Throwing out the rule book

Water lily at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Water lily (Nymphaea) at Wyoming

I had another light bulb moment last weekend. I need to throw out the rule book. Well, perhaps not throw it out completely, but at least relegate it to the bottom shelf.

Beautiful Hibiscus schizopetalus at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Beautiful Hibiscus schizopetalus at Wyoming

I visited two spectacular, but very different, gardens in Sydney. One, absolutely text book perfect; full of gorgeous, immaculate, lush, subtropical plantings. The second, a bit of a mixed bag. A tricky site on a slope that has had various sections developed at different times during its history, planted with every type of plant you can imagine, from enormous cacti to tropical Frangipani and everything in between.

Stunning Frangipani at Wyoming. Janna Schrieer

Stunning Frangipani at Wyoming; I love this pink tinged flower

If you have been following my blog, you may not be surprised to hear that the second one was my favourite. Somehow, it was a surprise to me. I couldn’t quite figure out why it was this way around. I mean, the first was so technically excellent and quite informal for a suburban garden, usually a characteristic that I love. And yet the second was the one that I wanted to stay in forever. It was the one that won my heart, if not immediately my head.

I thought about the first, technically-not-a-foot-wrong garden. Text book gardens are extremely rare; and yet they don’t somehow feel unique. They are beautiful; and yet not quite so engaging. They are picture perfect; but don’t tug on the heart strings in quite the same way.

Cannas and sculptures at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Cannas and avian sculptures at Wyoming

Despite their rarity, technically perfect gardens can somehow be a little predictable. They look wonderful in magazines, but don’t feel quite so charming in real life. They can lack spontaneity, surprise and complexity. Lots of formulaic, though very pleasing, repeating groups of three, but not so much that really takes your breath away. You know it’s a great garden, but it’s more in your head than in your heart.

Bignonia rosea and Frangipani at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Bignonia rosea and Frangipani at Wyoming

Don’t get me wrong, rule books are invaluable. A totally random assortment of plants laid out with little structure is never going to do the trick. Rule books give us pointers to bring gardens together as an holistic entity. But I have realised that for the ultimate garden, just following rules is not quite the pinnacle for me.

Stunning Bambusa vulgaris 'Vittata' at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Stunning Bambusa vulgaris ‘Vittata’ at Wyoming; a contemporary look

I’ve always thought that the really special gardens of the world all have ‘character’. But I’ve struggled to pinpoint precisely what this means. The output is that you feel an emotional connection with the garden, but what are the inputs that inspire that feeling? My visit to Wyoming, in Birchgrove, helped me flesh this out a little more.

 1. Distinctiveness

Mass of pink, orange and purple flowers at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Mass of pink, orange and purple flowers at Wyoming; the colours look amazing together and the tones of the lavender and cacti tie together perfectly

Wyoming is a unique garden. I would be amazed if there was another one in the world that was practically the same. Distinctiveness doesn’t have to be way out, or especially quirky, it just means that it is individual. It has its own distinctive personality. And just as there are billions of distinct human personalities, there can be just as many garden ones.

2. Functionality

Vine-covered pergola at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Vine-covered pergola at Wyoming. Don’t you want to just sit under the shade and watch the world go past on the water beyond?

A great garden is one that you want to be in. You want to sit in it, eat in it, play in it. It’s not one that is simply viewed before going inside. It’s not a showy add-on to the house, designed to impress. It has vegetables, herbs and fruit growing in it, despite their often somewhat dishevelled appearance. There is a clear connection to every day human life.

3. Owner-engagement

Cacti and other xerophytes at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Cacti and other xerophytes at Wyoming; a particular passion of the current owner. Also note the amazing, deep red of the Frangipani flowers – just stunning

The owner of Wyoming told me, with a guilty look on his face, that if he liked a plant, he would plant it, despite knowing this was ‘completely the wrong thing’ to do. How can it possibly be wrong to plant a plant you love in your own garden? It is exactly these rule breaking manoeuvres that give a garden character, that make it unique. If we never tried anything new or unusual life would be incredibly dull. Much better, I think, to not take our gardens too seriously.  Let our hearts rule the way.

4. Complexity

A seat in a a shady corner at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

A classic bench nestled within a whole range of textured foliage under the crepe myrtle tree

I always repeat plants in my gardens and designs – it is a sure way of achieving unity and avoiding a look that is too busy. But for me, I love a degree of complexity too. Gardens that you view with one glance and you’ve seen it all, do very little for me. I love to be drawn into a garden, to be intrigued as to what is there, to see more and more as I bend down closer. Plants coming and going with the seasons, plenty of variety and contrast.  Different layers, both horizontally and vertically.

