Monty Don: ‘I wouldn’t sell my spade for a million pounds’
My style signifier is braces. I’ve worn them since 1974. I was brought up in Basingstoke, which in those days was a small country town, and there was a little shop called Redmans that sold clothing. They had a pair of green corduroy high-rise trousers that I completely fell in love with. I was about 18 or 19 and they were the uncoolest clothes, but I bought them and had to wear braces to hold them up. Ever since I’ve always felt very comfortable in them.
As a rule I usually wear blue, but because my son used to steal my socks, I thought if he appeared in red socks, I’d know where he got them. So I buy dozens of red pairs at a time and wear them until they wear out.
I have scores of scarves from a shop called Turquoise on Hydra in Greece. I must have been 40 times in the past eight years as I’ve been helping to create a garden there. I always buy a new one before a filming trip. It’s partly a lucky thing and partly a practical thing – if you wear one item of clothing that’s always the same when you’re filming, it makes you recognisable in a crowd or in a scene. It’s about continuity.
The last thing I bought and loved was my dog, Nellie, but that was a few years ago. I am a very low-key consumer – I mainly buy tools and clothes – but I bought a Fujifilm X-T2 camera in Kyoto a few years ago that I really like, and got myself a Gränsfors Bruk axe that is very beautiful. Fujifilm X-T2 camera, fujifilm-x.com. Axe, from €250
The artist I would choose to capture my garden would be one of three people. I love the work of Ivon Hitchens. I’d be very happy if Cézanne had painted my garden, or my daughter Freya, who is an artist.
My favourite tool is a spade that I watched being made for me at the Bulldog Foundry in Wigan, on the day that Mrs Thatcher resigned in November 1990. It went literally from molten metal to me walking out holding a spade. I never let anyone else use it and I wouldn’t sell it for a million pounds. It is irreplaceable. bulldogtools.co.uk
An indulgence I would never forgo is a proper cooked breakfast. I always get up in time to have one, even – to my wife Sarah’s horror – if I have to leave at 6am and rise at 4.45am.
The view I love most is from the hillside of our little farm in the Llanthony Valley in the Black Mountains. I love that view beyond measure. I spend as much time there as I can, although in lockdown I only visited twice, to check on the sheep. I missed it greatly. My heart absolutely belongs in the Black Mountains, and I fully intend my ashes to be spread there too.
I am very bad at writing letters. I think it comes from boarding school and being forced to write them on a Sunday morning. Also, my mother never allowed us to play at Christmas or on birthdays until we had written every thank-you letter. Hence I see writing them as a terrible chore. Having said that, I do send postcards and I keep notebooks. I write longhand, and I bought a Pilot Capless Decimo fountain pen the other day that is a joy to use. £179, cultpens.com
My favourite garden smells are sweetpeas and grass when it is first mown in spring. I love the scent of a greenhouse full of pelargonium and of honeysuckle as you pass by. But if I had to choose one it would be the smell of warm soil that has dried after a downpour.
And the non-garden smell I love is the nape of Sarah’s neck.
I’ve recently rediscovered Gentleman’s Relish. I used to have it on Sundays as a child, on hot buttered toast. We’d sit by the fire, browning the bread with a toasting fork, watching a Sunday serial adaptation, usually Dickens or Jules Verne – something “improving” on the BBC that we were allowed to watch. I found a jar of it in a cupboard that someone must have bought years ago – it keeps indefinitely – and I don’t know how I have spent most of my adult life without it. It brought back all those memories.
The best piece of gardening advice I was ever given is: don’t fight nature because you will lose. Why? Because it’s a completely vain process, and if you work with nature – whether from a design point of view or if you are growing anything – everything will go better.
The body-care staple I’m never without is shea butter, which I always take with me when I travel. If you’re a bit sunburnt or you get a bite or a sore or any kind of skin complaint, it works like magic. It’s basically a moisturiser, but that’s all I need.
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The moment that changed everything for me was at 6am one Saturday morning in 1974. I was working on a building site, having left school ignominiously – I thought I’d be a poet or some unformulated star – and I’d got into the habit of going out late and getting up late. But that morning, for some reason, I got up early. It was May and the sun was shining and I suddenly thought, I love this. I love the fact that it’s early in the morning, that it’s alive and that things are happening. And from that day I got up earlier and earlier, until I was regularly rising at 5am. I read and I studied – I retook my A-levels and did the Oxbridge entrance test. I found that was when my brain was clearest. It completely transformed my life because I suddenly had my own rhythm and I was using my time to maximum advantage. I am, 100 per cent, a lark. The downside, of course, is that I usually head off to bed around 10pm. I am the worst party pooper in the world.
My favourite garden in fiction or film is The Draughtsman’s Contract because I love both the film and the fact that the garden played such a central role in it. We went to see it in 1984, and when we came out I said to Sarah, “God, I would love to work on a film like that.”
