Janna SchreierGreening Grey Australia

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the UK is currently running a campaign called ‘Greening Grey Britain’. And all jokes aside about the English weather (having just got back from a full week of mist and cloud, gosh, there is truth in the jokes!), there is a serious objective here. Over the past decade, the Brits have been paving over their front gardens; so much so that there has been an increase of 39 square kilometres of ‘grey’ within front gardens alone; one in three now have no plants at all.

And so the campaign is a call to action, asking the nation to:

‘transform hard, cold, grey areas into living, planted, beautiful places that enrich lives and benefit the environment’.

Garden designer, Lisa Cox’s, award winning RHS Cardiff Flower Show entry, clearly demonstrating that a front garden can be both practical and beautiful. Photo: Lisa Cox

Garden designer, Lisa Cox’s, award winning RHS Cardiff Flower Show entry, clearly demonstrating that a front garden can be both practical and beautiful. Photo: Lisa Cox

When I saw the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers’ (AILDM) National Design Award winners last month, my heart sank. I thought of grey Britain and realised that we are at serious risk of going the same way ourselves. Yes, we are fortunate to have our blue skies most days, but we seem to be increasingly ripping out trees and shrubs and replacing them with paving and pools. We don’t want anything that might drop a leaf on our hard surfaces, heaven forbid, so we’ll just have a few neat plants along the side and then paving all the way.

Winning design: AILDM's 2015 Allan Correy Award

Winning design: AILDM’s 2015 Allan Correy Award

Technically, I am sure the winning garden (above) of AILDM’s most prestigious Allan Correy Award did excel, but if there was 10% green space I’d be surprised. Is this really a garden?

As I looked down the list of AILDM winning gardens, the story was the same. Only one, the ‘Plantscape’ winner, had a clear majority of green over grey and almost all were about expensive, showy constructions, not living, beautiful gardens. The marginalised planting was static, year round green infrastructure, any flowering shrubs clipped free of buds and seasonal variation not required. Even the categories of the awards were defined in terms of money: the ‘Residential $150,000+’ category and the ‘Commercial More than $100,000’ category.

AILDM is in a tricky position. It can only award winners to gardens that enter the race. And clearly property owners are asking for paving and pools. The awards are also based on meeting a brief, documentation excellence and innovative solutions to difficult sites, alongside planting and other criteria associated with aesthetics and end product.

But it seems these award winners do symbolise a sad trend in gardening. A trend of ripping out trees and mixed garden beds, of outsourcing garden maintenance and focussing on impressive builds at the expense of the myriad benefits a ‘true’ garden provides. An increasing number of robust, scientific studies show significant physical and mental health benefits; the ability to filter the air and reduce pollution; the reduction in flood risk; the benefits of a balanced ecosystem; all provided by biodiverse gardens.

Ironically, the RHS also site one campaign aim as reducing the risk of heat waves, aided by the cooling effects of shade, evapotranspiration and the reflective properties of plants. If the UK think they have a problem with urban heat island effect, what about us?

Janna's front garden

Not perfect, by a long measure, but I do so enjoy looking out on and coming home to greenery in my front garden. Photo: Janna Schreier

I love plants and I love writing about plants, but my real passion is exploring garden design and articulating what makes a particular garden so good. Why does it make all the worries of the world disappear when you are in it? What makes the arrangement of plants so satisfying to the eye? My personal blog is primarily full of uplifting reviews of stunning gardens around the world, picking out ideas that we can all use in our own spaces. I believe gardens and nature are an enormously powerful source of inspiration, mood elevation and stress relief and prefer to write in a way that aims to promote and realise these benefits. But there is an elephant in the room that perhaps needs mentioning. If the increasingly small circles of gardening types sit back and ignore the trends that are happening in front of their eyes, perhaps we will reach a point of no return.

A point where the only nurseries that can make ends meet are those that churn out the Murraya and Buxus. A point where our ecosystems are so out of kilter that they can never return to good health. A point where gardens are so unfashionable that reversing the trend and spending the money to return constructed spaces to green spaces becomes almost unthinkable.

