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How TV made gardening blooming fashionable: From Ground Force to Gardeners’ World, television has transformed …

Back in 1993 I was a young, upstart gardener on television – well, as opposed to the ‘proper’ gardeners of Gardeners’ World and the RHS anyway. 

It was also the year that my wife Sarah and I began to plant our own garden here at Longmeadow, starting the process of turning an empty, overgrown field into the garden you see on Gardeners’ World today.

Back then I was the gardening ‘expert’ for ITV’s show This Morning, doing weekly live items from the studios in Liverpool docks as well as making pre-recorded film segments. 

I also began to make travel films for the BBC’s Holiday programme that year, and in 1994 I started work for Tomorrow’s World as a roving reporter.

I certainly never set out in life to be a TV gardening presenter. I thought of myself as an obsessive amateur gardener and a professional writer, and the fact that the two could come together was, and is, a joy. 

Monty Don (pictured with his dogs Nigel, front, and Nell) discussed how gardening television shows have changed mainstream views on gardening over the past 25 years

Monty Don (pictured with his dogs Nigel, front, and Nell) discussed how gardening television shows have changed mainstream views on gardening over the past 25 years

Monty Don (pictured with his dogs Nigel, front, and Nell) discussed how gardening television shows have changed mainstream views on gardening over the past 25 years

I garden because I love it and I have to. If a few days go by without getting out into the garden I feel out of sorts and at odds with the world and myself. 

However, transferring that private passion onto the screen is as much a technical process as it is natural. 

Television is a slow, painstaking process. You assemble the parts, often out of sequence, that are then put together in the edit room.

But I was fascinated by the craft of television and I am immensely grateful for the very mixed apprenticeship that I served in a huge variety of locations and circumstances. 

It is an opportunity and training that few have access to nowadays. Then, in 1998, I was offered the chance to front a new gardening series on Channel 4 called Real Gardens. 

This was my big break and part of the shift in attitudes to gardens which was heralded by the appearance of Ground Force on BBC2 the previous year.

Ground Force – in which Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh made over a viewer’s garden in each episode – hit the sweet spot in a way that no other gardening programme had done before, or arguably has done since. 

A whole new generation had bought homes and gardens for the first time and it exactly chimed with the transformative sense of making your house and home brighter, better and, although this was unspoken, more valuable.

Until then the image of gardening was worthy, but dare I say a bit stuffy and dull. The RHS and grandees with large gardens ruled the roost with Gardeners’ World, either kowtowing to them or offering decent, honest fare for the rest of us who knew our place. 

Then the programme’s presenter Geoff Hamilton, who exemplified decency and honesty, tragically died in 1996, and by the late Nineties the world was changing to becoming more consumer-driven and the old establishment felt increasingly irrelevant.

Monty Don (pictured in 1993 on This Morning) wrote two books, set up a charity, began writing for Weekend magazine and more during his five years on Gardeners' World

Monty Don (pictured in 1993 on This Morning) wrote two books, set up a charity, began writing for Weekend magazine and more during his five years on Gardeners' World

Monty Don (pictured in 1993 on This Morning) wrote two books, set up a charity, began writing for Weekend magazine and more during his five years on Gardeners’ World

Real Gardens ran for three years in direct competition to both Ground Force and Gardeners’ World and was a fine programme that could and should have run for much longer. 

Between 1998 and 2000 we took over the coverage of all RHS shows, including The Chelsea Garden Show from the BBC. 

I was involved in a number of other really good series for Channel 4, such as Lost Gardens and Fork To Fork, made with Sarah from our own garden and celebrating the conjunction of growing and cooking. 

Ground Force was getting huge audiences on BBC1, and BBC2 had a range of gardening programmes over and above Gardeners’ World. The gardening viewer had never had it so good.

Then, in 2001, Channel 4 lost the shows contract from the RHS and decided, overnight, to end all its gardening programmes. 

I love to travel but my base is in my own back yard

So in 2002, for the first time in 12 years, I had no telly work lined up and I settled down to write what I thought would be a definitive and final gardening book, The Complete Gardener. 

However in June 2002 I had a call from the then head of BBC2, offering me the job of taking over from Alan Titchmarsh on Gardeners’ World, although at that point I had no idea that Alan was thinking of leaving the programme.

So began five years of Gardeners’ World from Berryfields, which was a private house just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. 

I would go there for a couple of days every week, make the programme, then return to garden at home. It was like having a slightly surreal allotment. 

