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Seasonal Harvest

Olivia Laing

Flowers by Nobuyoshi Araki
Olivia Laing
The Plant

Rebecca May Johnson

Kuba Ryniewicz

Story from Issue 14
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In the months between late winter and early spring, Olivia Laing, author of Crudo, The Lonely City and much more, wrote to me about her garden in Cambridge. Below, are snippets of her emails full of plant talk and horticultural pursuits, as well as descriptions of my visit to see the first big bloom of the year in late April, accompanied by a delicious lunch made by her husband, the poet, critic and talented cook, Ian Patterson. Photographer Kuba Ryniewicz joined Oilivia a few weeks later to capture the author and her garden in all their glory.


Good morning, here is your Wednesday update, which would have been a Monday update, but the Sargy Mann install got in the way. Last week, was 25 years since Derek died, and we did an event for him at the Tate, which I was almost late for because 100 snowdrops in the green arrived just as I was leaving Cambridge and had to be planted immediately at the foot of the hazel hedge. Muddy hands on the train, I think Derek would have liked that. Brilliant, creamy-maroon double hellebores for cutting and floating in a bowl. Iris histrioides George, and another pale blue one neither of us remembers planting. Of all the crocuses out, the nicest by far is angustifolius, known as cloth of gold, with lovely dark stripes. March will be very wet and cold, my mother predicts glumly, after I’ve cleared the mulch around the salvias.

The first garden mail arrives from Olivia in late February, at the end of a spell of freakishly warm weather for that time of year. I write my reply on 1 March and note that her mother correctly predicted the descent back into wintery drabness. In the photograph of the garden, taken during that short-lived golden moment, I can see bulbs coming through the brown beds in the sunlight, still holding their breath, not yet ready to break out into colour. The grass path is green but a little muddy. Shrubs and bushes are empty of leaves. I am astonished at the thought of 100 snowdrops arriving by post “in the green” and the instant action they compel — squatting down and gently burying clumps of little bulbs without damaging the green fronds.

There is a kinship between Olivia and Derek Jarman. As gardeners and writers, they share a care for precarious life

Olivia’s sense of Derek Jarman’s presence and his thoughts about her muddy hands feels important, as she speeds to London on the train to honour his memory. The shared passage, from the dirty work of gardening outside the metropolis to art and words and people. “There is no book I love more than Modern Nature,” begins Olivia’s introduction to the re-publication of Derek Jarman’s diary by Vintage. She first read the book around age 13, which is centred on gardening, art, gay cultures, illness and friends. When we meet, she talks about how she came across his work.

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OLIVIA   My sister got into Derek Jarman at a very young age.I think it was on Channel 4.They used to screen his films late at night and she was obsessed with him, so she had all of his books and we used to go up to Dungeness for her birthday to go round the garden. Reading it again for when I wrote the introduction last year, I realised that To the River [Olivia’s first book] is just a massive Modern Nature rip-off! It’s under the same medieval spell. All that herb lore I was so fascinated by came from him. I think it was part of the reason I decided to train as a herbalist—the desire to learn botany and materia medica, the study of plants and their properties.

To the River, published in 2011, tells the story of a journey she makes down the River Ouse in Sussex, from its source to the sea. The journey is in dialogue with the events around Virginia Woolf’s death by drowning in the Ouse, and much more besides. It is not a Modern Nature rip-off. What is apparent, however, is that Olivia, who spent five years training in herbal medicine after a long period living on environmental road protests, navigates through plants. Derek and Olivia share a fluency in the language of plants and their writing on the subject is replete with wide-ranging references, as well as the experimental and pragmatic and dreamy and perilous work of tending to plant life.

Selecting extracts from Olivia’s garden mails and from our conversation in April is fiendishly difficult. Like Derek’s diary about what he’s doing in the garden, Olivia’s account of her gardening is both jammed full of technical information about plants, and is also rhizomic, casting shoots to the rest of life

Trip to Cambridge, 23 April 2019
REBECCA  How do you see the garden?
OLIVIA  Wow, that’s a huge question. Let’s walk around. Look at that newt! I love newts!

The garden, which is long and somewhat narrow, begins with a path that is good for Olivia’s bare feet to walk on — soft grass, fringed with daisies, lightly tread down in the centre. A bed of irises, their fat beige-skinned roots ex-posed to the sun.

