In The Garden Against Time (Norton, June), Laing meditates on how gardens reveal the values of the societies that create them.

You discuss restoring the garden at your Suffolk home. How did that experience inform your research?

I worked on the garden for two years and kept a garden diary. I thought about writing a book, but I didn’t do any of the archival work that I would usually do for nonfiction because it was the pandemic and everything was closed. That downtime facilitated an intense presence of being able to think about the garden, and then the research and writing process took place after that.

Can you talk about the relationship between gardening as an activity and the garden as a physical space?

I think it’s parallel to the relationship between writing as an activity and the book as a physical space. The gardener never really enters their garden, because for them it’s always a work in progress. The garden is a thing that somebody else enters. That’s similar to making a book. It’s in your hands until the moment when it isn’t, and then it belongs to other people. While it’s in your hands, it’s constantly malleable. But there comes a point when it’s time for somebody else to come in, and they experience it as a finished product, whereas to the person who’s making it, it’s never a finished product.

You write that “the gardener is initiated into a different understanding of time.” Could you elaborate on that idea?

For the gardener, everything is happening in a constant unfolding “now,” which is a lovely antidote to the kind of time that we’re caught upcin as humans living through late capitalism. There’s an explosion
of growth and then a dying back, creating a sense that fertility and rot belong together. The idea that growth can be wrung out of the planet indefinitely is the illusion that’s leading us into climate change. Witnessing garden time is a way to learn to live on the planet more harmoniously, ethically, and sustainably.

You discuss the profusion of wild flora at a WWII bombing site as if it were a garden. How do you draw the boundary between wilderness and garden?

A garden involves human participation. Tomato plants were found in those bomb sites because office workers dropped seeds from their lunches there. One of the things that I found super exciting about this blurry edge between wilderness and garden is there’s been so much interest in rewilding as the solution to ecological catastrophe, but research suggests garden space might be even richer if it’s tended in a loose way that’s in tandem with nature. The constant disturbances that the gardener makes create a habitat in its own right. That, for me, was deeply consoling—discovering that our desire to make spaces that are purely beautiful might have positive effects for species beyond our own.