Olivia Laing on the Care and Keeping of Gardens In an Era of Climate Emergency

East Anglia is the driest region of the country. It gets around half the annual rainfall and has been categorized by the Environment Agency for over a decade as “seriously water stressed.” By mid-May I was regularly logging yellow leaves and flopping plants. June was alarming, and my diary for July 20 was apocalyptic. There had been two days of record temperatures. It reached 40.3 in Lincolnshire, while in Suffolk the high was 36. Airports had closed because the runways were buckling, and a school went up in flames after the sun was concentrated through a chandelier. There were more fire callouts, I read, than at any time since the Blitz.

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That afternoon I walked around the garden, making an unhappy audit. Tree peony flagging, hydrangea leaves scorched, the lawn toast, not that I cared about that. The heat hit me in the face as I opened the door. I’d never experienced anything like it in England. I left out saucers of water for the wasps and mice. Mulberries were ripening by the hour, though the tree looked stunned and sick, its tips dying back, its leaves limp. A scattering of hot rain at nine. There were froglets in the little meadow under the plum, and a grasshopper jumped into my hand, the kick of its legs instantly familiar from childhood, though I hadn’t seen one in years.

The paper that day also contained a story about mass seabird deaths and the unwelcome news that permission had been granted for the nuclear power station Sizewell C, despite a recommendation from the planning inspectorate to reject it. Sizewell is where we swam, next to Minsmere bird reserve. There’s been a nuclear power station there for decades but planning for the new one had been rejected because it had emerged that EDF, the power company involved, had no plan in place for the water supply.

Sizewell C would require 2 million liters of potable water a day to cool the reactors and the irradiated fuel, and as much as 3.5 million a day during the construction phase. There wasn’t enough local groundwater to supply it, and a plan to run an eighteen-mile pipeline from the river Waveney was ruled out when it transpired the water company’s abstraction license was about to be downgraded by 60 per cent in order to keep the river flowing.

A garden is many things at once, as I’d begun to see: selfish and selfless, open and enclosed.

Under normal circumstances the planning inspectorate’s rejection would have been the end of the proposal, but the secretary of state overrode its verdict. “The secretary of state disagrees with the examining authority’s conclusions on this matter,” the government’s decision letter said, “and considers that the uncertainty over the permanent water supply strategy is not a permanent barrier to granting consent to the proposed development.” Six weeks later the secretary of state, Kwasi Kwarteng, would be appointed chancellor of the exchequer, and thirty-eight days after that he would be sacked, having brought the pound to a record low against the dollar, increased borrowing rates on mortgages and caused economic chaos that would take years to mend. It was a denial of reality that had gone on far too long, and that summer its grim consequences were everywhere I looked.

By August we were officially in drought. It was predicted to last until October or even into the new year. My dominant feeling during those rainless weeks was a kind of listless horror. The plants were dying and I could choose to water, since water was still coming out of the tap, as long as I chose to disregard the consequences, the rivers that were drying up by the day. The source of the Thames moved five miles downstream. The profligate way we used water began to feel actually insane, the kind of thing I’d look back at in a decade or two and find it hard to believe was once so normalized and ordinary.

Swimming at Walberswick I saw clouds of smoke roll up from the horizon near Dunwich. Somebody’s fields on fire. You could see the burn sites from the train, black earth and stubble. There was no grass for the cattle to graze and the farmers were already using up their winter feed. I found a dead toad in the garden and later a dead baby jackdaw, pushed from its nest.

On August 17 a hosepipe ban was announced. I’d stopped using the hose a few weeks earlier. I couldn’t bear to water my garden, to make my piece of land more important than any other, and I also couldn’t bear to see the plants I’d cherished die. The ground had actually baked. It was rock-hard, so that any water just ran off, particularly where I’d cleared between plants. The days were cooler now and overcast, the sky thinly veiled in grey, but it would take weeks of rain to soak the soil. Even Vita’s fig was struggling, its fruit floury and dry.

The mulberry harvest, on the other hand, was spectacular. We kept tracking bloody footprints through the hall. I made a running tally of which plants were surviving and which could perhaps no longer cope without a level of summer watering I couldn’t bring myself to do. Woodruff, astrantia, mahonia, lady’s mantle, anything newly planted. The roses had blackspot from the stress and when the dahlias came into flower they were shrunken and deformed. Nearly all the trees had patches of dieback now, while the Lavalle hawthorn with honey fungus was almost entirely skeletal.

