Back in January 2002 I found myself, for the first time in 12 years, with no television project lined up for the year ahead.
So I set out to write what I thought would be my definitive work on organic gardening.
The book, which until a month before publication had the working title of Completely Organic, would cover every aspect of this garden that was then in its tenth year, and it was to be my final horticultural will and testament.
Once it was published I’d never write another gardening book because there would be no more to be said.
Monty Don (above) updates his book The Complete Gardener and tells people how to redress climate change with their gardening habits, which could even involve planting trees
I could give it all my time and attention and when it was done, I’d devote myself to writing about landscape and perhaps novels, and garden just for myself and my family.
As ever, though, things did not go quite to plan. Throughout spring I worked away, the photographer Ari Ashley came weekly and photographed every aspect of my garden life, and the book steadily accrued in the laborious way that all books do.
Millions visit Longmeadow but few ever set foot in it
But at the beginning of June I received a phone call from the BBC asking if I would like to take over the helm of Gardeners’ World.
Although I had made many gardening programmes for ITV and Channel 4 and had also worked a great deal with the BBC over the years, I had never previously had any connection or contact with Gardeners’ World, had no idea that the job was vacant and had no designs or plans in that direction, so I was a little surprised.
However it was, and is, the country’s flagship gardening programme, arguably the most influential and important of its kind in the world, and it took me all of one second to accept.
This changed a number of things, some in ways I had not remotely considered. For a start it imposed a deadline on what had hitherto been a steady writing progress, influenced as much by the weather as anything else.
When it was sunny I gardened, and when it rained I wrote. That had to be replaced by a more rigorous writing regime in order to have the book finished, edited and ready for publication before I began work on Gardeners’ World at the beginning of the year.
PLANT A SYMBOL OF PERPETUAL LIFE
Monty says planting a tree can redress climate change, as they absorb excess carbon dioxide (above, replanting a Cornus Alba Westonbirt with his late dog Nigel)
Without excess carbon dioxide being absorbed by trees and oxygen being released, human life would cease to be viable.
Planting one tree in your garden is a positive act to redress climate change.
Trees can have real meaning. In 1997 we went to a wedding where all the guests were given an oak sapling to plant as a lasting remembrance of the union.
I purloined an extra one and planted them in the garden. The two oaks are now magnificent.
One is tall and straight; the other shorter with a broader sweep of its branches.
Every time I look at them I think of my two friends and, now, their four sons.
Both trees will, I hope, live for hundreds of years, long after my friends and I have been forgotten, but the connection will live on.
It also meant that the underlying fundamentals of the book – organic gardening – would come under much closer scrutiny.
I realised that this was an opportunity to stand up and be counted and spread the organic word to a much wider audience than I had access to when I started to write the book. So the organic aspects were paramount.
Back in 2002 organic gardening was still seen as a slightly subversive activity by many in the horticultural establishment, and especially by the trade whose income derived hugely from the use and sale of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, as well as from the almost universal commercial use of peat.
But over and above the practical aspects, there was a cultural attitude that nature was the gardener’s enemy. Good gardening involved conquering and subduing nature so that it would not spoil a lovely garden.
I am glad to say that now, as I write this, only the very cynical, very stupid or very ignorant seriously believe these things.
All of us are aware, through the evidence of climate change, the extinction of and decline in so many species, the increase in atmospheric pollution, the effects of plastics on the oceans, the rise in allergies and asthma in children, and so many other signs and signals, that we are starting to pay the price for mistreating this planet.
Gardening (but sadly not farming) organically and holistically is now mainstream and the militant anti-organic gardeners are a diminishing minority.
I took a break from Gardeners’ World in 2007 after suffering a minor stroke. Over the previous 18 months I had travelled the world for a series and book, Around The World In 80 Gardens, and was exhausted.
I recuperated in this garden, pottering gently and re-establishing a connection that had become stretched thin by other commitments.
I realised that gardening had most meaning for me from a personal, subjective viewpoint and decided that if I ever returned to practical television gardening, it would have to be from here, in this deeply personal garden.
However, I returned to work with enthusiasm, made series about Italian gardens, setting up a smallholding and crafts, and wrote a couple of gardening books as well as a second cookbook with my wife Sarah.
I was enjoying the liberation from a weekly, instructive television series. Then I had another call from the BBC. Would I return to Gardeners’ World? This time I thought long and hard. In the end I agreed, but only if it was filmed here, in this garden – which it has been since February 2011.
