Monty Don is one of the UK’s best-loved garden writers and broadcasters. Since 2003 he’s been the lead presenter of BBC2’s Gardeners’ World, ably assisted by his golden retriever Nigel.

Being wrapped in a towel and held by my mother

It’s my earliest memory. She was kneeling on the bathroom floor and I was standing on her thighs, having just been lifted out of the tub.

My mother was busy and driven, and there wasn’t a lot of touchy-feely stuff from her for any of us five children. It was the first and last time I recall being cuddled by her. 

 

My father seemed like the odd one out

He’d been an only child and was a natural loner, but then found himself with a large, noisy family. He was a rather distant figure to us; he’d go off to work and would always leave the table straight after dinner to retreat to his study.

When I was at university he sent me a recording he’d made of the evening birdsong. I was touched by his attempt to be on the same wavelength as me and to reach out; I was as much moved by the clumsiness of the gesture as I was by the gift. 

 

I was very naughty

Too naughty for my nice primary school; they couldn’t cope with me at all and I was asked to leave. I suppose I’d be called a “disruptive influence” today.

I was also expelled from my secondary school, Malvern, and I even remember being kicked out of confirmation classes because I questioned Christianity! So I went to the local comprehensive after that. 

 

Having a damascene moment sowing carrot seeds

Because I was coming home every day [after school], I was given the vegetable garden to look after. The soil around us was chalky and when it warmed up it had a very distinctive smell.

I remember pouring the carrot seeds into my hand and being absolutely overwhelmed with the feeling that I was in the right place at the right time, and that I couldn’t want for anything else.

Until then—aged 17—I’d thought that what I wanted was sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It took a few more years to work out that gardening was something that could be an important part of my life.

 

Keeping my dog Gretel at Cambridge

In my first term, my room was on a corner above traffic lights. The lorries stopped and then revved up their engines, and the streetlights kept me awake. I was a country boy and asked if I could move.

I was given a room with two other students—one of whom remains a dear friend—and Gretel, my yellow Labrador, moved in with us. I’d walk her before anyone else was up. We also put chickens in our backyard and converted the outdoor loo into a henhouse. 

 

Love at first sight

Sarah was married when we met at Cambridge. But I knew she was the one. The fact that her husband was away in Nepal at the time and hadn’t contacted her in three months was in my favour.

Soon after we met she needed some help with her tiny back garden, so I said I’d cut the grass for her—the lawn wasn’t big enough to merit the purchase of a lawn mower. She left me to it but the only thing I could find to do the job was a pair of scissors.

I got down on my hands and knees, and had just about finished when she returned. I’ll never forget the look on her face—a look I’ve grown to know well over the last 37 years. It was a mixture of utter disbelief mixed with, dare I say, approval.

I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s no physical job one can’t do. Of course, certain skilful jobs are beyond me, but I’ll always give things requiring simple brawn a go.

 

Feeling deeply ashamed and humiliated

Sarah and I set up a jewellery business in the 1980s. It was successful and we were able to buy a beautiful home together. But we took on too much, got into debt and, like lambs to the slaughter, we lost everything, including our house. The breakdown of our business was the only time I’d truly failed at anything and I felt like I’d let everyone down. I sank into depression. 

When something as huge as that happens, all the clichés come true—you find out that the people you thought were friends don’t want to know you anymore, while people to whom perhaps you hadn’t given enough time go the extra mile. But what I learned most was that there’s nothing you can’t let go of.

I cared about letting Sarah down, but I learned that love is more important than any possession. It got us through

 

Goose and boiled potatoes for Christmas lunch

Sitting around the table in a rat-infested house on Christmas day 1991 might have been a low point. But I vividly remember it as a remarkably happy gathering.

My wife and our three children were around me, we were healthy, wearing the silly hats and sharing the experience together… and eating potatoes and a cabbage I’d grown. We’d stripped down to the minimum, but the minimum was enough.

 

Seeing Londmeadow for the first time

We were able to buy Longmeadow after my mother died and left me £47,000 of stocks and shares.

We’d seen 68 other houses by then, but it took us only 30 seconds to decide that we wanted to live there.

 

Trying to do my job well

I’d been working in TV for a long time before Gardener’s World came my way in 2003. I remember the first screen test I ever did for This Morning back in the early 1990s. I imagined I was talking to Sarah’s Auntie Mary in Leominster.

How can I explain this to someone who’s intelligent but perhaps not knowledgeable on the subject? How can I make sure this is accessible without being patronising?

I always felt at home gardening on TV and I take my job seriously. One of the paradoxical skills of presenting is to make it look like you’re not trying too hard. To keep it natural I work out what I want to say, but not necessarily how to say it until it comes out my mouth on the day.

 

Knowing my dog, Nigel, was going to be a star

He soaks up the limelight on film and always seems to find the best bit of light to wander into or lie down in. The degree of affection people have for him is extraordinary. He’s charming and lovely, though not particularly clever—but that’s the secret to his appeal.

When he started to get letters addressed to him, I realised that he’s the dog that people want him to be. He plays his role as the everyman to perfection—he’s the everydog. 

 

Realising that everything in life is connected

One of the great beauties of getting older is understanding that you don’t have separate bits of your life and that everything impacts on another part. I see that no experience is wasted, that I’m simply the sum of it all.

I don’t dwell on the past but accept what life has thrown at me and wouldn’t change a thing. Acknowledging that has made me easier on myself and makes me a more contented man.

 

Read the full feature in the December issue of Reader's Digest

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