Bonsai tree within six weeks of receiving it for a birthday, I could do with more thorough instruction.
"Well, I'm still an am amateur gardener - I'm self-taught and I haven't done gardening for a living since I was 23," he says. "I'm a professional writer and broadcaster, not a gardener. Anyway, my advice is just try it. Buy seeds and grow something you'd like to eat, that you'd take pleasure in. The process is not important - we get too hung up on the process. Don't worry about getting it right. Just do it."
That's me told.
The boy Don good
Monty Don is a renowned writer and television presenter — and the UK’s favourite gardener.
Monty was born in 1955, brought up in Hampshire where he gardened from a young age, and educated at a variety of schools and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. From the early 1980s Monty and his wife Sara set up and ran a jewellery business which enjoyed a great flurry of success in the mid ‘80s, but folded in 1990 just as Monty’s television and writing career was taking off.
Monty first appeared on television in 1989 on This Morning and continued as the show’s regular gardening expert for eight years, and has now presented gardening and travel programmes for over two decades. He became the lead presenter for the BBC flagship programme Gardeners’ World between 2003 and 2008, and then again from 2011, when he began hosting Gardeners’ World from his magnificent home, Longmeadow, in Herefordshire. He is also the main presenter for the Chelsea Flower Show coverage for BBC2. Monty’s latest series for BBC2, The Secret History of the British Garden, is due this autumn.
He also recently recorded a second series of Shared Planet for Radio 4, in which he explores the complex interface between a growing human population and wildlife.
A prolific journalist, Monty was the Observer’s gardening editor from 1994 until 2006, and now writes for the Daily Mail and Gardeners’ World. He has written over 20 books, including the best selling Fork to Fork.
Something for all the family...
Antrim Castle Gardens will be filled with colour this weekend as Allianz Garden Show Ireland returns to the venue for a three day festival of flowers, food and fun.
Boasting a new title sponsor for 2015, this year’s event will be larger than ever before as it delivers a packed programme including appearances by a host of key names from the world of gardening and food — not least the return of BBC favourite Monty Don.
Sitting alongside the traditional array of plants, artisan food stalls, local craft and show gardens will be fun-filled activities appealing to all age groups. There will be live music, a dedicated kids zone, a garden cinema, a mind and spirit zone and much more.
The emphasis of the show is about encouraging people to get involved and enjoy their gardens. For primary schools, there is the opportunity to design and build a scarecrow for Allianz Scarecrow Avenue or be part of the Allianz Schools’ Garden Challenge creating “Edible Container Gardens”. Meanwhile, secondary schools will be designing and producing gardens for display.
There will be food challenges with local chef Paula McIntyre, flower arranging competitions, theatre in the garden, jazz and more.
Allianz Garden Show Ireland has established a new partnership in 2015 with Food NI which will see an expanded food pavilion with numerous demonstrations by local chefs using local produce.
The 2015 Allianz Garden Show Ireland will run from May 8-10 and is open daily from 10am-6pm with parking adjacent.
Adults are £10 (concession £8) and the event is free for children under 16. There is a reduced rate for online booking. For more information visit the website www.gardenshowireland.com.