A GARDEN BURSTING through the hard, cold ground in spring is a metaphor for resilience that few writers — especially those who are also gardeners — can resist. Mid-pandemic, the English cultural critic Olivia Laing, 44, moved into a Grade II-listed house on a third of an acre in the East Anglia county of Suffolk, two hours northeast of London. Tending the perennial beds and clipping the yew hedges at the house — sometimes still in pajamas or late into the evening — she often finds herself thinking about the death-and-resurrection cycles that have taken place there through the centuries, and of the literary gardeners who have shaped her and her work. In her mind, they are as alive as the white roses that climb her new home’s 18th-century white-plastered brick facade.
One of those forebears is Derek Jarman, the gay avant-garde British film director, memoirist and stage designer, who died of complications from AIDS in 1994. As disaffected teens, Laing and her younger sister, Kitty — their parents divorced when Laing was 4, and her mother, who had come out as a lesbian, moved them from Buckinghamshire to Portsmouth, on the southern coast — were riveted and reassured by Jarman’s joyous, outré screen depictions of queerness in such films as 1991’s “Edward II.” They became obsessed, as well, with “Modern Nature,” his lyrical, often playful diary of leaving London shortly after his 1986 H.I.V. diagnosis to live in a fisherman’s shack near a nuclear power plant on a gravelly, wind-whipped Dungeness promontory, where he coaxed a seemingly impossible perennial garden from between the stones. “My garden’s boundaries,” he wrote, “are the horizon.”
Standard trained white wisteria, climbing roses and Oriental poppies in the rose border.Credit…Teresa Eng
That book, published in 1991, remains a lodestar for Laing, who wrote in the introduction to a recent edition that it gave her “a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden.” Laing, who identifies as trans/nonbinary, channeled Jarman’s subversive brio for her first book, 2011’s “To the River,” a rumination about walking the length of the River Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Last May, she published “Everybody: A Book About Freedom,” a kaleidoscopic meditation on the acute pain and sensuous pleasures of inhabiting the human form, which considers such disparate personalities as the essayist Susan Sontag, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and the singer Nina Simone.
ALONG WITH JARMAN, Laing’s house is also haunted by the figure of its former owner, the landscape designer and writer Mark Rumary. The director of landscaping at the famed nearby nursery Notcutts lived in the house — originally two 16th-century cottages that were built upon and bricked over in the Georgian era — from 1961 until his death at age 81 in 2010. It was he who created four themed “rooms” in the garden, planted, variously, with narcissus, Japanese cherry trees, deutzia, hybrid lilacs and honeysuckle. But the stars of the garden have always been the trees, among them a magnificent 400-year-old mulberry, five magnolias and two figs Rumary grew from cuttings taken from Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle. His partner, Derek Melville, was a classical musician and a biographer of Frédéric Chopin — Rumary clipped a cutting from a Japanese laurel near the composer’s grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery that still thrives in the garden today. To evoke an Andalusian courtyard, he built a Moorish-style raised lily pond that he filled with carp. (Princess Margaret, it is rumored, once showed up for tea unannounced while Rumary was skimming the pool in his underwear.) Inside the potting shed, his waxed-cotton apron hangs by the door. “I’ve never managed to bring myself to put it on,” Laing says. “I just leave it there.”
Since moving to the three-bedroom house in August 2020 with her husband of four years, Ian Patterson, 73, the poet and widower of the author Jenny Diski, who died of cancer in 2016, Laing has set about refreshing the garden (her next book will be a historical consideration of gardens as places of refuge). For a while, she just watched; having dropped out of college years ago to become an environmental activist and later a medical herbalist, she has always considered botany — like criticism — mostly an exercise in observation, a “green thread that has run through my life.”
But then came the labor, as compelling to her as the contemplation. She pulled out nettles and pried ivy off exterior walls with a screwdriver (“Like editing,” she jokes). East Anglia, the region with the country’s lowest average rainfall, is home to flora like corn chamomile, cordgrass and rolling heather but is also burdened with dry, sandy soil. To be productive, it demands a steady diet of compost and barnyard manure.
To restore color and structure to the landscape, Laing established hundreds of new plants. In a meadow-style array with plum and apple trees, blue camassias mingle with pink-and-white Lady Jane tulips and bell-shaped, purple-and-white-checkered snake’s head fritillaria. The cottage borders on the front of the house are now planted with Rembrandt tulips, cosmos Dazzler, cranesbills, crocosmias and foxgloves — “a riot of color and exuberance” for passers-by, she says. Behind the house, heleniums, Salvia Amistad and dahlias bring late summer color to the yew border. And while the late-18th-century heritage-listed walls that enclose the garden can’t be altered, by next year, the 1890s coach house in a far corner of the property shaded by a huge viburnum will become a library for Patterson’s 15,000 books. Next to it, in a neglected section formerly known as the white garden, which Rumary dedicated exclusively to pale flowers — likely inspired by a similarly monochromatic one at Sissinghurst — Laing will plant quince and crab apple trees, irises and tree peonies.
But even with such enhancements, the house and its garden will remain largely as Rumary and the centuries shaped it — simultaneously paradise and refuge — and enlivened by the spirit of Jarman. The Victorian dovecote in the eaves of the coach house may even remain home to the family of jackdaws now living there. “This place has got that half-asleep feeling,” Laing says. “That’s really what I wanted.”