Monty, Monty, Monty

29

Cue the swelling music, and then …

Huge!
Magnificent!
Spectacular!
Astonishing!
Extraaaooordinary!

Count on hearing those superlatives and more over the course of Monty Don’s three-part American Gardens, which aired on the BBC earlier this month and can be seen stateside here and on other sites. A book is on the way.

As Don states in the intro to each hour-long episode, he’s trying to define the American garden, though doubting from the outset that this is possible. The first hour is devoted to the Northeast and (some) Midwest, the second to the South, the third to the West.

A longtime garden presenter (Gardener’s World in the UK) and writer, Don sticks mainly to large public gardens, some well-known private gardens, and a couple community gardens. In my view, this dooms the entire mission. Is it possible for places like Longwood, Chanticleer, Lurie, and Lotusland to represent American gardening practice? While I’d agree that many US gardeners gain education and inspiration from these destination beauty spots, the sites themselves, in their near-perfection and studied showmanship (as Don states repeatedly), say very little about how we gardenthose of us who do.

Still, what was Don to do? Take a tour of average gardens in average neighborhoods? He’d likely lose his audience for this show and jeopardize his other gigs. Maybe best for us to sit back and enjoy Don’s journey, which is full of luscious videography of desert gardens, wildflower meadows, tropical jungles, and stately European-inspired formal landscapes. An elementary school garden and a Bronx community garden are nods to ordinary gardening. I do admit that prairie meadows are intrinsic to our recent focus on native plants and that many US gardeners are warming up to the wonderful world of cacti, which are showcased in the immaculate desert gardens. But these spaces do not define what we’re trying to do in our gardens, if such a thing is possible; they never could.

It gets interesting when Don breaks into gentle criticism, calling Longwood “a circus,” and wondering about the long fenceless expanses that characterize suburbia. Mind you, he hardly mentions the L word, choosing instead to speculate that a lack of fences might represent our yearnings for neighborliness and community. Ha. There are also a few words (very few) about water use when discussing the estates and golf courses of Palm Springs. That said, Don’s undoubted knowledge and expertise inform every visit, so it’s possible to learn more about even the most well-known properties.

At the end of the third episode (spoiler), Don decides to go for it: “I came to the conclusion that the American garden was one that was characterized by an attitude: the pioneering, bold spirit of trying new things, and pushing outwards.”

That’s a safe thing to say. I have to wonder what would happen if Don accompanied garden bloggers on a couple of their Flings, which focus mainly on private gardens, many not professionally designed (as almost everything Don saw is). I think he would have come a lot closer to a working definition.

Strangely, Don’s discussion with Adam Gopnik in Central Park rang the truest. No one area dominates or defines it. No rhyme, no reason, just cool stuff.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

29 COMMENTS

  1. Great write-up, Eliz. I finished the series last night, and like you, I wish he had visited more private gardens and fewer golf course estates and big public gardens. However, I enjoyed the series anyway, mainly because it’s interesting to see American gardening through an outsider’s perspective. I was totally unfamiliar with Monty Don before this (I know, right?), and I can see why he’s so popular. He brings a warmth and plant-lover’s curiosity and wonder to each garden he visits.

    As for his conclusions about the quintessential American garden, I agree with his assessment that Americans like a good show, and the bigger the better (cue Longwood and Lotusland). But I disagree with his idea that American gardens in general demonstrate a pioneering spirit. While Americans themselves demonstrate this spirit in spades, our gardens are often conservative, even timid, or copies of Old Country styles — Steve Martino’s desert design being a notable exception among the private gardens Monty featured. And the Hollywood extravagance and Palm Springs modernism, while beautiful, seem more about set design than horticulture.

    At any rate, I agree that Monty would get a much better idea of the true American garden by joining the Garden Bloggers Fling tour, which this year will be held in Madison, Wisconsin. Monty, if you’re listening and care to make 4th episode, here’s the tour info! https://gardenbloggersfling.blogspot.com/2020/01/register-for-madison-fling.html

  2. I will say right up front that I am a Monty fan. He brings a charming, down to earth, perspective to Gardener’s World. I have heard his critics disclaim his knowledge but a garden communicator must have more than knowledge as we all know in this social media driven world. I have enjoyed his series on American gardens while agreeing with Rant author, EL, that it is impossible to define ‘American Gardens’ while visiting only large public ones. Also, the fact that America is large and gardening is regional with such different climates and regional influences makes it also nearly impossible to define a commonality. I do wish Monty had given me a call. I would have shown him some New England Gardens and then pointed him on to those in the know in other parts of the country. Alas, he did not make that call or maybe I was in the garden when the phone rang.

  3. Thanks for sharing this! My husband says he’s glad the show has already been filmed since he’s worried I would have become a “Donhead” and started to follow Monty Don around the country as he toured. Don appeals to me as a host not just for his clear passion for and knowledge of plants & gardens, but because of his kind and earnest style. No snark. No meanness or insincerity. He’s like the anti-Gordon Ramsay.

