Monty Don’s American Gardens

I was oh so happy to start watching Monty Don’s three-part series on American Gardens (BBC, but also on YouTube I hear) during my shoulder surgery convalescence (it has taken me quite a long time to type this with one hand!). It was utterly delightful to see the breadth and depth and uniqueness of so many American gardens, given the generous and thoughtful Monty Don treatment. And its timing in the depths of winter was a balm to all of the snow falling outside.

I was particularly happy (the kind of happy that wells up inside your chest, threatening to overflow through your tear-ducts) to see the stalwarts of my own garden showcased though the always-lovingly-captured BBC lenses at the Prairie Garden Trust. Rattlesnake Master in particular, but also Blazing Star, Echinacea, Common Milkweed and the whole host of Midwest-native prairie plants I’ve made the primary players in our own garden. These are not the plants that get showcased (understandably so) on Gardener’s World or the other glossy gardening shows, so to see my favorites getting their moment in the sun was sheer delight.

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Even the showcase of the Lurie Garden with its lush tapestry of prairie plants gave me such joy. While my own prairie plantings will never rival the Dutch Master Piet Oudolf, its still a familiar sight to see, showcased in all its glory. It somehow gave credence to what we’ve created and what we’ve created it with. Not that I need Monty Don’s approval per se, but it is quite nice to see someone like him clearly delighting in our prairies and their plants.

What is most interesting though is his search for what our gardens say about us as Americans. This is a through-line for so many of Monty’s travel shows- striving to relate them to the greater cultural zeitgeist and history of the place. He talked about it at length in an article with the Telegraph.

In both the article and the show, Monty was asking about suburban “gardens” with lawns and foundation plantings relating to who we are as Americans. Responses and replies were generally kind, with the thinking that those “gardens” were embracing our love of space and welcoming nature.

“Only as far back as 1880, it was still the Wild West. Suburbia was only really created in fairly recent history: short, white picket fences were about showing you were a responsible, respectable citizen. If you put a hedge up, people might ask what you’re hiding.”

And I think that’s all quite right! We Gardeners (with a capital G) don’t see these suburban gardens as the same sort of beast as our own gardens. It seems to me that those front yards with expanses of lawn and few actual plants are exercises in conformity and meeting the status quo. As if to say “Hey! We belong and we fit in… Nothing to see here!” rather than an expression of creativity or one’s unique self.

“In Britain, if you go to a dinner party, you wouldn’t consider it odd or unusual to meet a gardener. In America, the chances of finding someone who actively gardens is far more remote: it’s not part of the zeitgeist, and it’s seen as eccentric. The view is, why would you garden yourself when you could pay someone to do it? Many are not gardened, but maintained: which largely means cutting the grass.”

And I too would agree that in America, we Gardeners are fringe-dwellers (culturally speaking). We are rare, we are eccentric, we are “that house with the HUGE garden” on the street. While it feels like I know so many gardeners, that’s only because I choose to fraternize with like-minded people. In fact, most people I interact with a work and at large are not, in fact gardeners in the way that you or I are. They may plant a few things here and there or grow a tomato or two, but that is not the same as what we do. (To be clear, this isn’t a judgement but rather a delineation of effort and enthusiasm/obsession.)

“In Britain, our interaction with nature means we can immediately see the effects of climate change: it means our snowdrops will start flowering before Christmas, or that birds are nesting in February. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s much harder for people to see that in America, and to ­convince people to see this thing that’s happening ‘out there’.”

And again, this too is spot on. We gardeners (along with other outdoorsy folks) are far more attuned to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) environmental, climate, and ecological changes happening in our country. We notice when robins and orioles return earlier, when lilacs bloom ahead of schedule, when summers are hotter and wetter than usual, and when autumns become shorter and colder. We notice because we are in it and work around it.

In any event, the series has been such a delight to watch both educationally, entertainment-wise, and emotionally. I do hope you watch it if you can. The last of the three part series airs next week- I’m excited to watch it and sad it will be over.

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