It fits that this time of year sees him rising at 5.30 and in bed by 10pm, always with a book – he has just finished This Wheel’s on Fire by Levon Helm, as he remains a devotee of The Band and Bob Dylan, although he also listens to chunks of Bach and Indian music. Amid all that, he watches little TV and socialises less, saving his remaining time for his family.
He met his wife Sarah at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and there can be no doubting their rock solid union. In the 1980s they ran a costume jewellery business with a Knightsbridge shop whose customers included Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, and at weekends tended their Hackney garden.
When the business faltered they took a bridging loan on a derelict Herefordshire farm, where Don gardened so furiously that Sarah told him he was “married” to it. By the time their three children were born, the business had crashed, the farm was sold, and everything they owned with it. For two years life was an endless winter of unemployment, before the season began to turn for Don with a gardening segment on breakfast television.
His two sons, Adam and Tom, and daughter Freya are in their mid-to-late twenties now. Usually Don refuses to speak of them in interviews, but on this occasion serenity takes charge, his face flooded with light.
“We’ve always had a fairly informal relationship. I work with Adam, and speak to him every day as he runs the farm. He’s lambing at the moment. The others – I’ll ring up, we chat, share books, music, tell each other what we’ve done and seen. I can remember my own mother snorting: ‘I don’t want to be your best friend! I’m your mother!’ I was brought up very strictly. I love my children, I adore them. Would die for them, kill for them. We’re very honest with each other. At times that’s brutal; at others it’s liberating and enlightening. We are good friends.”
And what of Don’s other significant family member, the owner of a Twitter account with 14,000 followers, the bio of which describes him as “the lead presenter on Gardeners’ World, accompanied by my faithful assistant Montagu Don”?
“Ah, Nigel,” smiles Don, his voice audibly softening at the mention of his elderly golden retriever. “He is fine. Growing older, as we all are, but gracefully. He has two virtues – he’s very beautiful, and he’s a very sweet person. Never been naughty. He’s a simple soul. There are no depths to Nigel. No hidden, tortured angst. And now I have Nellie, a seven-month-old golden retriever puppy. My children tell me I’m much too indulgent with Nellie, so perhaps when the time comes I shall treat grandchildren the same way, like very favoured dogs.
“There is no immediate prospect of grandfatherhood that I’m aware of, but I’d really like to have small children around again. I’d know what to do. I’d be less cross about things that there’s no need to be cross about. And I can always hand them back. Most problems in parenthood are to do with exhaustion, trying to do six things at once.”
He says this soon after listing his crammed work schedule, so the six-things-at-once habit is not quite broken yet. Nonetheless, he is consciously breathing in the scent of summer roses.
“I still think about when we lost everything,” he concedes. “Once you’ve had that experience, you know that what seems like an impregnable position can disappear overnight. Mine is a big operation to keep running, and it’s fuelled by me. That said, my mental health has been great the last few years. I am very well and happy. I have an incredibly good marriage and lovely children. I do a job that is jolly tiring and I work very hard, but I really enjoy it and I think I’m quite good at it.”
He rises to go, but at the door he pauses. “I could downsize, it’s true,” he admits. “I could live more modestly, work less. But I love my life. And you only live once.”
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show begins on Sunday at 5.30pm on BBC1, and then Monday 23rd May until Friday 27th May