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

“There is a cultural and aesthetic need for flowering plants – the link, for example, between blossom and fruit. It’s about food and how it grows. It’s a personal thing to grow food and have that knowledge, to dig it with your own hands and then eat it.”

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And back to the politicians. “No politician mentions anything about ecology these days. They assume it isn’t interesting and that the average person is disconnected. But we need not be removed from it. This isn’t what young people want. They’d rather dig the ground than vote.”

For the next five days, the world of gardening is in orbit around London, SW3. The Chelsea Flower Show provides elaborate evidence of the iconoclasm of which Monty Don speaks. But is this celebration of horticultural extravagance a source of inspiration to would-be gardeners? He offers qualified support. “I do think gardening is about the Big Dream. Young people have their own way of reconstructing gardening. Young people – and by this I mean 25- to 40-year-olds – are a lot more aware and engaged with the environment and ecology. For them, gardening is about the soil and the food they can grow. It’s about the animals that come into the garden and the countryside in general.

“I took my children to Chelsea last year and they weren’t that interested in the show gardens. They found them a bit dull. Yet they loved the marquees and pavilions and found the stalls quirky and interesting. I think their generation aren’t respectful of corporate success – and neither should they be.

“Younger people are looking for things that show individuality, the diverse and eccentric. They like an expression of rebellion. This quirkiness should be encouraged because young people don’t want to join ‘the club’. They use gardening as a personal expression, maybe a statement of not screwing up the planet. It’s about food and recycling and not horticulture.” 

The 59-year-old former costume jeweller, who went bankrupt in the early 90s and suffered a minor stroke in 2008, sounds genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities in the future for a horticultural world seen through the eyes of people two decades younger than himself. In the 2006 BBC series Growing Out of Trouble, where several heroin addicts were rehabilitated (some more successfully than others) by managing a smallholding in Herefordshire, Monty posed some serious questions about what we need as humans; what we need for ourselves and for the planet through our link to the land.

“Increasingly I see young people asking questions about gardening. They are active, thoughtful and engaged and trying to do the best in life. They’re resourceful but are given few opportunities to express this. The RHS and all of us really should not be about pulling people into our world but for us to go towards them, to experience a pull towards this youthful energy and get away from the dull conservative Rotary Club view of the world.

“The question is, how do we look after the world? How do we treat each other? It is stimulating and exciting. The point is about how we look at things and I’d like to get young people to lead the way. Those of us in our 50s and older should be saying, ‘The world has changed and you are better than us to take the lead.’ ”

But in this brave new world, where do the likes of Chelsea fit in? Are they mere showpieces rather than places that have something significant to offer outside the realms of SW3?

“Shows such as Chelsea do have a part to play. It’s the pinnacle of the horticulture mountain and you do see more excellence there than anywhere else. It is part of the social season and while some may find that alienating, it’s better to be able to change that from the inside.”

For Monty, it isn’t important if Chelsea is about re-inventing the past or finding genuinely new approaches. He is happy that Chelsea can reach out and cross into other areas of life. The much-garlanded fashion designer Paul Smith goes to Chelsea every year for inspiration and, says Monty, he is not alone. “Any good designer would go there and just soak it up – it is small and compact and full of ideas. Chelsea, for me, follows the zeitgeist – it reflects general feelings of recession and wealth. It tends to follow what’s happening rather than set the trend.”

His final words are uplifting: “It’s important to celebrate it and the sheer skill on display. I’m happy to enjoy that.”  

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RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on Sunday 16 May until Friday on BBC1 and BBC2