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Safe haven or symbol of injustice? What our gardens tell us about the world we live in
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Safe haven or symbol of injustice? What our gardens tell us about the world we live in

I have a dream sometimes. I dream I’m in a house, and discover a door I didn’t know was there. It opens into an unexpected garden, and for a weightless moment I find myself inhabiting new territory, flush with potential. Maybe there are steps down to a pond, or a statue surrounded by fallen leaves. It is never tidy, always beguilingly overgrown. What might grow here, what rare peonies, irises, roses will I find? I wake with the sense that a too-tight joint has loosened, and that everything runs fluent with new life.

For most of the years that I have had this dream, I didn’t have a garden of my own. I rented until I was 40, and only rarely in flats with outdoor space. The first of these temporary gardens was in Brighton. I planted calendula there, which according to the 16th-century herbalist Gerard would “strengthen and comfort the heart very much”. I was training to be a herbalist and my head was full of plants, an entanglement of natural forms.

I lived on short-term contracts, with black mould on the walls, but the gardens were a way of making myself at home, putting down small roots. It worked well, or well enough, until the inevitable letter announcing the landlord or letting agency was ending the contract and selling off the home that wasn’t mine after all. Love aside, a permanent place to live and garden was the most consistent of my desires. Unbelievably, the one thing brought the other into my life.

In my 40s I fell in love with a Cambridge academic. When he retired we began to talk about moving somewhere with the potential to make a garden. After a long period of searching, I found a house with box squares on either side of the front door, clipped into the comical form of Mr Kipling’s French Fancies. “The gardens are a particular feature of the house,” I read, “laid out by the distinguished gardener Mark Rumary of Notcutts”, a famous Suffolk nursery.

We went to look at it in January 2020. Everything was neglected and overgrown, but even at a glance I could see unusual plants like tree peony and witch hazel, its lemon-peel flowers exuding an astringent scent. The entire plot was just under a third of an acre, but it felt larger because it had been so cleverly divided with hedges, so that you passed through doorways and arches into secretive new spaces.

The walls were latticed with roses. They looked as if they hadn’t been pruned in years, and I thought, of course, of cross Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, who pried her way into a place like this and emerged a different sort of girl altogether. If I scraped these roses with a penknife I’d no doubt they’d be wick and green. Gardens have a knack for looking dead but rarely are, and anyway the ground was covered with snowdrops, pushing through rotting leaves. And then in the corner I spotted a daphne, larger than any I’d ever seen, its shell-pink clusters exhaling unsteady streams of sweetness. It was the first plant I’d fallen in love with, the first botanical name I’d learned as a child. More than anything, I wanted this garden to be mine.


That was January. Then it was February, and the first cases of Covid were being reported in the UK. By March, nearly everyone in the country was confined to their homes, permitted a single hour of outside exercise a day.

And so the world, which had lately moved so fast, simply stopped on its heels. The weather was balmy, almost foolishly lovely. As everything else contracted, spring brought a counter-surge of beauty, a non-stop froth of cherry blossom and cow parsley. Not that I went out often. A few weeks before lockdown, I’d developed pleurisy. Feverish and bed-bound, I spent the long hours journeying in my mind to the garden, trying to find out all I could about its history.

Rumary had moved to the house in 1961 with his partner, the composer Derek Melville, who even in 2000 he was still describing as his friend. Gay and closeted, a language I knew intimately from my own childhood in a gay family. He’d soon crammed the garden with unusual and covetable plants. With the help of several articles and photographs I found online, I made a painstaking list of nearly 200 varieties, many chosen for their fragrance. I loved reading it, distracting myself from the horrifying indeterminacy of the future by daydreaming about the differing scents of Christmas box and wintersweet. Was there still a spotted laurel, grown from a cutting taken at Chopin’s grave, or pinks from seed gathered in George Sand’s garden at Nohant?

As the terrors of the plague year grew, this half-imaginary, half-real garden became a place of solace to me, even though I’d only seen it once. That might sound like an idiosyncratic activity, but I was by no means alone in finding the garden a place of consolation that spring. While I was in bed, an unlikely obsession with gardening had taken hold across the world.

Over the course of 2020, 3 million people in Britain began to garden for the first time, more than half of them under 45. Garden centres were stripped of stock as people poured their energy into transforming the spaces in which they were confined. The same pattern was repeated globally, from Italy to India. In America, 18.3 million people started gardening in the pandemic, many of them millennials. The American seed company W Atlee Burpee reported more sales in the first March of lockdown than at any other time in its 144-year history, while the Russian retailer Ozon reported a 30% increase in seed sales. It was as if, during that becalmed and frightening season, plants had emerged into collective visibility, a source of succour and support.