    Thanks to the link you provided, I have already enjoyed the first half hour of the first episode. The only thing that has me dismayed is that they criss-crossed this huge country and only got three episodes out of it? I’m intrigued by the idea of trying to “define” American gardening, though, and I’m trying to decide if I agree with Pam that American gardeners are timid and unimaginative.

    Btw: For those who can’t get enough Monty Don, I just watched an old show of his (can’t remember if it was Netflix or Hulu) called My Dream Farm, which was fascinating. It featured folks who walked away from their high powered careers in the city to start farming. Don follows each of their efforts over the course of months and — unlike in most American shows — there is not always a happy ending.

    • There were a lot of links to other Don shows on the site I found. You can find his shows on YouTube as well. I also think BritBox, if you subscribe, would be a source.

  4. I am also a Monty Don fan, and I watched the first two of the three American garden episodes. American gardens are as different as Americans, often even within the same region, state, city and town. He completely missed the essential American home garden as if it wasn’t worthy. I love Monty, but that’s NOT okay.

    Monty showcases home gardens in UK’s “Gardeners’ World”, and he should have done the same here. My understanding is that the cottage garden style came from the peasants (home gardeners) and was later copied by the elite. We, peasants, want a say!!!

    Okay, Garden Flingers, one of you (Pam?) ought to reach out and tell him he missed the essence of the down-home American garden. Monty needs to return to the US and do a sequel, which I’ll watch and even pay for–and I’m cheap. He needs to see at least one genuine homeowner’s garden in each state he visited.

    Not that I have any pull, but maybe I’ll write the man, if that’s possible.

  5. I think it’s important to note that this series follows the pattern of previous series in other countries, where Don visits gardens such as Rousham in the UK or Chateau de Champ de Bataille in Normandy, and very few private home gardens. This isn’t Gardener’s World or Big Dreams, Small Spaces. The fact that he visited a few private gardens and community gardens in the middle of his quest should be commended. And in a country the size of the United States, it’s impossible to show gardens that are representative of ALL styles of gardening – someone’s going to feel annoyed and left out. That said, I think he definitely could have added one more episode at least (if not two or three) to the series, instead of lumping some regions together – but we can only guess as to the budget they had or the time frame. In the age of streaming video it is perhaps difficult to remember that this was primarily filmed for a UK audience, not a US one. It is up to our American media to create a series that showcases individual home gardens – but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. I must admit, I have seen Monty’s international garden tours and loved them. With that being said, I too was disappointed in this series! I live in the fly over zone, so often described in political wording! I am an average gardener but live very close to the largest Amish community in our country, and I must say, the Amish are true cultivators of the earth! Drive through the heart of Holmes Co. Ohio, during the summer and every home has not only a small kitchen garden but several more for larger crops!! A true American garden

  7. I wonder if part of the issue here is a confusion between the practice of ‘gardening’ as an activity and a garden as a production? We would be unlikely to base an exhibition, say, of craft pottery by showcasing the work of the amateur pottery classes?
    I think the USA has less tradition of opening gardens to the public than the UK and that this may shape different expectations and perceptions?
    Also – worth noting: a tv programme is not the product of one man. There was an enormous team involved and major players would have been the researchers. Let’s not forget who makes things – in the UK we frequently speak for example of a bishop building a cathedral. As if! Monty didn’t make these programmes.
    Finally – it was a joy to see Federal Twist included!

    • I think MD was very clear that he was interested in how Americans, as individuals, garden. And the US has a large Open Garden program as well as many, many private garden tours, including the 400 that open every summer here in Buffalo. Federal Twist was very cool.

      • My point is that we may read different things into ‘garden’ because of our backgrounds. I’m not sure he meant how Americans do gardening, (as in digging or not digging for eg) – but it seemed some people did read it that way. Maybe I’m wrong.

        • I agree with your comments on this Anne. Our individual reactions to the series have a lot to do with how we read ‘garden’ and ‘gardening.’ And whether we are gardeners ourselves. And you make a great point regarding the traditions of private open gardens in both countries. We have open days during specific weekends or weeks (such as Buffalo Garden Walk or Garden Conservancy Open Days), but few private gardens are consistently open during the season on specific days of the week – and it’s a big deal when they are. I see many private gardens by private arrangement because of what I do (garden writer), but I always seem to be traveling during our Open Days in my area of Virginia/Maryland. 🙁 I am an American gardener and live, breathe and sleep gardening, but the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth of the matter is that many many people in this country do not. Don’s series will be just fine for them – if they ever watch it.

          • Ok. Well, now we’re saying that the series isn’t that great for the only audience it has: gardeners. Given that it has to be sought out online and only those interested in gardening (gardeners) are likely to do so. I stand by my point that he had a specific objective, which he spelled out quite clearly, and pursued it in a way sure to miss the mark.