Maybe I should start again: replant entirely for drought, or mulch a foot deep instead of an inch, so the sandy soil would hold more moisture. Every article I read, and I read dozens, suggested water butts, but a water butt contains 200 liters. Forty watering cans. You’d empty it in a few days, and then what, in the baking months of no rain? I’d long since given up on baths, my former passion. I investigated rainwater storage tanks. In London no one was talking about the drought, though there were dying trees in all the squares, their leaves burned as if by fire.

One of the most horrifying aspects of those weeks was seeing the garden become another manifestation of selfishness, a private luxury at a shared cost, rather than a place that ran counter to the world’s more toxic drives, a refuge from its priorities, where other forms of life are given more regard. In my years on environmental protests, gardening had seemed the best, least damaging way to spend a life. Even my decision to become a herbalist had stemmed from a conviction that growing plants was among the most ethically permissible things to do. But a garden is many things at once, as I’d begun to see: selfish and selfless, open and enclosed.

It was during this frightening time that I began to read a sequence of garden poems by Milton’s friend and colleague Andrew Marvell, the man who was probably responsible for preventing his execution. Marvell wrote them when he was still a young man, in his late twenties or very early thirties, during the unsettling final years of the English Civil War. He was living then in rural seclusion at Nun Appleton House in Yorkshire, working as a tutor to Mary Fairfax, the daughter of the retired soldier General Lord Fairfax, who had led the Roundhead troops until he was replaced by Oliver Cromwell.

The ‘Mower’ poems give voice to a violent ambivalence about gardens and their place in human life. I’d read them many times, but they struck a very different chord during those hot unhappy weeks. The one I liked best was “The Mower Against Gardens,” a satirical account of the garden as a corruption of nature by luxurious and seductive man. Roses “taint” themselves with “strange perfumes;” the white tulip learns to “interline its cheek,” like a girl putting on blusher for the first time. Man grafts wild plants on tame, creating forbidden mixtures, producing strange sterile hybrids. It’s a bizarre vision of the garden as sexual, deviant, dangerous, double, foreign, its plants enchanted and drugged by a wicked enchanter.

He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.

Marvell’s tongue is firmly in his cheek here. The speaker of the four ‘Mower’ poems is a censorious rustic, perennially suspicious of artifice, a failed lover who elsewhere rails against his wounding rejection by the lovely Juliana (in “Damon the Mower,” he is carrying on in this vein when he accidentally cuts himself with his own scythe—”the mower mown,” a line that had often made me laugh while mowing the lawn). At the same time, those lines did encapsulate how I was starting to feel about the greed of gardens. A more luscious earth: peat extracted from bogs and packed in plastic sacks, shipped in vans from Amazon delivery hubs, the drivers watched by a computer that set them schedules in which there is no time to rest or eat. The invisible cost of every single thing you buy, no matter how benign your intentions for it.

The corrupted garden of the ‘Mower’ poems is by no means the only type of garden in Marvell’s poetry, of course. He returns to them continually, as sites of refuge and rapture, as a right-thinking alternative to war as well as a place of degenerate desires. The pinnacle of all these works is “The Garden,” that complex, layered argument about retreat and contemplation. I’m not sure there is anything in literature that better enacts the spell of being in a garden than the middle stanza, in which the plants are weirdly more active than the speaker and time itself is ensorcelled, slowing line by line until it stops dead, stunned:

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

In this poem, the garden becomes by turn a place of seclusion, delight and repose, a doorway into the secret universe of the imagination, which humans, perhaps alone of all the animals, occupy simultaneously to the material realm. Man is, as Thomas Browne had written a few years earlier, “that great and true Amphibium,” living in two worlds at once: the visible and the invisible. Marvell here essays a version of the same thought. His garden is a place for dreaming of things not yet created; “Far other worlds.” It inevitably provokes a comparison with the happy garden-state of Eden, but it is also explicitly postlapsarian, after the Fall, in that death is present and time is passing. In the final stanza, so often carved on sundials, the garden itself becomes a clock, the flowers ticking off the minutes and the hours, attended by bees.