5. Time

Semi-circular pond at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Very traditional semi-circular pond at Wyoming, full of plant life and perfectly balanced

The fact that Wyoming has developed over a period of almost 200 years adds to, rather than detracts from, its charm. I read about its history when I got home, but I had felt it, there in the garden. You could see that many trees and shrubs had been there for decades or more. You could sense the passing of time and the changes in fashion. It was all there to see. I used to think that heritage buildings should be (if at all) extended in keeping with the original style, but more recently, I have seen so many excellent examples of contemporary architecture fused to the old, creating stark contrasts but each section being the better appreciated for it. To capture, authentically, the very best of a number of periods in history is surely the ultimate, for both buildings and gardens. This certainly applied at Wyoming.

One of many ponds at Wyoming, Birchgrove. Janna Schreier

A smaller pond in the Victorian part of the garden at Wyoming

It is a wonderful feeling when a garden inspires you so much that you leave full of ideas – both practical and theoretical. I’m very conscious that I always think the last garden I visited is the best garden in the world; I am extremely fickle when it comes to determining what really makes a great garden.

But over time, all these ideas merge together in my head and the really, really important ones come to the top. I love the process of writing my blog; I think it is the most intense learning I have ever had. I do hope you are able to go with the flow and with my somewhat contradictory conclusions…..one day I will have it all sussed out!

In the meantime, leave your text book on the bottom shelf, go with what feels important to you today, and over time, with any luck, you will create one of those gardens that people never want to leave. And if not, well, nevermind, you will have had an awful lot of fun in the process!

Grapes at Wyoming. Janna Schreier

Anyone for grapes? Fruit adorning the ironbark sapling pergola at Wyoming

7 thoughts on “Throwing out the rule book

  1. Adriana says:

    Interesting Janna, Very recently I read a blog and one sentence stood out so much it made me blush (with shame) and sent me rushing out into my garden in fear and trepidation. The writer said something along the lines of “the garden I viewed had pink flowers planted alongside orange and yellows – but I forgive them this lack of taste because the rest of the garden was great and worked well”. All weekend I worried about this comment because in one border I have tangerines with a splash of pink (because of the foliage colour of the ‘pink’ plant works so well with yellows and tangerines). In another garden bed I had yellows, but also pinks and purples, along with a splash of orange/ yellow (the last because a Dahlia had decided to grow from seed – and to think I was so excited to make this discovery at the time). Then I noticed that the Zauchneria cana ‘Catalina’ I planted two years ago (and meant to move) was flowering again (in a soft orangey red) under my yellow Graham Thomas roses (good) but also near pale pink roses and deep purple Penstemons (not so good?).
    Reading your article above I noticed the pink/orange/purple combination used with style – phew, no more angst!

    Nature I have noticed) is not prejudiced against colour – the most outrageous combinations grow together and work well.. Maybe we should throw out that rule book!
    Thanks for this article Janna it made my day.

    • jannaschreier says:

      That made me laugh! I am so glad you didn’t pull all your plants out though – they sound like wonderful combinations. It is fun when nice things self seed (although I do question it when Paul starts staking solitary tomato plants in the middle of our very small, ornamental front garden!).

      • Adriana says:

        Hahahaha! and they are always small with tough skins too Paul.
        Yes I do love the unexpected surprise of a self-own plant and the longer you live in your garden the more opportunities you have for this. I have a self-sown Salvia in the middle of a path that I am nurturing, so I can relate to Paul.

  2. Catherine Stewart says:

    Perhaps the different feelings about the 2 gardens also lie in whether you are a gardener, or not? Text book perfect I suspect appeals to those who don’t know the pleasure of early morning snipping and tip pruning, or the immense satisfaction derived from moving 10 plants and seeing how they look so much better in their new homes. As I wander in an open garden I often imagine what it would be like to garden it. If it looks like it’s always done by expert professionals then somehow it also disengages me

    • jannaschreier says:

      I am sure that is right. I was trying to think of any exceptions and the closest I can think of is a garden by Cameron Paterson that I adored. However, there the designer/maintainer had genuine passion for it and the owners seemed to love it and spend lots of time in the garden, so you could argue there was a lot of engagement. It also wasn’t ‘classic text book’, just amazingly skilled; perfect but still unique. Like you, and I suspect, most gardeners, I would feel very constrained if I couldn’t experiment and try new things – we wouldn’t enjoy having a ‘finished’ look in our own gardens, despite the fact that in our heads we are constantly trying to get there!

  3. Louise Dutton says:

    I believe doing anything from the heart (the emotion) will always produce something that moves people rather than the head (textbook). Passion and pleasure for something drives us in a different way. Textbooks have there place but lasting impressions always emit an emotional response. Thanks for this thought process Janna. I am applying this in my very new and evolving garden.

    • jannaschreier says:

      You are so right, Louise. We are drawn towards others’ passion, aren’t we? I wonder if it is because with passion/pleasure we actually produce something superior, or whether when we sense that passion/pleasure in others, the tangible end result becomes less important, i.e. our emotions overrule our eyes. I suspect the latter may be more significant in the case of gardens although surely both must be true.

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