This to me is a landscape (and a particularly nice one, in the Brecon Beacons, Wales). Is our evolving definition of the word ‘landscape’ heading in the direction of significant problems? Photo: Janna Schreier

This to me is a landscape (and a particularly nice one, in the Brecon Beacons, Wales). Is our evolving definition of the word ‘landscape’ heading in the direction of significant problems? Photo: Janna Schreier

I identify with being a garden designer. I grew up thinking that a landscape was a view of fields and forests or a Capability Brown country estate with groves of trees, sweeping lawns and a flowing stream. But after six years in Australia, when I hear the word ‘landscape’, I now think of paving and pools. And whilst a paved area for a table is undeniably beneficial, and a small pool in a large garden a nice addition for an active family, do we not have our gardens way out of balance?

Is it just me, or do others think we might need a Greening Grey Australia campaign, in this remarkably blue-skied country? And if so, how on earth would we go about it?

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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

22 thoughts on “Greening Grey Australia

  1. Hi Janna

    I certainly think Perth might need a bit of re-greening. The first time I came to Perth (1998) the thing that really struck me was the space. I was lucky enough to live (in a share house) in the western suburbs and loved the big blocks with big gardens and established trees. So many of those older places have now been sub-divided and developed – and replaced with big houses and small gardens. Most of the new designs / makeovers that are featured in the local magazines & papers demonstrate a majority of grey over green and, it seems, a surprising lack of shade trees / cool areas for a place with a summer as long and as hot as ours. Sadly housing blocks are being sub-divided and/or developed at a crazy rate – and a few so-called ‘architectural plants’ seem a sad replacement for the trees, shrubs and gardens that were demolished to make way for them.

    • Hi Amanda. Perth still feels very spacious to me, but then I guess it is all relative! It is such a shame that most feel a bigger house is their priority. We’ve just sold our house and are looking at much smaller places now. I’m going to have a huge declutter and it feels so good! Many people don’t seem to even think about the benefits of shade trees. It is curious.

  2. I had the same response as Janna. The winner was great design but it did leave me wondering what Allan Correy, whose name is used for this award, would think about a garden where the use of plants was minimal.

  3. Agree with every word. We need to find a way to live with and preserve nature, and have it in our lives rather than eradicate it. It is a much needed change of heart from ‘tame the earth’ to loving it. New Pope calls it ‘ecological conversion’. Embrace the mess and chaos and joy of cherishing and connecting with the natural world .

  4. Yes, yes, yes,
    When did architecture come to dominate landscape in the profession, or design become more important than garden for that matter? I am so over garden reviews swimming in superlatives that have more interest the structural hard surfaces than the plants, that elevate the product over the process of gardening. But that’s what you get when you have an industry dominated by design professionals and their clients, who think of gardens as design solutions rather than spaces to garden in, when we have laws that encourage people to cut down trees rather than plant and preserve them.
    I spent half of last Friday defending street trees I had planted from the chain saws of the power company who have the legal right to butcher our streetscapes in the name of fire safety, in a suburb that has not seen a bushfire in almost a century. Unfortunately they lopped off 9/10s of the crown of one before I could stop them. Risk management they call it. Instead of leaving trees in place to reduce the risk of overheating due to urban heat sink effect of all that unshaded bitumen, they cut down the trees so that people will use more electricity to keep cool in the face of global warming (yet another heat record broken last month!), and keep them burning coal to keep up the electricity supply. How’s that for a nifty design solution! Perfect if you own a coal company. Global warming? Bring it on! Keep those rivers of revenue flowing, because they are the only ones not at risk of drying up.

    The short-sightedness of it all is breathtaking. Sadly, I don’t think any amount of horticultural society campaigns will make a jot of difference.

    • Paul, I don’t know a single AILDM designer who wouldn’t rather fill a garden with plants than hardscape but they have to include what their clients want or they don’t get paid. And as a well-known designer of large-scale landscapes once said to me, “if someone regularly entertains 100 people, how can I tell them they’ll all have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a pissy bit of paving?” It’s usually when someone wants the impossible – a tennis court on a 1:4 slope (well maybe that’s a tiny exaggeration) that a professional landscape designer is hired, and then expected to produce something beautiful that performs the functions demanded. These clients are deeply suspicious of anyone who even uses the ‘g’ word. While we can blame the artisan who couldn’t make the silk purse from the sow’s ear, the truth of it is that many homeowners will never think of the space outside their home as a garden, but as a carpark, utility space, storage facility, sports ground or junk yard. Occasionally a landscape designer gets to improve at least marginally on how they’d achieve those outcomes themselves.
      And I think you’re right, the only thing that changes people’s minds is money.
      It’s very sad to hear about your trees. So much environmental damage is being done across NSW in the misguided idea that it will protect us from bushfires. In my street, every day the area outside my home is full of construction workers’ cars parked in the shade of my street trees, while they work to complete a row of 5 new monstrous 3-storey homes with large windows, no eaves, and so close together that they couldn’t fit in a shrub between them. No doubt a landscape designer will be called in to sort that lot out when Council demands some landscaping before an occupation certificate is granted.

