Are We Seeing a New Australian Aesthetic?

A view through the arches at Queens' College, Cambridge, with petunias spilling over the window sills

The gardens in Cloister Court, Queens’ College, Cambridge; the buildings commenced construction in 1460

Whilst European cultures have been developing garden styles for thousands of years (the oldest surviving garden design manual was written by the Roman, Vitruvius, in 27BC), with the exception of aboriginal firestick agriculture, this is all a pretty new thing to us Australians.

In the early days of settlement, historical records tell us that many pined for England and set about replicating the familiar green look as far as possible. It was also a status symbol to be able to afford the plants, water and upkeep of such frankly unsuitable surroundings.

As time has gone on, and droughts have tested us, we have broadly dismissed the most ridiculous plant choices. However, our gardens are still largely ‘English green’ as opposed to ‘Australian grey-green’, particularly in the urban settings that most of us inhabit.

English meadow at Waddesdon Manor, England

English meadow at Waddesdon Manor, England

A couple of reasons occur to me for this. Firstly, when you live in an area surrounded by brick walls and tarmacked roads, having a little piece of your own vibrant, vivid green space is pretty appealing.  It says ‘fresh’, ‘alive’, ‘healthy’, ‘new’ and ‘energy’, ‘growth’ and ‘vigour’. Surely we would be mad to give this up?

Secondly, we know what we are doing with exotics. Well, relatively speaking.  I admit that my (‘English green’) gardenias are looking really quite yellow at the moment, despite the dilute Seasol, fertiliser and chelated iron I have given them, not to mention the three weeks of solid rain they have had.

But people across the whole world have researched, experimented and bred improved versions of camellias, for example, for hundreds of years.  Indeed, thousands if you consider Camellia sinensis, the plant that produces our tea leaves.  The knowledge that has built up, whilst still a bit ‘gappy’ in many areas, is immense.

Native residential garden in Canberra

Native residential garden in Canberra

So when we pick some natives from the bush and put them in our gardens for the first time, as many did in the 70s, we should not be surprised when it doesn’t all come together at first attempt.  We planted things that grew too big, casting light over our sun-loving specimens, we fertilised with phosphorus-rich fertiliser and we didn’t realise that we needed to tip prune little and often.  We didn’t have cultivars that had been bred and improved for hundreds of years, for showier flowers, dense form and a compact habit.  And yet sadly, these pioneering  ventures have put many Australians off natives forever.

But as the title of this blog suggests, is there new hope on the horizon?  We are now wealthier than ever before; in fact according to the IMF (2013) we have a higher GDP per capita than the gardening Meccas of The Netherlands, UK, France and Italy.  So does this mean we will put more resources into the discretionary spend of horticulture, in order to develop our knowledge, our raw materials and our unique style?  Are the wide-ranging benefits of gardens recognised and appreciated by a big enough critical mass?

This blog came about when I had the realisation that we are starting to see some really good ‘Australian grey-green’ gardens converging around common themes.   Have a look at these two:

Catherine Shields' stunningly designed Tasmanian garden

Catherine Shields’ stunningly designed Tasmanian garden

Myles Baldwin's 'Open Woodland' Australian Garden Show 2014 exhibit

Myles Baldwin’s ‘Open Woodland’ Australian Garden Show 2014 exhibit


Both Catherine Shields’ Tasmanian garden and Myles Baldwin’s recent gold medal-winning Sydney garden ooze Australianness. The soft grasses, straw-coloured surfaces, soft timber finishes and muted greens with pops of colour almost sing Waltzing Matilda to me. And yet they are beautiful and subtle, different to each other and incredibly similar, all at the same time.

Neither is purist native (just as English gardens are not purist English) and both take inspiration from foreign styles.  They are not trying to make a point of being Australian, they are just extremely clever, extremely well thought out gardens which sit perfectly within our landscape.

And that, to me, is unbelievably exciting.

The very talented designer, Fiona Brockhoff's creation in Portsea, Victoria. Again we see muted greens, straw-coloured gravel, grasses and soft timber. Photo: Virginia Cummins

The very talented designer, Fiona Brockhoff’s creation in Portsea, Victoria. Again we see muted greens, straw-coloured gravel, grasses, soft timber and European influences in the Westringia balls. Gorgeous! Photo: Virginia Cummins

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