Making up our lives – gardening, writing and “My Roots” by Monty Don

by Steve


Recently I’ve heard a fair few people talk about that old curse May You Live In Interesting Times. And Interesting may be one of the more polite adjectives I might think of when thinking of 2016. And when you live in interesting times there is a great temptation to escape. In the past I might have escaped via the bottle, or a YouTube rabbit hole of nostalgic clips, or some daft game on a mobile phone. And I’m not sure any of those are entirely bad, at least in moderation. But in 2016 I have escaped by gardening. Except I don’t think it is just escape. I think it is more than that. Perhaps I should just let someone else say this more eloquently.

“Modern life is, for most of us, a kind of serfdom to mortgage, job and the constant assault to consume. Although we have more time and money than ever before, most of us have little sense of control over our own lives. It is all connected to the apathy that means fewer and fewer people vote. Politicians don’t listen to us anyway. Big business has all the power; religious extremism all the fear. But in the garden or allotment we are king or queen. It is our piece of outdoors that lays a real stake to the planet.”

When I haven’t been able to garden, but have had a break from the daily routine and the daily assault of consumption (of goods, of news, of trivia), I have read. And I started reading My Roots: A Decade in the Garden by Monty Don, the source of the quote above. This is a collection of newspaper columns, many getting on for twenty years old, from the writer, TV presenter, and, well, gardener, Monty Don. I chose the book to aid my escape. But somehow a compilation of old newspaper gardening columns showed me something much more than just how to look after the patch of ground outside my back door, the book showed me “in a world of terror and anxiety this is art in a million backyards.”

But let us not escape the escapism just yet. Gardening is that. The act of gardening offers that fine balance, where you have to think just enough that it blocks out unwelcome thoughts, but where you don’t think so much that it invites a whole new set of unwelcome thoughts. There is a happy, constructive boredom in pruning and deadheading. Something as unglamourous as turning my compost heap is enough of a physical exertion to provide a departure from the everyday stasis of office work, and a means to a good night’s sleep.

The routine, of a daily potter, or a yearly plan, offers a reassuring structure amid the uncertainty and chaos of the Modern World. Don says, “The seasons impose a rhythmic observance of custom, which then in turn becomes customised by every gardener. This is all part of the shoring up of ruins that shadows the making of any garden, the sense that if it is not dealing with real life (it is, it is) then at least it is keeping real life at bay and there is a sure and certain comfort in denial.”

And not just the act of gardening, but the gardens themselves, “Our gardens are a retreat from the problems of daily life. One of the best things about them is that we can go outside, step under the sky and shut the door on the pressing clutter that makes modern life so stressful.” And it isn’t even just the plants and flowers either. “To step outside when the rest of the household is asleep and see a pair of shoes, a jersey, a ball, a copy of the Beano and a half-full glass in the dew gives me as much pleasure as the first sliced-off flowers of the rose ‘Charles de Mills’ or the blue spires of the delphiniums.”

I completely understand this. I stood under our lean-to the other night as the rain pounded on the creaky roof above, saw the silhouettes of plastic toys, saw the outdoor chairs folded up and it was just as powerful as the other day when I wandered out to see our crocosmias spring to life, and the day after when I worked out the bulbs I planted that had flowered were crocosmias (I’m an enthusiastic gardener, but not a very knowledgeable one).

Gardening and gardens are an escape. There is real truth to all this. But gardening is much more.

Gardening can be about so much more that the outdoor version of a show home, or some Austerity porn Keep Calm and Carry On Digging For Victory nonsense. “Gardening has become part of the national heritage theme park culture. You have to wonder what is wrong with us. I include myself, because I am just as subject as the next person to the knee-jerk response to nostalgia and heritage. It is a comfort zone where a little knowledge replaces thought, and history is an opiate for the present.” Gardening is meaningful and it can be vital. It is a challenge, an inspiration and a mystery. I think pottering around my garden has helped keep me sane lately. An escape and more than an escape.

In a world where we feel powerless, hopeless even, gardens give us back a tiny piece of control. They can be our kingdoms, our domains, our land that we can shape, and craft, and cultivate. And gardens can make a real difference. Earlier this year I attended a lecture about wildlife gardening by Professor Justin Dillon, who explained that nearly a quarter of Greater London is made up of private, domestic garden land. However, with paved driveways out front, and decking and artificial lawns out back, that land is shrinking. We are actually in control of a great deal of land, land that can support wildlife, that can play a tiny role in combating global warming, that can generally and genuinely benefit the environment.

It is the old Think Global, Act Local phrase made incredibly tangible and achievable. And Monty Don is excellent on this too. We can garden organically, we can welcome wildlife, and allowing our gardens to be a little messy and a little wayward is no bad thing in attracting that wildlife.

Those gardens are not only better for the bees and butterflies, but they feel more real too. It is a vague and awkward concept, but there is something about gardens having soul. Again, Don tackles this far better than I ever could: “Because this is why I garden. If gardening were simply an extension of the Best Kept Village competition or a make-over programme, then I would stop today. It would be meaningless. Anyone who loves gardening does so because in doing it we are making up our lives, with all the poetry, all the sorrow and all the hope that this entails. Gardening is about all us flawed, ridiculous people. We are buying into the future and hoping against hope that it is our children and grandchildren looking at the flowers when we are in the sky.”

This is the kind of sentiment that makes me want to stand up and applaud. And probably cry a bit too. It is also the kind of writing that is worth applauding and crying over.

Monty Don, “TV personality” to many is, first and foremost, a writer. He wonders “It is always hard to know how honest to be.” This is in relation to writing columns about specific weeks well in advance. He is writing what he expects will happen, what he expects to do, in a tense that isn’t strictly the actual truth. And I love how that tangle of purpose and intention comes out on the page.

How are we ever honest in our writing, truly honest? Perhaps we need to glide past some of the detail and warp some of the timelines, to get to some wider truth, a reality that you just can’t articulate by playing things completely straight. And agonising about that, and articulating that too, is what I love about Monty Don’s approach and his writing style. Writing is as much artifice as gardening. And can have just as much impact, probably a whole lot more. I know this book has affected me. As a gardener. And as a writer.

At the end of the book Monty Don asks “What else can a human do that leans so far into the future?” He is talking about planting trees. I think he might also be talking about writing books. I hope his words last as long as his trees.

View from the garden