Monty Don on Chelsea, the allotment tragedy and the need for iconoclastic young gardeners

"Gardens can reach into life in a way that’s beyond horticulture. It’s about how we choose to live our lives and how younger people engage with them,” says the Gardeners' World presenter

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Monty Don is a modern man. He embraces the future by never losing sight of the past. So when we suggest to him that gardening is going through something of a renaissance he offers a dollop of sage circumspection. “I never think that gardening is about what’s new. It’s about what’s not new because the attraction of gardening is the return of the familiar, but in a new space and new time. It’s not about fashion; it’s about what is genuinely important, and not what plant is in or out.”

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Monty’s modernity extends to Twitter. Hours after our interview he tweets this to his 12,000 followers: “Asked by journalist how to get young people interested in horticulture: correct question how to get horticulture interested in young people.” Later he adds: “All talk is of children gardening: that is fine but not the key. The really important people are 20-somethings. We need their iconoclasm.”

Examples of which he expects to find in spades at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, the BBC’s coverage of which he hosts with Joe Swift and Sophie Raworth. But more of that later. For now let’s return to the surge in interest among the young, reported by the Royal Horticultural Society. He urges caution. For a start, where are they expected to garden? “My generation grew up expecting some sort of ownership and access to gardens.

“I had my first home aged 26 and started growing things then. My three kids are in their 20s and none of them rent or own homes with gardens. A generation is growing up with no access to green space. There’s an increased remoteness about it all. Gardens can reach into life in a way that’s beyond horticulture. It’s about how we choose to live our lives and how younger people engage with them.” 

We speak as he sets off from his home in Herefordshire to give a talk in Surrey. He’s vexed by what he sees as reluctance among politicians to talk environment and ecology. Take allotments, for instance. The National Allotment Society is concerned that the need to build will place pressure on councils to dispose of sites. In England in 2013 an estimated 78,000 people were on allotment waiting lists.

“We’ve lost so many of our allotments and it’s a tragedy. They’re increasingly important as young people have less access to gardens. They’re part of our way of life and we can’t keep building on them. Councils are selling them off and say they’ll find allotment space somewhere else but this is missing the point. Allotments are supposed to be in the centre of things. They unite people of different ages, diverse backgrounds. They’re about community, communication, producing food and doing it alongside each other. They’re a paradigm of a successful society. We should treasure them.”

He suggests that whatever housing strategy is devised by the new government, it should contain a commitment to create space for allotments. “We should make a rule that a percentage of new housing has to have access to allotments. We need to make new ones. I think people have a concept that they’re now out of fashion and were a response to the World Wars. But after World War Two there was a policy to reduce the amount of allotments as we’d never have to dig for victory in the same way in the future. But it was a crazy policy because we need resources and we do need to grow our own food.”

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But it’s not just about access to green space. He’s vociferous about what we need as human beings, what keeps us “sane” in a way. “There’s a mental and social factor to be taken into account when urban people have no access to gardens. There is an educational point in this latest trend for growing food in towns but we also need flowers and trees, not all cabbages and beetroots.