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Is your plot a thriller? Monty Don urges you to enter Daily Mail annual National Garden Competition

We’re all desperate for our lives to return to something approaching normality, and for me that will mean filming Gardeners’ World each week from my garden with a real live crew in attendance, working in a physical team that I can interact with. It’ll be quite a change. 

Since lockdown began in March 2020, I have worked alone, speaking to robot cameras connected by over five miles of cabling hidden around the garden. 

A brilliant production team controls this from four containers that were craned into our driveway (leaving just enough room to park one car and open the doors on one side), communicating with me by walkie-talkie. It is a strange business but it seems to have worked.

Monty Don (pictured) has encouraged readers to enter The Daily Mail’s annual National Garden Competition, now in its 26th year – and you could win £2,000 in cash

Although this has meant I have been able to share my garden with millions of people each week, I desperately miss the real, live human contact of showing people round and I realise that the crew (cameramen, director, producers, sound recordists, runners, researchers) played an important part in admiring or commiserating on the state of the garden on their weekly, two-day visits.

The point is that however much satisfaction you get from your garden, however focused you are on the process, you need outside recognition to realise fully the pleasure that you get. To put it another way: a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled.

So now that we have come round to the Daily Mail’s annual National Garden Competition, I urge any of you that have spent time, skill, hard work and love on your gardens over the past extraordinary year to enter and share it with us. 

Because that is the essence of this competition. Yes there is a judging process and yes there will be a winner declared, but entering your garden is above all an act of sharing. You are opening the doors and if you win – every single garden of any shape, size or kind is a potential winner – then everybody shares that communal celebration.

The British gardening expert says every single garden of any shape, size or kind is a potential winner. Pictured: The garden of a 2015 finalist

 The British gardening expert says every single garden of any shape, size or kind is a potential winner. Pictured: The garden of a 2015 finalist 

He also shared his tips for entering the competition including a list of 'do's and don'ts'. Pictured: One of the four finalists from the 2017 competition

He also shared his tips for entering the competition including a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. Pictured: One of the four finalists from the 2017 competition

The beauty of this competition is that it is genuinely open to all. It really does not matter if you garden a balcony filled with plants, a small dark back yard that you have made a ferny jungle, a garden by the sea that’s open to the elements, or rolling acres that consumes all your time. It is open to everyone, everywhere.

HOW TO ENTER YOUR PATCH – AND WIN UP TO £2,000 IN CASH

Enter the Daily Mail National Garden Competition – now in its 26th year – and you could win £2,000 in cash! 

Plus, our four finalists will have their garden featured in Weekend magazine and be given a special blue plaque. 

Anyone can enter, with any garden of any size or type. So whether you have a conventional back garden with borders and beds, a rooftop full of wildflowers or a water garden of ponds and streams, this is your chance to share your skills and win this fabulous prize.

  • The judges will make a shortlist of gardens to visit, from which the four finalists will be selected. If shortlisted you will be contacted by Saturday 24 July and visits will take place between 27 and 29 July.
  • The four finalists will be featured in Weekend magazine later this year.
  • Final judging will take place from 4 to 5 August and the winner will be declared in Weekend.

How to enter

  • Send your entry to National Garden Competition, PO Box 485, Fleet, GU51 9FF by 23 July and include:

1. Between four and eight photographs of your garden (which cannot be returned).

2. A plan of your garden.

3. Your contact details including name, postal address, contact phone numbers (including mobile) and email address (if available).

  • All entrants should have designed and principally built the garden, and maintain it themselves with no more than one part-time helper. Gardens may be used for promotional purposes in conjunction with the competition.
  • Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Standard Daily Mail competition rules apply.
  • The judges’ decision is final.
  • The judges’ visit will conform to the government Covid-19 guidelines at that time. If conditions preclude garden visits, other arrangements may have to be made to complete judging.

The only proviso is that you should have created and maintained the garden yourself with no more than one part-time helper.

I have spent a good slice of the past 15 years travelling the world and visiting gardens of every kind in every culture, climate and continent, from hundreds of miles inside the Arctic Circle to deserts in Australia, America and Africa, half way up the Amazon and on rooftops in the world’s busiest cities. 

