Gardens: Functional or Aesthetic?

When I first visited Australia I remember being surprised by much of its building fabric. Translucent, plastic roofs over verandahs; stark, metal, suburban fences; and corrugated iron roofs on multi-million dollar houses. Weren’t these materials for farms or industrial sites?

Over time, I have grown to love the rustic look of corrugated iron on country homes, but it’s not just me that has noticed some tendency towards function over beauty. Ian Barker, a Melbourne landscape designer, talks of the difference between English and Australian gardens: the former being about the beauty of plants and the latter, primarily ‘use’. Admittedly, England doesn’t quite have the same climate for garden usage, but surely it doesn’t mean we can’t have the beauty too.

Rural Australian house with corrugated roof. Janna Schreier

Rural Australian house with slightly rusting, corrugated roof has such a beautiful sense of place

With notable exceptions (e.g. the Victorian gold rush), historically resources were scarce and hence functionality prevailed. However, despite Australia’s top five position for GDP per capita (IMF, 2014) and numerous examples of shiny, new, beautiful architecture, we don’t seem to have shrugged off certain historically necessary compromises. (And don’t even get me started on the term ‘yard’.)

Ian Barker was influenced by his visits to (and exhibiting at) Chelsea and talks of the English as being true ‘plantsmiths’. I get a warm glow hearing this…clearly I have been born with naturally planty genes into a perfectly plantsmithy culture and must therefore have innate gardeningy talents. Wishful thinking, no more, no less, but you don’t begrudge me my warm (if spurious) feeling, do you?!

Back to the story, and Tom Stuart-Smith’s 2008 Chelsea garden was a turning point for Ian.  He says that he struggled to understand why it blew him away, but I suspect it was a combination of its naturalistic look, its fullness, the total harmony in the design and the emotions that these combined characteristics induced in him.

Ian is passionate about naturalistic plantings; gardens that mimic the feeling of nature. He generally uses exotics rather than natives, arguably creating something a world away from Australian nature, but no less beautiful in itself. Creating these naturalistic, exotic scenes is undoubtably harder in Australia than in Europe, with the searing heat of the sun, intense periods of drought and a distinct lack of beautiful, dark, loamy soil.

But Ian’s 2015 MIFGS garden was a demonstration of the determination he holds to achieve just that; its sole purpose to ‘showcase just how beautiful plants can truly be’.  Having missed out on a gold at MIFGS last year, he debated designing a more ‘conventional’ show garden, but his passion won out and we delighted in seeing another naturalistic garden this year.

Ian Barker's MIFGS 2015 show garden: 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

Ian Barker’s MIFGS 2015 show garden: ‘Cross Roads’

‘Cross Roads’ was entirely different to the other main show gardens at MIFGS. It felt like a real garden, one you might have at home, developed over twenty years, not a manufactured-yesterday, gimmicky sort of garden.

‘Cross Roads’ had depth and longevity, with many plants at their foliage, but not flowering, peak, alluding to pleasures still to come.  It wasn’t a static garden, it had dynamism and life. After six years of visualising planting combinations across all four seasons, I am programmed to see four garden images at once: what is in front of me, plus one for each other season. My mind craves four different images with highlights in each, and Ian’s garden delivers just that.

Ian Barker's Cornflower Meadow at 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

Ian Barker’s cornflower meadow at ‘Cross Roads’

I was utterly taken by the cornflower meadow – so unexpected in this country. Just a delight to see. And I have already spoken of the bees. Just hundreds and thousands of them, busying away, seemingly oblivious to the massing crowds admiring their temporary home. Adding movement and a sense of reality and time.

Bees swarm over Ian Barker's Angelica gigas at MIFGS. Janna Schreier

Bees swarm over Ian Barker’s Angelica gigas

The planting to the other side of the meadow, or crossroads, was subtle. Muted tones with repeated pops of subdued burgundies and different foliage sizes, shapes and forms that blended into each other as one. The harmonious box was most definitely ticked.

