50connect Meets Monty Don

Posted on: 27 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The organic, environmental and gardening emissary explains what's important to him and why.

My first impression of Monty Don was of a man with a lot to say and not enough time to say it. Once he has your attention he's going to deliver his message in full; drawing breath is an inconvenience and he lets his coffee go cold.

Yet he manages to get you "on message" without a trace of arrogance or didacticism. His enthusiasm and good old fashioned sincerity leaves you slightly exhausted but wondering why the hell the man isn't in the cabinet - an Alistair Campbell, but with morals and a sense of humour.

The message is simple, "Go organic!"

Monty Don is an organic gardener, TV presenter, journalist and writer. In 1994 he joined the BBC and presented two series of Tomorrow's World, specialising in environmental issues as well as co-presenting 50 Holiday programmes and 3 Fasten Your Seatbelts, together with Summer Holiday and Holidays Out. His popularity extended to a daytime audience where he became a favourite with Richard and Judy's viewers as the ITV This Morning garden expert.

He joined Channel 4 in 1998 as their resident gardening expert and hosted the series Real Gardens, covering three series and he presents the annual live coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. With his wife Sarah, he completed Fork to Fork, a book and television series about organic gardening and cooking in 1999. Other books include The Sensuous Garden, (Conran Octopus, 1997), Gardening Mad, (Bloomsbury, 1997), The Weekend Gardener, (Bloomsbury Press), The Prickotty Bush, (Macmillan) and Urban Jungle (Headline, 1998).

As a journalist he writes a weekly column in The Observer and has written for The Mail on Sunday, The Times, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.

Monty Don - garden"At the risk of sounding pompous, I want to change the world," Monty announces when I first meet him, rather like a newspaper headline, details to follow.

"We must stop pouring chemicals into the ground, grow food to eat seasonally and support organic producers. Everyone can grow something, whether you have a large garden or a window box with some herbs. There's nothing like the taste of a new potato which has been dug up a few hours earlier; it tastes of…potato."

"I don't know whether it's a coincidence that Tesco announced profits breaking the £1 billion barrier for last year, the same year they significantly increased their organic produce range, but it's a fact that the demand for organic food in Britain exceeds our home-grown supply by a factor of 9 - 1. Aside from the foot and mouth issue farming in this country is in crisis, yet the organic farmers are doing well. The problem is that to convert from conventional farming to organic takes three years - the time it takes for the soil to become chemical free, and there's no assistance for producers during the transition period, so most farmers can't afford to make the change."

So it's a political issue? "Everything is." Monty observes, and it's clear that as someone whose values are intrinsically socialist, he's deeply disappointed with a government he sees as having ignored rural issues in favour of the city vote.

What of the supermarket chain Iceland's reversal of their decision to buy heavily into organics? Monty smiles reflectively and although he admires the idea, reveals a pragmatic side to his nature.

"It was a bit of a student-ish idea I suppose. You can't dictate to people what they should buy; they don't like it. They have to want to buy it. It's commerce. I ran a business myself some years ago; you have to give people a choice."

He and his wife Sarah used to run a jewellery business together.

"It's not a religion," he remarks of the organic movement, but it's clear that he's no seventh day horizontalist when it comes to commitment and a determination to spread the word. This isn't just confined to gardening but to environmental protection generally and you get the impression that he doesn't draw lines between these issues, but rather views them holistically. A handful of herbs grown naturally in a window box or an initiative to deter peat collection in order to preserve irreplaceable wetland habitats; it's all part and parcel.

What is his attitude to the big Biotechnology companies? Don is unequivocal, "They're the enemy." He's not smiling now and you wonder whether he dreams at night of meeting the CEO of Monsanto up a dark alley. "They're more powerful than governments."

His involvement with organic and environmental issues and his television work don't preclude his spending as much time as possible with his family - he and Sarah have three children - and it's clear that they are his bedrock.

"I like my life" he says simply, and on getting older, "It's great to be able to go to bed at nine o'clock with a book and not feel you ought to be out doing something else, and you still enjoy doing everything you always did, it's just that it takes a bit longer to recover!"

His new series for Channel 4, Don Roaming is largely aimed at a senior audience. It will be shown every afternoon in the autumn and features Monty exploring the UK to find 'hidden treasure' in towns and villages across Britain. He has this to say of the over 50s; "They're fit, active, interested and experienced with time to enjoy life and nothing to prove."

Monty Don was talking to Claire McGlynn for 50connect.

March 2002

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