What do we want the garden media for? by Monty Don and Anne Wareham

March 5, 2013

in Articles, General Interest, Recommended Reading

A few weeks ago Matthew Appleby published a piece here about the use of celebrities in the media. It produced a great deal of comment, which you can see here, together with the original piece. In the course of all that comment it seemed to me that the topic moved on a little – or perhaps moved backwards: to the question ‘what do we want the garden media for?’ If we are going to complain about how it does its job, perhaps we need to establish what that job is, first.

One of the comments came from Monty Don; a view from inside what is still the most influential medium in the garden world, television. Here it is again (with his permission) – with my response.

(since this was published this piece has appeared in the Guardian – interesting in the light of this discussion: “…..The fear of seriousness, and the assumption that seriousness is necessarily humourless, has to be overcome….

Anne Wareham, editor 

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon






What do we want the garden media for?

Monty Don:

I hesitate to dip my toe in these waters but for what it is worth, here is my pennyworth.

A number of points: Television, high-paying journalism, big name designers et al are all driven almost entirely by commercial pressures. Numbers rule. So if you earn your living in the gardening media – as I and a number of people posting here do – then you are pretty much forced to go with the numbers to earn your living. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Matthew and any other horticultural journalist would give their eye-teeth to get a highly paid gardening column – even if it meant simplifying and repeating those simplicities. Most garden readers and viewers are decent people wanting information and entertainment. They are, in some form, paying for that and you, writer or broadcaster, have to respect that.

Having been a horticultural hack for 25 years and written for every newspaper and most gardening mags I know that I would rather be read by three million people every week than speak to 300 like-minded souls. Television is a mass medium. Always has been. The more people you reach, the better. This does not necessarily mean you have to dumb down but certainly means there is always a pressure to. I think there is a compromise which is to try and simplify things and to inspire. Then people can move on and up.

Books are the medium in which one can truly express yourself – as Anne and others here have notably done. But gardening books sell tiny numbers compared to cooking for example. The great danger – as with the entire horticultural world – is that like speaks enthusiastically to like, everyone gets terribly pleased with themselves and their world draws a little tighter around them.


In the end the real pleasure is the doing. Almost everything interesting about technical gardening has already been said. I would much rather just garden at home than write or film about about it but if one has to go to work it is a pretty damn good way of doing it. So the best thing that one can possibly do as a writer or broadcaster is to enthuse and inspire others to actually go out and do it so they too can experience that satisfaction.

Er, that’s it.

Monty Don  writer and broadcaster.

Monty Don on thinkingardens





Anne Wareham:

Dear Monty,

I am familiar with your argument and I think it’s worth discussion here.

You say the real pleasure is in the doing – and this illustrates to me that you have particular preoccupations, besides earning your living, which your current roles satisfy. You can promote gardening as a worthwhile and important activity in its own right, and you can – with the odd hiccough – promote organic gardening. So far, so good. But that’s not very far, for some of us. You will note the aim of this website – ‘for those who want more than gardening from their gardens’.

Some of us would rather discuss serious aspects of gardens beyond the practical, and such discussion will always take place within a minority. A minority go to see Shakespeare but it is still worth producing Shakespeare. I think gardening in the media and on television is in much the same position that cooking was fifty years ago when Elizabeth David got sacked from her cookery column for being too radical for the newspaper of the time. There is not much range and the quality is dubious.


But things change. Television has changed. I prefer a comparison with music and history to cookery, as I’ve seen a considerable number of serious programmes about these. A biography of Elgar on ‘mass media’ television, anyone? Yes – there it was last year, two hours of it, if I remember rightly. And Howard Goodall’s recent ‘Story of Music’ was the model for the equivalent programme on garden history. Television may be driven by commercial pressures and possibly such excellent programming may wobble, but as the number of channels has increased, so has its range – leaving gardens behind.

Some fifteen years ago Tim Richardson was telling me that no editor would ever publish anything critical of gardens in the printed media. That is no longer (quite) the case, even if there is still an expectation that such a thing should be flavoured with humour.

