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Favourite Gardening Books

recommended by Monty Don

The presenter of the popular BBC series Gardener’s World, Monty Don, shares his favourite reads on gardening from childhood to today.

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Who inspired your interest in gardening?

Nobody! I was made to garden as a boy. I was bullied into gardening by my mother.

What are your earliest memories of it?

Being forced to clip or weed or mow as a small boy. I hated it for about 10 years, but then I grew to love it. Although I suppose the thing I always loved was the feeling of soil on my hands.

I know that you have a huge collection of gardening books, and the ones you have picked for us are just some of your favourites.

I have over 3,000 gardening books – a large library. I have hundreds of books that I don’t need which were sent to me or which I have accumulated over the years. 80% of them are awfully similar.

In what way?

They concentrate on plants and plant relationships. Whereas I am looking for a book which actually increases my knowledge, rather than giving me another angle on what I already know. I don’t just mean knowledge of plants, I mean knowledge of how to live. That is one of the underlying things of all the five books I have chosen. They bring an attitude of wider philosophy of life to gardening, even if it is a very specific book about growing vegetables or roses. There is a strong subterranean support system.

Your first choice, Derek Jarman’s Garden, shows that gardens can be built in the most unlikely of places.

It’s on the beach, facing the nuclear power station in Dungeness in Kent [in south-east England]. I think this is the best gardening book ever written. It’s perfect. You have wonderful photographs by Howard Sooley, whom I know and have worked with. And the garden is made in an unlikely situation with huge skill and love. As a book it is incredibly personal, which I also love.

Derek Jarman was a famous independent filmmaker who eventually died of AIDS. Do you think this garden was a form of therapy for him?

I’m not sure, and in many ways I don’t think it matters. I am not really interested in his motivation for writing the book. For me, the book is just a celebration of him and his garden. Clearly he loved this garden immensely, and that really comes across. Another person living there would not have created something so lovely. It is uniquely his. And the book is stunning. It is everything you could want from a gardening book – the combination of pictures, words and subject matter come together in an ideal way for an illustrated book.

Next up is a book from the Royal Horticultural Society.

This was the first gardening book I ever owned. I still have that original copy, a 1960 edition. What I particularly liked about it were the clothes that people wore – they were all wearing demob suits. Also, there is not a single face in the book – their faces are all hidden or cut off. So you just have these anonymous figures, wearing demob suits, gardening. It is so beautiful in a very English, very eccentric way.

“I was bullied into gardening by my mother. Although I suppose the thing I always loved was the feeling of soil on my hands.”

The first edition was published during the [Second World] War as part of the “Dig for Victory” campaign. This was the Royal Horticultural Society’s contribution. As well as being a beautiful object and a period piece, it still works as a very good manual, despite being so old. If you want a book about how to grow vegetables, it remains one of the best manuals. Now that I know a lot about publishing and books, I can appreciate how well constructed it was. But for me, it is deeply personal. I pored over it. I almost know it by heart. As a 16 or 17 year old I loved it, and I still do.

Your latest book, Gardening at Longmeadow, takes a behind-the-scenes look at your garden on Gardener’s World, the BBC programme which you present. What are the main concerns with a garden like that in terms of making sure it looks good for television?

There are 19 different areas [of the garden] and at any one time, two or three of them are doing something interesting. So we just focus on them. We never try and focus on the whole of the garden.

What is your favourite time of year filming there?

Spring is the most exciting time of year. The garden doesn’t really do much from November to February.

What insights does Eleanor Perenyi share with us in Green Thoughts?

Eleanor Perenyi was an American writer, and this is one of the first gardening books that I read as literature. It is a book of her short essays – each piece is only about 1,000 words – which started off as articles and were published together. She writes about things like why her beans were so wonderful this year. Even though she wrote it 20 years ago and is now dead, I still find this book inspiring and thought-provoking.

What I really love about her, and what inspired me, is her low key seriousness. She felt that these things were important, and worth writing about well. The book isn’t just a manual, it is her experiences. As a writer she is very encouraging. There is a British view of gardening which tries to show off how much you know about it. But Americans just talk about gardening as a wonderful thing which is part of life. I also like the fact that she is a woman, because I think women make better gardeners.

Your next book, Classic Roses by Peter Beales, is a must-read for rose fanatics.          

Peter Beales knows everything there is to know about roses. He has forgotten far more about roses than I will ever know, and manages to write about roses with a sense of the real love that he has for them. He is a [rose] nursery man, and a man I like and admire – he has inspired so many people to start growing classic roses, and he is a great photographer too. I read and re-read this book many times.

Why do you think roses are such a popular flower with so many people?

They are now, but they didn’t used to be 20 to 40 years ago. People were not growing varieties like damask roses and bourbons then. Roses are a relatively recent thing which has been resurgent. When I was a child, far more people were growing hybrid peas. Now, things like rambling and climbing roses have become very popular again. So it is wonderful Peter Beales could inspire people to get back to growing them.

Your final choice is Henk Gerritsen’s Essay on Gardening.

This book was published about three years ago. I was introduced to it after a visit to Strilli Oppenheimer’s garden in Brenthurst, Johannesburg. The book is based on the philosophy of gardening where you accept natural intervention as part of the garden. So you let weeds grow where they look good. You don’t try to order nature. It is all about aesthetics. If you are happy with what nature is doing, you include it. In other words, there is no hierarchy between gardening and unregulated nature. You accommodate them both.

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That’s an interesting idea, and the book itself is beautifully done. It is privately and expensively produced in a very stylish way. As a writer who does illustrated books, I am deeply envious. And it is very inclusive – it covers topiary, borders and flowers. Borders, for example, are planted and allowed to self-seed. So if a plant takes over it takes over, and when they grow out another plant takes over. What you get is, at best, an amalgam of the best of a meadow or wood and the best of a garden. At worst, it looks a bit chaotic.

Depending on your point of view.

Yes, it is inspiring. What I love about this book is the combination of a really interesting new idea and a beautifully produced book. The author, Henk Gerritsen, is a superb botanist and plants man. I am not a plants man, so I admire and respect his deep knowledge about plants growing in their natural habitat and how he applies that to the garden.

You are a keen advocate of organic gardening – why do you think it is so important?

I think that you cannot isolate human beings from the chain of nature, this incredibly complex jigsaw that we are quite a small piece of. You have to be responsible, because everything connects to everything – from the trillions of bacteria in a square foot of soil beneath your feet to you and your hugely inflated ego. I am talking about all of us here! We are just one of those bacteria, and until we see and value ourselves as a component part of this fabulously rich ecosystem – and stop trying to destroy other parts of it along the way – we will never survive.

In order to sustain our world in connection with the soil, we have to sustain as much other life in the soil as possible. I don’t see it as any more complex than that. It strikes me as a kind of hubris to think that we can sculpt nature, or push different aspects of it, without paying some kind of a price for our actions. I don’t believe that.

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Monty Don

Monty Don is one of the UK's best known gardeners and gardening writers, and the main presenter of the BBC television series Gardener's World. He has been gardening correspondent for the Observer since 1994 and is at the forefront of the environmental and organic gardening debate. His latest book is Gardening at Longmeadow