OLIVIA   My irises all got some awful disease. They were just in the bed; they’d come from my old house and they started rotting. I took them all out quite brutally and piled the soil into a little hump, covered it in gravel and replanted them. This is part of my on-going question about how to treat diseases and infestation environmentally — instead of killing things, making plants healthy so that they can resist them.

Olivia’s past, protesting against environmental threats, can be traced in her approach to garden pests —even in the face of plant destruction. In a Garden Mail that featured many pest-based anxieties, Olivia expresses her exasperation at the general approach to curing plants.

Garden Mail 6, 9 April 2019
Also, RE gardening websites (RHS, Gardener’s World, Telegraph garden columns, etc), I’m finding it increasingly bizarre and horrible how much gardening advice is about killing things... I’ve never put so much as a slug pellet down, but the endless stuff about sterile soil and killing bugs is not at all why I want to garden— much more about making a habitat for beings/being, with a nearly all welcome policy. Is that nuts?

Looking around me at the array of green either side of the path, with flashes of pinks and reds and oranges and yellows from a spectacular display of tulips, it’s not nuts.

OLIVIA   I’m really into these tulip combinations.
REBECCA   What happens after the tulips go?
OLIVIA   It turns into peonies, delphiniums and al-liums, and then after they go, it’s full-on perennials— dahlias, verbena, cosmos and rudbeckia, alliums and that kind of thing.

Garden Mail 5, 26 March 2019
Everything’s happening! Everything’s happening! Over the course of the weekend, the garden went from winter shut down to full-on spring exuberance. First, there were no tulips, then there was a bed stuffed full of tulips, incl. Dordogne (orangey-pink, petals look like they’ve been painted with a brush) and Lady Van Eijk, which isn’t supposed to flower for another month. Birch in leaf. Wallflowers by the pond. Vases and vases of cut flowers in the house from now till November.

REBECCA   How long did it take you to get the continuity of flowering?
OLIVIA   This is probably the first year where it felt like it’s really working. By the time I moved in two years ago, Ian had been looking after Jenny [Diski, the writer. Ian’s former wife who died of cancer] for a few years and it was really neglected. I mean, it had been very well designed in the first place, but I introduced things like — well, a lot of stuff! — delphiniums, peonies, tulips — not all the tulips, Ian had some tulips— and Jenny had colour codes, everything had to be blue, which I subverted drastically.

I’ve been admiring the colours of Olivia’s extraordinary flowers for a while now via social media, where she shares pictures of flowers cut from the garden and placed in vases. Even from afar through a screen, the mad brilliance of their hues and shapes make your heart leap with joy. It was the dahlias that first caught my eye last summer via Olivia’s Instagram. Now, I can see dahlia tubers nestled in pots in her greenhouse alongside the beloved pelargoniums (a type of geranium), whose leaves we rub between our fingers for inhaling the dark green scent.

Garden Mail 2, 6 March 2019
We couldn’t stand the dying geraniums in the window boxes outside the house a minute longer (casualties of the builders who did our front garden wall), so even though there’s a large pelargonium order arriving in a few weeks, we went to the garden centre on Friday and bought a few heartseases and some beautiful velvety wallflowers, two maroon and two bright acid yellow.

We continue along the path and reach some beautiful, low-lying, star-shaped greenery fringing path called “sweet woodruff.”

REBECCA   It looks wild.
OLIVIA   It isn’t wild. I planted it, it was designed to fill in the dry space and also look wild. It's medicinal; I can't remember what it does.

And then we reach Olivia’s new greenhouse, which she’d written about in early March.


Garden Mail 2, 6 March 2019
Three experiments too: Clarkia ‘Pink Ribbons’ for a miserable dry shady patch under next door’s eucalyptus, which at the moment is colonised by Japanese anemone and nothing else; persian everlasting pea (Lathyrus rotundifolius), which is supposedly also shade-tolerant and romps scarletly up fences, to tryin a raised bed by the house that is otherwise mostly ferns and foxgloves; and mimosa (Acacia dealbata), which I expect will be a nutter failure, but I love it so much I can’t resist. What’s the point of a greenhouse if you can’t try enormously tricky things? You have to put the seed in a cup of boiling water and leave it for two days. Takes me straight back to my herbalist days.

Passing a little black writing shed, we arrive at the back end of the garden, which has a different mood.

