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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.