Herons Love Gardening – 12 May 2024

I would follow Olivia Laing to most places – along the River Ouse; to the bottom of a bottle of Echo Spring; into protests, prisons and art galleries; to the culmination of an experiment with Kathy Acker – so, when she holds open the door to Arcadia, I am delighted to join her there.

The Garden Against Time is her account of restoring a walled garden in Suffolk which once belonged to renowned gardener Mark Rumary. There is so much to do in the neglected garden – endless, backbreaking work – and yet, in her first year there, Laing must wait. Restraining herself, she must stop, take notes, watch as the garden reveals its secrets over the course of a year and only then begin to plan.

Meanwhile, she writes about what a garden is. She explores Eden with Milton and Andrew Marvell. With WG Sebald, she faces the destruction inherent in creating sublime estates. She delights in images held onto since childhood, such as Mary Lennox discovering her secret garden, but she also writes of land enclosures and private parklands funded by slavery, exploring the dead silence that follows when Fanny tries to raise the subject in Mansfield Park.

Each chapter invites the reader inside the walls, offers dizzying scents and crafted lists of plants, and at the same time asks us to notice who is in Arcadia and who without. It’s an extraordinary book, which leads one on twisting tracks to meet John Clare, William Morris, Iris Origo, Derek Jarman and Stella Gibbons.

If Laing becomes overwhelmed by her endless lists of plants, I rather identify. My list of books to read alongside The Garden Against Time grew to several pages. I have pruned it significantly.

Why Women Grow by Alice Vincent
Vincent travels the country, finding women of all backgrounds who have claimed a garden of their own, however small. She seeks an understanding of what turning to the soil offers them and finds solace and calm.  

The Book of the Frog by Sally Coulthard
A gorgeous little book of practical advice to make your (outside) space more frog friendly. Anyone who becomes a little jumpy around these creatures might want to hop over the section on the most poisonous frogs, though I doubt those are lurking in Bristol…

Being With Cows by Dave Mountjoy
A moving account of how connecting with nature can help to overcome grief and bring joy even in the most devastating situation. We’re looking forward to launching this book in a couple of weeks’ time at Sparks. The venue will not accommodate farm animals. I am sorry.  

If younger gardeners need a little encouragement to pick up a trowel Luna Loves Gardening by Joseph Coelho will seed all sorts of excitement. Or indeed they might wish to laze in a flowerbed dipping into Nature’s Fascinating Friendships by Kerry Hyndman and Mike Hills, a glorious book about the relationships between birds, insects, trees and fungi.

Laing writes of gardeners who are pulled between imposing order and embracing wildness. Similarly, in The Stone Age, a vociferous collection about the landscape of Shetland, Jen Hadfield enjoys toying with constraints and disorder in both form and content. And every gardener may wish to keep Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald beside her so that she might see the character of each weed and stay her uprooting hand.

The entrance to Arcadia will stand warmly open next Saturday, when Rory Waterman joins us to launch Come Here to This Gate. (Admittedly, we ask that you get a ticket online or in the shop…)

May your Sunday have a little order and a little wildness,

Featured in the newsletter