How a British Gardening Show Got People Through the Pandemic
The television show “Gardeners’ World” is an institution in Britain, where it has aired for coming up on 54 seasons, having premiered way back in 1968. It broadcasts on Friday nights, welcomed by viewers as a gentle usher into the weekend.
Monty Don, a British garden writer and author of some 21 books on the subject, has been the host since 2003. If Mr. Don’s sturdy appearance and deep, reassuring voice don’t comfort audiences, there’s the constant presence of his dogs napping at his feet.
Last year, over the course of the 33-episode season, which follows the growing season from March through late October, something remarkable happened: “Gardeners’ World” went from being comfort TV to indispensable viewing.
With restaurants, bars and theaters shut down and socializing at home (or anywhere else) risky, gardening was one of the few leisure activities the pandemic didn’t take away. Both the U.K. and the United States experienced a gardening boom last year, with sales of seeds way up and nurseries overrun on weekends. Judging by the 30 percent sales increase of Scotts Miracle-Gro, this spring promises another bumper crop.
“Gardeners’ World,” which is available in the United States through streaming services like BritBox and on YouTube, rode the enthusiasm. Last year weekly viewership was the highest in five years and the BBC, which airs the show (produced by BBC Studios) deemed it essential public service broadcasting, said the executive producer, Gary Broadhurst. (The new season debuts March 19.)
“It’s because of what gardening can do for people,” Mr. Broadhurst said. “The channel thought, and rightly so, that people would need the program. Because we were bombarded with news about coronavirus, and this was an opportunity for just an hour to have a release.”
Nadifa Mohamed, a Somali-British novelist, wrote last April in the New Statesman that Monty Don and “his placid Labradors” offered viewers “29 minutes of televisual sedation,” adding that “the seasons turn in a neat and predictable way, each offering new shades of beauty and little lessons in how to survive.”
To tune in each week and see the daffodils and bluebells coming up, to watch Mr. Don’s raised vegetable beds grow lush and abundant by high summer, was true counterprogramming: Life endures. The birdsong that begins each episode was an antidote to the trauma of the nightly news. In short, “Gardeners’ World” became an oasis of normalcy, a balm for frayed nerves — and not only for British viewers.
Alex Yeske, an art director and graphic designer, turned to “Gardeners’ World” early in the pandemic when she felt cooped up in her New York apartment and fried from staring at screens. “So many of us have been reaching our limits,” Ms. Yeske said. “I spend way too much time on my computer, my phone. Getting to see all this greenery was relaxing.”
As her anxiety mounted last spring, Alisha Ramos, who writes the newsletter Girls Night In, went looking for something to quell it. She tried meditation apps, but they lacked a storytelling component. Then she found “Gardeners’ World.”
Ms. Ramos was living in an apartment in downtown Bethesda, Md., without any green space, and she had never gardened before, but she was instantly drawn in. “Every night before bed I would cue up an episode,” she said. “It’s very gentle in how the episodes are constructed. Even the sounds; the birds chirping, the rain. Those natural elements were really calming.”
Mr. Don hosts “Gardeners’ World” from his own home and two-acre garden, Longmeadow, in the West Midlands of England. In last season’s Episode 1, there was no mention of Covid-19. By Episode 3, the United Kingdom was under enforced lockdown and Mr. Don was filming without a crew and getting camera tips from his director via Zoom.
While his co-hosts visit London flower shows and the immaculate landscaped gardens of grand country estates, Mr. Don has his boots in the muck at Longmeadow, patching a fence or digging up the horned tulips he has over-planted in his jewel garden. At program’s end, Monty gives viewers jobs for the weekend. In his stretched wool sweaters and old blue work coat, he’s an unlikely style icon — a solid sort.
Ms. Ramos mentioned a quote attributed to Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Mr. Don, she said, espouses something of that eternal wisdom on “Gardeners’ World.”
“He said something along the lines of, ‘The beauty of gardening and nature is it’s always here,’” Ms. Ramos said. “It’s a reminder that life goes on. It’s so great to be able to retreat into our gardens at a time like this.”
Preparing for Spring
“The snowdrops are coming, the aconites, the crocuses, the irises. You’re starting to see buds and shoots on the trees and shrubs,” Mr. Don said last month. He spoke via video chat, from Longmeadow, where the very wet winter was nearly over and he and the gardeners who assist him have been mulching the borders and digging up some box hedging hit by blight.
Mr. Don, who is 65, was eagerly anticipating spring’s arrival — and with it his return to “Gardeners’ World.” “Particularly after this winter,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard winter here. People are pretty depressed and fed up. So they want to breathe again, and get outside, and have this sense of hope.”
On his documentary specials, like “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” and “Monty Don’s American Gardens,” and in interviews, Mr. Don imbues gardening with a drama and passion uniquely his. A water feature built for the garden of the Roman Emperor Hadrian is “extraordinary”; the lengthening spring days bring him “immense” excitement. He bites into adjectives like ripe plums.
“Gardeners’ World,” by contrast, is more subdued, and without any of the hyperbole or busyness common to modern media. When Mr. Don is working in his garden, we never hear background music. Weather isn’t edited into — or out of — the show. If it rains, the host gets wet. Features on gardens and gardeners are given room to breathe; lingering close-ups of a flower or trees rustling in the breeze play between the segments.