You are right about books, but they probably have a longer shelf life than television – I cut my garden teeth on garden books written fifty or a hundred years ago. I’m delighted to see Graham Stuart Thomas acknowledged in our comments and delighted by Rory Stuart writing a whole book considering how to look at and experience, and indeed critique, gardens. Even in the book world dramatic change is happening. The long tail grows..the internet has made books long out of print available once again. Books stay around more than ever.


This is my piece, not Matthew’s, so I will acknowledge that I give more weight to the web than he does and you do. And I am a bit out of touch with the media celebrities, though I agree with both of you that from what I do see it is orientated towards hands on, simplification and imitation. Aesthetics are not taken seriously. It is as if we had endless talk about how to write a book with no-one actually reading or discussing the end result: lots of Sunday painting classes and no Tate.

I don’t know exactly how things will continue to change, as it all moves so rapidly, but I note that it is now possible to have a serious conversation with a television gardener – in this case, yourself – in a way that would simply not have been possible a few years ago. There is a kind of painful democratisation beginning. Money also has ceased to be the be all and end all of communication – a considerable discussion it its own right – and making money in television, high-paying journalism and big name designing seems to me unlikely to be the future. More and more of us will earn our living exercising a variety of skills.


It is worth considering and creating a wider range of garden material; expanding our horizons and perhaps leading the way to a deeper consideration of all aspects of gardens in a variety of media. So – boundaries are shifting and there is increasingly room for more than practical gardening. The heartfelt emails I receive of appreciation for thinkingardens (and my writing) demonstrate that there is a demand for more.

I increasingly notice the gap between those who engage, in the social media and on websites and blogs, and those still adhering to the old and familiar. They and you need have no fear for your livelihoods, of course, but they will soon look as comically out of touch as Fanny Craddock.

Anne Wareham website 

Anne Wareham, editor thinkingardens, owner Veddw House Garden, Monmouthshire, South Wales

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Louisa Jones March 12, 2013 at 7:20 am

I contribute as another “historical consultant” on Monty Don’s French programs—for the last two, on food and art. During the long discussions with the producers that Monty describes, I also came to accept the need for simplifying for this medium. I have only just viewed the final results (thanks to a British friend who recorded them). I am truly grateful for Monty’s success in communicating several really important points in these two programs: 1) that great gardens can be much more than merely ornamental and horticultural. 2) that art is not “embarrassing” when associated with gardens, as it frequently is, in many ways, in France. 3) that French gardening is lively and vibrant and involves a whole range of people with their hands in the dirt (not, as I heard an “expert” claim at Kew a few years ago, always left to servants). As a Canadian living for decades in deepest France, I often find British gardeners (especially ex-pats) very smug and find Monty’s sheer enthusiasm for this country a welcome antidote. However I must agree with my colleague who worked on the history program when she wrote “It was not the programme I would have made. But it was undoubtedly watched by many more people than would have watched my version.” To take but one example of “simplifying”: Cézanne is not an Impressionist painter. But the story line of the programme is tight and coherent even on casual viewing, with no room to explain these distinctions. I would myself never have put the question of how art and gardens connect in Monty’s terms, but his query elicited some very good responses from the gardeners, and the editors included just what was relevant. After reservations at the outset, I feel now I can wholeheartedly recommend these programs in Monty’s own terms: “I think there is a compromise which is to try and simplify things and to inspire. Then people can move on and up ». These programs are very inspirational and I am very glad they were made. But I am also glad myself to have made books my main activity. Their shelf life seems significant as Anne points out, since it seems Monty’s team first took inspiration from a book of mine published twelve years ago…

annewareham March 12, 2013 at 10:02 am

Thanks for these thoughtful replies, everyone – and we will be having a review of the programmes about France soon. (I hope soon…) Personally I was sorry that the idea of gardens and art got muddled between painting a picture of a garden and/or a garden which Monty liked. (= art!??!)