  8. Great blog! As with most media “news” (I live in Washington, DC), I am alert to broad surveys that contain some aspect I know well, and if the facts are accurately portrayed, well then, I’m a bit more confident about the research and happy to learn more about the other topics. In this case, the garden of Steve Martino scored a home run. I wrote the recent book, Desert Gardens of Steve Martino (Monacelli, 2018), and included the featured Palo Cristi Garden. I met with Steve last week in Tucson and talked about his four-hour filming and interview session with Monty. He found Monty to be sincerely interested in the design and making of the garden. He was keenly interested in what we are, as you said, “trying to do in our gardens.” In this case, using native plants to invigorate the regional ecology, and designing for sun and shade with enlivening shadows cast on walls that define space and provide privacy, all to make gardens that people who live in the desert can enjoy throughout the year. As Steve said in his interview, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

  9. Monty D is the man. Would you rather him not come to America? I had never even heard of most of the gardens he visited and had no problem with the big gardens he chose. What’s he supposed to do visit Joe and Jane Schmo’s raggedy urban organic garden? Mix in some more social justice issues? The series was awesome.

    • “What’s he supposed to do visit Joe and Jane Schmo’s raggedy urban organic garden?” In short, yep. Should Joe and Jane Schmo stop gardening because they’re not garden designers and don’t have a horticultural degree? Does this mean I don’t want to see the Schmo’s ordinary garden? Nope.

      I agree 1) there was a budget (maybe a tight one?) for this series, 2) Monty probably isn’t the one who pulls the financial strings, & 3) the audience is likely primarily British. However, the Gardeners’ World crew often visits allotments (Joe & Jane Schmo-type gardens) and small private British gardens. I love viewing private British gardens more than regal elite British gardens.

      Visiting small private gardens is partly what the Garden Flingers do annually. It’s what the Garden Conservancy does on Open days. Also, there are annual private garden tours sponsored by Master Gardeners in the larger cities of Austin, Dallas, and Tyler, TX. Buffalo, NY is known for it’s terrific annual garden walk of private gardens, and I drool as I see what other private gardeners have done.

      Homemade private gardens are what I most want to see. These are sometimes the gardens with the most innovative and/or original designs. I don’t want to see something designed with a huge budget. However, I concede I may stand alone in my interest of small private gardens.

      • I watched episode 1 and he actually does visit several private/community gardens, so I am not sure where this criticism is coming from.

        He visits James Golden’s garden in NJ, a private garden in Swarthmore, this semi-wild marshy garden of a woman in NY, a community garden in the Bronx, and a rooftop vegetable garden in Manhattan. That’s just one episode. There’s plenty of variety.

        • I must have missed James Golden’s garden. I do remember the community garden in the Bronx and the rooftop vegetable garden in Manhattan, but those didn’t seem much like a private garden. Maybe I stepped away when the others you’ve mentioned showed. If so, that’s great and I have no grievance. I like Monty Don enough to purchase his books.

          Monty writes in “Down to Earth” pg 30: “What private gardens have to offer that trumps any kind of public space, however sensitively designed, is the way in which the sense of place merges into the sense of self of the gardener.” On pg 37, he writes, “The best and most enjoyable gardens are often allotment plots – higgledy-piggled and cheek by jowl often in unremarkable municipal corners….”

      • i hear you. but we have a private garden in our yard and there is one in every yard in our neighborhood. they all look pretty much the same but some are definitely nicer than others.

        there is no reason to highlight everyday gardens in his series, it is a tv show after all and needs to be more interesting than daily life otherwise no one would be interested.

        i had never heard of the DuPont garden before the show and now it is a potential stop on our family vacation list. also, after that episode i googled for conservatories in our area and realized we have one just a few miles away in one of our city parks here in Seattle. very exciting.

        • Longwood Gardens, the former DuPont estate, has for many decades been one of the most popular garden destinations on the East Coast, one hour out of Philadelphia, PA. For those who might ever visit, it’s quite close to another garden presented in the series: Chanticleer. And for the garden-obsessed, there is also the Scott Arboretum, which is the campus of Swarthmore College, which has brilliantly planted gardens worth seeing, as well.

    • …appears it is one step from the cliched proper gentleman’s ascot! I see that his programs often showcase footage of Monty’s rather plodding footsteps as you see him from behind, slow-walking the carefully composed overview of an expansive garden space.

  10. I loved the first episode, particularly the community garden in NYC.

    I haven’t seen the 3rd yet but fully enjoyed the lighting paced tour of several out of dozens or hundreds of options. His audience isn’t American after all, so you can’t fault focusing on the show gardens.

    I’m grateful that there are any gardening programs available.

    When was the last time the States produced a series?

  11. I absolutely adore Monty Don when he’s talking about his country’s gardens (4-part Secret History of the British Gardens, Big Dreams Small Spaces), but when he’s a foreigner he always strucks me as a little judgmental and condescending. As if reassuring his target audience at home that regardless the wonder he’s showing English gardens will always be better. Globalized, Monty is not.

    This said, and being neither American (British, French nor Italian), I enjoy his knowledge and the shows and I thought American Gardens was an interesting selection of cases. Obviously it could have been done differently but considering this is probably the first show of this kind, it was fine.

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