    • Thanks, Paul. You have beautifully articulated the irony of cutting down trees to facilitate power lines for firing up aircon. It is comical and appalling at the same time.
      I, too, fear that campaigns don’t make so much difference. The RHS have said that 1,311 people have pledged to add plants to their front gardens, but how meaningful is this really? I feel that genuinely passionate gardeners, talking to (and showing) their friends and families about the what and how and why of gardening, is more likely to have impact. Personal contact from others we trust is usually more effective.
      I take your point about designers and feel they do have some things to answer for. Collectively, they influence what is portrayed as aspirational, contemporary outdoor living, but I do feel they play an important role. Some designers act as mentors or coaches, enthusing and encouraging those that want to have a go but lack confidence. Others create something so in tune with its owners that they unexpectedly get the gardening bug, once they have something beautiful and manageable in front of them.
      There is clearly no magic wand, but it would be nice if we could all do our bit to infect those around us with the bug we have caught!

  5. Why do we worry about a few leaves on the ground/path/driveway whatever? This is natural, shouldn’t we be embracing a natural landscape rather than a concrete jungle. This “grey” landscape is contributing to climate change not helping to overcome it

    • I have to admit, I’m guilty as charged in enjoying a well swept patio. But I think that is because we have such very formal outdoor areas; trying to look like indoor rooms. I dream of a more relaxed dining setting, where leaves add rather than detract, but I inherited what I have and one of the problems we face is trying to bridge the very wide gap between these types of spaces and nature, without a very large spend.

  6. An excellent thought provoking piece Janna. It seems to me that our culture has evolved in a way that people are too busy paying off their mortgage to garden. Especially in Sydney and Melbourne. Maybe we need to look at creating ways to make it easier for them to have plants such as vertical gardens where feeding and watering is made easy through technology so the rewards for effort are higher. Just a thought.

    • Thanks so much, Angus. Haven’t we just got ourselves into a mess over mortgages and free time?
      I couldn’t agree more that we need to make gardening less onerous, in order for it to appeal more widely. Whilst I’ve always thought there was a place for vertical gardens, my immediate reaction to your comment was that we don’t want too many of them. After all, they add more complexity and a number of systems that can then go wrong and require time, effort and money to fix, as opposed to a simple plant in the ground. But I do recognise that I’m a bit of a ludite (and girl) and that’s when the light bulb came on. I think you may have hit the nail on the head. Maybe EXACTLY what we need is to bring gardening into the 21st century. In a technology driven world, systems may be just what we need to appeal to many non-gardening types. Something they can relate to and that excites them. The plant loving hopefully evolving from there. Now you have got me thinking!

      • I don’t think it’s just a case of gardening been seen as onerous, or even time consuming. As Australia’s ethnic mix continues to change, so do the priorities and preferences of its population. I live in a suburb of largish, separate houses where, until about 10 years ago, people used to garden. But new-comers do not, as they don’t value the same things that I and other active gardeners do. I find it very sad to walk around a neighbourhood of front gardens filled with dead and dying plants, uncut lawns, ivy growing up trees and once pretty shrubs choked with thigh-high weeds but I know that what I see does not even register with my newer neighbours. Their world is an inside world, and what’s outside their house is of no interest. I don’t believe that they will ever become gardeners – unless maybe their neglect is shown to equal a fall in the value of their investment – but I will take comfort in the fact that vegetation of any kind is better than concrete.

        • Money is a huge motivator to many, it seems, but perhaps we’ll do a full circle at some point, when people realise the true value of plants. A client of mine, who had recently moved to Australia, stated his key objective was to maximise the resale value of his newly acquired (not yet moved into!) property, but in the process he had got extremely excited about plants, having researched extensively. He felt that horticulture might hold a future career for him: that food production was the next big thing and might tempt him away from his accountancy profession. Excitement for gardening can come from many different avenues!

