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A guide for U.S.-based cold-climate gardeners

The holidays are over. Seeds have been ordered (or not–I decided to take a break from seed sowing). The temperature is dropping (-5°F tonight) and the wind is blowing (wind chill advisory in effect). Time to binge-watch some gardening shows. I’ve been watching BBC 2’s Gardeners’ World for several years now, and I’ve got some tips for you to get the most out of it.

Gardener’s World is an hour-long British gardening television show, currently moderated by Monty Don but also featuring other presenters. It usually opens with the camera approaching Monty Don as he’s working on a gardening task. He looks up and says, “Hello, welcome to Gardeners’ World.” It feels like he is welcoming you to his personal garden (which it is) and talking to you as a fellow gardener.

Each episode of Gardeners’ World has several segments, some of which take place in Monty’s garden, Longmeadow. These are usually demonstrations of a gardening technique. I learn just by watching him work in his garden. Just to see him dig with a shovel or prune a shrub helps me understand how to work more efficiently in my own garden. I also learn more about plants, even though I have to run it through the gardening-in-my-climate filter (see below). We also see garden techniques demonstrated by other presenters, in their own gardens or in other locations.

The visits to other locations–grand estates and more modest gardens as well–sometimes provide seasonal inspiration and sometimes focus on a particular topic. I especially love it when they feature the holders of National Collections (eg the National Collection of  Irises bred by Sir Cedric Morris). The people who are so focused on one species are a little bit wacky and a lot nerdy–and I kind of identify with that. I mean, I have over 50 different kinds of colchicums, and could easily tell you more than you wanted to know about them.

Since the pandemic started, they have also featured garden videos sent in from viewers, predominantly from Britain but also other countries, including the U.S. But before you start bingeing, there’s a few things you should know.

The British Climate

There is no place in Great Britain colder than our USDA hardiness zone 8. (I consider USDA hardiness zones 5 and lower to be cold climates.) If you don’t believe me, take a look at this map. The RHS’ coldest hardiness rating is H7–plants that tolerate -20°C (-4°F). Any plant rated H7 is considered “very hardy.” I’m not sure they can even fathom temperatures any colder. There are some places in Britain where they rarely even have frost—ever—and can leave tender plants in the ground. Also, their growing season is much longer than ours in terms of number of frost-free days, due to prevailing winds that bring the warmth stored in the Atlantic Ocean. They also have much longer daylight in summer because they are so much further north. (Of course, their nights in winter are even longer than ours.) So be skeptical when you hear a plant described as hardy. It may be hardy for us, but you’ll need to do further research to be certain.

Their conception of hot weather is also skewed. For example, one year the presenters kept complaining about how hot it was at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. I looked it up, and it got up to 24°C—which is about 75°F. Not exactly too hot, if you ask me! (One perk of watching a pre-recorded show is you can pause it and convert C to F using Google or the calculator built into Windows 10.) And if they want to grow decent tomatoes, they grow them in a greenhouse, because they need the extra heat to ripen them.

Because our summers are also cool, there’s enough overlap in featured plants to be familiar, yet enough differences to keep it interesting. Pruning is the one area where I’m not sure their conditions apply, specifically when to prune. For example, Monty prunes his roses in January, but I wait until they start to leaf out, because I know there will be dieback and I wait to see exactly how far down it goes.

Differences in gardenspeak

Most of the time, when the British pronounce words differently, they mean the same thing. For example, the first syllable of privacy is not a long i, but rhymes with give. Evolution begins with a long e sound. And saint, as in St. Mark’s Square, is pronounced sin–barely pronouncing the vowel at all. If you’re like me, you’ll suddenly recognize a word you had heard many times whose pronunciation had concealed it from you.

But there are some words which have a different meaning. British gardeners mean something different by the word “compost” than we do. To them, compost (pronounced cumpust) is any kind or type of potting mix. “Garden compost” is what we would just call compost. And when they say “chalk” they are referring to a free-draining alkaline soil derived from limestone. If they say it grows well on chalk, it probably won’t like my acid clay.

Also, they like to use grit a lot. I don’t find horticultural grit in big box stores or independent garden centers, but I can usually find chicken grit in feed stores. You can also use turface or vermiculite instead.

Where to find past episodes

The BBC closely guards their Gardeners’ World episodes. And why not? That’s how they make their money. (They do offer some sample clips on their website.) Gardeners’ World episodes on Youtube are quickly taken down. But there are a few legitimate places to find and watch them. If you are already subscribed to Britbox, you will find them on there. But if, like me, you find the subscription fee a little steep, there is another source: HDClump. I’m not exactly sure why they have permission to archive these, but apparently they do. All the episodes from 2021 are in this folder. They are arranged in reverse chronological order so the first episode of 2021 is here. There were 30 regular season episodes and then three Winter Specials 2021/22. (The Winter Specials 2021 are actually recaps of the 2020 season, which due to COVID restrictions, was not up to the usual standards.) Update: the 2022 episodes are in this folder and you’ll find 2023’s episodes here.

But wait–there’s more!

That will get you started. But HDClump has a lot more. At the top of their home page they have a “Gardening” menu item. Hover your cursor over that and a drop-down menu appears. This will keep your busy for a lo-o-o-ng time. I especially recommend to you Monty Don’s armchair garden travel specials. The first of these was Around the World in 80 Gardens, released in 2008. This was followed in later years by Italian Gardens, French Gardens, Paradise Gardens, Japanese Gardens, and, in 2020, American Gardens. It was fun to watch Monty explore the United States gardening culture, but also frustrating, because there was so much more he could have seen (How could he skip [insert your favorite garden here]?) and so much that was painted with too broad a brush (We’re not all slaves to our lawns). He’s currently touring the Adriatic; the second episode goes live tonight.

There’s a lot in the Monty Don menu list that I have yet to see myself. And I still need to explore most of the non-Monty garden shows, though I have watched Carol Klein’s Life in a Cottage Garden series and enjoyed it very much.

And if you haven’t gotten enough of Monty, you can follow him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and his own website. (BBC Gardeners’ World also has a Facebook account.) And he’s written many books. He’s also been written up in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among many others.

So there you are, my winter-weary, cabin-fever-crazed fellow gardeners: a way to enjoy gardening from the comfort of your own couch, feasting your eyes on green and growing plants, and perhaps picking up a tip or technique or two that you can use when our long winter is over. By then, the next season of Gardeners’ World should be airing. (I kid you not: it begins in March, when we are still dealing with mud season.)

What about American gardening shows?

Our family is unusual in that we don’t own a television set and don’t subscribe to cable or any streaming services. Until I was introduced to Gardeners’ World, I rarely watched any videos at all. So I don’t know much about American gardening shows. I do know that for years, U.S. gardeners have been complaining that there’s not much G in HGTV.

HGTV used to have a show called Gardening by the Yard, featuring Paul James, but that was canceled years ago, and I could only find a few episodes. Let’s face it, as Monty says, “In Britain, if you go to a dinner party, you wouldn’t consider it odd or unusual to meet a gardener. In America, the chances of finding someone who actively gardens is far more remote: it’s not part of the zeitgeist, and it’s seen as eccentric.” Growing a Greener World is the closest thing we have to Gardeners’ World, and it produces 11 half-hour segments a year, contrasted with Gardeners’ World’s 30 one-hour episodes–not counting the specials.

Of course, there are many “plantfluencers” on various social media platforms with large followings. If you have a favorite you follow, or know of another American gardening show, please let us all know about it in the comments.

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