The person who helped me through 2021: Monty Don inspired my new obsessive love of gardening | Life and style

YesThere are ears, I got my new eyeglasses back and went home looking like someone who had time traveled since the pre-airplane era: I didn’t know trees had leaves individual pieces that could be seen from the ground. Before 2020, I had never noticed the gardens either: they were things the old people loved and the neighborhood dads mowed all the time. The garden adjoining my apartment only became interesting if a fox was standing there. Then the lockdown took place and the people who usually kept the vines and trees from eating the building stopped coming. I tried to sort it out on my own, pathetically Google searching for what was supposed to be there and what was an alien plant invasion. Somehow I ended up watching Gardeners’ World.

I don’t remember the first episode I saw, nor the first time I heard Monty Don talk about elephant garlic. I had never heard of a “sweet pea” outside of the Popeye cartoons, but I remember Monty telling us their scent was intoxicating. I learned that the flowers that looked like living spirographs were called dahlias and that tulips and daffodils, welcome views of spring and harbinger of heat, only come to life if they have been left in. cold all winter.

During the year my interest grew. My boyfriend gave me Monty Don’s book catalog for my birthday, including one from the ’90s where he’s still called Montagu. Very quickly, I became totally unavailable on Friday evening, mentally or physically; if Monty was in the pond with his waders on, even the cat was ignored. Whatever horrors took place in the news, the birds were chirping in Longmeadow and Monty was there among them, a calming presence when everything else was on fire.

“The BBC made the decision to continue filming Gardeners’ World, and I still see it as wartime,” Monty says, when I call him to tell him about the spooky sanctuary I erected in his honor ( just kidding. I would never tell him). “They had to entertain the troops. So I was the Vera Lynn of Covid. There is a pause and he laughs. “I’m going to regret saying that.”

In Longmeadow, where Gardeners’ World is filmed, the BBC installed five miles of wiring and blocked off the drive with four metal containers that served as isolation pods for the cameraman, sound engineer, director and electrician. It stayed that way until July 2021. Monty was alone in his backyard – Vera Lynn with a walkie-talkie, remote cameras, and an invisible audience. “I really didn’t like filming during the lockdown; there was no fun. When you shoot with a crew, it becomes a creative and collaborative process. But I felt, in a pretty old fashioned way, that I was doing my part. I ask him what got him through the year if he couldn’t watch Gardeners’ World like all of us. “I lapped Succession. I saw the first two seasons twice.

When the first containment started, I had no idea that for the next 18 months I would only be thinking about the garden, that I would one day be a person with a pre-order of spring bulbs. I’m not, statistically speaking, unusual: My newfound interest alongside banana bread and sourdough is one of the great pandemic clichés. According to the Garden Retail Monitor of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), garden centers at one point reported a 34% increase in sales from pre-pandemic times, and they are still trading at 25% more than ‘in 2019. Gardeners’ World itself has had an influx of new viewers.

“I don’t think it came out of nowhere,” Monty says of the surge in interest. “It was a slow burn; circumstances suddenly gave it a bloom. Over the past five years or so, there has been a growing movement of interested people. It is the interface with the natural world that most people have. At last count, 88% of Britons had access to a garden or outdoor space. But before the pandemic, many saw their backyard as an obstacle, something else to keep in order. “They didn’t see it as a creative opportunity. I think that’s what the lockdown did, ”he said. “It opened up the possibilities of a garden.”

The lockdown also opened up possibilities for what the BBC would broadcast: Monty appealed to viewers to upload videos of their own gardens – to fill spaces on the program where presenters would normally go further. They received 10,000 videos in the first year. While they’ve always included three episodes throughout the 2021 series, the majority have never been shown. The videos are a fascinating, uplifting, at times heartbreaking glimpse into people’s reduced lives. There was this woman in Warsaw who had filled her tiny fourth-floor balcony until the walls could not be seen, but left a window for her dog to look out, like a mouse door in the bedroom. baseboard. There was the 84-year-old woman who recounted how, for the first time, she started a garden while being aware of her own mortality; she wanted mature trees because she didn’t think she had time to wait and see them grow. And there were the doctors and nurses on a Covid ward who had discovered that the stifling environment of the hospital office created the perfect conditions for growing the kind of vegetables they remembered from their childhood in the Philippines. They had Chinese bitter gourds standing up against the windows, ripening in the sun.

“I think what comes out of all of this are people just sharing fun,” says Monty. Her own favorites include a 90-year-old woman who “didn’t quite say it, but meant,” Damn, I’m gonna do whatever I want “” and the contagious joy of sisters with Down’s syndrome. who wrote him a poem. “You can ignore them and call them simple pleasures, but they’re not: they’re really deep and rich pleasures, and they’re intensely complicated because they strike so close to where true happiness is. “

When Gardeners’ World ended for the year last fall, I was helpless. I watched old episodes and pretended it was spring. I looked out the window and wanted the daffodils to grow. All I wanted was a one-time special where Monty wore a chunky sweater and showed us his houseplants. I couldn’t stand the fact that the light that had seen me through the horrors of the pandemic was fading, just as the clocks were changing and the world was darkening. 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 about to leave.

“I don’t think programmers really understand gardens, gardening, or the public,” he says. “They see it like, ‘Well the season is over, it’s October and it’s wintry. Obviously, no one is interested in gardening in the winter, so we don’t put gardening outside. What they don’t realize is that they are gardeners. Gardening doesn’t quit their lives just because Gardeners’ World goes extinct, nor does food quit people’s lives because Bake Off finishes a race. The loss was obviously not felt by me alone. This year the BBC is running winter specials – something it hasn’t done in a decade.

The world is more interesting thanks to Monty. I tell her that I can name the plants in the gardens as I come across them, that I can make an informed guess at how much care is given to their lives. I know trees share food and maybe spread information through their root systems to alert others of disease or danger – and now that I know this is all happening under my feet and well above my head I’ll never forget. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Attention is the beginning of devotion. “Ah,” he laughs. “Now you are the smart one who knows. “

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