Janna SchreierA relationship between nature & gardens

On a recent walk through bushland on the Central Coast of New South Wales, I contemplated the relationship between nature and gardens. I always feel relaxed when I am in the bush. All my worries disappear; I breathe in the fresh air, absorb the green vegetation all around me and feel more alive than ever. Wouldn’t it be great if we could bottle up that feeling and take it home with us?

Maitland Bay Walking Track: cool, serene, beautiful. Photo: Janna Schreier

Maitland Bay Walking Track: cool, serene, beautiful. Photo: Janna Schreier

And yet we don’t want bush for our gardens. Perhaps bush and garden, but we don’t want virgin land immediately surrounding our homes.

We want something with more impact, more tidiness, more order. And all this makes perfect sense. Our houses, after all, have immense impact and order, and we want a fitting stage for them.

We also want to be creative, to stamp our own mark on our land and probably, whether we admit it or not, to some degree demonstrate control over it. But are we really creating something better than nature, in following this process?

I quickly reaffirmed to myself there that was a place for nature and there was a place for gardens. Both equally beautiful, but each with its own role to play. The debate then, is on a scale with manicured perfection at one end and wilderness on the other, where should our gardens sit?

I don’t really believe in the word ‘should’, but I do have views on my own preferences. And I find it fascinating how my preferences change over time. When we turned the corner on our walk and saw Maitland Beach, accessible only by foot or by boat, my breathing stopped for a second. And, as always, I tried to pinpoint why it was so stunning to me.

Looking through the Crinum to Maitland Beach. Photo: Janna Schreier

Looking through the Crinum to Maitland Beach. Photo: Janna Schreier

My original, design-based study days came flooding back to me. For here, in front of me, was perfection in colour, in texture, in form, unity, harmony, contrast, repetition, balance… I could see all the buzz words demonstrated in front of me, all perfectly modelled; clearer than I had ever seen in my life. And yet what is perfection?

Contrast: so many different tones, different textures, different forms. Harmony: only three base colours (blue, green, sand); purely water, mineral and vegetable, all in their natural state. Photo: Janna Schreier

Contrast: so many different tones, different textures, different forms. Harmony: only three base colours (blue, green, sand); purely water, mineral and vegetable, all in their natural state. Photo: Janna Schreier

A decade ago, I visited Bermuda and I remember thinking then, that this must be perfection. Immaculate white sands and bright, blindingly turquoise seas. Nothing else in sight for miles. Literally, not a leaf out of place.

Stunning driftwood on Maitland Beach. Could any other sculpture be more apt? Photo: Janna Schreier

Stunning driftwood on Maitland Beach. Could any other sculpture be more apt? Photo: Janna Schreier

But I notice that my taste, ten years later, has developed. I now look at the driftwood with marvel. I am fascinated by the texture and shapes formed by seaweed. And I can’t imagine anything more perfect, than this very non-perfect, rustic look.

Slippery, slimy rolls of seaweed at Maitland Beach. Do they add or subtract to your experience? Photo: Janna Schreier

Slippery, slimy rolls of seaweed at Maitland Beach. Do they add or subtract to your experience? Photo: Janna Schreier

This reflects my current personal preferences for gardens. I love to plant in irregular drifts, a few solitary specimens dotted close by, as if self sown in the wind. I love to plant the same species diagonally across narrow pathways, as if the path was formed after years of wear and tear, but the plants live on either side.

And it occurred to me then, that harmony is just as important as contrast. I talk about contrast being especially important for Australian native plantings, but that’s only because we generally go too far down the harmonious route. Too much of the small leaved, dull green, 1.5 metre shrubs. I talk of contrast without dominance, and that is exactly what I saw that day.

Harmony and contrast: bold, jagged forms of sandstone cliff alongside tiny sand particles weathered to create the smoothest, flattest of surfaces. Photo: Janna Schreier

Harmony and contrast: bold, jagged forms of sandstone cliff alongside tiny sand particles weathered to create the smoothest, flattest of surfaces. Photo: Janna Schreier

Contrast everywhere, but no one aspect taking dominance over any other. The whole, so at ease, so calming. Nothing jarring, nothing incongruous with the rest. And yet if you stop and look, you see so much complexity, so much depth, so many levels to its beauty.

Much of the relaxing feel of the bush is that holistic harmony around you. Everything looks like it is meant to be there, you are not distracted by busyness, you absorb the overall feel of the place, which has sat there, largely unchanged, for thousands of years. We see contrasts in heavy, solid, upright, twisting trunks supporting delicate, paper-thin, vulnerable leaves dangling and swaying in the wind; contrast within the harmony.

Contrasting colours, forms and textures all within a single Eucalyptus punctata. I also had to stop and look for koalas - this is one of their favourite trees! Photo: Janna Schreier

Contrasting colours, forms and textures all within a single Eucalyptus punctata. I also had to stop and look for koalas – this is one of their favourite trees! Photo: Janna Schreier

In our gardens too, we want that balance of contrast and harmony. To find complementary colours, forms and textures that sit comfortably together and yet exist without monotony. We need connections between plant characteristics that unify a planting composition, but we need variety also. And in our gardens, the challenge is to do all this on a much smaller scale.

