Australian Dreamscapes: The Art of Gardening

I am in awe of photographer Claire Takacs. It’s taken me a while to understand what it is about her work that speaks to me, and so many others. Yes, it’s the light – she’s snapping away a long time before the birds begin singing. Of course, it’s the subject – photos of plant driven gardens will always be appealing to me. But it’s something else too – and after reading her new book, Australian Dreamscapes, I think I’ve worked it out. It’s magic. Claire’s images somehow tap into that ephemeral feeling you get when you’re immersed in a beautiful space and all the ways it looks, feels, smells, sounds speak to you at once.

Claire’s new book follows Dreamscapes, a book published in 2017, which featured an array of plant-driven, perennial focused, gardens from across the world. The focus of Australian Dreamscapes is narrower – it profiles 15 Australian gardeners, their approaches to garden making, and Claire’s gorgeous documentation of their outputs. It is a book about gardening as an art form, about the importance of creating and nurturing beauty, biodiversity and sensitivity within gardens. It’s an exploration of “a new approach to gardening”, writes Claire in the introduction. “Rather than attempting to dominate nature, a more naturalistic way of planting is applied as gardeners increasingly consider how plants grow in the wild and form communities.” This approach is often referred to as the New Perennial movement, with Piet Oudolf, Dan Pearson, Cassian Schmidt and others credited as its leading lights.

I’ve been curious for a while now as to how the primarily Northern Hemisphere movement towards wild and abundant perennial planting design can be translated into an Australian context. The beauty of this planting style is in creating atmosphere, in nurturing biodiversity, in allowing wildness into our often over-controlled, backyards, parks and public spaces. How do we do this in a truly Australian manner? Not transposing plant schemes from the High Line or Hermannshoff, but using plants (native or not) that speak of and to our harsh climate, often nutrient deficient soils, and vast landscape?

Australian Dreamscapes illustrates the possibilities of how a new Australian vision of gardening might look and feel. Each of the 15 gardens are illustrated with first person text, sharing each contributor’s approach and perspective on their garden and gardening philosophy. I loved being immersed in the imagery of this book and equally loved reading the stories of the gardeners themselves. The stories add a depth and perspective to the project, adding weight to Claire’s intent that the book helps to “elevate Australian gardeners, because their combined passion and skill is an art form – one with great importance and potential.”

To capture the particular magic and energy of a garden without being one hundred percent present is nigh on impossible. Claire is there. With the light, with the bugs, with the grasses swaying in the breeze, with the first birdsong of the day. Claire is there. Australian Dreamscapes is evidence of her presence, commitment, connection and passion for the art of gardening. It’s a joy to read and see.

Garden designer and artist Perry Lane's home garden at Kooroocheang, Victoria

“I’ve always been attracted to the atmosphere of neglected sites, railway lines, cemeteries, vacant lots and abandoned farmhouses…These semiwild places are incredibly inspiring and instructive to me… They provide a model and inspiration for my garden design. I find more and more that I’m closes to capturing and interpreting the essence of that wildness when I embrace the beauty of each distinct season and resist the temptation to civilise the garden too much.”

– Perry Lane

Coningham garden by landscape architect Catherine Shields, Tasmania

“Beauty can stop us in our tracks, slow us down, move us to tears, make us take a deep breath. It can remind us that we are not separate from nature but a part of it. I used to give myself a hard time, thinking that creating beauty somehow wasn’t enough for this world. Nowadays I am more inclined to think that if all I can do is bring a little beauty into people’s lives then it will have been a life well spent.”

– Catherine Shields

Boats End garden by Sarah Budarick, Currency Creek, South Australia

“What makes me happy in a garden is the harmony between the garden and the landscape – not so much about the detail but how it fits into the wider picture… In some ways, successful garden design here is about letting go of that English look… We don’t garden in England. If I were growing a garden somewhere in a kinder part of Australia, I might be tempted to do something more structured because I could, but you cant here. Its just not realistic. You have to do what you can. At the same time, it’s got to look good and feel harmonious… In making this garden I have tried to create something that feels at home in the harsh Australian light and climate, and isn’t always looking back to the Northern Hemisphere; it’s about accepting where we live.”

– Sarah Budarick

Eagles Bluff garden by Carolyn Robinson, Tenterfield, NSW

“Appreciating beauty and other living things for their own sake is what motivates me to continue to work on an art form that touches my spirit and that of others, with the wonderful bonus that the garden is also an ecosystem in its own right, which perhaps nowadays is the most important blessing of all.”

– Carolyn Robinson

Plant collector and nursery-woman Sally Johannsohn's garden near Hobart, Tasmania

“Creating a garden is not an exact science. A lot of people who come to the nursery say they dont know where to start. They feel they need to get it right. I say, ‘Just start’…. People often lose heart, and thing they have a brown thumb, but you will have successes if you keep trying – what a thrill it is then! For me, it’s not about getting it right – it’s just about being a gardener. It’s where I am most at home.”

– Sally Johannsohn

Australian Dreamscapes: The art of planting in gardens inspired by nature (RRP $60 AUD)  is published by Hardie Grant and available to purchase here.