Louisa Jones March 12, 2013 at 10:58 am

The Art episode muddled art and gardens in several ways, but this is a good example of “simplification”. At least the two were associated for a public not used to putting them together (perhaps?) Sometimes, just because his questions were perplexing, he got very interesting answers. Not clichés. So this was good! Imagine viewers saying just what you are saying–that’s the beginning of reflection. I must also say that the choice was not just of gardens Monty liked, they were all gardens frequently described as “art” by other people as well.

annewareham March 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hmm..incoherence is incoherence, even if it’s simplified incoherence! xx

john lord March 11, 2013 at 12:54 am

Television is about entertainment, as the late great Conor Cruise O’Brien commented in relation to the much more serious issue of paramilitary spokesmen having access to the air waves.
Monty Don has a nice face, nice manner, nice name – could even be a stage name – and together with his blue workman’s jacket, circa 1950, he is perfect for the telly. Perhaps he’s a good gardener, perhaps not, I don’t know, but that’s not the point, he pulls in the punters and that IS the point.
His TV presence no doubt, helped him, just like the rest, to get a column in a national news paper, and no doubt, pulls in the punters there too, and just like the rest,the books follow along.
Anyway, the majority of gardening books around have little to commend them and there is far too much enviro., greener than thou, craw thumping in most of them. There are the exceptions often from a pre celeb age such as the magisterial book on perennials by Graham Thomas. There are the occasional modern ones, such as the RHS encyclopedia of perennials, which is really outstanding and a credit to all concerned.
It seems to me that garden information hunting, is just like plant hunting; there is good stuff out there , but you have to search hard for it, and hack away a lot of undergrowth.

landscapelover March 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm

As a landscape historian, I spend my time helping people learn very little (I am sure) about gardening techniques and quite a lot (I hope) about shifting patterns and values in garden taste and style. My first experience of TV gardening came recently as one of the historical consultants on Monty’s programme on French gardens.

As I wrote on my own blog at the time, “It is easy to criticise such programmes as simplistic, as not offering enough detail or background. But I saw how television requires you to sum up complicated ideas and concepts in a sentence or two. It is a skill I struggled to acquire. How to explain the gradual, late eighteenth century shift from Le Nôtre’s structural and geometric gardens to the quirky French interpretations of informal English style? In a book, you could linger over the impact of pre-revolutionary fervour, discuss Republicanism and Romanticism, muse on Rousseau and Ermenonville, describe and display the influence of chinoiserie, and in this and other ways slowly tease out the gradual evolution of those characteristic jardins à l’anglaise. But, in a television programme that needs to cover 500 years of gardening history in an hour, you have only a few seconds of voice-over to make the link. I admired the production team’s willingness to work and rework such moments until we all felt comfortable with what was being said.”

It was not the programme I would have made. But it was undoubtedly watched by many more people than would have watched my version. Monty’s fame, and his charm in front of a camera, and the BBC’s insistence on flowers as well as history, meant that gardening viewers were readily drawn into interesting discussions and illustrations of French garden aesthetics and values.

In the end, those of us who blog may not need to be aware of market pressures, but TV channels and production companies have little choice but to make things they are sure people will watch. And if they do that by using celebrity presenters and images of pretty plants, while helping viewers learn more about garden history and significance, then that seems to me to be a good way of encouraging people to look beyond the (formulaic gardening tips) centre and see something of the (historical and philosophical) margins.

Monty Don March 10, 2013 at 10:37 am

I will add one further point: Most people have little idea the extent of compromise that is imposed onto any television programme. Almost every sentence is debated, cut, altered, repositioned and watered down. This process can be spread out over 6-12 months. Thus you either have to work strictly from a script – which have to be vetted by half a dozen people, most of whom have no knowledge or interest in the subject – or, as I do, make it up as you go along having done lots of research. This latter approach allows for very little self-editing when two sequences that cover 60 seconds might be filmed 6 months apart (and might cover a topic that libraries have been written about).

The VO is then written after the whole thing is edited – so again, practically no room at all to manoevure. The skill is making the most of these caption-like opportunities.

I suspect BBC4 is an exception to this but it plays to a tiny audience. The great quest is to speak to people that dont know what you are talking about and who have not seen what you are showing them.

I do think that the web allows exciting scope to escape these bounds. The real issue is not to lose the discipline of tight editing – otherwise the whole debate becomes flabby and self-indulgent. Perhaps being open to comment and criticism is all the editing that is needed.


elizabethm March 9, 2013 at 9:57 pm

I love the comment that “things change from the margins, not the centre”. Yes. You have to have the centre for there to be margins. You have to have the mundane for there to be the unusual. You choose where to put yourself, what to read and what to spend time on. I read Monty’s books. I do not read his Daily Mail column despite the fact that my father in law keeps it religiously for me every week. I don’t read “what to do in your garden this week” gardening journalism, although I used to. I do read Thinkingardens. I want this debate but, as Anne says, this debate will always be for the few. Good for Monty for contributing.

