One of winter’s great tricks is that it can make spring seem impossibly far away, if not impossible all together. When the wind blows -35, feels like the stab of icicles on any skin you’ve dared swath in only one layer, all those fragile spring petals seem like the stuff of science fiction.
Luckily, just as my patience with winter was as thin as black ice, the right hero strode into my life: Monty Don, long-time British gardening guru. Looking for some soothing nighttime viewing, I first slipped into Monty Don’s French Gardens, which sees the lanky, sixty-ish British presenter don a straw hat, fold himself into a tiny Citroen, and drive all over France, showcasing gardens on various themes, such as those that inspired art (think Monet’s garden) or the potager (the stylized French kitchen garden). Monty’s unabashed enthusiasm won me over almost immediately. In one episode, he recounts how he first went to France as a seventeen-year-old, and he still has the gusto of someone that age. If you liked watching the irrepressible Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and who didn’t?), there’s the same by-proxy giddiness in watching Monty bite into a giant field tomato or savour a cherry just plucked from a tree. And of course the gardens are gorgeous: lush and sunny, impeccably maintained. Surely I’ve absorbed some vitamin D through the screen.
So imagine my delight when I discovered Netflix had more Monty for me, including a show I came to love much more than Monty en France: Big Dreams, Small Spaces. This is a sort of garden makeover show, with host/expert Monty acting as a guide, but with the two families in each show tasked with creating and executing a vision, all on their own budget. Monty arrives three or four times over the year the families work on their project, ready to grab a shovel or beat back overgrown brush (he’s shockingly strong despite his wiry frame), but he’s not a designer descending with a SWAT team of handypeople (as in every American makeover program I’ve watched), he’s more of a garden therapist, asking gentle questions and pointing out potential trouble spots. He’s charmingly diplomatic in this role, trying to help people see their own missteps, “I couldn’t help but notice . . .” he might say before pointing out that someone has put their greenhouse in a shady corner.
One thing I’ve long loved about British television is that the people on it don’t seem like Hollywood prefab beauties, and that’s even truer of reality TV. These are instead regular people, wearing regular clothing, and often no makeup at all. They come in all ages and sizes (though in season one, only with white skin), their teeth have never seen a whitestrip. I find it quite arresting, sadly, which really drives home how many artificially beautiful people we look at every day and how that distorts our reality.
And part of the reason I love the show so much is that the gardens feel real too. These are not the showpiece gardens of France: they reflect a wide range of budgets (some as low as about 100 pounds) and personalities, aesthetics and time commitments. If you’ve ever fallen into a sort of HGTV coma for hours, the homes start to blur into a sort of bland parade of sameness: it’s like walking the IKEA showrooms, where the rooms may look different, but they feel almost eerily the same. On Big Dreams, that doesn’t happen: this isn’t one designer just tweaking his or her style for another location and client. These are real people, working under real conditions, with real constraints. Some of the gardens I don’t care for at all, and that’s a sign that they’ve bucked the bland inoffensiveness of so many TV makeovers that suggests a staged house, depersonalized and ready for anyone to move in.
Episodes of Big Dreams also end with a reversal of the usual script: instead of someone having their shiny new life presented to them in a dramatic reveal, the hardworking homeowners must present their handiwork to the host. Since they work most of the year unsupervised, people are invariably nervous for Monty’s final visit. They so much want to please the host, and I get it, I’d be nervous too when I saw those frizzy curls bobbing down the street, his too-big linen suit flapping behind him. But what all those people miss is that Monty really just wants them to be pleased with the results. He wants them to fall in love with gardening. And because what they do is creative and challenging and deeply personal, they often do. Take my favourite, Gary, a long-haul trucker who had an ambitious plan, including a large pond he had to dig himself. He wanted a paradise to come home to spending his workweek on the road. And in the end, this pale, buzz-cutted fellow with a Guns N Roses roadie vibe is moved to tears, because he made his dream come true, and because he’s going to keep making it.
As much as I can get sucked into a makeover show, I’m wary of their capitalist fairytale narratives that suggest our flawed, human lives can be made perfect, at least with a shiny new LG fridge, some mid-century modern chairs, and a distressed leather couch. In any reveal, I always find myself fixating on the improbable bowl of lemons, likely never to be filled again, and thinking about how long the expensive houseplants will be kept alive. Because before and after is of course an artificial concept: there’s only one endpoint, and until then life is just a series of afters.
A garden by its very nature resists the ideal of arrival: growing and changing is what they do. The gardens on this show are often very young, the slips of pear trees years from an actual pear, the hedgerows offering no privacy, the courgettes months from harvesting (and from taking over the garden). As the show concludes we get a sense not of an end, but of a beginning.
In February, every gardener has their own big dreams: this is the time of fantasy-football gardening, building a roster of plants that we imagine will all thrive, that will look just like the photos in the seed catalogues that are gardeners’ SAD lamps. The reality will be different, of course, but what Big Dreams so charmingly illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter—it’ll all come out well enough in the end. Gardens are just like our lives, a constant work-in-progress, and missteps and course corrections will happen. But with care and attention, gardens can be shockingly forgiving. It doesn’t hurt that with a show like this, we all get to have Monty on our side, to ask the right questions and provide tips, yes, but most importantly to remind us to look for joy and satisfaction right in our own backyard.