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire.View image in fullscreen

Growing food is an instinct in times of insecurity, peaking during pandemics and wars. Gardening occupied the baggy days and provided a purpose for people abruptly untethered from office routines. In a time interrupted – crouched on the threshold of unimaginable disaster, death toll soaring, no cure in sight – it was reassuring to see the evidence of time proceeding as it was meant to, seeds unfurling, buds breaking, daffodils pushing through the soil; a covenant of how the world should be and might again. Planting was a way of investing in a better future.

For some people, anyway. But the lockdown also made it painfully apparent that the garden, that supposed sanctuary from the world, was inescapably political. There was a grim disparity between the people pottering with trowels or typing from their deckchairs, and those trapped in tower blocks or mildewed bedsits. This disparity was only intensified as public parks and wild spaces were closed or subject to heightened policing, making them more inaccessible to the people who needed them most.

According to research carried out in 2020 by the Office for National Statistics, 88% of the British population has access to a garden of some kind, including balconies, patios and communal garden spaces, but this distribution is by no means random. Black people are nearly four times as likely to have no access to a garden as white people, while people in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, casual workers and the unemployed are almost three times as likely to be without a garden as those in professional or managerial positions.

As Black Lives Matter protests took hold around the world, gardens, and especially the aristocratic stately home gardens owned by the National Trust, were subject to scrutiny in their own right. A garden, a parkland, might look more innocent, even virtuous, than a statue of a slave trader, but they too have a hidden relationship with colonialism and slavery. It isn’t just that many of our familiar garden plants, from yucca and magnolia to wisteria and agapanthus, are imported “exotics”, a legacy of a colonial-era mania for plant-hunting. Slavery also provided the capital for a concerted beautification of the landscape, as the grotesque profits from sugar plantations were used to found lavish houses and gardens back in England.

To certain audiences, this discussion was intolerable, politicising what they believed should be neutral, a haven from debate. They didn’t want to question the cost of building paradise, or to have the cosy, tea-and-scones charm of the so-called “heritage” landscape undermined. To others, it made the garden a tarnished, even contaminated zone, a source of unquestioned privilege, the gleaming fruit of dirty money.

The fact that owning a garden is a luxury, that access to land itself is a luxury and not the right it should be, is hardly a new phenomenon. The story of the garden has from its Edenic beginning always also been a story about what or who is excluded or evicted, from types of plants to types of people. As Toni Morrison once observed: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” If some of England’s seemingly sublime gardens were economically dependent on the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations of America and the West Indies, others were contingent upon the practice of parliamentary enclosure, the legal process of taking the formerly open fields, commons and wasteland of the medieval period into private ownership.

Enclosure was essentially a land grab legitimised by a flurry of new laws. Between 1760 and 1845, thousands of enclosure acts were passed. By 1914, more than a fifth of the total area of England had been enclosed, a prelude to today’s enraging statistic that half of the country is owned by less than 1% of the population. Enclosure helped to facilitate a new arcadia: the great house in splendid isolation, islanded amid an apparently natural parkland, which had in fact been fastidiously manicured, stripped of its coarse human elements, from roads, churches and farmhouses to entire villages.

I wanted to know what it meant to be dispossessed by the enclosures, and in this I was lucky, because someone was watching, sick at heart, and furthermore had stolen the time and scrounged the paper and even made the ink, from nut gall and green copper soaked in rainwater, with which to set down what he saw. The peasant poet John Clare was undone by the enclosure of his home landscape of Helpston in Northamptonshire in 1809. His fury and devastation soaked into his poems, leaving a sorrowing record of what the loss of common land meant to the people who depended on it for their livelihoods.

Enclosure was a rearrangement of both the geographic and the social order. The loss of the commons and the wastes, the draining of the fens, the levelling of hills, the cutting down of woods, the diverting of rivers, the stopping of streams, the division of fields, the putting up of fences and hedges and the closing of footpaths: all these changes injured a particular sort of relationship, an ecological continuum in which Clare felt himself both participant and loving witness.

In a famous passage about getting lost as a child, he wrote about walking along the furze “until I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me”. His knowledge was another way of saying his familiar ground, the place he knew. But it also intimates that knowledge is itself a function of place, in which one’s capacity to make sense of things is a product of being in some way rooted and at home. Even more strikingly, it suggests this sense of home is reciprocal: that one doesn’t just know, but is known.