Jane Megginson March 8, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I enjoyed Monty Don’s recent programmes on French gardens because he was talking about beauty and art and how some of the French Impressionists were inspired by their gardens. Beauty and Art are necessary to us humans, they “restore the soul”. Whilst most of us cannot afford a Monet on our wall we can (ourselves or with the help of a garden designer) create beauty, framed by our window, in our gardens.

Tristan Gregory March 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Gardening in the media has suffered over the past few years from people trying to justify it as something worth doing.

We no doubt remember the inane Dig In campaign of poor old GW and the RHS whose drowning will hopefully be the one great contribution to horticulture of last year’s 8 months of October.
Then of course you have the worthies who aspire to turn a craft skill, gardening, into a profession but suceed only in straining the patience of enthusiastic practitioners and repelling anyone who might be looking to take it up by giving one so many different chances to make a mess of it and fail.
Worst of all are the ones who injected fashion into the subject and roll out in photo shop perfection that to which we should all aspire. As these are the worst I will give the example of a herbaceous border planting masterclass in four seasonal shots with the merits of the planting in each season explained. All good until you realise that the camera has moved down the border in the later shots the reason being that while Artemesia absynthium is lovely early on in the year with its young silver foliage by midsummer it is a horrid, sprawling, yellowed mess. How cynical I thought or at least something like that.

Gardening will not feed you economically, make you rich or make you fashionable but of all the things I have ever done it comes closest to the sublime. Of the presenters and writers about at the moment Monty comes closest to communicating this and perhaps in his case we might celebrate his popularity.

Abbie Jury March 7, 2013 at 1:11 am

Monty has written: “Matthew and any other horticultural journalist would give their eye-teeth to get a highly paid gardening column – even if it meant simplifying and repeating those simplicities…. I know that I would rather be read by three million people every week than speak to 300 like-minded souls.”
I can only speak for myself (and certainly not Matthew!), but I just don’t agree. I have been published weekly in New Zealand for 15 years now and these days have a full page in one of major daily newspapers. The pay is lousy though the exposure is good. What keeps me going is the complete freedom I am given on content and style, within the agreed bounds of layout. The pay is much better in magazines and there is national circulation but I have tried that formulaic, tightly prescribed writing and I find it mind-numbingly tedious to do. The worst are those fawning trots around somebody’s garden where there is merely description and praise. Perhaps I am lucky to be in a financial position where I don’t need to sell my soul for money, but there is no way I could sustain weekly writing of that style. I suffer from a low boredom threshold. I am willing to sacrifice the higher pay and larger audience to keep my editorial freedom, thanks.

annewareham March 7, 2013 at 10:04 am

(Me too, Abbie)

annewareham March 7, 2013 at 10:37 am

(what are ‘eye-teeth’?)

Valerie Munro March 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

canine teeth – the long pointed ones at the front of the jaw that are necessary especially for meat eating (now there’s another conversation!) These eye teeth are more pronounced in vampires

annewareham March 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm

O, aspiring garden columnists need those then…

Life on Pig Row (@lifeonpigrow) March 6, 2013 at 5:49 pm

That is the nature of the beast, which Monty points out, Sue. I agree with that, we are in a media saturated society and by extension if we want to get our point across we have to interact with that medium. Sometimes we have to find a happy balance between what we want to achieve and what an audience want to hear. We all deal with that in our daily lives on an emotional scale, sometimes we want to say things to our loved ones that we’d best not and therefore we learn a happy medium. Likewise, with Anne I believe she is right that some discussions need to take place, some aspects of gardening need to be explored more (in her Shakespeare analogy she is spot on, arts for art sake, gardening for gardeners sake) but then we have to ask what needs to be explored more? Therein lies the old argument that Monty to some extent discusses, it is striking a medium in which the many are happy or in someway challenged by what you write or say, there will always be some that will be annoyed. You can please some of the gardeners some of the time but not all of the gardeners all of the time. In our byte sized society there may not be a place for that discussion on TV or in print media but online we can have this discussion, and hope that some of it filters into the old media. The great thing is, we can choose, we have that power when many don’t, our gardens can be much more than gardening – Monty does to some extent discuss this in GW and in his books (he’s goes much further in print than he does on GW – but that, as I know from working at the BBC, is more to do with time rather than any ethos or philosophy). I know this website goes much further than that and I do wonder whether in its own way, it is subject to market pressures. It is an interesting discussion of where do market pressures stop? Great debate and one that is neither this or that.

