The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
This article cracked me up, and I had to share it: The Unexpected Pleasures of Netflix’s Gardening Shows.
I can’t say that I share the author’s general love of Netflix. I don’t get into dystopian fantasies. Most of what passes for comedy these days annoys me. Normally, I would be a sucker for series on history, but even the historical content on Netflix is downright terrible. For example, I watched part of The Last Czars the other day, and it was disturbing from a meta perspective that such a show ever came to exist. For those unfamiliar with the series, it aspired to be something of a documentary about the Romanov family – a topic one would think does not require much embellishment. I mean, you have a story that already involves the occult, a brutal political revolution, and mass murder. Not exactly plain vanilla stuff. But the “documentary” turned out to be quite pornographic. They go directly from interviewing an academic historian to showing re-enactments of how each of the Romanov children were conceived and Rasputin’s orgies. And the producers did not even try to make the content historically accurate, because why would you with porn? You have scenes supposedly from 1905 that include Lenin’s mausoleum, among other hysterical errors. And don’t get me started on all the pseudoscience that Netflix cranks out.
The funniest thing about this is Netflix is funding all of these shows by issuing junk bonds in the financial markets. You know the economy is lit when that’s happening.
All that said, as a gardening fanatic, I am obsessed with Monty’s Don’s gardening shows on Netflix. I watched his series on the grand gardens in France and Italy, which I highly recommend. Now I am binge-watching Small Spaces, Big Dreams. And I didn’t even know about Alan Titchmarsh’s Love Your Garden, which is obviously going on the watchlist.
This is fantastic and accurate:
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?
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.
A lovely little reference to Voltaire at the end there.
Another wonderful aspect of Monty Don’s shows are how they showcase Great Britain. I think we are accustomed to seeing mostly London, and his shows take you everywhere. You meet two men who moved to Wales and they learn to build a garden into the rocky cliffs their house clings to. Monty gets them interested in collecting alpine plants that can survive in that environment. You meet people who live on unforgiving northern seashores. You meet amateur farmers. The only thing the participants have in common is they break for tea a lot.
In every episode, you meet a family where the people love each other and want to spend quality time together. There are no smartphones. Kids are out in the yard getting their hands dirty and soaking in the sunshine. Folks who just moved to an area get to know their neighbors through gardening. The men who moved to Wales built their garden for next to nothing because they put a box on the garden wall that said “will trade flowers, preferably alpines, for eggs.” They were inundated with flowers over the weeks. One neighbor explained that they did not think the guys were going to be tough enough to make it work in Wales (“they don’t even have beards,” he explains), but his is proven wrong. They don’t leave the rough landscape; in fact, they much improve it. They started keeping a book with pictures and details of all the plants they were learning.
Compare that with the inane, materialistic garbage on HGTV these days: A throuple learns about subway tile! Entire series have the same fake drama of something going wrong after the second commercial break in every single episode.
I wish there was more of this sort of content on television. I think the world would be a happier and more optimistic place for sure.