Full Monty

Mus­ing on how man’s earth­works – from Stone­henge to mod­ern min­ing – have al­tered the planet, Monty re­calls his own with a mix of shame and pride

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

was lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio the other day, when I caught two ge­ol­o­gists be­ing in­ter­viewed about the amount of re­ar­rang­ing of earth that man has done. It seems that we have shifted the en­tire struc­ture of the planet to an enor­mous ex­tent. The in­ter­viewer cheer­fully used Stone­henge as an ex­am­ple of this kind of ge­o­log­i­cal re­ar­rang­ing, but the sci­en­tists pointed out that in fact they were talk­ing about tril­lions of tons of rock and earth be­ing moved, mainly as a re­sult of mod­ern-day min­ing and con­struc­tion. I thought about my own ex­ca­va­tory ex­ploits with a tinge of shame, but mostly pride and plea­sure. I do like a dig­ger and I do like to move, if not moun­tains, then hill­sides that I can hack into. I sus­pect that this is not en­vi­ron­men­tally, cul­tur­ally or aes­thet­i­cally a good thing and can run per­ilously close to van­dal­ism, but there you are. It may be wrong, but it is very good fun. And it can be cre­ative. One of the fea­tures of most show gar­dens at flower shows is that they are made in lev­els. For those of us with­out the money or the space to get an ex­ca­va­tor into our back gar­dens, it is much eas­ier and cheaper to go up than to go down. Even a small shift in level adds dy­namism to a gar­den, and deck­ing − whether it’s just a few steps or a plat­form of some kind − can be achiev­able. About 40 years ago, I was asked to move a large pile of builders’ rub­ble from a back gar­den in Cam­bridge, so I used it as the cen­tral core of a mount. Mounts were a Tu­dor idea, from which you could sur­vey your gar­den. Thus in­spired, pre­ten­tious thing that I was, I dug a deep ditch around the pile, heaped earth over the top of it and used turf to cover the whole thing, with a path wind­ing from a cause­way across the ditch to the top. The small chil­dren of the house­hold loved it and the owner… well, she had not got rid of the rub­ble but she had gained a mount – not many Cam­bridge back gar­dens in the late 1970s could boast that. But go­ing down is more dra­matic and gives you spoil with which to go up. Dig a sunken gar­den and you have the ma­te­rial for all kinds of con­tours and con­structs. My guess is that sunken gar­dens are not be­ing made much nowa­days but there was a vogue for them in the Ed­war­dian era. It meant that you could look down on the plant­ing from a sur­round­ing path and have steps down into it. The low walls were re­tained by stone or brick that, in turn, leant them­selves to a range of pro­tected plant­ing. But that only re­ally ap­plies to a level plot. Once you start gar­den­ing on a slope, let alone a proper hill­side, then the fun re­ally begins. At the end of the 1980s, I be­gan mak­ing a gar­den (which I wrote about in my book, The Prick­otty Bush*, now in­ex­pli­ca­bly and cru­elly out of print) on a steep hill­side look­ing across to the Black Moun­tains in south-east Wales. With the help of an ex­pert dig­ger driver, Gin­ger, we made ter­races, cut out lawns and moved hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of tons of soil. I loved it. This sum­mer, I helped a friend make a ha-ha in his gar­den in Wales, lev­el­ling and cut­ting into the slope to cre­ate a hid­den wall and ditch, a hun­dred yards long, to keep the end­less Welsh sheep out of the new plant­ing. Again, it was tremen­dous fun to sculpt so much earth and to gar­den on that scale. About ten years ago, I ac­quired a mini dig­ger. We used it to make the mound here at Long­meadow and I con­tem­plated mak­ing a rill that ran all the way down the cricket pitch into the Jewel gar­den, but it was out­voted. My wife, be­ing wiser and more grown-up than I am, pointed out that any fool could make a mess but the clear­ing up and fin­ish­ing was what mat­tered… so this fool de­murred. Nev­er­the­less, if this telly malarkey goes pear-shaped, I still have my dig­ger­driv­ing skills and would be very happy to help move the earth for you.

I think about my own ex­ca­va­tory ex­ploits with a tinge of shame

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