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Garden Design

Review: ‘Connected’ by Phillip Johnson

Janna Schreier

Janna Schreier

April 29, 2015

If natural, Australian style gardens are your thing, you’d have to go a long way to find a book more inspiring than Phillip Johnson’s ‘Connected – The Sustainable Landscapes of Phillip Johnson’. From the moment you pick up this exquisite book, you won’t want to put it down; everything from the cover onwards is beautifully presented and the talented Claire Takacs’ photography makes you hungry for more with every page.

Connected’ is written as a series of twenty garden case studies, beginning with the garden Phillip grew up in, moving on to his current home garden and incorporating many designs he has created for private residences and international shows, culminating with the Chelsea Best in Show, 2013.

Phillip Johnson's ‘Equilibrium’ garden: MIFGS 2012. Photo: Janna Schreier

Phillip Johnson’s ‘Equilibrium’ garden: MIFGS 2012. Photo: Janna Schreier

Each case study has a description of the brief and resultant garden but this book is a classic case of ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, with images stealing the show. The text is not entirely free of inconsistencies (was he 5 or 8 when he designed his first garden?), unusual assertions (Aspidistra is a ‘typical English plant’ – which doesn’t survive frosts) or questionable logic (Hydrangea planted to monitor a billabong’s water pH), nor does Phillip hide his light under a bushel (‘the Royal Horticultural Society.…fell in love with our concept and with my passion and drive….’), but as the story progresses, you can’t help but admire this man. As Phillip describes googling the Queen’s height in order to optimise the Chelsea garden studio’s dimensions for royalty, it is clear what a hard working, single-minded, passionate designer he is.

Trailfinders Australian garden presented by Flemings Design Phillip-Johnson Chelsea Flower Show 2013

Trailfinders Australian garden presented by Flemings. Design Phillip Johnson. Chelsea Flower Show 2013

Phillip describes the impact of time spent as a teenager in rural national parks on his desire to replicate the natural environment in his designs. He has a particular passion for waterfalls and loves to design landscapes that capture water to use within the home and garden, using natural filtration methods for swimming pools. He is a huge proponent of sustainability and whilst many of his designs have made great leaps in this agenda, one wonders how removing large rocks from their natural location and transporting them many miles to an unnatural location can fit comfortably with this sustainability message. Phillip’s own garden in Olinda and ‘Lubra Bend’ in Yarra Glen are standouts of the book: stunning rural gardens that blend perfectly with their surrounding landscapes; the suburban gardens work to greater and lesser extents and arguably have both positive and negative impacts on sustainability.

Garden at Lubra Bend. Design Phillip Johnson. Photo Anne Vale

Garden at Lubra Bend. Design Phillip Johnson. Photo Anne Vale

Overall, there is no question that this is one of the best books in existence providing visual ideas for an Australian style garden. It doesn’t give much away in the form of written design tips, but the photos are clear and attractive, with a good mix of broad angle and close up shots; they alone will develop your thinking on Australian landscapes (and leave you dreamy with desire for one).

'Equilibrium', complete with Hydrangea. Photo: Janna Schreier

‘Equilibrium’, complete with Hydrangea. Photo: Janna Schreier

In particular, if you are thinking of commissioning Phillip Johnson to design your garden, this book will give you an extremely good insight in to what you would receive. Phillip is undoubtedly one of the leading landscape designers to focus entirely on natural, Australian gardens and even professional designers call on him to help with their home billabong construction. His publication is not only an ideas book, but also one with a ‘feel good’ message, portraying the triumph of passion and hard work over pretension and perfection, particularly demonstrated through the Chelsea exhibit. Frankly, in the world of gardening, what characteristics could possibly be more apt or feel more deserving of success than those of passion and hard work? It is uplifting to read of the achievements so justified in this story of exceptional focus and determination.

Phillip Johnson's '5000 Poppies' at MIFGS 2015. Photo: Janna Schreier

Phillip Johnson’s ‘5000 Poppies’ at MIFGS 2015. Photo: Janna Schreier

Connected – The Sustainable Landscapes of Phillip JohnsonPublished November 2014 by Murdoch Books; RRP: $59.99AUD; 304 pages; ISBN: 9781743363331; ISBN-10: 1743363338

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Adriana Fraser
Adriana Fraser
9 years ago

I agree Catherine – his rock placement is exceptional and rivals Ellis Stones gardens back in the day.
Re his gaffs in the books: It takes years to learn discipline in writing i.e. how to write without making strange assumptions and sweeping comments (e.g. the hydrangea – by the time the flower colour has changed it is already too late as far as pH is concerned – it is a long chemical process that initiates changes in flower colour, so not something to be relied on or imitated. Just do regular pH checks!)
He is a very talented (as well as charming) young man though and his designs are admirable.

9 years ago
Reply to  Adriana Fraser

I researched Ellis Stones as part of my studies some years ago and whilst I am sure he was extremely talented, he definitely didn’t leave behind a legacy of coffee table book appeal that Phillip Johnson has now given us. I think the images of Phillip’s gardens are so valuable in 2015, bringing the Australian style of garden bang up to date. I am a strong believer in gardens having a sense of place and so to have these inspirational photos for all to see is just wonderful.

9 years ago

Thanks for the review Janna. Philip certainly does some interesting projects, so it was good to get your thoughts and insights about his book and projects.

9 years ago
Reply to  steven

It is so refreshing to see the outputs of someone with a really creative mind, producing designs that stand apart from most others around us. It gives us lots of food for thought.

Catherine Stewart
9 years ago

I think that Phillip has the best eye for rock placement since the great Ellis ‘Rocky’ Stones retired back in the 1970s. Phillip’s bigger landscape projects look SO natural, it’s hard to believe they’re not. Even the smaller residential gardens with mini dry creek beds and little ponds quickly develop that feeling of ‘it’s always been like this’. However, as someone who tries not to import or export materials from my own garden as much as I can, I do have some qualms about the taking large rocks around the countryside.

9 years ago

Rocks are such a fundamental part of our landscape; I think they provide a sense of Australia almost as strongly as the ubiquitous gum tree. From Darwin to Devonport and Perth to Port Macquarie, rocks add so much to our natural, rural beauty. If they can be found within a site and manipulated to great effect, we have the best of all worlds.