Brexit in the Garden

What is diversity but a defiance of the impulse to categorize?

Cottage garden, Suffolk. [ukgardenphotos]

The day after the referendum, I sat in my mother-in-law’s garden on the South Coast of England, feeling the weight of something more than the usual transatlantic jetlag. I’m American and my wife is British, so we make this trip fairly often. We’d boarded a plane from the States on the eve of the vote, and now it seemed we’d landed in a country other than the one we’d set out for. People were shocked and anxious, defensive over how they voted, worried about what the future would bring. Soon enough there would be practical considerations: documents to be gathered, applications made, rights negotiated or lost. But for me, being in that space was particularly unsettling, as if the garden itself was no longer the same.

The garden is the place where my mind comes to rest, and my mother-in-law has designed hers to set the viewer at ease. It’s compact to an American eye, but layered to create a sense of immersion. The signs of change are subtle, deliberately cyclical, ritualized. Most of the plants are perennials, positioned to bloom and recede, disguising the seams between seasons. I had always thought of her cottage garden as an apolitical space, as if the experience were strictly aesthetic and ecological, the terms limited to planting schemes, to texture, color and shape, cadence, balance, repetition. Occasionally, I’d even lifted a watering can or wielded the pruning shears, and those hours felt like they were outside of history.

Suddenly the adage to think globally, act locally had been undone. How could I continue to see this place as a refuge?

Yet suddenly the adage to think globally, act locally had been undone. How could I continue to see this place as a refuge? In truth, the garden has always been as political as any other territory — bound up with claims to property and social status — though I had allowed myself to forget it. Now I was thinking about the ways Leave and Remain translate into the garden, or grow out from it. What might gardening as resistance to nationalism look like?

Most gardeners I know identify with a revisionist ecological movement that has lately gone mainstream. You don’t see Monty Don promoting sterile lawn geometries on Gardeners’ World. These days it’s all about biodiversity and ecology, minibeast habitat, native plants. The more local the phenotype the more likely it belongs, which is to say the better it will support other native species without added chemicals. The new ecological thinking is a critique of a prior era of gardening, yet it also invokes an unspecified time before that, when there was supposedly greater harmony between humans and other species. Nobody mentions what might have been happening between humans at the time.

Somehow we’ve gone about this activity — promoting an idealized version of what was — as if there’s no politics involved. It’s all strictly ecological, or at least that’s how I used to see it. During election season, when my neighbors planted signs in their front yards, I refrained. In my mind the political belonged to one category, the garden another. A wildlife gardening sign? Absolutely. But a campaign sign? I didn’t want to head outside with my morning coffee and find a political message stubbed into the ground of my sanctuary. It didn’t belong there.

Flower garden in South Carolina
The author’s garden in South Carolina. [James Barilla]

Visiting us, my mother-in-law once said that I had recreated a classic English cottage garden in our South Carolina yard. I was startled and a bit perplexed. What exactly was the nature of the reference? I wasn’t following a template. I was just tearing out chunks of centipede lawn and replacing them with beds full of plants that would thrive in the local environment and nourish all kinds of scuttling and nibbling creatures. And yet, through the eyes of a visitor, my own assumptions, my surreptitious ways of cultivating space, were revealed.

Englishness in the garden — what is it?

Through the eyes of a visitor, my own assumptions, my surreptitious ways of cultivating space, were revealed.

Two years after the Brexit vote, on another visit to the Sussex Weald, we toured Bateman’s, the family home of Rudyard Kipling. There were no Leave or Remain signs on the grounds, yet what was happening there — groups of international visitors poking about the place — now felt tenuous, the whole concept contingent on the resolution of Brexit. I was newly aware that I was a part of the cosmopolitanism that surrounds a garden like this, the context that allows it to be experienced aesthetically, ecologically, rather than as a nostalgic expression of Britishness. Change that, and the place takes on a different meaning. Walking around the estate and seeing it “through Kipling’s eyes” (as the interpretive signs encouraged) — was that something I still wanted to do?

