A plastic yellow duck bobs serenely in its plastic pond. Ghoulish bones seem to rise from a backyard burial ground. Brightly painted giant wheels frame a pristine lawn. From quirky to downright queer and weird to truly wonderful, everywhere that people garden, there are gardens that challenge the norm. What drives a gardenmaker to step so far outside the everyday, and to stand our preconceived ideas about how we should garden on their head?
I’m not talking quirky, or quaint, or one odd bit of sculpture. Eccentric gardens are way beyond the inclusion of some slightly off-the-wall item on your wall. Perhaps they need to pass either the ‘render you speechless’, or ‘make you say “oh my goodness” at least a couple of times’, test. Or just make you laugh out loud. A lot.
Most of the gardens we revere and strive to emulate are the ‘good’ gardens of the world; those of elegant proportions, restrained decoration, serene charm and timeless beauty, or, on a smaller domestic scale, those with pleasing definition, pretty but sensible plantings, secluded nooks and harmonious colours. A suburban backyard with outrageous ways of defining and making a garden is often dismissed, even described contemptuously as twee, weird, garish or childish. Snobbery, or a reasonable expression of taste?
Yet here, in these bizarre gardens, is perhaps one of the cornerstones of real gardening, the creation of a sense of place that is so strong, it is almost overwhelming. Belonging to their garden as much as it belongs to them, eccentric gardeners “reveal their determination to use their property to express publicly a very personal vision of what it means to live and belong there” (Noakes, 2007). The intensity with which a garden identifies itself as the creation of a particular person can give it a special kind of magic. Plants, ornament and garden structure become symbolic of much more than one person’s way of arranging things in an outdoor space.
Is it any less a garden because it is ruled by blue garden gnomes? Standard perceptions of good taste have straight jacketed garden design for centuries, although there were always artists, thriving on notoriety, who delighted in discomforting visitors to their gardens. In recent years, landscape architects have broken rules by making gardens without plants, gardens of plastic, glass and stone, and gardens with plants but used in contorted and uncomfortable ways. The creations of these new darlings of design would often seem just as weirdly eccentric to me as a garden filled with coloured doves or red telephone boxes.
In fact it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a truly eccentric show garden. Maybe designers (or their sponsors) have become wary of exciting too much controversy or negative opinion. But it’s what our garden shows lack, I think. I do long to be shocked again, as I was when I saw Jenny Smith Gardens wonderful homage to Martha Schwartz at the Melbourne Flower Show in 2008. Brilliant and memorable.
Gardens of the vernacular
Jill Noakes, a garden designer and writer based in Austin, Texas sees these unusual gardens as an expression of what is real and local to a gardener. Just like a local language dialect, a vernacular garden grows from the owner’s understanding and interpretation of the environmental, cultural and historical context of both the garden and the gardener.
This might be expressed in the use of local plants, found and reused discarded objects, displayed reverence for historical or religious events, or site stone reworked and combined in unusual and artistic ways. What results is intensely personal, revealing “sweet truths as well as worthwhile detours” for a garden visitor.
Humans have for millennia made their own buildings and spaces but now in most western countries, building has become so complicated, regulated and specialised that it is no longer possible for most of us to make our own homes. While we can individualise our houses to a certain extent, much of that is either superficial or internal.
The space that beckons as the perfect place to express our own peculiar identity is the garden, which remains:
“as one of the few common realms where people with ordinary means and skills can shape space with their own hands to create a personal expression that is visible to all” (Noakes, 2007).
Making an extraordinary and unusual garden takes either a particular level of self confidence or a complete disregard for societal norms or perhaps just a sense of humour that refuses to be contained. Some eccentric gardeners are, without doubt, as mad as hatters and have absolutely no idea that what they do is anything other than completely normal. To them, religious wall art made of old patio furniture and fans from the $2 shop are just what you do when you want to dedicate your wall to your god. Likewise, of course, gardens should always have a plastic donkey, an orange flipper hanging from the bird feeder and garden beds built from hundreds of discarded disposable razors. (Charlie Boyle’s garden in Eccentric Gardens, 1990)
Others rail against the creeping, bland homogeneity that is spreading across their world. As Kevin Keim, director of the Charles Moore Centre for the Study of Place says,
“As we all sense that everywhere looks more and more like nowhere, we seek out places that make us feel as though we were somewhere”.
By creating their own unique garden, they can stake out an island of individuality in a sea of boring ‘international style’ gardens. Should gardens in your own city look just like gardens in Durban, Los Angeles, Nice, Edinburgh and Sydney, with minor plant variations?
