Life is Complicated and Mysterious and Dogmatism is Boring

We’re good at dogmatism these days. Right, left. Black, white. Wrong, right. It is the way of the eight lane highway carving the straightest of lines through a landscape, rather than the wallaby track winding over and around and along a hillside, its form responding to the rocks and trees and shrubs in its path. 

Our gardens are not immune from the disease of division, despite the commonly held assumption that nothing of any great meaning happens within them or because of them. Perhaps the most curiously divisive subject, a topic intertwining politics, culture and ecology in subtle and not-so-subtle ways is that of native versus exotic plants.

In my garden indigenous plants jostle with scavenged succulents, seemingly random exotics, and natives from the other side of the country. Patches are cleared and seeds from the soil seedbank pop up. I pull the weeds around new plantings, and let the rest do what it wants. For now. My intention is to make meaning. To look into what I’m doing and have a sense of why I’m doing it, what’s driving it, and why it matters. Sometimes, though, I feel I’d like a container for my approach; a framework that holds my vision and actions together, allowing room for exploration, nuance and growth.

It is from my desire to form a language of planting shaped by meaning and inquiry that this story has grown. It is an attempt to shuffle the discourse away from binary notions of right and wrong and towards fluidity and ecological richness. To push the conversation around native/non-native plants not towards a conclusion, but an opening. Gardens of the Anthropocene have to work hard. They have to be beautiful, fertile, meaningful and life sustaining. They have to symbolise the conversations we need to have with ourselves and the natural world as our planet transforms.

Three garden makers and landscape architects who work within the realms of curiosity not convention are Sarah Hicks of Bush Projects and Alistair Kirkpatrick of AKAS, both based in Melbourne Australia, and David Godshall of Terremoto in Los Angeles. I spoke with each of them about their thoughts on planting design. Their combined perspectives offer a glimpse of the beginnings of a decidedly un-dogmatic framework for garden-making grounded in thought and curiosity – it’s radical, resilient, reverential, and resonant. Let’s dance.

Westbend Garden by Bush Projects, illustrating a mix of indigenous, exotic and weed species.
Balaclava garden by AKAS Landscape Architecture, illustrating a mix of indigenous, native and exotic species.
Glen Oaks garden by Terremoto features a mix of indigenous, existing, and regionally appropriate planting. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.

The Backstory

A native plant is a plant that occurs naturally in a specific geographic region, like Australia. An indigenous plant is a native plant that occurs naturally in a specific area of that region. An example is Angophora costata, Sydney red gum, which is indigenous to the the Sydney Basin and east coast of NSW. It is native to Australia and indigenous to Sydney.

In this story we’re speaking primarily of indigenous plants. Australia is a massive country with a range of different bio-regions, and as Alistair Kirkpatrick pointed out to me, a plant indigenous to the north of Queensland is hardly more native to Victoria than an azalea. Or is it?

Gardens of the Anthropocene have to work hard. They have to be beautiful, fertile, meaningful and life sustaining. They have to symbolise the conversations we need to have with ourselves and the natural world as our planet transforms.

Georgina Reid

Using indigenous plants offers a way for a garden to begin to speak of the landscape it grows from. They’re an important, perhaps essential, link to place as well as an integral player in local ecosystems. But, for a long while, their cultural and ecological value has been either overlooked or forced down throats. On one side, there’s the ‘natives are scrappy. They look half dead, they’re not proper, they’re unreliable’, argument which is fascinating in and of itself. Is it cultural cringe? Is it nostalgia for an imagined homeland? “The distaste for local native species is very mysterious,” says Sarah Hicks. “Is it fear of the landscape? Or a desire for control? Landscape Architect Jane Irwin speaks of the poetic vision of the pioneers trying to keep the bush at bay with their wire fence and rows of roses. This scene resonates with me and captures that continuing tension and struggle (within the colonial Australian landscape).” What does this no-natives perspective say about a person’s relationship to land? Is it possible to truly be connected to a place without being able to appreciate its indigenous flora? And in the garden, a contrived landscape to begin with, does it matter?

On the other hand, no one likes to be told what to do, especially by plant puritans. “You don’t convince a person to do something by telling them what they’re doing is wrong”, says David Godshall. “That’s oftentimes the case in the native plant community. They’re on a pulpit and they’re saying everyone is wrong and we’re right. At the end of the day, the hostility is not helpful. It ends the conversation rather than elongates it.”

