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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!