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The Unexpected Pleasures of Netflix’s Gardening Shows

Series like ‘Monty Don’s French Gardens’ are odd, extremely British, and sometimes outright boring, but watching them can be delightful, and free of the societal pressures that come with keeping up with prestige TV

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There’s enough good television to last a lifetime and, frankly, I can’t keep up. My list is oversaturated with “things I know I should watch,” and yet I adamantly refuse to watch them, even though they’re right there, at my fingertips—all I’d need to do is hit play. I’ve heard The End of the F***ing World is good. The Witcher, too. And even though I know I’ll love it, I’m pretty sure that Sex Education is going to remain unwatched for at least another year. Now just doesn’t feel like the right time to dig in.

Instead, faced with the profound stress of a full queue, I’ve fallen into holes that are decidedly not prestige. Programming that is addictive and fun, but that doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of brainpower. The sort of thing that, in a bygone age, would have most likely aired in the middle of the day on a Sunday. What I mostly mean is I’ve uncovered the unexpectedly calm, joyful, kind, yet also weirdly specific genre of no-stakes garden makeover shows.

Monty Don in action

I’m talking about Love Your Garden, as hosted by British gardening legend Alan Titchmarsh, and the plethora of shows hosted by the other British gardening legend, Monty Don. I’m especially fond of Monty Don’s French Gardens, where he tours different types of gardens in France to see what that can reveal about French history and culture (fun fact: in 1661, Louis XIV had his finance minister thrown in prison because the minister had a nicer garden than he did); and Big Dreams, Small Spaces, where “ordinary people” receive advice from Don on how to create their dream garden in a typical, British postage stamp of a backyard.

Situated somewhere on the border between Slow TV and a home makeover, Big Dreams, Small Spaces is the best of these shows. What’s important to understand, however, is that the appeal of this programming lies specifically in its utter lack of stakes. There is no sense of competition, no prize at the end—it’s merely a bunch of British people who are in it for the shrubbery alone. All participants have their own lives outside of the show, and absolutely zero intention of turning their appearance on the show into a career or a profit-making enterprise. They’re learning how to garden because they want to improve their houses, or they want a new hobby, or they want to cultivate and grow their own vegetables. Nothing more, nothing less. Over the course of an episode, participants (for they are certainly not contestants) learn to take satisfaction in the simple fruits of a job well done, of an effort made with their own hands that has come to, excuse the pun, fruition.

Each episode of Big Dreams, Small Spaces takes place over a year. You see two sets of people tending their garden and their gradual progress through the seasons. Let me tell ya, it’s slow going. Don visits roughly every few months, and in that time, participants manage to clear rubble, maybe turn their soil or create a compost bin. Sometimes they even manage to buy their new plants. During his visits, he gives advice, tweaks the layout of the garden, and leads the homeowners in a day of actual gardening. But the length of the process is part of this show’s appeal—it is long-term, a real commitment for the gardeners. There’s no rapid, cathartic transformation at the end; even after Monty Don’s final visit, the gardens are still presented as a work in progress. Such is life, am I right?

Monty Don and a participant

It’s fun to watch a person with zero skill attempt something poorly. But there’s an even deeper satisfaction to be found in watching a person with a great deal of skill pass that knowledge on to others. Monty Don, in all his absurd, suspenders-wearing Britishness, and in clear, measured tones, demonstrates how to plant a tree and how to determine good soil (dig a hole and fill it with water—if it doesn’t drain by the evening, you have an issue). He’s patient and kind, guiding the participants through the process of gardening in a mildly paternal fashion. He offers them advice, pragmatism, and help, but ultimately, it’s down to the participants themselves to do the bulk of the work.

There is no real time crunch, nothing to win and nothing to lose. It’s the exact opposite of a zero-sum game. It’s slow and painstaking, and quite often, rather dull. But that doesn’t stop it from being compelling. My favorite episodes are the ones where the garden is decidedly incomplete at the end, in abject defiance of the usual narrative of makeover shows. After all, what even is a “complete” garden? By definition they change daily, growing and evolving over time. It is a process, a hobby that lasts over years and decades. “Think about today,” Monty Don tells a couple of gardeners. “That is the mentality of a gardener.”

Quite deep in this TV hole by this point, I’ve decided to look at the world with the mentality of a gardener, and it’s not bad. We’re all perfectly aware of the dangers of racing forward, not considering how we feel in the moment, and trying to reach some nebulous goal, regardless of whether it can be reached at all. Gardening, like any repetitive activity, focuses the mind on its task, preventing those who do it from wandering into other avenues of thought, giving them a break from the monumentally difficult task of simply existing in a world that provides an unending series of distractions and options. The key thing is to remember that, more often than not, the best way out is through. You need to work slowly, carefully, and patiently to make anything. You need the support of your friends and family when they can spare the time. You need to tend to your garden.

Gardening is, fundamentally, a boring hobby. Don can try to link it to colonialism, culture, and power by deep-diving into the significance of the gardens of Versailles all he likes, but that doesn’t change the truth. I mean this with the utmost affection; there is nothing wrong with being bored. It can, in fact, be rather pleasurable. Even the issues faced by the participants are delightfully mundane. They are often stymied by bad weather, or the discovery of clay beneath the poor soil, or a long week at work. There’s an almost total disregard for drama and stakes. Even the final moments of the episodes refute the usual host-centric narrative of most reality shows. Monty Don meets with the participants and gets a tour of the current state of their garden before they “reveal” it to family and friends. But this is just buildup—not the main event. The true climax comes as the gardeners share a drink with their relatives—the people who are actually in their lives for the long term, who’ll be lucky enough to see what their creations grow into.

I, of course, don’t have such privilege. I can only imagine the future, as I hit play on the next episode.

Hannah Searson is a U.K.-based freelancer.