Book Review: Spirit of the Garden

There are innumerable publications exploring the ‘how’ of gardening. There are less, many less, exploring the why. Why are we drawn to particular spaces, what makes one garden touch our heart and other leave us cold? What does sense of place actually mean? How do we begin to explain why we garden at all? Trisha Dixon’s new book, Spirit of the Garden, is a delightful and wise attempt to decipher and unpick some of these questions through words and photography.

I first visited Trisha’s home and garden, Bobundara, in the Monaro region of New South Wales five years ago. Like most gardeners I’ve met, before I’d even stepped out of the door, she’d begun apologising for its wildness, it’s unkemptness. Of course, it’s this that I loved most.

Trisha’s approach to her garden, whose bones can be traced back to the 1830s, is as much about seeing as doing. Nothing is polished or sharp or controlled. Neat is not a word I’d use. Evocative, exciting, entrancing. These words work better. As she writes in Spirit of the Garden, “our garden is like our body – the overarching framework is there, but it’s individuality depends on how we nurture it, how we create our own kind of beauty…. If a garden is created out of passion, the result is a natural expression of the person.”

At the centre of Trisha’s home is her library. Not a small room, it’s packed floor to ceiling on four walls with bookshelves. A table runs the length of the space. Again, covered in books. It’s here at Bobundara where Spirit of the Garden begins and ends; with words grown from Trisha’s library, ideas grown in the garden and fertilized by the vast Australian landscape. It is a book that is soulful, perceptive and encouraging. For Trisha, gardening is not about the attainment of perfection or the honing of particular skills, it’s about cultivating beauty and curiosity, respecting the essence of a place, and engaging with the environment from a place of humility. Gardening as seeing, not just doing. She writes:

“It suddenly dawned on me that gardens possessing this elusive spirit of place are those where nature’s hand tips the balance, where our human touch is not the overarching imprint on a space.”

Afternoon light at Bobundara, from Spirit of the Garden. Photo: Trisha Dixon
Eucalyptus trees on a misty morning at Jum Jum garden, from Spirit of the Garden. Photo: Trisha Dixon

Often gardening is not about words, it’s about action. Putting language around concepts that are actually very hard to articulate, as Trisha has done in Spirit of the Garden, is really important work. It helps others, who may not be able to find the words themselves, to say what it is a garden or a landscape or place means to them.

Language helps us find meaning in our actions. “Those passages you read again and again for their perception, their clarity, and for their articulation of a new idea, a premise to be fully comprehended for the first time. Often something you have had in your subconscious, but which resonates so strongly when seen in print, expressed with the poetry of good penmanship”, she writes.

“Seeing the world through someone else’s words can be a way of deciphering and more closely understanding your own life”.

I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through Spirit of the Garden, with Trisha Dixon as my intrepid and delightful guide. It’s a reaffirming, wise and beautiful book that contributes to the evolving and ever-deepening dialogue between people, landscape and nature.

Spirit of the Garden is published by National Library Australia. It is available to purchase here.

The beauty of less is more, in a Mediterranean garden overlooking the seat at Corfu, Greece. From Spirit of the Garden. Photo: Trisha Dixon