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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.