Friday, 25 October 2013

The Monty Don guide to Social Media


I don't pretend to 'know' Monty Don or have ever exchanged more than a word with him in a passing tweet. But based on his TV and public appearances, his forays onto messageboards and twitter, and more ubiquitously his own writings, I have formed an image and opinion of what constitutes Monty Don, or perhaps more accurately what I want Monty Don to be. A cloistered ascetic hidden behind high hedges, shunning the humdrum existence of the hoi polloi's lives.  A man just a tad further along the Asperger's scale than the rest of us, with a hint of an inability to understand jokes and social interactions.  A man overly focussed on his own ideas with a degree of self-belief which can occasionally come over as arrogant.   'The Man who Knew he Was Right' - I could never enjoy watching David Tennant after he appeared as the eponymous character in the series of Anthony Trollope's novel - and I can't watch Monty Don without thinking of it.

On the other hand the Bedsock is a big Monty fan, thinks I am talking rubbish and describes Monty's persona as "a kindly uncle"! So what do either of us know.  And in any case what does it matter? People will see Monty as they want to see him and occasionally as he wants them to perceive him and neither are likely to be the truth. Either way Monty exerts a certain curious fascination.

It was with this fascination in mind that I bought a copy of the latest Gardeners' World magazine (November 2013) to read whilst I lunched alone at Jamie Oliver's restaurant.  The lunch itself was poor (eight clams arranged around the outside of a blob of slightly too al dente tagliolini do not an £11.25 pasta main course make) but the article left me so full of righteous indignation I could have been a Daily Fail reader!

Where to start

The premiss of the article is that gardeners have not caught on to social media in the way the rest of the world has, and in particular there are few gardeners on twitter. Monty has based this on the proportion of GW readers and viewers that follow him on twitter roughly two million viewers to his 29,000 followers - you do the maths.  Out of these 29,000 Monty has followed 500ish people which include "several interesting tweeters" which doesn't say much for the rest of us and may go some way to explain why he doesn't have more followers.  Actually at this point I should confess that when Monty first joined twitter a few years back he did actually follow me, probably on the advice of some 'well meaning' friend and in the unfounded belief I might say something interesting.  I repaid this compliment with a series of teasing tweets, suggesting we start up a perfume business based on his manly organic persona and called 'Soil'.  I still think this was a winner. Unfortunately Monty didn't agree and quickly Uff'd me, although I did elicit a sort of apology after I told him how gutted OldmaSock was - she had proudly told her entire WI group that her daughter was being followed by Monty Don and now she would have to explain to them the shame that Arabella had been unfollowed!

Anyway, where was I? Yes... Monty says "In short we gardeners seem to be largely uninterested in social media" possibly because "we are older than most social media users." Eh?  Tell that to the old codgers using the gardening messageboards! One has to think that Monty is heading for premature oldcodgerdom himself using the "we gardeners" tagline which invariably precedes some pompous pontification on said boards .  He follows up with the guess that most GW viewers are north of 50 and  "I suspect we [use social media] with a sense of wonder that our children and grandchildren do not feel."  I don't know what goes on behind Monty's high hedges - perhaps they are all living in an Anthony Trollope period costume drama - but  I'm the same age as him and was working with computers and social media at the age of twenty. (Although I do remember when I first started that in order to enable the print out of capital letters a '$' sign needed to be typed in front of the letter on a VDU but technology moved very quickly and we were soon jamming the JANET with social email groups.)  I do agree with his notion about "phone in pocket" being the "stuff of science fiction" though.  We didn't even have a phone in our shared, rented, house and I believe I would have had a lot more boyfriends if we had had one to facilitate communication, rather than always having to pre-arrange assignations.

Monty is "thrown by the informality and over-familiarity" of internet communication. "Just because we use the same website does not make us friends - how could it?"  Well, for a start you post a few questions and answers on a messageboard that is likely to have people with the same interests on it. Then after a time you identify someone whose communications and style of writing appeals to you, then you chat to them a while eventually exchanging personal email addresses, you correspond a year or so then you meet up in a public place just in case the person is really a mad axeman, you get on like a house on fire and have a good friend for life.  Then you form a little group with some of your other twitter or messageboard friends, call it "Ladies who Launch" and get invited to all the best does.

Or alternatively you have twitter friends, people who you have never, as Monty says, "shaken hands or ..broken bread with" but you have, unlike Monty "agreeably passed time" with them. Some of those twitter friendships are happily shallow and some are, for me at least, life-savers where I don't have to apologise for the inadequacies that my ill-health has thrust upon me and can choose to chat and communicate when I feel up to it without the guilt of frequently having to cancel arrangements because the 'real' me is not as able as the 'virtual' me.  For many of us spending time a lot of time alone by virtue of our work, health, or location, the "sound of silence" that Monty finds so precious is a reminder of our isolation.  Twitter at best can be like entering a crowded room full of laughter and chat where migrating birds are flying over the Portland Observatory, whilst a show garden is being built in Japan,  hawkers are peddling their wares "New blog" "New book" they call, a dog has farted and everyone clears the room, the skies are molten red in Ariége, an allotment needs saving from greedy, grasping, governance, LazyTrollop is baking  cake, "Does anyone grow quinces in North Kent?" and how are YOU today?" No I don't KNOW some of these people at all but I enjoy their company nevertheless. And when the babble gets too much you can wander out of the room and hopefully not have your silence shattered by "the laughter of children" that Monty espouses. 