Clare’s understanding of knowledge as reciprocal helps to explain why it was such a source of bitterness and despair for him to see his loved landscape destroyed. What he could see, and what the proponents of enclosure could not, was a delicate, intricate connection between living things, an ecological continuum we’re only just beginning to understand today. If Swordy Well was ploughed and turned into a quarry for stones for road-mending, then its loss reverberated through many other species. It was Clare who first articulated this, and his bees that “flye round in feeble rings / & find no blossom bye” are the heralds of centuries of destruction in the name of improvement.


I’d been thinking about these more troubling aspects of the garden for a long time. By both income and inclination I’d spent far more of my life involved with ad hoc gardens, established for very little on abandoned or degraded ground. I’d started training as a herbalist after a period of environmental activism, living for the first winter of my studies in a makeshift shelter on an abandoned pig farm outside Brighton, part of a collective trying to make a community garden there.

My decision to study herbal medicine stemmed from many seductive readings of Modern Nature, the film-maker Derek Jarman’s account of making a garden on the shingle beach at Dungeness, while he was dying from an Aids-related illness. Around the time that the first cases of Covid were appearing in the news, I was involved in the campaign to save Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s house in Dungeness. Two weeks into lockdown, the campaign reached what had felt like the impossibly ambitious crowdfunded target of £3.5m. It seemed I wasn’t the only one to find that improbable place sustaining, long after Jarman’s death.

Prospect Cottage, DungenessView image in fullscreen

His garden has no walls or fences, deliberately obliterating the border between cultivated and wild, the roses and red-hot pokers giving way to wind-sculpted clumps of sea kale and gorse. In this way it makes visible one of the most interesting aspects of gardens: that they exist on the threshold between artifice and nature, conscious decision and wild happenstance.

Even the most manicured of plots are subject to an unceasing barrage of outside forces, from weather to predators to pollinator activity. A garden is a balancing act, which can take the form of collaboration or outright war. This tension between the world as it is and the world as humans desire it to be is at the heart of the climate crisis, and as such the garden can be a place of rehearsal too, of experimenting with inhabiting this relationship in new and perhaps less harmful ways.

As I knew from my own experiences, the story of the garden does not always enact larger patterns of privilege and exclusion. It’s also a place of rebel outposts and dreams of a communal paradise, like that of the Diggers, the breakaway sect of the English civil war, or of the utopian socialist William Morris, who is remembered more now for his floral wallpapers than his revolutionary ideas. I’m not sure any utopian dreamer valued a garden more than Morris, that burly Victorian visionary who worked with such inexhaustible vigour at making a society that was both just and lovely.

Morris was so sure of beauty as a virtue, not a luxury, even though his own political work was sometimes underpinned by exactly the kind of capitalist enterprise he despised. We inhabit a society right now that takes pleasure in rejecting this kind of complexity out of hand, but I think the ambiguities of Morris’s position make him even more useful as a guide to how the garden of utopia might be planted, since we need to start from our contaminated present and not some future position of undiluted purity.

Little Sparta, Scotland.View image in fullscreen

In the essay How I Became a Socialist, he set out his beliefs very simply. “Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all.”

The same enormous hopefulness animates Morris’s time-travelling utopian fantasy, News from Nowhere (1890), set in a post-revolutionary future England where profit and class no longer exist. It’s not so much a blueprint for a future society as an invitation to imagine what life could be like under changed priorities, without the fear or greed or precarity that capitalism engenders. There is no money in this new socialist England. People work because they want to, as gardeners do, out of the sheer love of making something. The capitalist system of alienated labour has melted into air.

London’s transfiguration is spelled out by flowers. Trafalgar Square is an orchard and Endell Street is full of roses. This kind of visionary garden is a place of possibility, where new modes of living and models of power can be attempted, a container for ideas as well as a metaphor by which they can be expressed. As the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, who built the sculpture garden Little Sparta in Scotland, once observed: “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”

If I did get Rumary’s garden, I would restore it, I told myself, but I would also use it to explore both types of garden stories. I wanted to count the cost of building paradise, but also to peer into the past and see if I could find versions of Eden that weren’t founded on exclusion and exploitation.

Both of these questions felt very urgent to me. We were poised on the hinge of history, living in the era of mass extinction, the catastrophic endgame of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. The garden could be a refuge from that, but it can and has also embodied the power structures that have driven the devastation. It can be a place of exclusion, but a garden can also be a crucible of change: a place of radical openness and hope.

Source: theguardian.com