Angelica gigas steal the show in Ian Barker's 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

Muted tones of Ian Barker’s ‘Cross Roads’

And yet there was something missing for me. The two halves – part meadow, part garden – were surprising, eye-opening, thought provoking but still somewhat disjointed as a combination. And the naturalistic planting in the main part of the garden was beautiful but not quite breath-taking. Highly skilful, but not quite Piet Oudolf.

Integration of cornflower meadow and garden at 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

The integration of cornflower meadow and main garden at ‘Cross Roads’

I felt that Ian was forging a new direction in mixing a number of styles and achieving a 95% outcome (to calibrate this, most of us would be lucky to achieve an experimental outcome of 50). It is incredibly hard to take the large scale, European, New Perennial Movement principles and adapt them for a different climate, different scale and the different experience of a show garden.

Ian Barker's 2014 MIFGS garden: 'Left-Overs'. Janna Schreier

Ian Barker’s 2014 MIFGS garden: ‘Left-Overs’

In 2014, my write up on Ian’s ‘Left-Overs’ MIFGS garden was that whilst I loved it, I felt larger clumps and more repetition would have made it even better. I feel this same development would have benefited ‘Cross Roads’ too.  Whilst Piet Oudolf would use 50 types of perennials in a planting, generally his designs cover hundreds if not thousands of square metres and many plants will be dormant at any one time. It is so difficult to translate this to a small garden.

I feel that Ian’s garden is not the modern matrix planting, where two or three plants are distributed throughout a garden, with others interspersed and repeated for texture, height, colour or form. Neither was it a more classic perennial planting, with larger, quite discrete blocks of each species. It was a blend of so many ideas, resulting in a very effective composition, but one that just didn’t quite grab my attention as I desperately wanted it to.

Pyrus betulaefolia 'Southworth Dancer' at 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

Pyrus betulaefolia ‘Southworth Dancer’ adds height but the perennials are a touch low and flat – not helped by the fact that potted perennials for a show garden are only ever going to reach a certain height

Catherine Stewart’s review of this garden noted an apparent criticism by one of the judges, of a lack of focal point. Whilst I don’t think all gardens need striking focal points, I do wonder if small gardens need more planting structure than larger ones, something to create rhythm as your eyes move around; true vistas and a sense of scale being out of reach.  Tightly pruned Buxus is a common, if now somewhat tedious solution to this, but it could be anything that adds definition. Even stronger vertical elements could have done it, but somehow the small bursts of Miscanthus grasses are too weak for this role.

Reflection pool at 'Cross Roads' by Ian Barker. Janna Schreier

Tranquil reflection pool at ‘Cross Roads’ showing stunning combinations of hard and soft, formal and informal

I don’t have all the answers; that last 5% is almost impossible to realise and grab hold of. What I know, is that Ian Barker is one of the furthest ahead in developing a type of New Perennial Movement in Australia and really understands the beauty of nature and of harmony. He is leading the way for others to learn from, follow and take forward in different directions. He is setting a wonderful example of following his heart, taking risks, not allowing himself to be boxed in by judging criteria and combining and adapting examples of best practice. This latter action is creativity role-modelled; exactly how steps forward are made in garden design. Ian takes feedback onboard and really listens to it, but continues down a road where he knows there is a pot of gold (aesthetically speaking) at the end.

Cube seating at Ian Barker's 'Cross Roads'. Janna Schreier

Contemporary, but fitting, cube seating at Ian Barker’s ‘Cross Roads’

Ian’s hope for ‘Cross Roads’ was to inspire people to be passionate about plants. There is no question in my mind that he continues to do this.

My hope (alongside Ian continuing his quest), is that we become more passionate about aesthetics without losing functionality. Once the aesthetics are right and we gain that emotional connection with our garden, functionally will follow automatically. Using plants to create beauty and serenity, we will be drawn in to our gardens and in so doing, achieve that Australian desire for functionality and use in a way that we never even dreamt of.