annewareham March 6, 2013 at 5:52 pm

(Not aware of any market pressures, thanks Andrew)

Sue Beesley March 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm

There is great validity in your argument of course, Anne, as ever.

But I can’t help feeling that in creating this post you have effectively proved Matthew Appleby’s original point. By selecting out Monty’s comment from among the very many that were posted, and turning it into a linkable, promotable article you have demonstrated the power of a ‘name’ in attracting traffic to this blog (and by extension to yourself and Veddw). And why not? The opportunity presented itself on a plate.

You may bristle a little at this and retort that Monty’s particular points and his insider’s perspective justify a separate line of argument. But had someone less well known made the same case I suspect you would not have approached it in this way. You instinctively know what Paul Dacre knows for certain and stumps up cash for – celebrities (and Monty is one, however distasteful he may find the idea) attract attention. And if you have something to promote, you need to attract attention.

annewareham March 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Well, aware of all that Sue. I’m sure we all are. I attempt to deal with/work with realities. XXXX

Paul Steer March 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Well I am glad to see Monty entering the debate, and I appreciate his candour, but like you Anne, I think there is room for improvement. Since graduating with a Fine Art Degree in the 80’s I have seen interest in the visual arts explode in comparison with those days. The media had a big part to play in that, even if it was sensationalism which brought ‘Brit Art’ to the fore. Monty dipped his toe in the water when he slipped in a comment about French gardens being more intellectual than British gardens in his last tv prog…I was surprised by the lack of twitter comment on that one !

I am sure there are many of us that see our gardens as more than just a place to grow vegetables and flowers…indeed Monty connects us in his books to something deeper. It perhaps needs a bit of sensationalism to get it all going !? Perhaps Mr Saatchi needs to buy a garden to put in his gallery….Now there’s a thought.

Patrick Regnault March 6, 2013 at 11:31 am

Hello Anne,
I have read with interest Monty’s argument as well as yours.
Whilst I find Monty’s TV pieces interresting and entertaining, and they are. I am not one for garden TV. The print media, at least here in Australia, in general, and there are notable exceptions, treat the public as if they were too shallow to understand complex informations or reasoning or even philosophical concept. I write garden and landscaping articles for a small local monthly. One month I wrote about Korean garden and introduced the philosophy that it encompasses. The feed back was very good and people were genuinely interested. The readers of garden magazines or articles are more than willing to grasp complex ideas as long as they are well thought out and not dumbed down. Ideas, concepts, informations can be simplified certainly whist maintaining respect for the reader’s intelligence.

Life on Pig Row (@lifeonpigrow) March 6, 2013 at 10:38 am

Oh my, this is an argument that is going to rage. I agree with Anne that times are changing and that TV and old forms of media will soon become out of touch (if they’re not already. I teach undergraduates and I am finding myself on a steep learning curve because they process knowledge in away that is alien to me – it is a different language, the language of technology and ereading – way beyond what I do myself, it is tangential). I also respect what Monty Don says, as I love books, but I do feel what is being discussed on the web about gardening is of more interest than mainstream. I have learnt more about green living, green gardening, building your own, planting, recycling and permaculture on the web than I have in books or on TV. The simple reason is that like minded people are coming together to share in a virtual market – as here – it is not just 3 or 300 hundred people, I am in groups with members that exceed thousands. We only need to look at history see that the mainstream comes from the periphery, that things change from the margins not from the centre. We all now have cameras, videocams and we are more and more sharing our knowledge in what I hope is in the ethos of knowledge for knowledge sake. We all have to have a wage though, we all bow to market pressures and I understand Monty on this.

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