Spinifix sericeus grass at Maitland Beach. Just look at how many colours make up this photo and yet observe the harmony of the overall composition. Complexity and simplicity. Harmony and contrast. Photo: Janna Schreier

Spinifix sericeus grass at Maitland Beach. Just look at how many colours make up this photo and yet observe the harmony of the overall composition. Complexity and simplicity. Harmony and contrast. Photo: Janna Schreier

Harmony and contrast; balance. It’s an exceedingly fine line that we never quite touch; just slightly on this side, then slightly on that. We may get close, but there is always scope to change, to improve and to keep gardening. We never quite finish.

Wherever you sit on the manicured—wilderness scale, we can all be inspired by nature and take from it new idea after new idea to enhance our own little piece of paradise. Open your eyes and be amazed at what you see and what it is that you can bring home to your own garden.

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Janna Schreier

About Janna Schreier

Garden designer, writer, and blogger, Janna has designed and created hundreds of gardens across the three countries she has called home—the UK, Australia and Malaysia. Currently based in London, she loves to travel and explore gardens all over the world. Her passion is to capture beautiful garden images wherever she goes and evaluate what it is, precisely, that makes each garden work so well. She uses this knowledge in designs for her clients and in her aim to enthuse all whose paths she crosses on the wonderful, vast and diverse merits of gardening. You can find Janna’s blog at Janna Schreier

12 thoughts on “A relationship between nature & gardens

  1. An insightful post, Janna. One of the talks I give regularly is about using art in gardens. My favourite photo from that talk shows trees in a forest, thin trunks standing straight with two trees that have fallen on a diagonal. Art created by nature. When I show this image, I always see heads nodding in agreement. As you say, in our gardens the trick is to find the balance point. I look forward to reading future posts.

    • Thanks, Pat. Yes, a fallen tree could easily be dismissed and tidied away, but if you stop and look, can be beautiful just as it is. I love garden art that is influenced by nature; there are so many creative examples I have seen, each being quite unique and always very inspiring.

  2. Adriana Fraser on said:

    Insightful words Janna your words and descriptions evoke such wonderful mental images. Great blog!

    • Thanks very much, Adriana. I am glad you enjoyed it. The prolific natural beauty of this country inspires me to dream!

  3. Your piece made my day, Janna! I love your recognition of colour, texture, form – and most of all, of harmony and contrast. For me these last two are the key to a natural landscape and to a wonderful garden. So many designed gardens today are monotonous and predictable …. you look at them, and they don’t stimulate anything in your vision or your mind. And they don’t grow on, instead they are cut back so that they look just the same. I am reminded of how the fine South Australian designer Viesturs Cielens told me that ‘a garden is a continuum, not a creation at a moment in time. It should be allowed to evolve, with designer and garden-maker receptive to that evolution.’ As you say, we never quite finish!

    • What a lovely comment, Anne, thanks so much. I completely agree with Viesturs Cielens. Of course, clients are ‘king’ and we design to their needs and wants, but there is nothing I find more engaging than a client who appreciates real depth and breadth in a design and who enjoys the evolutionary process of making a garden. If I can inspire others to embrace the journey, full of joy, surprise and pleasure, rather than simply ‘install’ an instant, year-round, static garden, then I feel I have done my job.

  4. Anne Vale on said:

    inspiring article Janna, reminds me of Ellis Stones, our mid century natural style landscape designer whose attitude was to take your design cue from the natural environment because ‘nature always does it better’. What a contrast to those static, contemporary installations where plant material is added as a last minute adornment, no food for the soul or the senses!

    • Thank you, Anne. Funnily enough, I originally called this article ‘Nature Knows Best’, but somewhere along the line it changed. You have given me a good prompt to revisit some of Ellis Stones’ work and thinking. I came across it when I was studying, a number of years ago, but you are quite right, I think I would be even more aligned to it now. I’ll do some reading!

  5. Zoé on said:

    Janna reading this on a chill winter morning from far away Glastonbury on the Somerset Levels brought an ache to my heart for lost landscapes. If I had known more folk like you in the decades I lived Downunder I doubt I would have left. Everything you write echoes the beloved landscape here – and many local gardens of modest mien reflect the land, a land of seasonal flourish – but you share the wildness of the Australian landscape which reaches into the soul. I’m touched with nostalgia by your photos – all five senses awakened; a visceral response. Thank you. Zoé

    • Zoé, how beautifully you describe ‘lost landscapes’. I too, find I am deeply touched by the Australian landscape; more so than by the English, despite spending the first 30 years of my life there. I am not sure if it is because Australia is so unique, so strong, so powerful in its geology and flora or whether it is simply easier to appreciate a beauty that you were not brought up with and hence take for granted. Either way, I feel connected with the landscape here in a very special way, although I have to say, a winter chill on the Somerset Levels does sound very romantic!

  6. Janna, you certainly picked one of the most beautiful spots on the Central Coast. Maitland Bay has become one of my favourite haunts since moving here. The forest walk with its ancient Angophora costata, assorted eucs all interspersed with crowea, ferns and macrozamia is superb. One question though, is the tree you call Eucalyptus punctuata really that or an angophora? I wonder as the image on my screen is a bit dark. Grey gums often have a visibly orange bark quite different to the salmon of A. costata.

    • I am very jealous that you live in the area! It is just stunning and you have reminded me that it was the first time I had ever come across Crowea in the wild. You may be right on the gum. It really was very orange; that’s what caught my attention in the first place and having looked back I do have another photo showing a very bright colour. I did check that E. punctata grows in the area, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain that this was one. Let me know if you go walking and see it – it was on the right hand side about half way towards the beach!!

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