Ian Barker's cornflower meadow. Janna Schreier

Close up of the cornflower meadow

8 thoughts on “Gardens: Functional or Aesthetic?

  1. Adriana says:

    Interesting Janna – from the first photo above I immediately felt a lack of cohesion in the planting, the plants’ leaf shapes don’t sit together comfortably. It is too flat overall. The grasses were not mature enough to add the drama this space needs (and in their leanness) rather than lifting the flatness, accentuate it. It feels more unkempt than naturalistic – yes it could easily be someone’s, anyone’s garden. I like it, yet I don’t like it. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate it. The corn flower meadow? Very romantic but totally impractical – I am yet to see a flower meadow that works in Australia – apart from those created naturally on nature’s stunning rockery below Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, or in the outback after rains.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, I did find a few of the foliage types a little incongruous. But it was a lovely garden and the contrast between this and the others really drew your attention. You are just going to have to go next year and see them first hand!

  2. mattb325 says:

    I really like that he’s true to himself. It’s a pricey affair putting these gardens together, so I guess he wants a specific market to achieve R.O.I., rather than just an award. And, as you say, it’s reminiscent of so many suburban gardens (albeit the better ones!)
    Maybe if he’d used purple miscanthus which could echo the angelica it might have had a different result with the focal points (and still be true to his plantings). Regardless, I think it’s nice to have something not constrained by the typical winning formulae of these shows, and he’s used so many plants that just aren’t seen in these shows in Australia that it’s really inspirational!

    • jannaschreier says:

      It is really refreshing to see different plants used and I agree with you that a bit more colour would have helped. When you look at the pictorial plant list for the garden it does look full of burgundies and deep reds but the reality is that these show a snapshot of each plant and at any one point in time the green is going to really dominate.
      Too right about the expense of show gardens; it is a shame that it inevitably skews the outcomes and inhibits innovation.

  3. Suzanne says:

    I really like the look of this garden. A naturalistic garden always grabs my attention and I especially like the open woodland clearing that Catherine showed in her article on the garden. If I could capture just 50% of this garden I would be ecstatic. However, as much as I adore plants I also applaud functionality, both for humans and all wildlife in gardens. I refuse to give up my ancient Hills hoist, have a horse yard forming part of my garden boundary and a ratty old corrugated iron stable forming another. Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m Occker to the core but I l really enjoy your “plantsmithy” blogs and my back yard is showing the influence of your words of wisdom. Perhaps I may unearth a few latent “gardeningy talents” from my English ancestry yet!

    • jannaschreier says:

      You clearly have lots of gardeningy talents from somewhere, Suzanne! And it sounds like your Hills hoist would look perfect in your surroundings – to me it’s just about right thing, right place. If you are away from the centre of town and have stables on your boundary, I am sure less formal/modern items look much more fitting. There is a place for everything, it’s just sometimes I feel things are in the wrong place! It’s all about working with your surroundings to create a sense of place. It sounds like we are in violent agreement to me!

  4. thelonggardenpath says:

    A most interesting and thought provoking post, Janna. Being a huge fan of both Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf’s designs and naturalistic planting, I find it fascinating to see how it translates in the completely different climate of Australia, and how it is perceived. It seems harder to achieve and doesn’t appear so naturalistic there. Whatever style you prefer, with some thought and imagination, it should always be possible to marry both functionality and aesthetics.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you. I’d love to see more Australian native plants worked into naturalistic plantings here, but it’s early days. I’m always thinking about ways to achieve this look but invariably my clients ask for exotics! Most get enthused about having our lovely ‘kangaroo paws’ in their design but there’s a lot further to go.
      Thought and imagination…..I’m with you there. That’s exactly what is needed. As you say, no reason why we can’t achieve functionality and aesthetics – both equally fundamental to a garden and both mutually achievable.

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