Monty digs in for long haul

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - Gardening -

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.

Deborah Penn

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