Design is not the Answer

Yep, you heard right. Design when applied to objects like furniture, clothing, even houses to an extent, can be an answer. There is a full stop, a line at which the said object is finished. Complete. Gardens, however, are an entirely different story.

Finished gardens don’t exist. They grow, evolve, die, re-shoot, grow again, and the cycle goes on and on. To the question of creating a great garden, Landscape design is at most a proposition. It’s an idea, a direction, and an inkling of a solution, but not an answer.

Design is hugely important. No matter how the way we live changes, the human desire for meaningful connection to the natural world is as relevant as ever. Indoor and outdoor living spaces are shrinking, and for this reason (amongst others) plants and gardens are becoming more important, not less. Making the most of these spaces through good design is, therefore, of increasing significance.

Like an architect, a landscape designer’s role is to create functional and beautiful spaces that reflect the client’s needs, desires and aspirations. This is the beginning of the conversation and, I think, the most powerful aspect of landscape design – helping people articulate their requirements for living and need for beauty through the creation of an outdoor space they want to spend time in.

Design involves the creation of a plan, a blueprint for a future space, addressing constraints, opportunities, client desires, and site conditions in a creative and practical manner. It’s a useful tool in gaining an understanding of a site and how to make the most of it on a range of different levels.

A plan, however, implies a sense of permanence and stability, but a garden is the complete opposite. The only constant in a garden, or any living thing, is change. How does a drawing on a piece of paper relate to a constantly evolving, growing, dying space?

The answer to this question depends entirely on how you look at it. If the plan, and its implementation, is seen as the end of a process, there will be problems. A garden will never conform to lines on a page – It will do its thing with grand abandon.

The thing is, (and something people often forget) plants are wild. We have ideas of what they’ll do, how long they’ll grow for, and what they’ll eventually look like but they’re just ideas. Sometimes the plant will surprise for the better, sometimes for the worse, but there’s always an element of the unknown. They’re like actors playing a role in a grand botanical play, imbuing their own ideas and energy into their character, to the directors (gardeners) surprise or dismay.

To continue the theatre analogy – if the plan and the consideration the designer has imbued it with is used as the script rather than the play itself, it will be seen for what it is – an extremely important element of the entire production. For there is no play without a script. A bad script is obvious, no matter how good the actors, and vice versa – if the design is great but the plants are half dead, the garden is compromised.

Design is not the way to create a great garden. It’s a very important part of the process but it’s not the entire answer, which in case you’re wondering, involves putting on a pair of old trousers and work boots, and sticking your secateurs in your back pocket.

The answer to the question of what makes a great garden is gardening. Not just observing but also interacting, experimenting, and learning. The answer is found in the half dead plant pruned back too hard, in the rosemary struggling in the shade cause it really loves the sun. The answer is as much about getting it wrong as getting it right.

Respectful, creative and inquisitive engagement with nature is the answer. And not just to the question of a good garden, but to plenty more existential ones…. I’ll leave you to ponder them yourself.