ORne million Instagram followers can’t be wrong. It’s not an intimidatingly fit and glossy euphoria cast member that I find myself forever double tapping, but rather a bouncy 66-year-old in an overcast field, his knuckles deep in soil and a furry faithful friend frolicking somewhere in the distance.
He is, of course, horticultural heartthrob and soother of souls, Monty Don. After a few fallow months he’ll be back in our lives on a weekly basis from Friday, as the grand dame of plant-based programming, Gardeners’ World, returns to BBC Two.
Getting your hands dirty since 1968, Gardeners’ World is one of the UK’s longest-running television programmes, lagging slightly behind the equally pure BluePeter but up in front of Mastermind and Antiques Roadshow. Over the years presenters have come and gone, but Monty, who joined in 2003, is perhaps Gardeners’ World’s most legendary. My apologies to Percy Thrower and Alan Titchmarsh, but you just don’t have the dreamy bucolic sass of the mighty MD.
The first ever self-taught gardener to present the show, Monty boasts a deeply unhateable demeanour, the kind of guy that your grandma might call a “nice young man” even though he’s only a decade younger than her. Much like your grandma, I’d always been a fan, but my love for Monty deepened during lockdown. I’m certain I’m not the only one who spent a significant amount of the pandemic sitting on my living room floor, eyes locked to the telly and swooning over a man brandishing a muddy hoe. While the outside world was crumbling, Monty – like Jesus, we’re very much on a first name only basis – offered comfort and stability, neatly wrapped up in a blue linen chore jacket that looked like it was given to him by a kindly French centenarian.
The fact that I was trapped in a first floor flat in north London and didn’t actually have a garden wasn’t the point. His advice about when best to plant my begonias was utterly useless to me, but when you were only allowed to go outside for a glum little pavement jog, Monty’s green and bountiful world up at Longmeadow was just what I needed, especially while my indoor cheese plant slowly gave up on life. RIP baby, I only overwatered you because I loved you too much.
The 2020 series of Gardeners’ World quickly began to reflect the on-going troubles of the real world; as viewers were forced to speak to family members via screens, Monty too was cut off from his team. Filming the show without a crew, he set up his own cameras while a director offered remote instructions over Zoom. Other presenters were replaced by viewers’ homemade videos. Sweet and tender, Monty introduced each one in a calm, encouraging, “didn’t they do well”, fashion.
Gaps in between episodes were filled in online, as Monty served fans daily doses of exciting happenings in the Jewel Garden or stunning sunrises or his beloved labrador Nigel investigating a cabbage patch. Such a bond formed between Monty and his followers of him that when Nigel passed away in May 2020, we were right there with him, offering the comfort he had offered us. When Monty posted to tell us that Nigel had been buried with the tennis balls that he so loved, I just about lost it.
The congenial posho’s backstory makes him all the more fascinating. As Monty explains in his endlessly charming 2006 appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, after stealing another man’s wife while studying at Cambridge (Montagu, you cad!), he entered the jewelery business, selling fabulously Eighties costume creations to the likes of Princess Di and Boy George. Sadly, sparkly earrings lost their shimmer and before the decade was out Monty Don Jewelery went bust. A bankrupt thirtysomething Monty, his wife and children moved in with the in-laws. He sold off all his possessions of him and went on the dole. Of course, it all worked out in the end, as it usually does for well-brought up boys who went to Oxbridge. This well-connected chap soon scored a column in The Observer and a regular gardening slot for Richard and Judy on This Morning.
Surprisingly, Monty wasn’t an instant hit on Gardeners’ World when he first joined. Viewers dropped by millions and it took him a while to fully lay down roots. But by 2008 he was fully part of the garden furniture – the same year he suffered a stroke and had to leave for three years to recover.
But it’s Monty Don’s ups and downs that make him such a relatable presence, not to mention his sidekicks Nell and Patti, television’s best dogs since, well, since Nigel. As we welcome back Gardeners’ WorldI still don’t have a garden of my own, but when you’ve got lovely Monty smiling at you through the screen, what does it matter?
‘Gardener’s World’ returns on Friday 11 March at 8pm on BBC Two
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.