Gardens of Good and Evil

I’ve always thought of gardens as benign, even virtuous places. It wasn’t until the lockdowns of 2020 that the garden began to take on a more sinister aspect in my mind, as havens of sunny privilege to which the fortunate could retreat while the less fortunate were trapped indoors.

That unsettling feeling was powerfully reinforced in Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning British film “The Zone of Interest,” set in a lovely walled garden belonging to the commander of Auschwitz and his family. On the far side of the wall, audible but unseen, are all the horrors of the concentration camp. Inside, life is pleasant and calm. “It’s a paradise garden,” a visitor exclaims.

The film is a painful exposure of how easy it is to turn a blind eye to cruelty and injustice. So much for that most famous of moral injunctions: Voltaire’s “We must cultivate our own garden.”

The Auschwitz garden is an extreme example, but a startling number of great gardens were founded on regimes of brutality and cruelty that remain concealed from view. While researching their complicated history, I investigated the Anglo-American Middleton family, who used the grotesque profits from their slave plantations in South Carolina in the 18th century to fund exceptionally grand gardens, including Middleton Place, believed to be the oldest surviving landscape garden in America, and Shrubland Hall in England, visited by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1851. The Middletons’ obsessive garden-making was apparently a way to cleanse their money and climb the class ladder, similar to how the Sackler family used art to launder their reputations.

The idea of the garden as a place of sinister seclusion has found its way to the world of high fashion. The theme of the 2024 Met Gala on Monday will be “The Garden of Time,” a reference to a short story by J.G. Ballard. In Ballard’s characteristically bleak tale, a desperate mob advances on an elegant garden, where Count Axel and his wife live out a civilized, secluded existence. The count plucks mysterious “time flowers” to stave off the inevitable incursion, knowing the horde spells ruin to their cultivated life. Perhaps Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue and long-term co-chair of the Gala, was thinking about time and loss, but for me the story articulated the most dangerous aspect of the garden, as a place to hide from reality in a private paradise.

For a gardener like myself, these stories are hard to confront. While very few of us create gardens on a robber-baron scale, the experience of the pandemic made it clear that they can still be a privileged and exclusionary zone. According to a 2021 study, white Americans are nearly twice as likely to live in a home with access to a garden as Black or Asian Americans. The selfish gardener of the 21st century creates idyllic vistas that rely on fertilizers and pesticides that poison the wider ecosystem or demand water in a time of drought.

Gardens don’t have to be like this: sealed, exclusive and defended. Ballard’s story reminded me of Iris Origo, an Anglo-American aristocrat who made the exquisite gardens of La Foce in Tuscany in the 1920s and 30s. In her gripping memoir of the Second World War, “War in Val d’Orcia,” she describes a similar tide of desperate humanity approaching her garden gate. Unlike Ballard’s Count Axel, she didn’t seek to repel them, retiring to the library to dust her statues. Instead, she converted her grand house and garden into a haven for refugees, partisans and escaping soldiers, despite the risk of imprisonment or death.

One of the most exciting things I discovered in my research was a study carried out at Great Dixter, a well-known garden in the south of England, established by the horticulturist and writer Christopher Lloyd and cultivated after his death by Fergus Garrett. In 2017, he and his team commissioned a full biodiversity audit of the estate. To the amazement of the participating scientists, the greatest diversity wasn’t in the woods, meadows or ponds that surround the house, but in the formal garden itself.

This garden hadn’t been rewilded, or left to its devices. On the contrary, it was the human intervention that made it so biologically rich. Mr. Garrett had phased out pesticides and fertilizers, and had a relaxed attitude to rotting logs and weeds, which provided a habitat for a diverse array of species. But it was the sheer density of the ornamental planting, its aesthetic exuberance and abundance, that was the key. The borders, with their plumes of giant fennel, their riots of poppies and mullein, provided a constant supply of nourishment, while the regular disturbance by the gardeners created a rich habitat for insects and mammals.

It was the antithesis of the selfish garden, hospitable to many types of life. As Mr. Garrett observed in Gardens Illustrated, environmentalists had previously thought that gardens contributed to habitat and species loss, sterile spaces created solely for human pleasure. The Great Dixter experiment demonstrated that gardening could be both aesthetically satisfying and environmentally beneficial.

This February, a study led by the University of Surrey analyzed how green spaces in cities can have a cooling effect in heat waves. While street trees, parks and wetlands all had an effect, the most pronounced results came from botanical gardens, which lowered temperatures in adjacent city streets by an average of 9 degree Fahrenheit.

This is the kind of visionary garden state I want to see flourish everywhere. You can glimpse its potential in projects like the landscape architect Nigel Dunnett’s Grey to Green, which transformed a rundown, traffic-heavy area in the English city of Sheffield into a series of interconnected rain gardens and bioswales. These capture extreme rainfall, reducing the risk of catastrophic flooding. That area is now a luminous patchwork of foxtail lilies, alliums and yarrow, interspersed with trees and grasses. The garden helps cool the city in heat waves, provides a corridor for wildlife and gives sheer pleasure to a mass of people, whether they can afford to own a garden or not.

Olivia Laing is the author of the forthcoming book “The Garden Against Time.”

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