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22 May 2024

The lure of the English garden

Olivia Laing and Richard Mabey reveal the joys, crises and politics of making a garden of one’s own.

By Kathleen Jamie

Two English gardens, possibly no more than 25 miles apart on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, attended by two people in different stages of life. The younger, delighted to have a garden of her own, is dashing to recreate one fallen into neglect. The elder is content to play a long game, watch and learn, wait and see.

Olivia Laing spent her younger life in a state of upheaval. In 30 years, she moved house 16 times until, “exhausted by the perpetual, agonised now of the news”, she longed to move into a different understanding of time: “the kind of time that moves in spirals or cycles”. She dreamed of a garden. Having been an environmental activist, a trained herbalist then a journalist and author, Laing married in her forties and with her husband bought a Suffolk house surrounded by a third of an acre originally designed by distinguished gardener Mark Rumary. It became her mission to restore this garden, now overgrown.

The garden is enclosed in red Suffolk brick, but, metaphorically speaking, its walls are permeable. The book covers only two or three years of actual garden-making, but it spirals and cycles out and back between personal memoir, histories and biographies. Deftly, Laing explores the place of the garden through five centuries of English culture, from Milton’s Paradise to Derek Jarman’s Dungeness. Some of her waypoints are perhaps predictable: as well as Milton, Andrew Marvell and John Clare are her poets, but she writes refreshingly and makes swift connections. The artistic milieux of the utopian designer William Morris and the artist-plantsman Cecil Morris are evoked. (The latter’s mid-20th century bohemian art school was nearby.) Wartime London also features, when the post-blitz bombsites briefly became wild gardens. In the City, “it was the presence of plants that turned the bombsites from a site of tragedy into something more fertile and seething with possibility… more interesting and alive than the Pret a Mangers and investment banks that infest the same area today”.

Covid arrived just after the couple bought the house, with lockdown revealing yet again the inequalities in England between those who have access to outdoor space, sometimes vast, and the many who have but a window box. To discuss inequalities, Laing considers a neighbouring estate, Shrubland Hall, established in the 18th century by a slave-owning family called Middleton. Their rolling acres, “a multi-generational vanity project”, reveal how the big house and landscaped garden acted to “purify” profits from the colonies, while simultaneously clearing and rearranging the local landscape to exemplify a hierarchy that has somehow since established itself as the “settled rightness” of England. Another nearby estate, Heveningham Hall, is even now being developed according to plans originally drawn up by the 18th-century garden designer Capability Brown but never implemented. It’s interesting what masquerades as “settled England”: the present owner, who made a fortune in the estate agent business, has decreed that his estate workers must drive about in Morris Minor Travellers.

The book is dense with research but Laing writes with joy and spirit. She returns from her sojourns in time, to the “dreamwork” of her own planting lists and specialist nurseries, and never-ending jobs. There are family difficulties amid the mulchings and clearings, weedings and disentanglings. She loves litanies and writes gorgeous colour: “I wanted a group of Narcissus cyclamineus under the magnolia, the ones that look like Piglet with his ears blown back. Acid yellow, ballet pink. More hellebores under the hazel, the yellowy-green Ballard hybrids with a maroon splash at the eye, plus a fine blue mist of Anemone blanda under the tree peony, which had just opened an abundance of crumpled yolk-yellow petals. Irises everywhere.” In only two years the garden, restored and “wild and abundant with colour and scent” is fit to open to the public on an RHS charity day. Laing says “it was the best day of my life”.

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But then comes a brush with what she calls the “Expelling Angel”, who would cast her out of her new-found paradise, and even destroy the garden itself. It’s not war, but rather what Richard Mabey, just over the border with Norfolk, calls “the climate change-driven heatwave of July 2022”. Laing closes her book with this heatwave, which apparently caused the highest incidence of fire call-outs since the Second World War, as Mabey opens his. He describes the heatwave days as “precarious”, but they “offered an opportunity for reflecting on the ambiguous experience of inhabiting – and writing about – a garden in the midst of environmental emergency”. Climate crisis is literally the backdrop to his garden, as it lies amid farmland he notes is utterly depleted, a “ploughed and sprayed emptiness”.

Richard Mabey is the doyen of UK nature writing. He has been thinking for decades about the right relationship between the human and the natural world, or even if such a distinction is possible. He says “it would be glib to suggest that the immeasurably complex problems of a whole world are mirrored in the small confrontations and challenges of the garden. But maybe the mindset needed for both is the same: the generosity to reset the power balance between ourselves and the natural world.” Or, more pithily: “We need a gesture which is more like a handshake than a clenched fist.”

To Mabey’s mind, any garden project is political: “Whether you come armed with weedkiller or a charitable bug-hostel, you are in dominion over all the garden’s other citizens. If this was a human community we would call it colonialism.” Further, “the natural world plays no part in any decision to release it from oppression, which is always an act of largesse by us, reversible in an instant”.

The “accidental” Norfolk garden (more a small estate) has been an ongoing project for 20 years, since Mabey uprooted himself at 60 from his native Chilterns. Mabey and his partner wanted to grant a “degree of self-determination to the plot and its inhabitants”. They opted to loosen control, so for the first years their brief was primarily to observe. Now, he walks us through the grounds slowly, as befits his 80-odd years. Indeed, there is a delightful paeon to his now necessary walking stick, used for poking and prodding. Where Laing undertakes her exhausting and exhilarating restoration project, Mabey describes his role as like an “earthworm”: low profile, minimum intervention. (It should be said, however, that both have occasional hired help. In Mabey’s case, a farmer’s haymaking machine.)

Mabey’s book, like Laing’s, moves between the actual garden and the world beyond. Its various areas – grassland, woodland, pond, Mediterranean borders and rose-beds – all allow informed and entertaining digression. Mabey is at heart a botanist, so “weeds” are scrutinised with a microscope and identified, sometimes delighted in if they are rarities. “Immigrant” plants are enjoyed as “living, often argumentative beings, with their own ambitions in life”. Creatures such as pheasants, rabbits and muntjac deer, which eat his cowslips and would have other gardeners raging, are here tolerated as evidence of a functioning food chain. Time in Mabey’s garden is not history but process. If you’re fixed on “restoring” a garden, he says, its processes tend to be ignored. “Yet these processes – regeneration, colonisation, succession, connection, patination – need to be enabled and protected along with the plants themselves.”

The Accidental Garden provides an overview of Mabey’s evolved thinking over a lifetime. He thinks with plants and other wild communities rather than about them. He can be deliciously sharp; railing against municipal tree-planting, for example, especially when it involves tree-guards that leave “plastic litter that would not be tolerated if it had been fly-tipped”. In his own patch of woodland, it’s the upstart arrivals he’s most fond of, rather than his deliberately planted trees, because of the former’s resilience and autonomy. In a book replete with theories of gardening and anti-gardening, perhaps the most succinct is about these woodland interlopers, the “cranky oaklings, suckering cherries, and ribbons of blackthorn… I don’t so much look after them as look out for them.”

Like Laing, Mabey closes with a note of, if not optimism, then surety that the plant world will adapt. With flood and fire at every hand, we can drift close to despair at our own species’ actions. But, Mabey writes, we must remember those roles which are also special to our human identity. In gardening, as in life, we can be “inscribers, witnesses, neighbours. The welcomers at the gate.”

The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise
Olivia Laing
Picador, 336pp, £20

The Accidental Garden: Gardens, Wilderness and the Space In Between
Richard Mabey
Profile, 176pp, £12.99

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[See also: How to fix English cricket]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024