Yet I have never come across a national culture of gardening to match that of the British. It is in our bones, in our DNA. If we think of ourselves as ‘amateurs’ in a disparaging way then we completely misunderstand what is happening. 

We garden in the same way that the French eat or nomadic people move across vast spaces. It is how we understand and interpret the world. So hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps millions – have an extraordinary level of horticultural knowledge and skill, and use it to make beautiful gardens. 

Yet they are doing so as a hobby, almost always simply for the pleasure that it gives. No other nation, to my knowledge, comes anywhere near this.

This means that we tend to assume as ‘normal’ a level of horticultural expertise that is actually exceptional. It means that your gardens (and perhaps those of your neighbours) are very good indeed – even though you may take that excellence for granted.

The National Garden Competition is a very good way of celebrating these skills. Every year we get a wide range of gardens entering the competition and it is important to stress that every single one is judged on its own merits rather than in contrast or relation to any others. It is not a race but a selection.

You may reasonably ask how it is possible to find one winner given the huge diversity of gardens. How do you compare a jewel box of a garden in London with a garden by the sea in Northumberland? How can anyone decide that a roof garden grown entirely in containers is ‘better’ than a boggy garden based around a pond?

But the judges, headed by garden designer Tim Sharples, are looking primarily for how the garden is used and created in relation to its own particular site and the circumstances of the gardener. 

They will be looking for imagination and the best use of the available space. They will consider anything from a collection of containers on a flat roof to wildflower meadows. 

They’ll be as impressed with collections of rare or ‘difficult’ plants as a garden made up entirely of topiary – if both share the same passion, skill and wit. 

It certainly does not matter if you have never shown your garden before or if it has been open to the public for years – everyone gets treated the same. 

FOLLOW MONTY’S DOS AND DONT’S

Whenever someone comes to look at Longmeadow, even I rush around trying to make it look as good as possible, then apologise for the way it is and say they should have come last week or next week – anytime but today.

This is nonsense. Of course a garden looks better on some days than others, and every garden has certain times of year when it is seen to its best advantage.

There is no formula to success. The judges are making their decisions based upon what they see when they visit and that is that. But I can assure you that a good garden is good at any time of year.

You’re very unlikely to pull the wool over the eyes of the judges, so don’t waste time and energy on trying to fool them into overlooking something – so do not leave everything to the last minute. Plan ahead.

A few things I suggest you do not do  

  • Do not try to make changes at this stage. You only have a month to submit pictures so stick to what is tried and tested by you, and concentrate on using all your experience in doing it well.
  • Do not try to double-guess the judges. The judges will come to every garden, whether through your photographs or on a visit with an open mind.
  • Do not agonise over perfection. Loose abandon can be a virtue. Work out what you like in your garden’s oddities as opposed to what you just have not got round to fixing. Sometimes a self-seeded foxglove growing out of a neatly clipped hedge can add a touch of magic. Paving made from a rough assortment of bricks might actually look better than ones that are perfectly uniform. But – and this is essential – you must believe in it and love it.

Now for a few things that you should do

  • Do an honest assessment of the garden and do not flit over the less successful parts. Fix them now. When I visit any garden, the less successful elements stand out first and foremost.
  • Take a critical look from every angle and view. Everything should be, or at least appear to be, deliberate and comfortably in its place. You could ask a trusted friend to be brutally honest too.
  • Focus on what you are good at and what pleases you, and don’t make changes just because the judges will be coming. Get what is already there looking as good as possible.
  • Get the edges right. By this I mean the edges of everything – paths, lawns, hedges, borders, patios. It is remarkable how this pulls everything together. A crisp outline will forgive something of a muddle within.
  • Finally, if you do get through to the stage where the judges visit your garden, do the major tidy-up, mowing, edging and primping 48 hours beforehand. This will allow the garden to breathe and settle down. Think of it as a beautiful linen suit. It looks very smart when brand new but looks even better just slightly crumpled.
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