Plenty of gardening books in Australia emphasise gardens, and how to look after them. But not so many focus on people who design gardens, and how they create them. When this was pointed out to me – more years ago than I care to admit! – a small light ignited in my head. ‘That is something I’d really like to explore, and write about,’ I thought. ‘Garden Voices’ is the result.
My new book profiles garden designers – past and present figures – who work all around Australia. It tells their life stories, and looks at examples of their work. It shares their ideas about designing, building and caring for gardens, and seeing them into the future.
As well, it goes beyond private gardens into public spaces, especially the parks and botanic gardens where city dwellers flock in ever-increasing numbers to relax and be with friends, to breathe fresh air, look at plants and the landscape.
How did I choose the designers who appear in ‘Garden Voices’? From the start it was clear to me that they would need to represent the amazing physical variety of the vast continent that is Australia. That their stories, and their work, should demonstrate how garden design has evolved here – and continues to evolve. That each should have an artistic ‘eye’. That they should make gardens ‘of their place’ – fitted to a site and its soil, suited to its climate, using appropriate plants.
I have always enjoyed interviewing people, discovering what makes them tick, and why they think the way they do. It’s a process that opens a whole new world.
So as I travelled around Australia to meet current practitioners, I didn’t just find out about them, I learnt from them. Look at these images of Vladimir Sitta, Craig Burton and Fiona Brockhoff – confident, practical, whimsical. I was inspired and as I talked to them, intrigued.
It was the same with the historic figures whose images I unearthed on the Web, in reference books, in art collections – like Walter Burley Griffin, William Guilfoyle, Kitty Henry. I saw their faces and immediately wanted to know more about what they believed, what they had achieved, and why.
I ended up with 19 designers (or design practices). The research for each was varied. Some didn’t take long – like Bernard Trainor, straight-talking and exciting, now working in the United States – but others, historic figures like Karl Langer (and Burley Griffin and Guilfoyle), involved months of reading and study.
A common factor was the designers’ broad focus. ‘Until we see with a different vision,’ Marion Blackwell observed, ‘we will never really belong to this land.’
Kate Cullity, of Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL), learned much from her husband, the late Kevin Taylor, about how to walk through the landscape, absorb every element, then use it as inspiration. She moves from the big picture to detail. ‘I’m always looking at our gardens critically,’ she says. ‘Every small element needs to be just right’.
Torquil Canning thinks big, yet is grounded. Tubestock, he told me, should be planted in a slight well or basin to collect run-off, especially on sloping sites or mounds. It was practical comments like this one that led me to add short lists of useful ‘tips’ for Australian garden-makers to my detailed examination of each designer’s key ideas. For Viesturs Cielens, those key ideas are as follows:
Let each place tell its story
Gardens must connect with the land
Let the garden lead the way
Keep it cheap, sweet and simple.
John Sullivan exudes fascination with plants. ‘We’ve scarcely touched the flora in Cape York’, he says. ‘There is so much still to be done!’ This was the same – half a century ago – for Betty Maloney and Jean Walker. These sisters designed and built gardens in Sydney for just one year, yet their two tiny books about using Australian plants sold more than 100,000 copies (and still sell second-hand).
Ellis Stones thought of plants more in terms of shape and habit, because for him it was the form of a garden that counted. And also its users. He wrote a magazine article entitled ‘Gardens are for people’ in 1946, several years before publication of Thomas Church’s best-selling book of that name.
Edna Walling responded to the Australian landscape as much as she did domestic gardens, in her design work and her writing. Kitty Henry believed that gardens should not only harmonise with homes but with whole streets. In creating public spaces, David Leech protects wildlife and promotes community involvement.
As does Bruce Mackenzie, who says: ‘We must move the admired landscape of the great Australian “outdoors” into the personal and public landscape of our inhabited places – and treat it with love and respect.’
Jim Sinatra and Phin Murphy find inspiration not only in the landscape – which they like to look at from on high, then abstract and interpret – but also in wider aspects like art, the way the Indigenous people see our land, and the rich heritage of immigrants like Turks and Afghanis.
Perry Lethlean (TCL) also thinks big. His concept for Canberra’s 250-hectare National Arboretum has a 100-year time frame. How broad – and how inspiring – is that? He describes its 94 forests of 100 different tree species as ‘a conservation legacy, a seedbank for the world, an Australian garden of the future.’
He’s right. In today’s world the present is all- important – and usually takes precedence – but what about the future? Perry is encouraging us to look ahead, as do all the designers in my book.
[Editor’s note: You can buy ‘Garden Voices – Australian designers, their stories’ (In bookstores around Australia. Or contact Anne through her website – annelatreille.com. There is also an excellent review at SMH.com ]