Nostalgia in the Garden: Help, Hindrance or Somewhere in Between?

Gardens distort time like few other spaces and artforms. They’re a curious amalgam of tenses – they grow in the present from seeds of the past and lean towards a future vision that may or may not appear. Nostalgia, in many cases, is fertilizer – it can guide plant selection, design decisions and grand ideas. It’s a tool used regularly by designers to ensure they’re creating spaces that resonate with their clients, and by home gardeners who carry their memories of past places, plants and people with them into the garden. It’s complicated, though. Whilst I acknowledge nostalgia as a force that has some influence on  my own garden making, in some ways I feel like it’s too easy. Holding on to nostalgic ideas can mean we don’t challenge ourselves to create places that mean something more than they might. Places that say something of the land they’re a part of. Places that re-imagine futures.

I think of nostalgia often, particularly in the context of garden making in a young country like Australia. For so long our gardens have been stuck in a weird nostalgic dance with ideas and traditions borrowed from places far from here. Historical nostalgia, a yearning outside of direct personal experience for a place/time/thing, has resulted in rendering much of the richness of the Australian landscape invisible and marginalised. It is a place to improve, not to respect.

In a way, historical nostalgia is about disconnect. But personal nostalgia can be different. It has the potential to connect us to our collective stories. It can ground us as part of a community, family, or place. The garden is a place both personal and cultural and nostalgia influences both these spheres. It’s complicated and fascinating. In an attempt to explore further, I asked some gardeners, designers, thinkers to ponder this question: Nostalgia in the Garden: Help, Hindrance or Somewhere in Between?

Bill Bampton, gardener

In a world characterised by dramatic change and the loss of home places, nostalgia is vital to gardening. I am not talking about that kind of conservative nostalgia that relies on period pastiche, or transposes plantings from the old world to the new.  Not the nostalgia inculcated in the ecological transformation of the temperate new world into “Neo-Europes.” Nor the cloying sentimental nostalgia of the chocolate box cottage garden.

If it is not too oxymoronic, I am thinking of a radical nostalgia that recharges our gardens with emotion and association.”

It is not about transposing a suite of plants from a distant home onto a place, but looking for the home that exists within a place. In this sense, an indigenous garden can be the ultimate form of nostalgia for a past landscape. The lost home of this nostalgia is the landscape of childhood. While all memories are very specific, they share common forms: hiding places, plant material, a tree, food plants, wildness, rustic structures, the sense of a garden as a process that we do rather than have done. These are all elements being eroded in the urban landscape; gardens are increasingly small, instant and fixed; children’s play spaces structured and ready-made; plant material limited and controlled; food production non-existent.

We are making a world inoculated against nostalgia. The childhood gardens of today are devoid of a sense of place, stripped of emotion and lacking deeper associations. I want my garden to ooze a fecund nostalgia for the wild, for the hidey-hole, bursting with antique plants, be they nana’s favourites or wild weeds from the bush. I want my kids to cry and laugh when, in the distant future, they remember twig forts and sunflowers, the taste of fruit from the bearded heath, the moan of the she-oak in the wind.

Bill Bampton's daughter in the garden. Image by Bill

Bernadette Brady, gardener

A chance meeting with an extraordinary specimen of a snail creeper at my Aunt Molly’s house as a young child seemed to spark a curiosity and fascination that I have never forgotten. I look back on that experience with great fondness, so much so that I now have one growing on my front fence. It has taken over the fence and almost pulled it down and climbed a nearby tree, but it is staying. Nostalgia!

In my experience and in my work as a gardener I find nostalgia a hindrance in some respects. I find it very hard to settle to work in modern architectural gardens of yuccas, fake grass and pebbles. The need for practicality and design is understood but I try and encourage a richer plant palette where possible, and yes, with a few sentimental old favourites.

My own garden is a hodgepodge of cuttings and seeds grown and possibly “borrowed”, plants gifted from neighbours and family who are now tending their own gardens up above. The majority of my plants have a story – they’re a nostalgic collection that helps me tell mine.

James Golden, garden designer and writer

I draw a sharp distinction between nostalgia—a rather narrow feeling of homesickness or a longing for an irrecoverable past—and melancholy.

I can easily see nostalgia being of use in a burial ground or a memorial of some kind; of use, but of limited use.”

Melancholy, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter—to my sensibility it is one of the most powerful emotions experienced in the garden, and in the landscape. And it’s a much richer and fuller emotion than most people—today—believe; deeper, broader, and, for the garden designer, liberating. But don’t go running to a dictionary. You’ll likely find a simplistic definition there.

Look instead at Jacky Bowring’s Melancholy and the Landscape:  Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape: “In contemporary society … balance has been lost, and the emphasis is firmly upon the so-called positive emotions such as happiness and joy, while sadness and melancholy become marginalized …” Landscape architecture and garden design have “the opportunity to contribute to the emotional wellbeing of the world through the shaping of places which foster contemplation. Designing spaces which invoke melancholy and sadness allows for an emotional equilibrium in the landscape, as opposed to one which overloads the compulsion for happiness.”

From my big green chair facing a wall of windows, I spend long hours looking out at my garden, in all seasons, and contemplate the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, senescence, and death. Especially as I grow older. No, I’m not depressed. And as I age, I’m happier and more satisfied than ever before.

Gardens are about life and death, not only about pretty plants. My garden emerged from an ecology in which processes of decline and decay are intrinsic, and visible throughout the year. I need to make meaning of the dead tree snags leaning against the sky, water seeping over heavy clay, rot in autumn, the ripe smells of natural fermentation. Although I also have green springs and golden summers and snowy winters, I accept what is given. The processes of decay and making of new life are a governing characteristic, an idea-driver, in my garden. Nostalgia is too narrow a concept; it doesn’t give me a way to explore this broad range of images and emotions.

James Golden's garden, Federal Twist, in New Jersey, USA. Image by James

Nicola Cameron, landscape designer, Pepo Botanic Design, Sydney

I am, and have always been, a nostalgic person. My work colleagues have a little chuckle when I ask them to leave the blow fly buzzing around because it reminds me of summer afternoon naps in our big old farm house. The smell of eucalyptus leaves takes me straight back to horse riding as a child. I hear a pigeon (I like to think of them as doves) and I am transported back to when I was nine years old, staying in Sydney with my Mum’s best friend and her family.

Memories of the past are always at the forefront of my mind when I first meet someone to discuss their garden design.”

I so often find that people’s memories provide the seeds for their future dream garden. Together we tease out the feelings, the scents and sounds that make them feel nostalgic: all the elements that will make their garden unique to them. Something as simple as the sound of trickling water, scented plants or even tactile bark can transport them back to a place where they felt connected and at peace.

The snippets that make me yearn for the past, the people and places, can sometimes be a distraction or even a momentary hindrance. However, these snippets mostly help to evoke a special feeling and connect me to the foundations of who I am. When I fleetingly think of those naps I relax, and the sound of a passing dove makes me feel instantly loved. These little nostalgic moments in a garden always make me smile and keep me on track. They are fond and familiar and always a comfort.

Nostalgia. It seems, like all things, it’s both a help and a hindrance. A grounding force, a limited offering, a storehouse of story, a dangerous idea, and an opportunity for both disconnection and connection. It depends, like all things, how you look at it.

Nicola Cameron's home garden in Maroubra, Sydney. It is planted to evoke feelings of her country childhood.