Art and ecology of design

Garden design is an art different to all others, because nature is its raw material. Painters and sculptors can create work that is a permanent expression of their creative imagination, with potential to be admired for centuries. It is tempting to pursue permanence in garden design. Many great designers do, through hard-landscaping and tight control of plantings (e.g. André Le Nôtre and Paul Bangay). But I think designers miss an opportunity if they narrow their focus to artistry. Garden designers are shaping communities of plants and and animals (even if they don’t intend to) and these communities have a life of their own.

Gardens are home to a multitude of species that move through urban landscapes searching for a niche where they can exist for a time. Every design decision has consequences for the composition, structure and biodiversity of the garden community and the residential neighbourhood of which the garden is part.

My sister’s stunning and inviting garden; heart of an urban food web in Central Victoria

Many designers and their clients wish to create gardens that are impressive in their artistry and permanent in the picture they create. The result is often a lifeless, static, architectural space. An outdoor extension of the house rather than a significant, living ‘other.’

We all have different ideas of what is beautiful and different responses to the visual spectrum of garden styles. But if a garden designer works solely within an artistic framework, where the garden is hard-landscaped and cultivated purely for artistic effect, then they miss an opportunity to generate life and biodiversity within otherwise simplified and static environments.

By contrast, if the designer combines artistic effect with an ecological framework, where design decisions consider plant attributes, wildlife food-webs and natural processes, the garden will be no less beautiful. Even better, dynamism of the garden will invite the resident to be more engaged in the life of the garden.

Gardens have the potential to deeply nourish the lives of residents and visitors. Watching a nymph emerge from a pond and transform into a dragonfly takes you outside of yourself. You can feel part of a remarkable, connected system and inspired to get your hands in the earth to ensure the life of the garden continues. Laying down elements in the garden that a dragonfly needs to exist can be an exciting part of a designer’s job.

My feeling is that a garden designers job is to kick start a process that should continue after they’re gone. A garden will never reach a ‘finished’ point like a house at lock up. A garden is an opportunity to create spaces where a skink can hibernate, a blue-skipper can settle to catch the afternoon sun and a person can be lost in an ongoing conversation with nature.


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