Secrets of Garden Design
Different as the world’s great gardens are from one another, they all share a secret. A secret that traverses cultural boundaries, from the naturalistic gardens of China and Japan, to the giardini segreti of Tuscany, the gardens of the Alhambra in Spain and the sweeping landscape gardens of Britain.
This simple yet profound secret is based on a principle employed by generations of artists, architects, musicians, painters, poets and sculptors.
And by generations of discerning garden designers.
The secret of these timeless gardens?
They all convey a sense of unity
In her 1958 classic, Garden Design, the eminent English landscape architect Sylvia Crowe declares:
The greatest principle, and the one most lacking in the average garden today, is a sense of unity . . . When we say that a landscape has been spoilt, we mean that it has lost this unity.
So, how do the world’s great gardens achieve this elusive sense of unity?
They achieve it with compatible ‘hard’ landscaping materials and a predominance of plants native to the region.
Not with exotic imports nor with the latest ‘new releases’. And definitely not with nursery-bred hybrids.
Nursery-bred hybrids’ increased vigour is sometimes touted as a benefit. Yet such plants are often structurally unstable and liable to mechanical stresses, or dependent on increased water and nutrients. (For hybrids' other disadvantages, click here.)
By favouring species native to the region where you live, and steering clear of hybrids, you’ll benefit in many ways:
Ecological integrity. The native garden helps restore ecological integrity and attracts a spectrum of native birds and other wildlife. Depending on where you live, these may include bilbies, gliders and koalas; and small endangered birds such as the Eastern Spinebill, Fairy Wren and Regent Honeyeater, among many others.
By providing suitable habitat and natural food sources, native plants help save these and other threatened creatures from possible extinction. The indigenous garden also attracts fewer aggressive, territorial birds such as the Noisy Miner and Pied Currawong that monopolise garden hybrids with enlarged flowers and extended flowering, and then drive out smaller birds.
Insects such as bees and butterflies have specific native wild plants on which they feed or lay their eggs. If these plants are no longer being grown in domestic gardens, populations of these insects, and the birds that feed on them, will contine to decline.
Health benefits. The indigenous garden eliminates the risks of exotic plants and nursery-bred hybrids that provide a haphazard mix of nutrients; plants that may invade the natural environment, pollute the local gene pool or spread the deadly Cinnamon Fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi and other plant diseases.
So, by ‘going native’ you won’t need to worry about your garden plants ‘jumping the fence’ and invading the natural landscape.
Money saving. The well designed indigenous garden is a balanced, healthy garden, enlivened by the colour, song and feeding antics of resurgent birds.
Insectivorous birds such as the Rufous Fantail, Scarlet Robin and Spotted Pardolote work ceaselessly to their and your mutual advantage, keeping insect pests at bay and eliminating or drastically reducing the costs and hazards of synthetic pesticides. These costs include the hidden costs to your health and the health of your family, pets, plants, soil micro-organisms, waterways and wildlife.
Sustainability. Many exotics, particularly bedding plants, nursery-bred hybrids and flat, manicured lawns, are unsustainable. Most of these need excessive water and fertilisers high in phosphorus. High phosphorus fertilisers hasten the spread of environmental weeds and excessive algal growth in natural waterways.
Many exotics, including lawn grasses, also need an assortment of synthetic fungicides, herbicides and insecticides to keep them happy. By poisoning insect pests however, these chemicals also poison the birds, frogs and other wildlife that feed on them.
These toxic pesticides are so hazardous to human health, that chemical accreditation training is now available to landscape contractors exposed to them. Given suitable conditions, native plants thrive without the need for harmful pesticides. Most natives are also adapted to infertile, low-phosphorus soils, and respond well to organic, low-phosphorus fertilisers such as Seasol Powerfeed (or no fertiliser at all).
Drought tolerance. Many of of Australia’s most beautiful plants are tolerant of drought. An informed selection, grown in areas of the garden that become dry for long periods, provides a shield against water restrictions and the escalating costs of domestic water.
A symbol of reconciliation. Last, though not least, the indigenous garden stands as a powerful symbol of reconciliation – with nature and with the original inhabitants of this abused, yet still defiantly beautiful land.
In 'Native Born' (from the CD Charcoal Lane), Aboriginal singer-songwriter Archie Roach laments:
So bow your head old Eucalypt and Wattle tree
Australia’s bush is losing its identity
While city parks that they have planned
Look out of place Because the spirit’s in the land . . .
The Australian environment, light, seasons, soils, climate, rainfall patterns and wildlife, all differ from the British Isles and Europe, and from every other continent. By looking beyond conventional stereotypes, exotic plants and formal lawns, we discover a landscape ethic ideally suited to our circumstances.
In future articles I shall focus on 10 design essentials – balance, colour, form, function, pattern, repetition, scale, space, texture and time – for creating a sense of unity and a truly beautiful garden.
"Australians need to change their way of thinking about foreign plants. We should see in every species a potential weed; unless we have evidence to show it won’t spread, a presumption of guilt should be applied."
Tim Low, Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia’s Exotic Invaders