During that five years I also made the ten hours of Around The World In 80 Gardens, which was a major, 18-month undertaking, I wrote two books, began writing for this magazine, set up a charity with drug addicts, and burnt my candle in the middle as well as at both ends.

Something had to give and with hindsight I was lucky just to have had a minor stroke. 

Monty (pictured at Chelsea Flower Show in May) says that although he enjoys filming and talking about gardens, most of all he likes putting his hands in the soil 

Monty (pictured at Chelsea Flower Show in May) says that although he enjoys filming and talking about gardens, most of all he likes putting his hands in the soil 

Monty (pictured at Chelsea Flower Show in May) says that although he enjoys filming and talking about gardens, most of all he likes putting his hands in the soil 

But it was enough to make me stop all filming for a year and spend time recuperating in my own garden. 

It made me realise that although I love travelling and have since then made programmes about Italian, French and Islamic gardens, am now in the middle of making a two-parter about Japanese gardens and next year will make a series on American gardens, my base is here, in my own back yard.

I love writing about gardens, I love filming them and I love talking about them, but most of all I like my hands in the soil of the garden we have made here over the past 25 years. 

I have always written about my own garden but I realised that there also had to be a connection with my own private gardening experience and my television work.

So when I was asked in 2010 – again out of the blue – whether I would like to return to Gardeners’ World, I said I would but only on the condition that I filmed it in my own garden. 

Most of all I like my hands in the soil of our garden 

I have learned a great deal about the crafts and tricks of television over the past 30 years but there is no substitute for honesty. Some things cannot be faked and for me it is the long love affair with my own garden.

Since then I have made three series – and intend to make more – of Big Dreams Small Spaces, where I help others make the most of their own gardening dreams. 

I think that this, more than Gardeners’ World, shows the real change over the past 25 years. 

Ground Force showed change could be quick, dramatic and aspirational. Real Gardens worked with the day-to-day issues of back gardens of folk from every walk of life. 

Now Big Dreams shows that not only can anyone be aspirational, but that they can be empowered to do it themselves – regardless of budget and situation.

Twenty-five years ago gardening was still largely driven by large gardens, often magnificent, that most of us could only admire on the television or by visiting. 

Now it is much more democratic and geared towards anyone, anywhere who shares the passion for growing things and making a beautiful space outside. I call that progress.

Monty (pictured at the BBC Good Food show in 2016) recalls researching through books and interviews for his work before the rise of the internet 

Monty (pictured at the BBC Good Food show in 2016) recalls researching through books and interviews for his work before the rise of the internet 

Monty (pictured at the BBC Good Food show in 2016) recalls researching through books and interviews for his work before the rise of the internet 

The wonder of digging about online

The biggest change to gardens and gardening on TV over the past 25 years has been the internet. 

This has affected everything; 25 years ago I would have faxed these words to the paper or read them over the phone. 

Then very basic modems arrived and – wonder of all wonders – I could send them straight from my screen to the office.

But all my research was still done through books and interviews. The only way to access any knowledge or opinion was through the printed word. 

Nowadays I can click the name of a pest or horticultural theme into a search engine and have all the resources of the whole world at my fingertips. 

Monty believes the internet has reinvigorated the marketplace for small specialists that would otherwise have gone unnoticed 

Monty believes the internet has reinvigorated the marketplace for small specialists that would otherwise have gone unnoticed 

Monty believes the internet has reinvigorated the marketplace for small specialists that would otherwise have gone unnoticed 

If I want to choose a rose of a particular shade of apricot, I can go through innumerable images, pick the one I like, then find out every supplier, compare prices and order and pay for it all within a few minutes. It is nothing short of a revolution.

However, there are pitfalls. 

The easy availability makes for very sloppy research. Just because something appears on half a dozen internet sites does not make it true – you’d be surprised at how often one mistake becomes incorporated into other sites. 

Yet if you want to know about the effects of bitterpit on apples, the latest update on ash dieback disease, or current research on ideal spacing for tomatoes, then you have instant access to research from Kew to Quebec – and this knowledge is entirely democratic and open to everyone for free.

The most pleasing benefit of the internet is the way it makes the small specialist grower and nursery available to a wider audience. 

It has reinvigorated the marketplace for those that would otherwise have disappeared under the sway of vast garden centres and wholesalers.

Monty’s pick of the TV crop  

GROUND FORCE Hosted by Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, this began airing on BBC2 in 1997 and led a revolution for more lively gardening programmes. ‘A whole new generation had bought homes and gardens for the first time and it chimed with that sense of making your house and home brighter and better,’ says Monty.