“The basic rule is it has to take you away from whatever stresses and strains there are in your world,” Mr. Don said. “But at the same time, it has to be honest. Nothing is manufactured. We never layer birdsong on that wasn’t there.”
While Covid-19 upended the show’s production last season, Mr. Don and his colleagues decided for the most part not to talk about the pandemic, apart from glancing mentions of “challenging times.” Freaking people out was the job of the news. “Gardeners’ World” reinforced the therapeutic power of gardening.
When the show addressed Covid-19 head on, it did so movingly. Unable to travel widely to film, the producers asked viewers to share videos of what they were up to in their gardens during quarantine. A Utah family dug up their yard and planted a wildflower meadow; a young girl in Wales grew her own pumpkins and left them for strangers. The clips connected viewers at a time of social isolation and showcased gardeners’ creativity and resilience.
One of the more poignant segments paid a visit to Kate Garraway, a well-known TV presenter. Ms. Garraway’s husband, Derek, got Covid-19 last March, became critically ill and was in the hospital for months, and remains seriously ill today. Sitting in her London backyard, Ms. Garraway explained how she and her children planted a garden in hopes that he would return to see it bloom.
“You don’t plant something unless you believe it’s going to come up,” Ms. Garraway said. “So by planting something and believing Derek will see it when it comes up, that gives us a sense of future.”
When the camera cut back to Longmeadow, Mr. Don spoke in the comforting voice of a minister at bedside, saying, “Gardens can’t make our problems go away, they can’t solve them, but they can help us to deal with them.”
Reflecting on the Kate Garraway segment now, Mr. Don said, “I’m old enough to know that if you have grief, if you have suffering, if you have loss, the garden is a solace.”
From Jeweler to the Stars to Expert Gardener
Mr. Don’s parents cultivated a five-acre plot at the family’s home in south England, and growing up, he and his siblings were given gardening jobs to do. As a boy, he disliked weeding the strawberries or chopping wood, but, at 17, while sowing some seeds in spring, Mr. Don experienced what he called a “Dionysian moment.”
“Suddenly I was awed by a kind of ecstasy of total happiness. Of complete sense of not wanting anything else,” he recalled. “And bearing in mind this was 1971. The most glamorous thing in the world was sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, not gardening.”
Mr. Don kept his hobby to himself. Luckily, his wife, Sarah, whom he met at Cambridge University, enjoyed gardening too. In 1981, the couple started a jewelry company, Monty Don. Their loud costume pieces became fashionable during the go-go ‘80s, worn by Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and others. Mr. Don led a glamorous life in London, draped in his own jewelry and knocking around with Boy George. He and his wife also gardened behind their townhome; when Elle magazine ran a feature, he was outed as a green thumb.
In the early ’90s, the economy tanked, and with it, the couple’s jewelry business. Drowning in debt, with three young children to support, Mr. Don and his wife sold everything they owned to pay off creditors. He fell into a deep depression. Years later, Mr. Don still bears the scars of that financial failure, friends of his told the Prospect last year. Despite becoming Britain’s national gardener, he is a workaholic, never one to rest easy on his success.
Mr. Don and his family left London and moved to Herefordshire, the most rural county in England, because his wife’s mother lived there and property was cheap. The historic house and land they bought was scrubby and untamed. Mr. Don threw himself into creating Longmeadow, in a sense his workplace and sanctuary both. It is no formal, restrained garden but crammed with plants, features and ideas, a canvas for his imagination and enthusiasm.
“I found the mixture of creativity and just sheer physical work completely satisfying,” Mr. Don said. “I remember making cuff links for David Bowie. It was as though the previous life was, not the wrong turn because it was fun, but it was a side event. And that what I was doing was getting back to my roots. I was doing what I was meant to be doing.”
He began to write columns on gardening for newspapers, appear on TV and publish books, many of them centered on life at Longmeadow. As a passionate but amateur gardener, Mr. Don connected with those who shared his interest but were intimidated by what can be a fixation on expertise.
On “Gardeners’ World,” Mr. Don emphasizes function, utility and sustainability. You don’t need to buy $200 pruning shears or memorize pH levels, he shows us. It’s about celebrating the harmony, well-being and richness of life to be found in gardens.
To Everything There Is a Season
Last August, Ms. Yeske and her husband left New York and moved to West Los Angeles, where they bought a house with a large yard. She plans to grow a garden of vegetables and flowers for the first time in her life.
“This spring I’m starting things from seed and planning to have a couple of raised beds,” she said. “All of which I probably wouldn’t have done if I didn’t watch ‘Gardeners’ World.”
Ms. Ramos also left her apartment behind during the pandemic. She and her husband moved to a suburb of Bethesda, and bought a house whose previous owner, a chef, had gardened in the backyard and even built a drip-irrigation system. Having outdoor space to garden was suddenly high on her list of priorities, Ms. Ramos said. Watching the casual, sometimes fumbling way that Mr. Don gardens had given her the confidence to try.
“Gardeners’ World” usually begins each season with half-hour episodes, before expanding to one-hour broadcasts later on. But because of last year’s success, the network ordered one-hour broadcasts from the start. Audience anticipation is high. The pandemic is still with us, lockdowns have not yet lifted — and the garden beckons.
“You plant a seed and the next spring it will grow. And next summer it will flower. And maybe next autumn it will bear fruit,” Mr. Don said. “That continuation of life is very powerful.”