The garden as a clock: what a beautiful image. Garden time is not like the ordinary time in which we live. It’s different to a watch or the glowing numbers on an iPhone lockscreen. It moves in unpredictable ways, sometimes stopping altogether and proceeding always cyclically, in a long unwinding spiral of rot and fertility. To pay attention to the garden as a clock means entering a different relationship with time: as circular, not linear, as well as the acknowledgement that one of its recurring stations is death. Et in arcadia ego, I’d written in my diary months before.

Now, as the plants died around me in such apocalyptic ways, it was beginning to dawn on me that I’d got the relationship between death and the garden all wrong. I’d somehow internalized the idea that a good garden is a deathless garden, in a state of continuous perfection, even as I’d rejected the notion of it as a sealed sanctuary, a refuge from the outside world, with its plagues and wars. But neither of those things were possible. The garden was always engaged in a dance with death. It couldn’t possibly replicate Eden: that fecund paradise where the apple fruits and flowers at the same time; with, as Milton puts it, “gay enameld colours mixt.” All this time I’d been resisting its lesson, chasing the high of perfection, feeling a failure when things browned or died back. It was as if my job was to maintain the visual illusion, as if the garden couldn’t possibly look good unless I’d succeeded in excising any evidence of death.

What a strange thing to do. This was the more sinister legacy of Eden: the fantasy of perpetual abundance. I was beginning to see what a poisoned fruit it truly was. So many of our most ecologically deleterious behaviors are to do with refusing impermanence and decay, insisting on summer all the time. Permanent growth, constant fertility, perpetual yield, instant pleasure, maximum profit, outsource the labor, keep evidence of pollution out of sight. The secretary of state’s refusal to accept that there was no water for the power station was the epitomization of this mindset, and the drought its consequence. It was all catching up with us now. To accept the presence of death in the garden is not to accept the forced march of climate change. It is to refuse an illusion of perpetual productivity, without rest or repair: an illusion purchased at a heavy, soon unpayable cost, inaugurating a summer without end, the fields burning, the trees like stones.

The first proper rain came at the end of August. It was then that I remembered that the original creator of my garden, Mark Rumary, had written a book called The Dry Garden. I wished I’d found it earlier. It was as if he was speaking calmly from the past into just this anticipated moment. It was published in 1994. Even then Suffolk was a dry county, and especially problematic if you gardened on sand. Mark talked about water as a precious resource that had to be conserved.

His strategy was twofold: add organic matter and mulch the soil so it holds moisture, and use plants that are specialized for drought conditions. I knew both those things, but to see it explained in such thoughtful depth was very reassuring. I pored over his suggested lists. Rock rose, phlomis, artemisia, rosemary, helianthum, even Rosa rugosa, which grows naturally in sand. I might have to let go of delphiniums, and perhaps even some roses, but there were plants that would survive the future, the hotter, drier summers of anthropogenic climate change.

As the days shortened and the shadows grew longer, the garden became very alive again, just as it had each previous autumn. It felt luxuriant and ripe, weirdly alert. The cyclamen came back, followed by the colchicum, the now familiar ticking of this particular clock. I collected hollyhock seeds to sow in the gravel. The spent flowerheads resembled purses, each one containing a stack of tiny dark coins. Plants I’d thought had given up the ghost revived, growing enormous with the rain and cooler days. I mulched the remainder of the library beds with cardboard and manure. The little frog came back. There was good news from my father too. It was starting to look as if there was a way for him to keep his house. I expected him to be ecstatic but he surprised me by saying that it was too big for him and that he was ready to move on. What about your garden, I asked, and he said that he thought at seventy-five he had it in him to make one more.

Instead of seeing the dead and dying plants in a garden as ugly elements that spoiled the picture…they could be understood as components of a living tapestry.

Impressed by his resolve, I decided the time had come to replant the pond garden. It had been the worst affected in the heatwave, and had looked barren in August every year since we moved in. The beds had long since been overtaken by the more thuggish plants, especially cardoons and echinops, with its spiky blue heads, and the soil badly needed organic matter. The surface mulching I’d done the previous winter hadn’t solved the problem, but I’d been scared of doing anything more substantial because there were so many plants and especially bulbs I wanted to keep. It really needed to be lifted and remade, a daunting task, though I was encouraged to find in an essay by Mark that he’d acknowledged its necessity two full decades earlier.