OLIVIA   More wild, and within a couple of months, the bits that aren't mown will come up quite high. I'm really into it. [Olivia points to more plants that can be recounted in full as we go]. That’s a flowering quince that’s just gone over, which will slowly come up over the honeysuckle. I really like things that layer like that.

Olivia’s husband, the poet, critic and retired Cam-bridge academic, Ian Patterson, who she married twice— first secretly, and second in a big wedding in Ian’s former college in front of the queerest congregation the chapel had ever seen — appears with a cup of coffee for me. He is softly spoken and radiates kindness. They tell me how their new pond had no fish one day and then was full of fish the next — a miracle! Or rather, the fish came from eggs that were secreted in the folds of leaves planted there, according to the pond people. Finally, we reach Ian’s poetry library, and then beyond that, there are the railway tracks. Ian opens the library with a set of keys. An extraordinary full stop to the garden, it’s packed floor to ceiling with volumes of poetry that gesture to the many worlds beyond here. The smell shifts instantly from the garden to that of an actual library, with a wonderfully dusty, papery bookish scent.As we make our way back to the house, we pass a very funny-looking model squirrel, which is somewhat of an anomaly, but very jolly nonetheless.

Correspondence after Garden Mail 6, 20 April
Garden news is fairly minimal on account of pleurisy, I evaded Ian’s eagle eye long enough this morning to plant some salvias and a beautiful Thalictrum aquilegifolium that Charlie [Porter] gave me for my birthday. Irises are out, roses are in bud, tulips everywhere. Well, you’ll see. Lots of newts and froglets. I love April, the best greens.That bonkers squirrel was Ian’s 70th birthday present from one A[li] Smith. Pot feet help drainage; plants really do seem to appreciate them.

The space in between the kitchen and the beginning of the grassy path has a long table and chairs and a small collection of beautiful stones on it that look like they came from a beach. It’s the garden and is also an area of the house, both indoors and out. It’s where the gardener [Olivia] and the cook [Ian] discuss when lunch should happen and when planting and pruning and looking lovingly at pelargoniums should take a rest.

It’s where we sit in the sun and talk about the Chiltern Seeds Catalogue.

OLIVIA   I’ll go and get it; it’s by my bed. It’s the most austere plant catalogue of all the ones I get — and the writer is so funny, his descriptions are really nerdy!

Olivia hands the black and white catalogue to me andI read a line out loud from a description of a flower seed mix for a shady spot: “Hurrah! We hear you cry, there will be darkness no more!” — so much plant-based drama int he slim monochrome publication! Then, we pick up a thread from our email correspondence about the meaning of “home,” and how gardens fit in.

OLIVIA   I’m aware of the huge privilege of home, of having a home. I’m 42 and I was 40 when I moved in here, and that was the first time I’d ever lived in a house that was owned since I was 17 — which is incredibly common, I know. The level of insecurity when renting is horrible. This huge boulder moved off me when I moved in — of worrying all the time that my landlord was going to change his mind and evict me, which happened three or four times. AndI’m such a homebody that it was really traumatic and upsetting. But also, the on-going misery of trying to get something fixed, having a wall that was covered in black mould and not be able to get it dealt with for two years, endlessly writing emails and then the rent going up.

Despite such unsettled conditions, though, Olivia put plants in the ground in her short-lived tenancies.

OLIVIA   I always treated each one as if I lived there, and painted them and made gardens but it felt like being on quicksand all the time. So it feels crazy and wonderful to feel like, oh, we can really do any-thing here.

As we speak, sitting at the table outside, Ian occasionally crosses the threshold of the paved area to join us or ask when we’d like to eat. They have a joyful way of attending to each others’ needs while giving enough space to be alone, to write, garden, cook and travel. When we do eat Ian’s lunch with a few glasses of white wine and fizzy water, it’s heavenly.

During my correspondence with Olivia, I read Derek’s Modern Nature. Quite often, their writing mixed together in my mind — the strange, antiquated language of plant species, the hopeful labour of making somewhere to live, with soil and weather and explosions of colour given by flowers. There is a kinship between Olivia and Derek’s work about queer lives and making gardens. As gardeners and writers, they share a care for precarious life, overcoming hostile conditions and the potential of gardens to produce outrageous textures, colours, scents and forms that act against the drabness of heteronormativity.Gardens, ironically and brilliantly collapse oppressive ideas about what is “natural,” bearing traces of their author’s hand, even as they exceed it. §

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