The Sensuous Gardener - Inspired by Monty Don

My latest gardening library book is written by the terribly wise and extremely quotable Monty Don. It's an oldie (published in 1997) but a goodie, called 'The Sensuous Garden'. That's 'sensuous' as in pertaining to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste...

 This is the book which started it all...
The Sensuous Garden Book

Theoretically I have just been experiencing some rather sensuous gardening myself, with cold water dripping down my neck and my cold gloved fingers scooping stones and dirt out of three 500mm deep holes..., With the sound of the wind whooshing and branches creaking in the high trees, it's mid-winter, and I'm being an intrepid four-seasons gardener digging holes for the garden shed.

Gunnera Spikes

Sensuous in Winter?

The word 'sensuous' doesn't quite seem to fit mud-gardening in winter underneath gum trees in a southerly (origin Antarctica) gale. Such exploits certainly would not make good coffee-table garden reading...

But allow me to quote Monty Don: '(Gardens) are the underwear you choose to please yourself, not the formal attire imposed by other people's expectations'. When he wrote this he definitely didn't have winter mud-gardening in New Zealand in mind. At such times some gardeners (me) actually wear their thermal underwear in the garden - it's easy to rinse and dry, and replace when it gets too holey...


Monty Don's book starts with the sense of touch - grabbing a 'well-balanced spade', soil that 'feels right'. And the rough-touch stuff gets page space, too - there are lovely photographs of gum tree bark and rose thorns (Gunnera spikes are even more scary). And some very shapely, if overly clean, gardener's hands.

Taste : Lettuces


Taste for me is an over-rated gardening sense. 'Everything tastes better outdoors' - maybe, as long as the weather is respectable. I do draw the line at wandering outside clutching a winter hot-pot looking for a garden table.

Of vegetable gardening Monty Don has this to say: 'Think of the whole process, from soil to table, as the preparation of a delicious meal'. I totally agree - but my family doesn't, as they don't eat beans or silver beet, and don't take much notice of my potatoes and carrots.

They agree that home-grown salad greens are delicious, though - especially those on the patio that can be picked leaf by leaf, just when required. And so I grow lettuces. And more lettuces. And then some more lettuces. They do taste wonderful...

 With just a few autumn leaves!
Sight - Summer Colours


The sense of 'sight' leads directly to colour, and this book is full of wonderfully vibrant photographs. No excuse is needed for their inclusion, especially for a mid-winter gardener starved of colour saturation. Hello, summer! Orange dahlias and magenta cosmos! Welcome, you lovely 'images of light and pigment'... And, to be fair, the other seasons are included...


The sense of hearing - sound - aha! For a garden, the best two sounds would have to be running water and rustling grasses. Monty agrees. And bird-song, and insect-buzz. Yes! A garden with busy sounds - bees collecting pollen, a gardener gently digging, her spade hitting stones, swearing out loud at her arthritic sore hand - this garden is a happy garden. Yes?

Weather makes some delicious sounds. Naturally the intrepid winter gardener (me, writing this) thinks immediately of rain, maybe sleet or hail, and (with a quite shudder) the eery flapping of falling snow. In my garden the wind creates a rich and varied soundscape. Leaves swooshing and whistling in the high gum trees, the creaking and mewing of swaying branches - or is that Fluff-Fluff the ginger gardening cat, getting himself left behind again?

The Best Sounds

Monty Don thinks the best sound of all in a garden is the laughter of children. He's probably right, but I like animal sounds - like the pheasant in the orchard, honking and rattling, sounding like he's on a party bus, little Minimus the cat squeaking 'hello', hidden in the garden greenery, or my bellbirds chiming their atonal arpeggios... Ah, yes - these are the sounds which make my garden's music.

 Ha! Barking mad...
Barking Dog Rusty

Anyway, nobody who gardens with a dog enjoys silence - exactly what is Rusty the red Border Collie up to? Digging in the compost again? Aargh! And no gardener enjoys dog-barking either, even if the trees are full of pigeon tormentors, or if scatterbrained fantails are hovering too close. Dogs can't win, soundwise.


I'm not a connoisseur of scent. One rose will have a faintly tea fragrance, another rose will smell of myrrh - I grow them all, but my nose doesn't really do the business. And yet I try to grow plants for their fragrance (like the Daphne and Lavender bushes by the washing line), and I love the way my cats smell of pine needles when they've been busy outside. I even love the smell of my wet dog - now that might be carrying things a little bit far...

 Now that's quite a lot of smoke!
Winter Bonfire

The Romantic Bonfire?

And I love the way Monty Don can romanticise the smell of the autumn bonfire, whose 'scent is slow and pervasive and richly evocative, lingering sadly in the fading autumnal light'. Blimey. Much of my garden debris is burn-only, and that makes me a compulsory (if reluctant) bonfirer. How I hate smoke smells! I hate having smokey hair! My bonfires take ages, and I get so sick of all the carting and prodding and the raking, and the teasing smoke always follows me around the fire's circumference. Aargh!

Thinking Along Sensuous Lines

Well, Monty, you've certainly got me thinking along sensuous lines, and this is a good thing for the quasi-academic thinker-gardener. And you've boosted my confidence on this rather frigid wintry day, by saying : 'If your garden makes you, the gardener, feel good, then it is certain that it will look good'. Yippee! It does! It does! Thank you...

I enjoyed this book. It's been the most inspiring gardening library book I've borrowed in ages, and I don't want to take it back. I love the pictures (my favourite is a quirky photograph of crunchy footsteps on a frosty lawn). And I like Monty Don's way with words. Sensuous gardening is easy, he says in his opening phrase, and he's right. All good gardeners do it without even thinking. We do so!