River Garden Diaries: Austerity, Abundance and an Empty Idea

I realised last week, a year late, what I needed to do. It came to me quickly and easily. It’s nothing particularly new or profound, but it arrived with a clarity I’d not known before when it comes to my own garden. Void. I need a void.

Though I’ve spent many years designing gardens, the more I garden this land the more I am confounded by the garden itself. I know less and less every day and my design skillset has been a lot less useful than I once might have thought – somehow, I cannot ‘design’ it in a way I would be able to if it were not my garden. If my heart wasn’t entirely tied up in the place.

And so, for the last 18 months I have been stumbling haphazardly towards something but not knowing what it was, hoping a clarifying vision might make itself known.  Most of my time has been spent freeing patches of the land under my care from from the darkness of decades of a forest of lantana, privet, camphor laurel and cape honeysuckle. Getting to know, little by little, what the land holds.

I was astounded in the beginning, by the structure that began showing itself as I worked. Sandstone walls terraced the front garden, old stairs lead up the side of the house. Plastic plant tags for long gone iceberg roses and gardenias appeared from the soil amid piles of old bottles, cans, rusted metal and more. Black plastic has been a constant battle – I’ve removed sheets of it buried below leaf litter and humus from much of the garden – a failed attempt by previous owners at control. She cannot be controlled, Mother Nature.

The garden I am cultivating here, by most aesthetic standards, looks pretty dreadful.  In fact, it could be mistaken for not being a garden at all. The only thing that gives it away is the existing structure, and its context as a piece of land surrounding a house. It has a fence, too, which helps. I don’t mind how others might read, or not, my garden. Because a garden, most definitely, is not about pleasing others.

A garden is a deeply personal relationship to land. My garden is a place I can give my heart to. It’s a place – if I listen – that I can find the heart of.”

It’s a place of tension, too. This is expressed most obviously in the planting. I’ve puddled along for a while – moving existing plants like agaves into groups, planting a boat load of (mostly) locally endemic native plant tubestock, and installing aloes I’ve found on the side of the road, or cactus chopped from a neighbour’s property. I’ve felt driven inexplicably to plant things, with perhaps less consideration than required. I should know better. There’ll be problems if they all grow. It looks incredibly mad now, and I have a feeling it’ll only get madder.

After my initial drive to plant things subsided, I moved on to bush regeneration. I now clear patches of weeds and wait to see what emerges. Daily I witness new shoots emerge –  native peas, native mint, microlaena grass and dianella among many others. Basket grass (Oplisminus aemulis) has been my saviour this summer – quickly spreading over cleared soil and keeping it cooler and moister. A living mulch.

Weeds abound, and whilst I try to be diligent with the naughtiest ones, some (only if they’re not in the noxious category) are quite pretty, so I let them be for a while – I often find them covered in insects and can see their benefit in protecting and feeding other, smaller, lives. And any soil cover is better than no soil cover, especially in this heat. I snip flower and seed heads to stop proliferation and appreciate them and their tenacity. They’ll be encouraged to move on soon, to make space for the seeds of this place to emerge.

And so, I have a hybrid of sorts – a weird situation of not-strictly-native plants in combination with a regeneration of locally endemic plant species, a few succulents and a whole bunch of weeds. Combine this with the existing sort-of-nice-sort-of-strange garden structure and grand visions go out the window. I guess it’s this that has confounded me for so long – how do I create a sense of cohesion amid the chaos? And can I do this whilst also letting the land speak?

A tangle of botanical chaos bordered by wallaby fence

I’ve recently read a book called Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint and Attending, by Mark Treib. In it, he suggests that the way we perceive a garden is less about what we look at, and more about how we see. Modesty and restraint are keystones of his idea of austere gardens. He writes:

“Austere landscapes may first appear devoid of interest if noticed at all. To those who do not look beyond their surfaces, these sites, and the world outside them, usually appear plain or uninteresting, or even lacking the very properties by which we define a garden. But there are sensual, aesthetic, and even philosophical, pleasures to be gained from these seemingly dull fields should we attempt to appreciate them. These qualities, normally associated with abundance and complexity, may be found in a different way, and at a different level, in austere terrain.”

“The simplest act of design might just be to see anew what lies before us with no additional intervention”, he writes. “Design as revelation would follow next: using restrained means to disclose what already exists to has been concealed by human acts or natural processes over time.”

Design as revelation. This feels quite good. And I guess in a way, I’m sort of doing that – my bush regeneration endeavours are giving space to what is there, what has always been there.

I still have a long way to go to know this land but I feel like giving it space to breathe is a good start.”

Treib also writes of the idea of removal, suggesting that subtraction can be a powerful visual and emotional force. And so, with Treib’s ideas of subtraction and revelation rolling around my head, suddenly it came to me: If I can make one clearly defined, empty space within the existing wilderness of the garden, it’ll have a chance of coming together. The emptiness will balance the abundance, will offer necessary space to ponder meaning, and will offer a foil to the unhinged planting. I can be free to explore my ideas of place and beauty and experiment in chaos without having to rely on the plants themselves for structure within the garden.

Australian artist Bill Henson’s Melbourne courtyard garden illustrates exactly what I mean. It is one of the most atmospheric gardens I’ve spent time in. It consists simply of a large expanse of gravel surrounded by stone walls holding back wild, tall planting. It’s austere, it’s balanced, yet it’s got an unruliness and energy which comes from both the form that ties the space together and, also, from letting plants be plants – not screens, not floors, not forms. “In a way, the gravel is the known world. And then you climb up into the rocks and you find the wildness. For me, that tug between human control and nature constantly reclaiming the landscape is what I like”, Bill says.

The magic of this approach, I think, lies in a marked contrast between austerity and abundance, and so, in my garden, I’m imagining a big, empty circle of gravel surrounded by chaotic, mostly self-regulating planting that writhes and pushes against it.

A gardener is by default an interventionist, the garden an act of control. And yet, what interests me most as a gardener and a carer of the earth, is finding the balance between the garden as a human, aesthetic pursuit, and the garden as a place where a landscape and its stories are given room to speak, and amplified enough to be heard. Can my contrivance of mass and void, form and emptiness get somewhere near the mark? Can it speak to my heart, and also to the heart of the place? I don’t know. I do know, though, that for the first time since being here, I can see how I might be able to get closer to making something that speaks of this land and my relationship to it, in a voice that is mine and at the same time not mine.

Header image by Daniel Shipp. All other images by Georgina Reid.

Basket grass making its way across recently weeded land.
Its unclear where the garden begins and ends.