For weeks I fiddled around with planting plans, trying to design a border that would keep producing interest all season round, using both the plants that were already there and a few new additions, designed to weather hot, dry summers. This time, I wasn’t after the illusion of perfection. What I wanted was succession: a community of plants that fitted together in a tapestry, so that each new plant to emerge naturally took up the station of the last. In this I was inspired both by Mark and by Christopher Lloyd, the exuberant creator of Great Dixter, who with his head gardener Fergus Garrett had pioneered the art of succession in a border.

The formal garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex is one of the most aesthetically dazzling things I’ve ever seen, a masterpiece of abundance. It was planted with maximum ornamentation in mind, a mind-bending mix of color and form, which plays with shifting size and perspective through time in startling ways. After Lloyd died in 2006, Fergus let the garden get even looser, phasing out pesticides and artificial fertilizers altogether. It seemed to support an enormous amount of life, and not long before the pandemic the Dixter team commissioned a comprehensive biodiversity audit.

The estate is only six acres, but it’s comprised of many different elements, including woodlands, pastures, ponds and meadows. All of these areas were found to have unusually high levels of biodiversity. To the astonishment of the participating ecologists, who had been dubious of the merits of examining a garden in this way, the richest site by far was the formal ornamental garden. 40 per cent of the UK’s bee species were logged within a year, including some that are very rare, like the long-horned bee and the white-bellied mining bee, alongside a multitude of birds, butterflies, moths, nationally rare spiders and invertebrates.

It was thrilling to discover that a place designed for beauty and abundance might also prove so deeply hospitable. The dense borders mimicked natural plant succession, providing a constant supply of food, while the botanical diversity supported many different species. Some areas were neglected and rarely touched, while others were regularly disturbed, just like the London bombsites that became such a rich habitat after the Blitz. Old trees and rotting wood weren’t automatically removed, providing nesting sites and habitat for beetles and boring insects, so vital a part of the web of life that invisibly sustains our own. Good news from my Lavalle hawthorn with honey fungus, which could stay in situ and provide habitat for the imperiled organisms that feed off dead wood, rather than being chopped down and burned.

It was the antithesis of the selfish garden. As Fergus said, “once regarded as part of the problem, gardens can now be seen as part of the solution.” All it required was a shift in focus. Instead of seeing the dead and dying plants in a garden as ugly elements that spoiled the picture, or weeds and insects as interlopers that didn’t belong, they could be understood as components of a living tapestry, which hummed with energy even when some parts were too small to see. At the same time, the human element didn’t have to bow out altogether. Unlike in the more austere models of rewilding, the gardener was integral. It was their aesthetic vision, their work, their decisions as to what to encourage and what to cull that made it so inviting to other types of life.

This way of looking at the garden also shifts its status as a closed space. It could be private, intimate, deeply individual, and wide open at the same time. Each garden run along these wilder, richer lines participates in a great network: a quilt made by many hands, spread out across cities and villages, encompassing private gardens, parks, allotments, balconies and verges, every square different, each one sustaining and supporting life. It was the first utopia I’d encountered, in all my searching, in which self-expression and the pursuit of beauty truly served the commons, instead of sabotaging it.

This is not to say that we don’t need large-scale land redistribution, or to improve garden access, to make it an integral part of every city, every housing project. We do. What the Dixter story made me imagine was closer to William Morris’s vision of a culture that has prioritized orchards of apricot trees over gleaming office blocks and luxury towers, that has planted roses in Endell Street and made Kensington a forest.

Parks instead of new airports, allotments over motorways, a grand reinvestment in our public resources, an understanding that the garden, like the library and the hospital, is what makes all of our lives possible. We need gardens and the life they support established everywhere if we are to survive, and they must extend beyond the private realm, to form part of a cherished common wealth, while retaining their intimate and wayward qualities, where individual creativity can flourish.


the garden against time

Excerpted from The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise by Olivia Laing. Copyright © 2024 by Olivia Laing. First published in Great Britian in 2024 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Olivia Laing

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