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Earthly delights: gardening in a time of crisis

Gardens have been a lifelong comfort for Olivia Laing. In these uncertain times, she welcomes their green embrace more than ever.


‘I love the spell of self-forgetfulness that happens in a garden’: Olivia Laing in her garden

Gardens have been the anchor and mainstay of my life, the most enduring source of fascination and pleasure. I started young. My father is a besotted plantsman and after my parents divorced in the early 1980s he spent custody weekends taking me and my younger sister to every open garden within 50 miles of the M25. We whiled away wet Saturdays in the hothouses at Kew, trying to persuade the butterflies to land on our fingers. I learned my first botanical name at RHS Wisley one winter afternoon, lured by the rich fragrance emitting from a nondescript shrub with tiny clusters of shell-pink flowers – Daphne odora ‘Warblington’, a name that has lodged with me ever since. I was an anxious and not very happy child, and I loved the spell of self-forgetfulness that happens in a garden – the sense of being wholly absorbed, lifted out of time. The places I was most drawn to were shaggy, a little wild around the edges. I agreed with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s manifesto in The Secret Garden: a garden loses all its magic if it becomes too spick and span. It must feel half-forgotten, sunk in slumber. You have to be able to lose yourself, to forget the outside world; to feel, as Burnett put it, hundreds of miles from anyone, but not lonely at all. One of our favourite places was Parham, an Elizabethan garden in Sussex, where there were tiny formal pools in the corner of each walled enclosure, carpeted in luminous green duckweed. We went to Sissinghurst almost every spring, driving through Kentish lanes ripe with apple blossom. We’d start in the tower, where Vita Sackville-West had created the most enviable of studies, before wandering down the nut walk and into the orchard, along curved paths mown into a tangled meadow that spilled to the banks of the moat. The past hung heavy on the air. Sometimes it felt as if whole centuries had slipped away.

‘Learning names meant beds and borders weren’t just a blur’: our garden in Cambridge in 2018


My father always carried a small black notebook in which he made neat lists of plant names, pouncing on any unusual form or colour. Learning names meant beds and borders were no longer a harlequin blur, and they also served as a potent source of fascination in their own right. I loved old varieties in particular, hoarding away lists of antique roses or apples popular in 16th century orchards. Winter Queening, Catshead, Golden Harvey, Green Custard, Old Pearmain… a spell of language that opened up a portal in time. As a teenager, my sister was obsessed with the queer artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. She collected his books, which was how I first got my hands on Modern Nature, his account of building his improbable, exuberant garden in the shingle at Dungeness. I loved how Jarman approached gardening: freely, haphazardly, working with whatever came to hand, incorporating driftwood and stones and plonking in old roses to take their chances with the vicious wind. Unlike most gardeners, he didn’t go in for fences or walls, writing proudly, “My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.” He was captivated by the deep history of plants, the folklore that entwines itself around herbs and weeds. His garden was explicitly laid out as a pharmacopoeia, a medicine chest drawn from medieval apothecaries, and Modern Nature is riddled with bright snatches from the herbals of Gerard and Culpeper. It’s hard to express the lure that knowledge held for me. Some of his quotings I still have by heart, reciting them automatically every time I see the plant in question. “I, borage, bring courage.” “Rosa mundi, rose of the world.” It took a few false starts, but I did eventually find a way of incorporating plants into my working life, at least for a while. After a brief dalliance with an English degree and a spell living outdoors as an environmental activist, I decided in 1998 to start a degree in herbal medicine. The training took five years. Many of our courses were the same as in a standard medicine degree, but there were witchier modules, too, in materia medica, botany and the art of dispensing.


‘My garden’s boundaries are the horizon’: Derek Jarman’s garden on the beach at Dungeness in Kent. Photograph: Getty Images


I did my clinical training at an old manor house deep in the Sussex Weald. It was set in a magnificent garden, once immaculate, but now tumbling back into wildness. One of its more unusual components was a poison garden, full of the so-called Schedule III herbs that only a trained practitioner can dispense, among them belladonna, lily of the valley and henbane. The swimming pool had been drained and angelica and globe artichoke towered over the neglected beds. After we’d finished seeing patients in the training clinic, we’d go on herb walks, talking about properties and contraindications in the dusty afternoon sun. I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of plants, but it turned out I didn’t know the first thing. Studying botany is above all an education of the eye, a practice of close observation. I learned how to recognise different families, and then how to identify species, to separate pennyroyal from peppermint, to know a lamium from a nettle. For years I didn’t go on a country walk without a copy of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe, known as “Fitter, Fitter and Blamey” for its co-authors. The first time I saw fumitory I cried out in joy. I’d been looking at Marjorie Blamey’s meticulous drawing of it, sketching a copy in the hand-drawn materia medica I was assembling. Suddenly there it was, at the edge of a ploughed field, precise and emphatic. But it turned out I liked studying botany more than I liked seeing patients. After a few years practising as a herbalist, I shifted into journalism. My 30s were overwhelmingly urban. I lived in a succession of rented flats in Brighton and New York, and though I still loved plants, gardens receded in my life. It was only when I was with my father that I’d speak in botanical nomenclature, that hard-won tongue so suited to the pedant. Each year we’d go to Northumberland and walk around the Gertrude Jekyll garden at Lindisfarne Castle or the beautifully named Lyveden New Bield, quibbling over Latin names, a pursuit that would drive my long-suffering sister to fury.