At nearby Great Dixter, the former residence of the garden writer Christopher Lloyd, herbaceous perennials spilled over the paths in a wild and towering profusion. There was no obvious division between the plantings at the back-of-the-border and the front. The flower stalks, some in bloom, some left to seed, were so tall they hid the horizon, and bushwhacking from one garden room to the next it seemed we could get lost out there. I recognized many of the variations on sunflowers and daisies. Some grew wild across a wide swath of North America; others were Eurasian, like the giant fleabane, which hails from the Caucasus Mountains. Then I looked up to see the familiar silhouette of a sunflower-like plant, almost lurching as it shouldered its paired leaves and square stems toward the light. Silphium perfoliatum. I knew this plant. Like someone stretched out in a hammock, it sprawled its green limbs across the front yard of an old house we’d occupied in Chicago, eight feet tall and topped with a surprisingly dainty cluster of yellow flowers. I also knew its relation: compass plant, the talismanic silphium Aldo Leopold describes in A Sand County Almanac, a solitary survivor along the unmowed edge of a highway, which symbolized the loss of a quintessential Midwestern landscape and inspired a movement to restore the tallgrass prairie.

Flowers at Great Dixter Gardens
Great Dixter Gardens, Sussex. [James Barilla]

It struck me that the silphium at Great Dixter was not misplaced, even if seeing it evoked a prairie restoration project I had once visited in Wisconsin, where the bluestem grass was like an inland wave breaking over the path. Maybe it had been planted here to reflect the “New Perennial” movement, whose hallmark was a structural mix of grasses and perennials left to display the architecture of their ripening seed heads. Whatever the reason, in this exceptionally hot and arid summer, amid the sheep-flecked fields more brown than green, I had the sense that I was experiencing an English vision of tallgrass prairie. The garden was a violation of categories, a composition in which some of the elements and ideas were brought from elsewhere. It wasn’t intrinsically an expression of what was, even if it was more respectful of the ecology, more in keeping with the limits and contours of the location, than prior designs.

The garden was a violation of categories, a composition in which some of the elements and ideas were brought from elsewhere.

I happened to know the natural history of silphium because I’d studied it. For Leopold and his followers, the compass plant inspired questions about what a landscape should look like. What is native to a place? What is local? What belongs? How can we recover what was? But it made no sense to ask those questions of this specimen, situated as it was in an English prairie, surrounded by plants whose histories I didn’t know.

Back in my mother-in-law’s garden, I tried to harness the devotion I felt toward plants I’d deemed native and apply it to cosmopolitan species. I made an inventory of familiar plants with unfamiliar histories. Where did they come from? Who hybridized them, brought them in from the wilderness, so that they could thrive in a new location? How did they contribute to what is, rather than what was? I learned that kniphofia, the red hot poker or torch lily, was named for the German botanist Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, who in the 18th century established a library of plant specimens and authored a reference book that popularized a new illustration technique. The first kniphofia to register with horticulturalists was Kniphofia uvaria, a species that sends up long fleshy stems tapering to bright rings of tubular, nectar-rich flowers, like the arms of an ornamental squid. A 19th-century journal article described the plant’s long botanic history and the many naturalists who had weighed in on its name and classification. Theophrastus, a gardening contemporary of Aristotle, referred to it as an iris in his ancient compendium; Lamarck classified it as an aloe; Linnaeus assigned the genus Aletris. Over the centuries it was known as Tritoma, Yeltheimia, Thritomanthe.

Kniphofia uvaria at St. Michael's Mount, England
Kniphofia at St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. [Rachel Greenbelt]

I imagined all these faces looming over the plant — renaming it, re-categorizing it, claiming that it belonged here and there. And now my face, contemplating a kniphofia cultivar some whimsical person had named Bees’ Sunset, which had been planted in a corner of the garden to illuminate a background of English ivy. We impose these taxonomic lines as if they’re embedded in the soil, but they’re nothing a plant would recognize. What is diversity but a defiance of the impulse to categorize?

Plants from all over converge in my mother-in-law’s English cottage garden. Some of them also appear at my home in South Carolina. They are plants with complex histories whose presence can’t be read in strictly ecological terms. My garden doesn’t register its inhabitants on a binary ledger, as native or foreign. It’s a cosmopolitan space — an American version of a Remain garden. As I curate that space, I try to recognize and embrace complexity rather than erase it. There are still no campaign signs in my garden. The plants are the sign, a declaration of who is welcome here.

James Barilla, “Brexit in the Garden,” Places Journal, August 2019. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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