Monty Don: How the TV plantsman’s growing habits are changing with the climate

Monty Don has a new book, The Gardening BookMonty Don has a new book, The Gardening Book
Monty Don has a new book, The Gardening Book
As gardeners face continuing extreme conditions with climate change, TV plantsman Monty Don says he is considering cutting back on plants which need more mollycoddling to survive.

“Things that all my life I’ve grown with ease are now problematic, and other things which I’ve struggled with seem to be fine. So it’s swings and roundabouts,” says Don, speaking to promote his new book, The Gardening Book.

He’s recently removed the last of the box hedging from Longmeadow, his garden in Herefordshire, where the popular gardening series is filmed.

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“Box hedging, which has been such a feature of European gardens for the last 400 years, I now regard as almost impossible to grow if it’s clipped, because the combination of box blight and box moth means it’s almost inevitable it’s going to get one of those two unless you spray it endlessly with fungicides, which is certainly not something I’m prepared to do.”

He continues: “It’s become a culture where the more plants you grow, the more variety, the more extreme, the fact that they come from the jungle, or the desert or the rainforest, is something we’re proud of. Actually, what we should be thinking is: no, this is not sustainable, it’s not viable, it’s not practical – and actually doesn’t always look good.”

Greenhouse protection

He’s rethinking what he stores in his greenhouses over winter. “In view of climate change, it just doesn’t make any kind of environmental sense to put carbon into the atmosphere, and then spend a lot of money heating plants in order that they might grow in an environment that they don’t naturally want to grow.”

While historically, we’ve grown plants marked by trophy – showing off plants which are difficult to grow or come from the other side of the world, but which needed a lot of mollycoddling to succeed.

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“I’m challenging that,” says Don. “Maybe we just can’t afford to do that, in the same way that we can’t use peat, or water if there’s a drought, or pump carbon into the atmosphere by heating greenhouses on very high when there is a 10-degree frost outside. We just have to rethink that.”

He hasn’t given up on dahlias and cannas, he says.

“What I have learned is that increasingly, it doesn’t make sense to provide heated winter storage for plants I absolutely cannot overwinter outside. Dahlias are no problem at all, because we store the tubers on shelves and they take up very little space. I can store some cannas but I’m going to leave half in the ground, and I’m not going to store any more big bananas.”

Natural survivors

He is considering cutting back on plants which aren’t going to survive naturally. “For example, salvias, which I love, don’t really like us because our soil is very heavy and wet. I will this year will be overwintering only a third of what I would normally, but I’ve taken cuttings from the rest. So if they all die, which they will do if it’s as cold as last winter, I’ll store the cuttings in the greenhouse to free up space.”

Fewer species

Don believes the trend will be towards gardening with fewer, more sustainable species, which largely means hardy plants.

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“When you say hardy, of course, that doesn’t just mean resistant to cold. It also means resistant to heat and drought. In our damp garden, there are plants like ligularia and rodgersias, which are very happy in the wet but really don’t like it when it’s extremely dry. So you need plants that are adaptable to what seems to be a pattern of erratic, extreme weather.”

He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, he says.

“I think anybody who tells you exactly what the implications of climate change are, doesn’t understand climate change. The one pattern is that there is no exact pattern, but it does involve extreme weather, extreme cold, extreme heat, extreme drought, extreme wet.

“We’re seeing it happening, but it’s erratic, there’s no way of saying – ok, we now know that the months of January and February are going to be wetter than normal. They might be, or they might not be. But what we do know is there is a trend in in that direction.”

In autumn, he was still enjoying rudbeckias, some rose blooms and dahlias, and earlier in 2023 filmed for two weeks in central Spain, which he points out can get down to minus-15 degrees in winter and up to 45 degrees in summer, where the soil is very poor.

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“There are gardens that only have maybe a dozen different plants, which look fantastic,” says Don. “We just need to edit what we grow to be sustainable.”

The Gardening Book by Monty Don is published by BBC Books, priced £28.

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