Big Dreams, Small Spaces, BBC2 - TV review: Brace yourself for Monty, the lean, mean gardening machine


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An Englishman's home is his castle, and so it follows that an Englishman's backyard is his family farmland, orchard and ornamental gardens even if, in actual fact, it measures just three metres by two. That's the premise of Monty Don's new gardening show, Big Dreams, Small Spaces (BBC2). In each of the five episodes, Monty will lend his expertise to two different households hoping to realise an ambitious outdoor scheme.

This week he was in Cadeby, South Yorkshire, with Richard and Helen Lee and in West Sussex with Jan and John Shepherd – though neither couple's garden seemed "small" to my city dweller's eye. Jan and John had just finished constructing a granny annex in preparation for the return of John's mother from Portugal, and they wanted a Mediterranean garden to match. The Lees hoped to convert theirs into a "small smallholding" with a chicken run, fruit trees and vegetable patches to feed. These were necessary to satisfy Helen's, by all accounts, compulsive chutney-making habit.

It's not like Monty to play favourites, but he had an obvious soft spot for the Lees, who boasted that they hadn't even looked inside their house before buying the property. (From now on, anyone who so much as glimpses at an indoor photo on Rightmove prior to purchase cannot be considered a truly committed horticulturalist). The respect was mutual in Cadeby, where Monty's every visit was anxiously awaited and his every command received with hushed reverence. "Watching Monty, he's like a ferret," said one awed/aroused neighbour. "Talk about a mean, lean, gardening machine!"

Things went less smoothly in West Sussex, where Jan and John's dreams of introducing a burst of Portuguese colour into their grey English lives had been nixed by a clay sub-soil. We saw them traipsing around East Ruston Gardens in Norfolk, in search of exotic-yet-hardy foliage, but with no Monty in sight. It seemed they'd been palmed off (pun intended) on the centre's co-owner, a Ben Kingsley look-a-like in pink drainpipe jeans.

Still, even those who cannot bask directly in the sunlight of Don's expertise, may still catch a few rays. Advice like "turn your compost to deter the vermin" and "summer pruning restricts growth, winter pruning encourages growth," and of course "herbs above all things must have sunlight". Most valuable of all was his to-camera closing summary, delivered while leaning on the newly erected garden post in the Lees' backyard: "The garden's doing something else too," he reminded us, "Something which perhaps we undervalue, but that gardens do so well; it's making them happy."