Ursula Buchan

A walled garden in Suffolk yields up its secrets

When Olivia Laing began restoring the former property of a garden designer, she had no idea of the beauty that lay hidden by rampant weeds

Rosa Blanc Double de Coubert – one of the plants Olivia Laing discovered when clearing her garden. [Alamy]

In the hot summer of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, Olivia Laing and her husband Ian moved from Cambridge to a beautiful Georgian house in a Suffolk village and began work on restoring the neglected, extensive walled garden behind it. She was vaguely aware that the garden had been owned and loved by the well-known garden designer and plantsman Mark Rumary, who had died in 2010. He had been the landscape director for the East Anglian nursery of Notcutts, and I remember him as a genial man overseeing extensive, award-winning tree and shrub exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show in the 1980s.

I once owned a copy of the Notcutts Book of Plants, written by him, which was an indispensable reference book for garden designers before the advent of the internet. Many of the plants that Laing discovered, as she painstakingly cleared the rampant perennial weeds, such as hardy hibiscus, corkscrew hazel, Akebia quinata, Yucca filamentosa, Lavalle’s hawthorn, Rosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, were well described in the Notcutts book. The Garden Against Time is, at least partly, the story of how she discovered Rumary through his garden.

It is also part Covid reminiscence, part political polemic, part family memoir, part potting-shed diary, all skilfully interleaved. Lockdowns and the process of renovating the garden, give her leisure and the desire to interrogate the nature of gardens and, in particular, the meanings of Eden and Paradise. There are interesting, if sometimes overlong, essays on, inter alia, John Milton, John Clare, Derek Jarman, the Diggers, William Morris, Eliot Hodgkin and Andrew Marvell. Many follow well-trodden paths, but Laing has done useful archival research into the slave-owning Middletons who built Shrubland Hall, and her account of Iris Origo’s war in Italy, uplifting and sad in equal measure, may be unfamiliar to British readers.

Laing’s prose exhibits that hypersensitivity to atmosphere and beauty that we all felt (though could not have so well expressed) when our lives became well-nigh intolerably circumscribed – observing every open flower, every bird flying across the garden. There are a scatter of accomplished linocuts by John Craig, although I could have done with a plan of the garden, as well as the position of house and outbuildings. It’s asking a lot of readers that they understand the layout of a complex garden, made up of ‘rooms’, entirely by the written word.

The glimpses of personal memoir are intriguing: a rackety childhood, followed by youthful environmental activism, work as a herbalist, and a more tranquil middle age as a writer, married to a retired Cambridge don. But then the pandemic was a time when we all looked to our histories. That said, Laing’s careful descriptions of hard graft in the garden over two years are accompanied, and sometimes overlaid, by her evident angst that we are hurtling to hell in a handcart.

Only late in the day does Laing seem to appreciate the deep privilege of owning a garden

There were times when reading the oh-so-earnest political sentiments that I felt as though I were being beaten over the head by a sheaf of contemporary left-liberal preoccupations: Trump, tick; climate catastrophe, tick; historic homophobia, tick; ecological degradation, tick; transatlantic slavery, tick; exploitative colonialism, tick; the horrors of Brexit, tick; the threat of fascism, tick; the evils of capitalism, tick; persistent power inequalities, tick. (One of the few current catchwords missing is ‘rewilding’, perhaps because Laing would have had to admit that she was doing the exact reverse.) Without the salt of humour, or even much light and shade, to add savour and variety to the fine writing, it felt like a pummelling. The irony is that Laing is not a lone, righteously furious voice, for her views line up neatly with those of many of the most powerful and influential people and institutions in the land.

As for historical figures, poor Capability Brown, who created much of lasting beauty from which we can all still gain spiritual refreshment, comes in for some stern anachronistic judgment. All in all, I found the combination of finger-wagging at the past, which can’t answer back, and pessimism about the present, had a progressively lowering effect on my spirits – not surprisingly, since, in John Buchan’s words, ‘pessimism is the only ism that kills the soul’. It certainly withered mine, for I couldn’t help thinking how fortunate Laing was. Only late in the day does she seem to appreciate the deep privilege of owning a garden, and the deeper consolation that comes from caring for it. Almost at the end, she describes opening her garden to visitors, to raise money for the National Gardens Scheme, which gave her ‘probably the best day of my life’. A common paradise found, at last? Let’s hope so.