“I sympathise with native plant purists. Because the world is really fucked up and we need to plant native plants because they support local ecologies and pollinators and birds and all those good things. But, at the same time, I would say that the movement of plants and horticulture is inseparable from human civilisation. We are not a native species and there’s often a failure to acknowledge that, which is confounding. I’m a white guy of vague European descent. I’m not a native, I’m technically a naturalised species.”

That’s the thing, most of us are naturalised species, and as naturalised species making gardens, we’re doing something entirely contrived. A garden is a system dominated by human influence. We decide who lives, who dies, how much space a plant gets, and what is planted. It’s complicated.

The Rules

I could perhaps make a list of rules now, and spearhead the vision with a catchy name but all I can come up with is this: The Old Wave: Style-less and Control-less, Plant-full and Mind-full Planting Design.

There are two rules: Think and ask questions. Here’s some things to ponder:

Context

As the boss of our contrived garden ecosystem, we’re responsible for its evolution and impact on the surrounding environment. Our actions can be hugely influential, good and bad, on the lives of many plants and animals near and far. “If you live next to a threatened cool temperate grassland, it’s your responsibility that you don’t plant anything in your garden that might escape and threaten that vulnerable ecosystem,” suggests Alistair Kirkpatrick. Sarah Hicks agrees. When designing gardens in regional areas she “makes a response that focuses largely on endemic species.” But, there are always curve balls. Properties in bushfire prone areas are not allowed to have certain indigenous species, like eucalyptus, near houses. “There always has to be an adaption at some point.”

Glen Oaks project by Terremoto. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.

If you live in bush, the most responsible pathway might be to make a garden with mostly endemic species, certainly avoiding exotics with tendencies to escape, but the city is different. “If you have a little courtyard in Brunswick where there’s no chance that anything in that courtyard can escape into remnant ecology, then I would argue to plant the right plant for the right place, indigenous or exotic”, says Alistair.

Gardens in cities can be particularly challenging – one part of a garden may be in full shade over winter and full sun in summer. “In our design work, I find we often need to consider broader global horticultural offerings that can work within the challenges of urban gardens,” says Sarah.

Some questions:

Where am I gardening? What can my garden say about where I live? What makes my garden particular to place? What plants will best perform with relevance and resilience within my garden and its wider context?

Biodiversity

Biodiversity is often raised as an important reason to plant indigenous plants. It is, and it’s one of the many reasons I grow them. Indigenous plants have evolved relationships with other beings, flora and fauna, over thousands of years. They, like us, exist within a web of integral, life-sustaining connections. The indigenous plants in my garden form part of the wider ecosystem of the land on which I live, providing food and shelter for many different species; from the tiniest of ants to glossy black cockatoos, bugs and more.

But what about inner city gardens? Places where links to the original ecological community of the land is likely to be less obvious, or even obscured entirely. Does it matter, from a biodiversity perspective, whether you plant indigenous plants or not? Alistair Kirkpatrick is pragmatic on this point: “The reality is, in an inner-urban area, the animals in that environment have had to adapt to radical disturbance and change over hundreds of years. Any native animals that are still present in that environment have had to adapt to eating introduced species. In saying that, I’d definitely advocate as a landscape architect for people to use indigenous plants in urban landscapes in city parks and their own private gardens because, the more diversity we have, the better.”

“I would love to see Wahlenbergia communis in every single garden”, Alistair says. “But what I would really like is for people to stop thinking that it’s an ecological act. Because any living plant in the city has ecological value.”

On digging around on this topic of native/non-native garden plants and biodiversity, I found plenty of food for thought. There’s research from the US showing that non-native garden plants reduce population growth of a particular species of insectivorous bird, and then there’s a study into the positive contributions of non-native plants to biodiversity. A paper published in the British Journal of Applied Ecology suggests that growing only indigenous plants may not be the best strategy for resource provision for pollinating insects in gardens. “Gardens can be enhanced as a habitat by planting a variety of flowering plants, biased towards native and near‐native species but with a selection of exotics to extend the flowering season and potentially provide resources for specialist groups.”

Some questions:

What plants are indigenous to my local area? What fauna species are indigenous to my local area? What do they like eating? Can I offer them a meal? Are there ways I can offer pollinators a year-round buffet? Do I need to use chemicals? Can I make my garden more diverse? What does that look like?

