BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine
Full Monty: the marvels of May
Musing on his own mortality, Monty realises that while there is much he’d miss, he’s already at the gates of heaven in the month of May
I asked Sarah what I should write about this month, as I was metaphorically sucking my pencil and weighing up the options. (Ever tried sucking your keyboard as you mull the options? No, me neither. Doesn’t seem appropriate somehow, let alone practical). She said, with a surprising insouciance, not even looking up, “Write about what you would miss if you died tomorrow”. You can see why I still adore her after 43 years. But apart from missing what I had planned to be a long, happy and healthy life, her, my children, the dogs, the garden, everything – or perhaps nothing at all because I would be dead – I took it at its face value for a moment and realised that in the garden, I’d miss the growing excitement and sense of fulfilment exemplified by the month of May.
May is the harbour at the end of the wide ocean, the view of the mountains from the highest peak of them all. It is the place that all the year heads towards. Yet, as I get older, May, like all other time, is ever more fleeting and taken up with business that either I cannot control or have chosen to be enmeshed in. The May of 60 years ago, when the days spread out in every direction from the first fluting blackbird call at dawn to the waves of wood pigeons in the falling light, have gone and will never return. But age brings skills to balance these losses. I can now sit on a May evening and let the day fold up around me, slipping into darkness, and that 15 minutes is enough to ease the longing and feed my soul. The distillation of May over the years might be more precious but has lost none of its power.
May is not, for any gardener, the peak of the year. The beginning of the month is, when you analyse it, still a bit thin on the ground. Because the particular elements are so fresh and blithe it makes up for a lack of depth. Having said that there is enough – more than enough – to dazzle. The tulips are sumptuously sensual and the fruit blossom at its most bountiful. The bluebells in the coppice will be fully on song and cowslips, forget-me-nots, honesty, wallflowers, camassias and, above all, the almost unbearable intensity of the new leaves on all the hedges and most of the trees is breathtaking. But, once past these wonders, you can’t help but see that the garden with its herbaceous borders and vegetable patch and all hasn’t really kicked in. May is traditionally the leanest of months, the ‘hungry gap’ where winter vegetables and fruit have all finished or been used up and summer produce is yet to arrive. But for a few heady weeks the garden is elevated, by morning dew and cow parsley, the crab apple and hawthorn blossom and the dawn chorus, into the mirror of the garden of Eden that we all hold within us and aspire to.
In other words, as we are talking about dying, May is heaven. That is why we garden. Our garden in May can be better than anything else that this world has to offer. It is all the things we ever wanted or needed outside our back door, accessible, tangible and giving us so much more than we ever put into it.
That does rather beg the question of what happens at the end of May. Is it downhill all the way from June 1st to the end of the year? That would be quite a price to pay for four weeks of bliss. Luckily, the afterglow spreads into June and lights up summer. If May is the peak, the journey back down is filled with lovely things.
I know that there is an embarrassment about this sort of talk. Bit airy fairy. Best kept to oneself. But all gardening is only ever a means to an end which, in my opinion is here, at the gates of May. I have probably visited as many gardens around the world as anyone alive and I promise you that there is no garden ever made more lovely than cow parsley beneath a blossomy apple tree in the dawn light, with pigeons cooing softly from its branches.
For all our lawn mowing and hand weeding and pricking out, thinning and potting on, this is what it is all for. This is why this magazine exists. This is the driving force behind every garden book and garden programme ever made. So, rather than what I should miss were I to die tomorrow, I’d rather celebrate what I have, being fully and gratefully alive today.
MONTY ON TV Catch up with Monty and the rest of the Gardeners’ World team every Friday. Check time in TV listings. Follow him on Twitter @TheMontyDon and Instagram at @themontydon
Our garden in May can be better than anything else that this world has to offer