        • It is interesting to read about your newer neighbours, Catherine. I came to this country 35 years ago, having lived in a concrete jungle apartment block 20 years with my parents and 10 more years as a young wife and mother. I craved greenery and plants. We built our tiny house on a 680sqM block and I became “the lady with the nice garden”. People stop me at the shops recognizing me though I do not know them commenting on my garden. The reason for it is that I am in the garden at sunrise, when I was younger late afternoon as well. They walk their dogs, bring children home from school and they recognise me. My garden is my life, I have trees and lawns that I still cut myself. I love garden design, go as often as possible to garden shows and design fests, the last one recently in Auckland but I am first and foremost a gardener and I think this is a secret to keeping Australia green, we need more gardeners.

  7. Janna, I read your blog and the accompanying comments with rapt attention. Enriching lives and benefiting the environment …right up my alley. I totally agree with each and every comment and directly relate to most in some way.
    I’m sure the various forms of media contribute to greying spaces by showing immaculate gardens, two minute TV gardens, and amazing OTT gardens that exceed the resources and ability of ordinary folk like me. Such gardens suggest that gardening is tantamount to magical. Certainly the greying trend is a complex one and there is no single solution.
    Some years ago one of my new neighbours told me she was saving up to put in her 4sq metre front garden. Really? What happened to grass runners and geranium cuttings for starters? True to her word the roll-on lawn and obligatory (at that time) palm trees arrived about two years later. That was the beginning and end of her garden.
    Yes I do try to infect others with my gardening bug. I DO embrace the mess and chaos (I tell myself) as the easterly winds dump three metre fronds and buckets of dates from the Canary Island Date Palm at my front door. I remind myself that trees are nature’s air conditioners as I search for plants totally buried under mounds of leaves and pink flowers from the Norfolk Island Hibiscus. I WAS touched by nature this morning when a cuckoo shrike flew overhead and dropped its purple deposit on my shirt, the result of a visit to the mulberry tree. But now I’m thinking of mulberry mess and it’s deminishing my love of trees. And two fledging mudlarks are under the verandah screaming at their mother for food…arrHH…its hard to cherish the joy of nature in such a din. Perhaps I COULD learn to like that well manicured sterile plot of bland nothingness to which everyone aspires.
    But wait…I do have a solution…Oprah! Apparently if she endorses something it becomes an instant success. So Janna, all you need to do is get Oprah to say she prefers green spaces to grey structures…problem solved.
    Seriously Janna, a great post.

    • Yes, Oprah could be our friend! It strikes me that most gardeners I know are not the pushy type and maybe that’s why our message doesn’t get out there so effectively. There are always others that are willing to shout loudly, but they are not necessarily the ones that are motivated by the same things as us.
      It does genuinely make me feel very sad to hear about your neighbour. Someone who has saved up for two years and then ends up with a characterless garden that presumably brings little pleasure. I guess we have moved from needing to garden ourselves by necessity (we had no money for more than geranium cuttings) to it being the cultural norm to pay someone huge sums to conform to a uniform, neat, but soulless look. Money has so much to answer for!

  8. A great article and some brilliant replies. I wonder how much water restrictions and costs play into the notion that a brick paved yard is to be aspired to. I know Midland brick was running an ad campaign over here in the west for a while espousing the water saving benefits of brick. Beyond that the water corp runs ads on TV asking gardeners to water by 2 minutes less each summer it seems. Perhaps there’s a certain amount of demonisation of gardening so that a green landscape can somehow be seen as wasteful rather than beneficial for the total environment. Personally I blame the expanse of roof and open paved areas for the decline in rainfall, now to prove it!

    • Thanks for your comment, Sue. Brick manufacturers telling us of the environmental virtues of paving reminds me of lawyers advertising that it’s a great idea to sue everyone and alarm companies telling us we shouldn’t feel safe in our own homes. I’d like to think that any demonisation of gardening will only result in a convenient excuse for disinterested types, rather than putting off those that are or might be interested, but maybe that’s naive of me. It certainly would be interesting to see scientific data connecting hard surfaces and rainfall.

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