GROUND FORCE Hosted by Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, this began airing on BBC2 in 1997 and led a revolution for more lively gardening programmes. ‘A whole new generation had bought homes and gardens for the first time and it chimed with that sense of making your house and home brighter and better,’ says Monty.

GROUND FORCE Hosted by Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, this began airing on BBC2 in 1997 and led a revolution for more lively gardening programmes. ‘A whole new generation had bought homes and gardens for the first time and it chimed with that sense of making your house and home brighter and better,’ says Monty.

REAL GARDENS Monty’s first big television series, focusing on greenfingered amateurs, began on Channel 4 in 1998 and should have run longer than three years, he says.

REAL GARDENS Monty’s first big television series, focusing on greenfingered amateurs, began on Channel 4 in 1998 and should have run longer than three years, he says.

REAL GARDENS Monty’s first big television series, focusing on greenfingered amateurs, began on Channel 4 in 1998 and should have run longer than three years, he says.

LOST GARDENS In this 1999 Channel 4 series, Monty and his team (right) restored four gardens that had vanished from view to their former glory.

LOST GARDENS In this 1999 Channel 4 series, Monty and his team (right) restored four gardens that had vanished from view to their former glory.

LOST GARDENS In this 1999 Channel 4 series, Monty and his team (right) restored four gardens that had vanished from view to their former glory.

We’ve all gone wild

I was a half-hearted organic gardener 25 years ago. By this I mean that I was enthusiastically organic when it suited me and was easy, but occasionally resorted to glyphosate weedkillers and slug pellets when I felt overwhelmed or wanted a quick-fix solution. 

But around 1997 I became completely and non-negotiably organic and have remained so ever since – and my garden has never been healthier. 

Slugs and snails barely cause any problem at all, weeds are manageable and we have a large population of birds, insects, amphibians and mammals that greedily predate on most of our potential ‘pests’.

Gardeners are now encouraged to make their plots wildlife friendly. Monty began focusing on ensuring his garden is organic in 1997

Gardeners are now encouraged to make their plots wildlife friendly. Monty began focusing on ensuring his garden is organic in 1997

Gardeners are now encouraged to make their plots wildlife friendly. Monty began focusing on ensuring his garden is organic in 1997

I have not used any form of peat for even longer, as I feel that being part of the destruction of peat bogs is unacceptable and find that coir, bark composts and leaf mould make a more than adequate replacement.

But all this has depended upon an attitude and certain growing techniques that were once considered either hippyish or plain bad horticulture. 

Trade and the establishment proclaimed that it was impossible to grow good plants without peat, and an enthusiastic use of chemicals was seen as part of a good gardener’s skills. 

Nowadays the RHS and National Trust do not use peat at all, and the need to do everything we can to encourage wildlife and a natural, self-sustaining balance to our gardens is generally accepted as the intelligent way to go.

The scourge of plastic 

A recent development is our awareness of the problems associated with plastic in the garden. 

A quarter of a century ago nobody paid this any attention. 

Plastic was convenient, disposable and endlessly available. 

No one gave a second thought to where it ended up. Now we all know that it’s a serious problem that is getting worse. 

Gardeners have been part of this problem, with more than half a billion unrecyclable plastic pots used every year. 

Now we have to be part of the solution by finding alternatives. 

It’s not going to be easy, but I am optimistic that gardeners are resourceful and closer to nature than any other group. We will find an answer.

To this end, we now encourage long grass, patches of stinging nettles, wildlife ponds with good marginal cover, piles of wood and leaves tucked away for winter habitats, bug houses for insects and leaving as many seed heads and stems as possible over winter – all for the benefit of our garden’s wildlife. 

Sales of bird food have gone up hugely compared to a quarter of a century ago and I know from my own experience that huge pleasure is to be had from watching birds come to a winter table to feed.

This has been the easy part of our growing environmental awareness and the role gardeners have to play. 

Rather harder is the question of climate change. Gardeners are in the front line of this, as relatively small changes have a real and demonstrable effect on every back garden. 

Blossom is appearing earlier – sometimes to our delight but also when pollinating insects are not so abundant. 

Summers are getting drier, winters wetter. Extreme weather ‘events’ such as wind, rain, flood and drought are becoming more frequent. 

None of these issues are going to go away and almost certainly all will get more pronounced and affect our gardens more directly over the next 25 years.  

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/gardening/article-6291779/How-TV-gardening-blooming-fashionable.html

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