The British gardening expert shares how he expanded his own garden from a two-acre abandoned field to a series of stunning gardens (aerial view above)
This has inevitably changed the garden a lot. We are now a very private garden which millions of people visit most weeks – even if few ever set foot in it. We have had to smarten up.
Until we started filming here every week, we would usually have at least one part of the garden that was not at its best or even lying fallow.
We would get round to fixing it in our own sweet time and it was extremely rare for all the parts of the garden to be looking good at the same moment. That does not work for filming.
Television has an insatiable appetite for content and every corner of my two-acre plot is potential filming material every week – so it all has to look good all the time.
To that end I started to employ two full-time helpers and, with various personnel changes over the years, this is still the case.
So we garden as a team, dancing to the demands of television as much as according to our own whims, but it has brought opportunities to do and grow more.
HOW I BLEW MY BUDGET ON TREES
Monty spent a staggering £1,400 on 1,100 trees (above, his coppice) in one day of bidding
When we first came to this garden in 1991 it was an empty field bounded by a gappy hedge.
In fact there were two trees – a hazel and a hawthorn.
Both are still here, now accompanied by hundreds of other trees, most of which I bought almost by accident.
In 1993 I went to an auction of trees at a local nursery to buy yews for the front garden.
I set my budget at £200 – because that was all we had in our bank account.
I duly bought some yews, and had a little of my budget to spare.
To cut a long, irresponsible story short, I went on bidding. At the end of the day I found I’d bought 1,100 trees and spent £1,400!
These provided hedging plants, pleached limes and an avenue, plus standalone trees. It was one of the best investments I have ever made.
I planted those trees when they were small enough to hold in one hand, and they grew with my family and quickly created height and stature (above).
Soon some were strong enough to take a hammock or a swing, and it was a momentous day when the biggest tree was large enough for my son to climb.
I have also had to dramatically increase the range and variety of both the plants we grow and the different gardens within the garden. Only the Spring Garden, the Dry Garden, the Jewel Garden and the Coppice have remained more or less unchanged.
Over the past ten years I have added the Cottage Garden, a large pond in the Damp Garden, the Grass Borders, the Mound, the Orchard Beds, the Soft Fruit Garden, the Writing Garden, the Paradise Garden and the Wildlife Garden.
I have also moved the vegetables, made a completely new Herb Garden, added a new greenhouse and dramatically changed the Cricket Pitch. Box blight has meant ripping out the box balls and many of our hedges – and many more will have to go shortly.
Twenty years has added a huge amount of growth to our trees and deciduous hedges and as a result we have much more dramatic and splendid specimens but rather less light.
I had not foreseen this or at least not thought it through, and quite a lot of our planting has to change as a result. Also, 20 years of heavy mulching means our soil is now a joy to work with. Heavy, intractable clay has become a rich, crumbly loam.
Where my children once rode their bikes, my grandson now toddles. Five dogs that were, in turn, at my side as I gardened are now buried in the Coppice. My knees remind me unkindly of the extra 20 years of use every morning as I stumble out of bed.
So it feels timely to bring this book up to date and share all these changes, with new pictures of the garden by the wonderful Marsha Arnold, and to share the extra knowledge I’ve acquired over the past two decades.
In that time I have not only gardened here, but travelled the world extensively, visiting gardens of all kinds.
This has inevitably informed and changed the way I garden so although the techniques and processes that I used 20 years ago remain largely unchanged, the context, both private and public, is completely different.
In the public realm climate change, pandemics, flailing governments and constant destruction in pursuit of cheap, unsustainable food have made the world a more fragile place.
Our gardens have become more important as places of refuge, as well as bringing a much greater awareness of their role in achieving and maintaining physical and mental wellbeing.
But for all the passing of time and the glare of television publicity, the essence of this garden remains the same.
If no longer wholly private, it is still personal, a family home made and shared with love. And that is the secret of good gardening.
There is no one true way. If it works for you, you are doing it right. If you have respect for the natural world, leave the lightest footprint possible.
Garden for your children and grandchildren, perhaps as yet unborn. Then you are doing right by the world.
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The new edition of The Complete Gardener by Monty Don is published on 4 March by DK, £27. © Monty Don 2003, 2009, 2021. Pre-order a copy for £13.50 at whsmith.co.uk by entering code DMMONTY at checkout. Book number: 9780241424308. Offer valid until 15 March 2021. T&Cs apply: www.whsmith.co.uk/terms