How to Dress for Gardening

Monty Don, an English TV presenter and writer on horticulture (perhaps best known for presenting the BBC television series Gardener’s World) once wrote something for The Guardian on “dirty dressing.” That is, how to dress when one needs to get some gardening done. Lots of rules are laid out here, including the things one must wear (high waisted trousers and leather boots) and sartorial no-nos (shorts and baseball caps … though, we disagree with his sentiments on the second). For me, as a guy who doesn’t garden, the best part is reading the opinion of a man who feels strongly about clothes. A long excerpt:

Over the past 30-odd years I have evolved certain rules about my wardrobe. Never wear jeans. They are absurd items of clothing - cold in winter, hot in summer, slow to dry once wet and chafe in places where chafing is not required. I have not possessed a pair for at least 20 years.

Never wear tight trousers. Always buy trousers at least one waist size too big, make sure that the pockets are big enough to comfortably hold penknife, hanky, string, phone, pencil, labels and perhaps a mint or two. The pocket thing is a matter of fine tuning. Too deep and you are rummaging around up to your elbow in them. But I have big hands and if they are too small you cannot find the knife/hanky/label and extract it without causing uncomfortable restrictions or having to let go of the object in order to extract your hand.

Lots of professional gardeners wear shorts all summer, but they always strike me as hopelessly impractical. If I am honest I also feel that, having been bought up in an age when small boys were forced to wear shorts, long trousers are a privilege that I still cling to and shorts are for sports.

Belts are needed to attach your secateurs’ holster to, to support your back when digging and to stop the size-too-large trousers ending up around your ankles when reaching up to prune the apples. Regard your belt as a piece of gardening kit and buy a really good quality, thick leather belt made by a British leather worker. It should mean business. Braces are much more comfy - especially with high-rise trousers - and I wear them most of the time.

If you are not familiar with their joys, highrise trousers are fantastically comfortable and keep your lower back warm. My children still squirm with embarrassment every time they see me in them (which is most days) but that is probably some kind of seal of approval. If you are uncertain about the required cut, check out photographs of agricultural labourers in summer (ie jacketless) circa 1880-1914. The only two fabrics I use for trousers are corduroy and cotton drill. I have two weights of the latter in identical cuts, very heavy and light. Twice as many heavy as light. You have to accept that gardening trousers get wet, muddy and stained, so need washing a lot. If they are ‘good’ they will be much loved and probably expensive, so must last the wear and tear outdoors and in the washing machine. Anyway, good trousers only start to feel right after a year or so.

Wear thick socks summer and winter, if possible of pure cotton or wool. Gardening in light shoes is a joy, but a rare one. I have a pair of handmade leather boots that I use for all digging and heavy work. These cost as much as a holiday for two in the Bahamas but were worth every penny and much preferable to a holiday. I can dig all day in them without any discomfort and they are wholly waterproof. Get a good pair of wear one as a vest in winter. Shirts are the thing. I like pull-on ones that button down to the chest. Get them big with lots of room under the armpit and long enough to cover your bum. Check that the cuffs are wide enough to easily roll up above the elbow. Cotton drill is best. A chest pocket is useful, too. It goes without saying that no gardening shirt (and no other item of clothing of mine) ever sees an iron.

A tweed jacket is really good and I have a number of old ripped ones I often wear at home. They are thornproof, warm, showerproof and have pockets. They won’t let me wear them on telly because they say it looks too patrician. I have yet to work out if that is patronising or right, but I meekly demur. I like waistcoats either waterproof or leather. The latter is by far the best thing for keeping a cold wind at bay and for protecting you from thorns. A waterproof waistcoat with pockets is ideal if it is merely damp. If it is too wet for that to be sufficient protection it is probably too wet to garden sensibly outside. Fleeces are ubiquitous and inevitable, but I wear them surprisingly little nowadays. They are best as an underlayer when it is wet. On the whole I prefer a good jersey. Cashmere is the ideal inner layer when it is really cold and you can pick them up amazingly cheaply nowadays. A thicker roll-neck jersey makes a good outer layer.

I don’t like hats very much. I have no desire to shelter from the British sun and it is rarely cold enough to need headgear. But I especially loathe baseball caps. Not only are they useless but a symbol of a kind of Disneyfied decadence. A wide-brimmed hat is much more effective and keeps the sun and rain off better. Tweed flat caps are good, but distinctly agricultural. I have a Soviet military hat that I bought off a soldier in Berlin. It is great for pruning the more viciously thorned roses. 

You can read the whole thing here.

I believe that nature can heal our social problems as well as our physical and mental ones.
I am certain that a society without respect for the natural world, the food it produces or the detail and ritual of the landscape is horribly impoverished. In my experience, when it comes to grounding, the earth is as a good a place as any to start.