Many new housing estates impose regulations and rules on how their residents can garden; colours, plants and ornament must stay within strict definitions of tasteful design. While this secures predictability and order, these generic landscapes may also encourage “less understanding and tolerance of outsiders and a diminished sense of community and long term attachment” (Noakes, 2007). In contrast, eccentric gardens, rather than being frowned upon, often become the pride of the neighbourhood and a place where visitors, locals and the owner interact, creating a real sense of community.
Yet others find their garden to the best place in which to have fun and make others want to laugh with them. Whether you call it whimsy or playfulness, the eccentric humorist’s garden celebrates life and laughing; water squirts unsuspecting passers by, a painted mannequin torso erupts from a smooth green lawn, a ‘singing’ gloss-green toilet cistern graces the front wall, or a seemingly never-empty wine bottle fills a classically styled urn.
Bizarre juxtapositions, jarring colours and preposterous inclusions aren’t there just to be weird, as these gardeners also see the strangeness, and want us to laugh at it too. As Jane Owen suggests (in Eccentric Gardens, 1990), like Magritte’s witty and surreal artworks from the mid 19th century, such gardens demand that we stop taking life and what we have so seriously. While some might describe these garden surprises as crude and vulgar, they force us to question some of our preconceived ideas about beauty and worthiness and to see our gardens as something quintessentially to do with the messy business of being human, rather than displaying some ideal and therefore fake, world.
In some cases, the need to make strangely individual gardens is born from the constant struggle between gardener and environment, whether natural, societal or even financial. Inhospitable climates, scarce water and difficult soils often engender a pioneering spirit in a gardener, whose tiny garden victories then becomes a vibrant celebration. Those constrained by limited budgets learn to exhibit their individual style by shaping and decorating their gardens with scavenged materials and hand-made objects, as a statement of triumph over adversity and a reflection of a life motto that everything (including themselves) can be useful.
Poetry and science
For other gardeners, a fascination with another subject area that don’t we usually associate with growing plants can be played out in the garden. Mathematics and science infuse the beautiful sculptured earth of Charles Jencks’ The Garden of Cosmic Speculation where black holes, quarks and fractals find an everyday place. For Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, it was poetry, and he ‘wrote’ poems with plants, paths, spaces, sculpture and included text, creating what designer Sir Roy Strong described as:
“the only really original garden made in this country since 1945”.
Collecting and control
It may begin as a single, innocent purchase or gift but before sanity can prevail, it becomes an all-consuming passion, which takes over much of the garden. The collector sees no virtue in restraint, instead becoming obsessed with the need to complete and display the collection, be it garden gnomes or hellebores. Collecting is a curious pursuit, perhaps born from a primeval hunter-gatherer instinct.
While there are some who see the manicured garden as normal, when taken to extremes, it shows the same obsession and individuality as the cluttered eccentric garden. Plants are required to conform to implausible ideas of geometric rigidity and are clipped so frequently, one wonders that they dare to send out a single new shoot. Passers-by are frequently as surprised by this kind of garden as they would be of one with surreal inclusions.
In many eccentric gardeners, there is a driving need to create something memorable, an urgent need to leave their mark, tell their story or make a point in some way. Ironically, as these gardens only exist because of the creative drive of an individual, when that individual leaves the garden (in one way or another), it will soon cease to exist. While some historic gardens full of strange and beautiful whimsy have survived their creators, most are soon made over, reflecting a new owner’s taste or current fashion. Although this may feel like a loss, if such a garden were frozen in time without the unique mania of its creator, it would soon become either a sad memorial or a pale reflection, and no longer an exuberant, eccentric expression of life.
There are many historical gardens filed with frivolity and fun, although I think it is hard to maintain the same sense with the original creator long-gone. Schloss Hellbrunn in Austria springs to mind (that’s a pun I’m afraid), where Archbishop Markus Sitticus with a wicked sense of humour created wonderful alfresco early 17th century dining – complete with seats that squirted water up at the unsuspecting diner’s bottoms.
[If you have a photo of an eccentric garden you’d like to share, email it to email@example.com and I can include them in a new gallery]
Nokes, Jill (with Pat Jasper), 2007, Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home, University of Texas Press, ISBN 9780292716797
Owen, Jane, 1990, Eccentric Gardens, Pavilion Books, London, ISBN1851453881
Isaacs, Jennifer, Quirky Gardens, 1996, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, ISBN 0898157900
Taylor, Gordon and Cooper, Guy, 2001 Gardens of Obsession: Eccentric and Extravagant Visions, Seven Dials, ISBN 1841880930