Monty digs in for long haul
onty Don, gardening journalist and sage, currently recovering from a stroke, takes on Phileas Fogg in his latest paperback Around the World in 80 Gardens. The former presenter of BBC2’s Gardeners’ World presented a 10part series on BBC2 of the same name which involved Don and his film crew visiting all corners of the Earth, from the Arctic to Australia, from Namibia to Norway, to see the range of our planet’s gardens and learn about the people who made them. It was a mission that took 18 months to complete, including, in Don’s reckoning, 52 days spent either on aeroplanes or in airports, and five weeks sitting in minibuses. It involved experiencing some of the most horrendous weather known to man – a quite staggering amount of rain seemed to dog the outdoor shoots – and the gardener suffered every kind of ailment, from Delhi belly to seasickness to a debilitating attack of peritonitis. All this with a film crew in tow. Monty’s brief was to “get under the skin of a culture through its gardens”. Although he took in some famous tourist attractions such as Sissinghurst in Kent, the travels also involved more surprising locations. In Mexico he visited the fantastical jungle garden of Edward James, the eccentric collector of Surrealist art, and a cactus garden in Oaxaca. The first is a fabulous creation, all wild architectural follies soaring up to nowhere amid palm trees; the second consists of fairly prosaic-looking rows of plants. But it is the latter that Don found most inspiring. With James’s garden he had the sense of “a very spoilt man indulging himself”; but he reached very different conclusions about the Oaxaca garden. “When I first walked round it, I wasn’t getting it,” he says. “It only came alive to me after I interviewed a couple of people and realised it was made in the teeth of government opposition, because the government wanted to turn it into a hotel. It was all about expressing a provincial sense of identity. It was bankrupt, it had no money, but they were determined to try to keep it going. Suddenly an academic collection of plants became a living, breathing story about people, and I love that.” In China, in particular, the film crew had plenty of company. “At one point,” says Don, “we counted that there were 43 government officials with us.” The Chinese also provided culinary challenge: “You’d go to lunch and there’d be a plate in front of you with bits of duck’s tongue arranged like flower petals. “Followed by mountain frog stew. That was a real meal – and you had to eat it! You had to say, ‘Gosh, this is delicious! Wow, I’m full now, after just one mouthful!” In the paperback (Phoenix, £8.99) Don is a curious and engaging guide, as thrilled by the ad hoc floating vegetable plots of the Amazon as by formal Zen gardens.