Was volunteering at the RHS Tatton Flower show today and stumbled across Monty Don recording for the BBC coverage.

He was clearly very busy, and I felt rude asking, but he stopped briefly to let me take a picture.

Made my day!

La Mortella, Ischia – a mad tropical wonderland... a guest blog from the Patient Gardener

I was interested to read the description of La Mortella in Monty Don and Derry Moore’s new book Great Gardens of Italy as I visited the garden last August on a blistering hot day with temperatures in the high 30s.

 This was not ideal garden visiting weather by a long stretch of the imagination but I was on a pilgrimage and determined!  As Monty says: “Any visit must be a prepared, deliberate and slow excursion and so you arrive almost as a pilgrim at a shrine.”

La Mortella is on the island of Ischia, just off the Italian coast near Naples.  It was created by Sir William and Lady Walton who bought the land in 1956.  However, don’t be mistaken and think this is a large Italianate garden covering a couple of acres.  No, a lot of the garden is up a pretty sheer volcanic rock face not your typical garden at all; not in England or Italy for that matter. Certainly if you compare it to the other gardens which feature in Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy book (soon to be on television) it stands out as different to the rest.  There is no clipped topiary, box, yew, there is no formality – instead you have a wonderful confection of tropical, Mediterranean and generally exotic planting; a truly eclectic garden. 

I loved the plantings.  The lower area is full of lush tropical plantings around a large pool, from which flows a rill.  The density of the planting provides welcome shade and it is with some reluctance that you make your way up the side of the quarry. For me there was a considerable contrast between the lower garden and the planting on the quarry.  This was predominantly Mediterranean and featured myrtles, a lot which is a native of the area.  

At the very top of the garden you encounter the upper ponds and the lush planting resumes although not on the scale as the lower garden.  However, I found these  areas too themed and a little gimmicky.  One of my sons described it as a little Disneylandish and it is interesting to see that Monty had a similar experience “There is more than a slight feeling of a theme park…”   The stone crocodiles were just too much for me though very popular with some young visitors. 

My other criticism of the garden is that it had lost its intimacy and no longer felt like a personal garden.  We were told by our guide that Susanne Walton had been keen for it to be visitor friendly and this explains the large numbers to help guide the visitor along the map which appear around the garden and the tarmac paths which gave it a feel of a municipal park and I felt jarred considerably with the planting. 

In the book Monty explains the story of how the garden was created and how Susana created it to showcase her husband’s music.  The garden includes a concert space set amongst the plantings and the audience have the most stunning views out across the island.  Monty states that after Walton’s death in 1983 Susana continued to develop the garden and promote her husband’s work; “But the garden began – and ends – as a testament to the love of Susana for her husband.”

To me this is a garden of a plantaholic.  There are so many plants squeezed in from all over the world and although consideration has been given to their planting requirements sometimes they just don’t gel and it all gets a little too much. There is nowhere for the eyes to settle and rest.   

Therefore, I was interested to see Derry Moore’s photographs of the garden.  Derry’s photos capture the garden very well.  Like me he photographed the main rill which is a strong design feature but his other photographs are of the mass planting.  I found it intriguing to see how he had created focal points by concentrating on an interesting tree, a large rocky outcrop or by framing the picture with the large pool.  It is certainly an interesting lesson in how to take excellent photographs.

The book, Great Gardens of Italy…

continues up Italy, predominantly on the left hand side and explores a total of 30 gardens.  Each garden is described intelligently, as we would expect of Monty, he brings in small character descriptions of various people associated with the garden, the garden is given an historical context and he describes how he felt and reacted to the space.  The photographs that illustrate the book, by Derry Moore, are on a par with the writing.  Whilst there are many photographs of parterres and ancient buildings, Moore also manages to convey the atmosphere of the garden with some less obvious views such as the statue appearing through the ancient cypresses at the garden of Giardino Giusti.

Although this is a book that will probably find a home on many coffee tables, it is more than your average coffee table book.  It is a book that you can dip into and lose yourself in as you imagine yourself drifting through the olive groves on a warm Italian evening.

Helen’s regular blog can be found at


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“Gardening expert Monty Don journeys from the south of Italy to the north, visiting some of the country’s most beautiful, impressive and interesting gardens along the way. From lovingly created romantic hiding places to enormous formal gardens of the Catholic Church, this four-part series is bursting with great characters, compelling stories and captivating insights”.

- yay! 

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You guys!! Have you seen this programme? It’s totally on TVO right now, I believe on Friday evenings? The subject matter and presentation’s a bit bourgeois for my tastes, but it really is a gorgeous show. But mostly, its because Monty Don looks and sounds totally like Rupert Giles. There should be a horticultural/architectural programme hosted by Anthony Stewart, in character as Rupert Giles. Wasn’t the BBC going to do a Rupert Giles spinoff programme anyway?