And so  Monty moves to that old gardening cliché "Gardening is about authenticity and honesty and dealing with things as they are rather than as they might be". Eh? What is he on about? That seems to me a completely meaningless statement and irrelevant to what follows about the practicalities of gardening. Monty brings it back round to his bugbear the internet "can simultaneously feel like being in a vast and wonderfully equipped library and the saloon bar of a pub where everyone has an opinion and no one any real knowledge or wisdom." Personally, I think that could be a description of the world rather than the internet but  maybe Monty just follows the wrong people - he should re-follow me I learnt a lot in the saloon bars of pubs in my day.

We return to Monty's premiss that despite there being many forums and websites they seem to represent a surprisingly small number of gardeners.  I would be very surprised if Monty has any idea of the amount of forums that are primarily for chat about gardening.  I've used and read many of them over the years and based on my observations his comment that "gardening brings out the bossy know-all too readily" was another thing that we can agree on! However, I think I detected a little personal grievance from Monty who has suffered at the hands of #shoutyhalfhour on twitter where some of his more social media aware watchers run, a sometimes amusing, sometimes irritated commentary throughout his Gardeners' World series criticising and suggesting how it could be done properly. He writes "Life is too short to be hectored, especially about something that I do for love. From those that we love and admire we can take correction, but when it comes - often loudly and rudely - from strangers ... then it seems more civilised to turn off ... and to deal with real people and real things in real time."  One could argue that this would be fine if he wasn't being paid a large salary to instruct the nation on how to garden.  It is after all Gardeners' World - not The Monty Don show.

For me and I believe others, social media has totally enhanced my gardening giving me a forum to share my experiences and learn from others.  More than that, as I have written in a previous blog, it has given me a life.  Twitter is a great equalizer giving people access to communication with people from all different ages and different walks of life.  It isn't perfect but it suits this gardening, north-of-fifty-year-old just fine.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Evolution Plants - the Lady Launches


Tom Mitchell with Boophone distichum the plant everyone wanted!

As you know I do love a Press Launch and whilst the Sea of Immeasurable Gravy offices are invariably inundated with requests for my presence I only take up the very special ones. Tom Mitchell's new venture 'Evolution Plants' sounded intriguingly special to me.

Driving through Somerset in torrential rain was not a good start to the day - it's a county as badly signposted as rural France. Luckily the lovely Jane Southcott, PR extraordinaire had sent easy to follow instructions on negotiating the maze of country lanes  to the Evolution Plants nursery near Bradford-on-Avon.  Even so, and despite arriving at an enormous sign for the Nursery, I still foolishly followed a taxi (believing they must know what they were doing) further down the slightly pot-holed lane and into somebody's front garden.  My fellow 'Ladies who Launch' will remember from our last road trip that I have form for organising a quick drive round innocent people's gardens.

Finally joining the gathering in one of the posh poly tunnels, we were treated to coffee and home made biscuits  (the ones with ginger in were the best for those who like such detail) and an interesting and engaging talk from Tom Mitchell. Tom has spent the last five years travelling the world as a modern day plant-hunter, collecting seeds, propagating, cultivating and trialling them - the result being Evolution Plants nursery. I won't go into all the detail as Veg Plotting has written informatively about it here and Enduring Gardener here.  For me the interest was in the incredible passion Tom feels for his work.  I thought about how much I have enjoyed photographing dragonflies this year and how easily it slipped from being an interest to an obsession, the excitement of seeing a different dragonfly new to me and the heart stopping moment when I capture a good photograph of it.  I can only imagine how Tom feels when he first finds a rare plant species and even more so when he has managed to propagate it.

I don't know what this little beauty is but I need one!

This last year I have finally stopped visiting the chain garden centres to buy plants - the dreary displays of same old, same old, surrounded by acres of household tat and Christmas grottoes six months out of season, just drained me of the will to spend money.  Their loss has been the smaller and specialist nurseries gain, I've bought either directly from them, at garden shows or online.  Searching out the nurseries is my version of modern day planting hunting! I used to be against buying plants online, wanting to view, inspect and be tempted by some bright-leaved healthy beauty at a plant centre - but this needs to be weighed against the pleasures of perusing a good website at my leisure, reading about the plants and their habits and being given a great deal of CHOICE!

So what a joy it was to wander around poly tunnels filled with different and exciting plants.  The nursery is only open to visitors by appointment at the moment but Tom also wisely appreciates the value of drawing people in with the website. His is peppered with amusing and informative descriptions of the plants, written by Tom himself.

After the talk, lunch - and what an excellent lunch it was too - a buffet of delights which made me wish I had performed the 'OldMaSock' trick of taking a tupperware to the table to fill with goodies for later.  I was sorry to only have one slice of cake as there were several different types.  Tom gave us all a free plant and I was rather pleased it was a Trautvetteria similar to a thalictrum with clusters of white flowers in summer like little bursts of fireworks.  These are the only ones in cultivation outside of Tennessee so I hope y'all feel very jealous.

Leaving the nursery I retired with VP and Victoria to the rather lovely Castle Inn in Bradford-on-Avon to catch up on garden news and gossip which I have been sadly deprived of this year - what better way to end an interesting day?