Years ago I collected my new prescription glasses and walked home staring up like a person who had time-travelled from a pre-aeroplane era: I had no idea trees had individual leaves that could be seen from the ground. Before 2020, I had never noticed gardens, either: they were things that old people liked and neighbourhood dads mowed constantly. The garden attached to my flat became interesting only if a fox was standing in it. Then lockdown happened, and the people who usually kept the vines and trees from eating the building stopped coming. I tried to sort it out myself, pathetically Googling to figure out what was supposed to be there and what was an alien plant invasion. Somehow, I ended up watching Gardeners’ World.
I can’t remember the first episode I saw, nor the first time I heard Monty Don talk about elephant garlic. I’d never heard of a “sweet pea” outside of Popeye cartoons, but I remember Monty telling us that their fragrance was intoxicating. I learned that flowers that looked like living spirographs were called dahlias and that tulips and daffodils, the welcome sights of spring and harbingers of warmth, only come alive if they’ve been left out in the cold all winter.
Over the year, my interest, well, grew. My boyfriend gave me Monty Don’s back catalogue of books for my birthday, including one from the 90s where he’s still going by Montagu. Very soon I became entirely unavailable on Friday nights, mentally or physically; if Monty was in the pond with his waders on, even the cat was ignored. Whatever horrors were happening in the news, the birds were chirping at Longmeadow and Monty was there among them, a calming presence when everything else was on fire.
“The BBC made a decision to carry on filming Gardeners’ World, and I always see it rather like wartime,” says Monty, when I call to tell him about the creepy shrine I have erected in his honour (I’m joking. I would never tell him). “They had to entertain the troops. So I was the Vera Lynn of Covid.” There’s a pause and he laughs. “I’m going to regret saying that.”
At Longmeadow, where Gardeners’ World is filmed, the BBC installed five miles of cabling and blocked the drive with four metal containers that served as isolation pods for the cameraman, the sound recordist, the director and the electrician. It stayed like that until July 2021. Monty was alone in his garden – Vera Lynn with a walkie-talkie, remote-controlled cameras and an invisible audience. “I really didn’t enjoy filming during lockdown; there was no fun. When you’re filming with a crew it becomes a collaborative, creative process. But I felt, in a quite old-fashioned way, that I was doing my bit.” I ask what got him through the year if he couldn’t watch Gardeners’ World like the rest of us. “I lapped up Succession. I’ve seen the first two seasons twice.”
When the first lockdown began, I didn’t know that for the next 18 months I would think of little else but the garden, that I would one day be a person with a preorder for spring bulbs. I am, statistically speaking, not unusual: my newfound interest stands alongside banana bread and sourdough as one of the great pandemic cliches. According to the HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) Garden Retail Monitor, garden centres at one point reported a rise in sales of 34% compared with pre-pandemic times, and they are still trading at 25% higher than in 2019. Gardeners’ World itself had an influx of new viewers.
“I don’t think it came out of nowhere,” says Monty of the surge in interest. “This has been a slow burn; circumstance suddenly gave it a flowering. Over the last five years or so there has been a growing movement in people who are interested. It’s the interface with the natural world that most people have.” At last count, 88% of people in the UK had some kind of access to a garden or an outside space. But prior to the pandemic, many regarded their garden as a bind, something else to be kept tidy. “They didn’t see it as a creative opportunity. I think that that’s what lockdown did,” he says. “It opened up the possibilities of a garden.”
Lockdown also opened up the possibilities of what the BBC would broadcast: Monty put out a call for viewers to send in videos of their own gardens – to fill the spaces in the programme where presenters would ordinarily go farther afield. They received 10,000 videos in the first year. Although they still included three an episode right through 2021’s series, the majority have never been shown. The videos are a fascinating, uplifting, sometimes heartbreaking glimpse into people’s shrunken lives. There was the woman in Warsaw who had filled her tiny fourth-floor balcony until you couldn’t see the walls, but had left a window for her dog to look out of, like a mouse-door in the skirting board. There was the 84-year-old woman talking about how for the first time she was starting a garden while being conscious of her own mortality; she wanted mature trees because she didn’t believe she had time to wait and watch them grow. And there were the doctors and nurses on a Covid ward who had discovered that the stuffy environment of the hospital office created the perfect conditions for cultivating the kind of vegetables they remembered from growing up in the Philippines. They had Chinese bitter gourds trained up against the windows, ripening in the sun.
“I think what’s come through from all those is people just sharing pleasure,” says Monty. His own favourites include a 90-year-old woman who “didn’t quite say it, but she meant: ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do what I want,’” and the infectious joy of the sisters with Down’s syndrome who wrote him a poem. “You can gloss over them and call them simple pleasures, but they’re not: they’re really deep, rich pleasures, and they’re intensely complicated because they strike so close to where true happiness is.”
When Gardeners’ World finished for the year last autumn, I was bereft. I watched old episodes and pretended it was spring. I stared out my window and willed the daffodils to grow. All I wanted was a one-off special where Monty wore a big jumper and showed us his houseplants. I couldn’t handle the fact that the light that had seen me through the horrors of the pandemic was going out, just as the clocks changed and the world got darker. This year, when I watched Monty fill pots with tulip bulbs and prepare the garden for another winter, the only thing that grew was the feeling of dread in my stomach. He was going to go away again.
“I don’t think the schedulers really understand gardens, gardening, or the audience,” he says. “They see it as: ‘Well, the season’s over, it’s October and it’s wintry. Obviously no one’s interested in gardening in winter, so therefore we don’t put gardening out.’ What they don’t realise is they are gardeners. Gardening doesn’t leave their life just because Gardeners’ World goes off air, any more than food leaves people’s lives because Bake Off finishes a run.” The loss was obviously not felt by me alone. This year, the BBC is putting out winter specials – something it hasn’t done in a decade.
The world is more interesting thanks to Monty. I tell him I can name plants in gardens as I pass them, that I can make an educated guess as to how much tender care goes into their lives. I know that trees are sharing food and possibly spreading information through their root systems to alert others to disease or danger – and now that I know all of this is happening beneath my feet and far above my head, I won’t ever forget. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” “Ah,” he says, chuckling. “Now you’re the smartarse who knows.”