I’ve fallen down another British reality TV rabbit hole. This time started innocently enough when I got food poisoning, was flat on the couch for a couple of days, and wanted something cozy to watch on Netflix. Monty Don’s Italian Gardens seemed like just the ticket. If you don’t know Monty Don, he is a tweedy British gardener who can always see a positive side and firmly believes that gardening can change the world. After binging on his Italian Gardens, I may have watched his French Gardens series, then Paradise Gardens (Middle East), and then Japanese Gardens.
Now I’m watching Big Dreams, Small Spaces, a fixer-upper show where every episode, two British households with rundown, neglected garden spaces spend nine months transforming their yards into their dream gardens. They always start with grandiose ideas—or drawn plans, if they’re more type A—and throughout the year Monty Don visits them to advise, teach, and get his hands dirty transplanting roses, lining ponds, and cutting back brush. The show is always edited for maximum drama, so you never know if they’re really going to pull off their dream garden until Monty Don’s final, celebratory visit, when friends and neighbors inevitably come over for a cookout or drinks.
A lot of why I watch the show, obviously, is because the planting and gardens are lovely, and I get that proxy rush from watching other people work for their dreams, and I’m a Romantic (capital R) sucker for outdoorsy, earthy things. But I’ve also realized there’s something enjoyable and encouraging about watching another creative process that isn’t writing. Of course perfect correlations between different art forms don’t exist, but for years I’ve learned things about my own writing process from talking with my brother about his hours in practice rooms working on piano repertoire. Watching the planning, landscaping, and planting of a garden feels similarly enlightening.
Monty visits both households three times during each episode. Usually on the first visit, the couple shares their dream for the garden, and Monty gives broad, structural feedback: That’s a lot of different kind of plants, that might look busy. Have you thought about digging out that feature of your garden because it doesn’t fit with your theme? On the second visit, Monty hopes that the hard landscaping is done, and he can help the participants with a specific feature of the garden, say vertical gardening with strawberry plants or how to get moss to grow on new surfaces. He also sends each couple to a garden that specializes in something they want to incorporate in their own garden.
Watching the show as an editor, what I see Monty doing is “editing” their plans and gardens (he even uses the word editing) in two passes—not unlike the two rounds of structural and copy editing we do at my publishing house. Monty also gives technical expertise and encourages lots of research. If the participants don’t know exactly which plants they want and whether they will work with their soil and climate, the hopeful gardens will spend a lot of fruitless time and expense on something that won’t grow or won’t look good. As a planner (rather than a pantser), I of course agree.
But, okay, yes, I also just watch the show because it’s feel-good.