Detail of a mix of exotic, self-sown annuals and indigenous planting in Bush Project’s Westbend garden.

PERSPECTIVE

Sometimes we get caught up in ideology. It’s normal. I do it, you do it. But it’s not very useful. David Godshall: “On one of our recent projects there was an existing Ficus nitida, a classic street tree used in LA. It shelters the house. If we removed it on the grounds that it was not native then the house would have cooked, and suddenly our clients are spending more money on air conditioning. You keep the thing that’s doing a good job, and acknowledge that.”

Alistair Kirkpatrick suggests that in the face of anthropogenic climate change, we need to move beyond ideas of native/non-native and consider more deeply the performative qualities of plants. “Brunswick has a huge issue with heat island effect, it has a huge issue with lead contaminated soils. Currently there’s a tree on the invasive species list called Alianthus altissima (tree of heaven). It grows very happily without any irrigation, it grows very quickly, and it’s a hyper accumulator – it can absorb cadmium, lead and arsenic from the soil and store it in it’s cambium layer, making it inert. It can cope with minus 20 degrees up to 45 degrees Celsius. From an ecological perspective, it’s a great tree for the urban context because it’s working really hard to clean the soil, provide shade, cool down the environment.” Conversations around how we define native/exotic/weed and how we move into an incredibly uncertain future need to be had in a way that expand, not narrow, perspectives.

Questions:

What plants do I value over others? Why? What ecosystem services is a plant offering? Does it’s positive impact outweigh it’s negative impact? What is the best use of resources? What is the bigger picture and how do my actions in the garden affect/influence it?

Planting design details in Terremoto’s Glen Oaks project. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.

Expression

As well as a constructed ecology, a garden is a creative expression. Gardens speak of our ideas of beauty, of our aspirations and attractions. The aesthetic forces that shape our gardens often come from deep within. Our plant selection is sometimes unconscious, other times dictated by nostalgia or even opportunism. (Yes, I found those aloes on the side of the road. Yes, I’ll find them a home.)

Finding room to support and explore ideas of beauty is essential within a garden. It keeps the heart engaged. I have plants in my garden that are not indigenous. I grow them because I love them (or the wallabies don’t!). They may have a story I love, or have been given to me by someone I love. At its best, a garden is an expression of love. And if we don’t love our homes, our soil, our forests and wildlife and gardens, we won’t fight to protect and support them. For heaven’s sake, if you love roses or geranium or irises, plant them! Love them! But, as with any plant, know why you’re planting them, and be aware of what they might, or might not, offer your local ecosystem.

There is, however, a tension between beauty and ecology. I sense it increasingly in my own thinking, and David Godshall looks it in the eye with typical curiosity and insight. “Because we live in a moment of environmental collapse, I guess the thing is, the moment you’re planting a plant that is not native, you’re prioritising your own aesthetic desires or predilections over what was there before. Meaning that you’re subjugating native ecology for your own personal happiness. Inevitably, gardens are expressions of culture, so what I just said was a little mean in that regard. But I would say that maybe there’s a way you can do both simultaneously.” Food for thought.

Questions:

What does beauty look like, and mean, in the garden of the Anthropocene? How can I indulge in the beautiful, as well as look clearly into the truthful? Do my ideas of beauty within a garden need to evolve as I learn more of the complexity and vulnerability of the web within which I live and grow? What makes my heart sing?

And, So

There’s something about being human that makes us, me anyway, feel like we have to have answers. I wanted a framework for my approach to the planting in my garden because it might somehow make me feel more legitimate. But the framework, it turns out, is built on questions, and therefore is closer to a pile of weirdly shaped rocks than something resembling a structure.

Why do we do what what we do? Why do we see what we see? What is it like to be a wasp? What is the right way to live, to garden, to plant? Who knows. I play around with the rocks, placing one next to another, one more on top. You have to turn stones at least six times before you get the right fit, a stonemason once told me. The structure of my thinking is rough and a bit wobbly. Whether or not it’ll ever evolve into a framework that can hold weight is unknown right now. I know something, though. It’s this: life is complicated and beautiful and mysterious and dogmatism is boring.

Keep the door open.

Glen Oaks project by Terremoto. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.
Glen Oaks project by Terremoto. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.
Glen Oaks project by Terremoto. Image by Caitlin Atkinson.