The best souvenir I ever brought home was a stone from Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire in 1979. It is almost perfectly round and about the size of a melon, and wherever I’ve been it has come with me. I keep it on the windowsill by my bed. It reminds me of a November day when we were living on the North York moors, and it was very cold and misty – just magical.
The best books I’ve read in the past year include Wild Flowers by Sarah Raven. I have about 20 books about wildflowers, but I’m not a botanist and most of them are either intimidating or incomprehensible. Sarah’s book is fabulous. I’m writing my own book about wildflowers at the moment so I re-read it. Then there’s Four Fields by Tim Dee, where he takes four fields in different countries and writes beautifully about them. The other is The Peregrine by JA Baker, a masterpiece of natural history writing. I would recommend that to anybody who loves the English language, let alone birds of prey.
The designs I most admire include the classic Land Rover Defender. You don’t just admire Land Rovers, you love them. And my other favourite is the Kilner jar. At Kew, where they have the Millennium Seed Bank in James Bond-style vaults at -20°C, all the seeds are stored in Kilner jars because they are perfect for the job. We use them all the time at home, because you can see what’s inside, you can sterilise them, they never corrode, and you can reuse them – they are beautifully, beautifully simple.
The last music I downloaded was Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.
The best gift I’ve given recently is a Fällkniven GP Gentleman’s pocket knife in staghorn that I gave to my son for his birthday. It has a Japanese-made cobalt steel blade and is very fancy. The other present I meant to give to my grandson last autumn, but had to delay due to flooding and then the pandemic, is three acres of woodland. I don’t know if he will think it’s a good present now but maybe he will one day. We are going to plant it this autumn, and when I’m long gone and he’s my age, there will be trees. From a selection, fallkniven.se
And the best gift I’ve received recently is a photograph of my dog Nigel, who sadly died in May, by the photographer Marsha Arnold. I was very moved by it. I had him for 12 years.
I have twice as many wellies and gardening boots as I do other shoes. Between October and April it’s always wellies, and then boots when it’s dry. About 15 years ago, Sarah gave me a pair of handmade gardening boots made by a John Lobb bootmaker, which I love.
I don’t understand the notion of bucket lists. I don’t want to jump out of aeroplanes or ride bareback across the plains; I want to get better at what I do. The only thing I am short on is time, and by far the most important and valuable thing is time with the people – and places – you love.
My style icon is the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. I’ve always loved his studio, his clothes and his work. In terms of work and what they do, it’s Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Bob Dylan is also a complete hero. Then there’s John Berger, Samuel Beckett and John Lennon. It’s a funny mixed bag, a bit like who would you invite to dinner. But can you imagine how ghastly that would be – all those egos rattling around. Never meet your heroes! Just because someone is a brilliant musician or sculptor or writer it does not make them a good dinner companion.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be a sculptor. Working with my hands is what I love most. When I worked as a jeweller, I was interested in the structural side of things. I have done it over the years but never applied myself to it with the rigour that any craft or skill needs. Surface decoration is not really my thing though; I like the three-dimensional and structure. It is the same with gardens: that relationship between space and substance – even if it’s within the petals of one flower, the hedges, the trees or the layout – is what really excites me.
I’m hopeful that the filming for a new series on European gardens which was shelved by the pandemic will still happen. I’ve got a couple of books being published this autumn – one about the wildlife in my garden and at the farm, the other about American gardens – and another one next year, as well as a memoir to write. I’m signed up to do two more years of Gardeners’ World after this one, plus I’ve got projects on the farm. So there’s a lot to do.
My favourite apps are weather-related because my life is entirely based around it – whether it be gardening or filming. I need to know almost from hour-to-hour what the weather is like. I also use Instagram, which means I can communicate with lots of people on an intimate level about the garden. I have people from all over the world following it. I can’t converse with people directly as I get thousands of comments every day, but there is communication just by putting it out there.
The most underrated plants or flowers are the primrose, cow parsley and the hawthorn. The common hawthorn is beautiful in flower, in leaf and in berry. These are all native, very modest plants that I absolutely could not live without. It’s all about emotional engagement: you can’t have a garden without a gardener, and gardens are human beings, therefore you can’t have a garden without humanity. You can have a very dull garden full of extraordinary plants and you can have a wonderful garden full of very ordinary plants – it’s about people and their relationships with them. That’s where gardens become interesting.
To de-stress, I carve wood and make bowls, mostly in winter. I love it – I’ve been doing that all my adult life.
I accumulate things rather than collect them. I have about 40 penknives, lots of garden tools and, at last count, about 23 guitars and 10,000 books. I haven’t deliberately set out to collect any of them; I just don’t throw things away.
This year, I’ve really come to appreciate the absence of noise from planes or cars during lockdown, which meant a kind of peace and quiet that I don’t think any of us have experienced this side of the second world war. You’d be sitting in the garden and suddenly realise you could only hear the birds. It only lasted about six weeks and then things gradually built back up again. The drawback to lockdown for me was not being able to see my grandson. Other than that, I have a comfortable lot.
American Gardens by Monty Don and Derry Moore is published by Prestel (£35)