Flutter by: a European Comma on Echinacea purpurea. Photograph: Elaine Stavert/GuardianWitness


It wasn’t until I was nearly 40 that I finally acquired a garden of my own. My main motivation for moving to Cambridge was that I was able to afford to rent a tiny terraced house with a handkerchief of outdoor space, half of which was occupied by a giant holly. A quick inspection revealed that the soil was infested with ground elder. It was distinctly unpromising, but for the first time in years I could use my old trowel, inherited from my grandfather, another gifted gardener. My father came over and together we dug it clear, and planted peonies, cistus and irises. To my amazement it flourished. Within a year it was an eye-popping jungle. It’s frustrating, gardening in a rented house. When I cleaned the rank old pond, the management company responded by telling me I’d have to fill it in when I left. It still felt worthwhile to leave it more fertile and abundant than when I’d arrived. Tending it was also an antidote to the transient, insecure feeling that too often accompanies renting. Bedded in, rooted: so many of our words to do with being at home are actually drawn from plants. That garden was also how I met my future husband. Ian lived a few streets north. We had friends in common and we quickly identified a shared interest in gardening. He was married to the writer Jenny Diski, and when she was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years later his own beautiful plot became increasingly neglected. When we got together after she had died, it was riddled with couchgrass and full of old shrubs that had long since exceeded their allotted space. It wasn’t working, but like the fictional secret garden, it pulsed with potential. The house was on a terrace built for Victorian railway workers. The garden was narrow and long, running down to the Cambridge-to-Ely line. Jenny’s writing shed stood at the halfway mark and Ian had built a library right at the end. The fences were covered in a tangle of old roses, and there were treasures like daylilies and hellebores hidden in the overgrown beds.


‘In these times, the garden is what’s keeping me sane’: the pond in Olivia’s back garden

Slowly, we took out every plant that wasn’t pulling its weight, creating instead herbaceous borders full of old-fashioned cottage-garden plants, some of them carefully transplanted from my old garden. The palette had been limited to white and blue. I introduced hotter colours, squeezing in flamboyant salvias and dahlias with alluring names: Arabian Nights, Wizard of Oz, Bora Bora, Hollyhill Spider Woman. Ian is the garden steward of the college where he works, which meant we were occasionally presented with a glut of snapdragons or cosmos. We put in a greenhouse and extended the growing season in both directions, planting helenium, rudbeckia and tagetes for splashes of rust and sulphur in the autumn, and hundreds of violets and snowdrops for February cheer. I’d gone plant-mad again. Even in the winter, I was busy dreaming up plans for the next year, keeping stacks of seed catalogues by the bed. We put a pond in and the next week it was magically filled with fish, apparently from eggs laid on lily leaves. We let the lawn grow and seeded it with the meadow herbs I once had in my dispensary: selfheal, yarrow, marshmallow. The garden was starting to have the right feel, the right kind of humming wildness. A fox moved in, followed by a family of hedgehogs. Ian’s list of butterflies doubled, then tripled. I’m so grateful for all that work now. Ian and I are in self-isolation and in these plague times, the garden is what’s keeping me sane. Outside, it’s possible to forget the frightening news for an hour or two. A garden is rooted in time, but it’s always also about now. Right now: the bee; right now: the wallflowers flaming into bloom. Even the worst worries seem magically to drop away as you flow from task to task, attending to problems as they arise. There’s no need to finish, no final iteration to be reached. The pursuit of perfection is endless and ongoing. Mistakes will be made, but there’s always the possibility that next year the shady border can finally be righted, the roses adequately pruned. It’s not that I never lose my temper planting tulips or trying to yank out golden rod, or obsess over slugs feasting on the delphiniums. All the same, I’ve never found an activity as soothing or as wholly absorbing. It’s like being immersed in a deep, silent pool. As Derek Jarman points out in Modern Nature, the word “paradise” is related to the Persian for garden, an enclosed green space. During the coronavirus crisis, gardeners around the world have turned to Instagram to share their paradises, making what is often a private source of solace a communal resource. I follow dozens of them and nothing has made me feel so connected or rooted as looking at these green bulletins, snapshots from an otherwise very troubled and terrifying world. Today, I saw daffodils emerging from the flood water in Monty Don’s garden, cactuses on my friend Matt’s morning dog walk in LA, snub noses of tulips emerging from the soil in the East Village and children planting vegetable seeds in yogurt pots in northern California. Whatever else happens, spring is certainly on the way. Gardeners might be rooted in the present, but they dream of the future, too. I thought we’d stay in Cambridge forever, but the problem is that it’s too small. There’s no room for fruit trees and we can’t cram another dahlia into the beds. And so we’re off again, assuming we’re ever allowed out of quarantine, to a walled garden in Suffolk. It was home for 50 years to a garden designer, who transformed it into a series of contained rooms. The centrepiece is a venerable, stooped mulberry, planted in 1601. Apparently the pond was full of fish, but a passing otter recently stole them all, leaving their beheaded corpses lined up on the path. I’m taking that as a good omen. When we first visited, the air was heavy with the scent of daphne and wintersweet. By the time we move, fingers crossed, the irises will be in flower, and one day soon we’ll be eating our own figs. Rumour has it one of the trees came from a cutting brought from Sissinghurst by a girlfriend of Vita Sackville-West. That’s the thing about gardens. They tether you in place, they root you in time, they never stand still and they’re always surprising.


This article was first published on https://www.theguardian.com/global/2020/mar/29/earthly-delights-gardening-in-a-time-of-crisis

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