Gardening as Surrender

Richard Unsworth is a leading light in the Sydney garden design world. He’s the owner of outdoor design store Garden Life and the author of new book The City Gardener, which showcases 20 gorgeous urban gardens he and his team have designed over the last five years. But Richard is not just a city gardener. He’s also the custodian of a gorgeous old property on Sydney’s Pittwater, called Trincomalee. It is here, in a garden sandwiched between the water and bushland, that Richard has discovered a new way to be in the garden.

I caught up with Richard to talk about surrendering to the forces of nature, and the relationship between gardening, mental health and grief.

Richard Unsworth: I first visited Trincomalee about 25 years ago. It was my friend Justine’s mother’s house and I used to spend orphan Christmases there. I was captivated by the place from the first visit. To think that we actually are custodians of it now is remarkable.

At Christmas, about seven or eight years ago, Justine’s mother told us she was going to sell it. We realized that we could buy it together with Justine and her husband Scott.  And we just sort of thought let’s do it, you know? Let’s give it a go. Because the idea of it falling into somebody else’s hands was just so awful. We’re sort of keeping it in the family.

Photo: Nicholas Watt

Georgina Reid: It’s the most incredible place. Let’s talk about the garden there. Because that’s been a big part of it for you, hasn’t it?

RU: Yes. My mum passed away in January 2016, about six months before we bought Trinco. She was an avid home gardener. For the first couple of years, I lost myself in the garden. It’s a space where I’ve really found solace, losing myself in the garden.

I have all these memories of mum – she’d garden in the rain, she’d garden in all weather. She’d come inside and her hair was stuck to her face and her clothes caked in mud. A few months ago, it was raining and I was mulching and I was so bedraggled. It was what she used to do as well. I felt close to her then, having my hands in the soil and just feeling that energy. She’d love it.

GR: In the Well Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith talks about how working with your hands is so important in terms of processing feelings that you can’t articulate – often around things like grief or loss. The importance of the physicality of gardening, of helping things grow, that sounds similar to what you’re talking about.

RU:  Yeah, putting your mind where your hands are, you know? And I think, for me,  mindfulness is about trying to focus my attention to where my hands are. It’s incredibly calming. 

For a long time, up until about a year ago, gardening at Trinco was more about pulling things out. It was just so overtaken by fishtail ferns and asparagus and noxious weeds and building rubbish from old renovations. You could hardly see the house from the water and you couldn’t really see the water from the house.

GR:  Really?

RU:  Yeah, yeah. So there was this physicality to the garden that I absolutely adored. 

There’s a council reserve next to the house that used to be waist-high in asparagus fern. The local bush care group have restored it. There are basically no weeds now. Joining the bush-care group has been one of most heartwarming experiences. Through working with them, I’ve learned to garden on a different level. It’s like my rebirth of gardening, in a way. 

Photo: Nicholas Watt
Photo: Anson Smart
Photo: Nicholas Watt

GR:  Tell me more about the rebirth!

RU:  Well, working up at Trinco has been more about doing nothing and just seeing what happens. Removing the weeds and planting tube-stock. Just delicately touching to the ground where you need to. 

Someone warned me against planting too much. They said, just remove the weeds and see what comes up.  And I’m like, I can’t wait for that! I wanna plant stuff, you know, I’ve gotta get stuff in. And of course I bought loads of tube-stock and it’s doing really well but what’s phenomenal is just where the ground has been undisturbed, and seeing what emerges once you remove the weeds.

I think that’s been my epiphany – nature’s just doing what nature does and I’m just removing the things that are unhelpful.

GR:  That’s sort of where I’ve come to as well, gardening for me here is a similar thing. You have to be a bit quieter. It’s very rewarding.

RU:  Yeah, it is. It is about quieter and calmer and just less action. And I think the rebirthing thing is also about mess – learning to appreciate the perfectly imperfect way of nature, having a different pair of eyes through which to see beauty.  

And I think, too, it’s about constantly watching, being there and watching the wind and the sun and how the garden moves. It’s more meditative and it’s wilder and it’s altogether less about precision and perfection. It’s about letting go of that stuff. 

Our aesthetic at Garden Life is becoming more natural and looser and wilder. And that excites me. We’re starting to think about what elements of wild we can introduce into each city garden.

GR:  So, your gardening at Trinco is beginning to shape your output at Garden Life?

RU:  Yeah, it is. I mean, we’ve always designed with our clients in mind, so we never come at a project with a cookie cutter approach. We’re still, of course, mindful of a client’s brief, but the natural interests me much more now and I think that’s starting to come through in our design projects.

GR:  Do you think your clients are becoming open to more naturalistic gardens?

RU:  I do feel there is more a movement towards the natural and I think it’s a reaction to life that just seems to get hotter and faster.  People don’t necessarily want a bit of bush at home, but I think they’re wanting to feel more connected to nature. Part of our job is helping bring a little bit of that nature into urban life. That’s what excites me.

Trincomalee from Pittwater. Photo: Anson Smart

GR:  There’s so many big questions and challenges that relate to garden making – climate crisis, biodiversity loss, urban tree canopy etcetera. Our job as advocates for nature is so important right now. It sounds like you are thinking about these things too?

RU:  Yes. I think that’s been part of my awakening. You know, it’s not just about the aesthetics. I think that it has to be more energetic. There’s the environmental aspect, and then I think there’s an energetic level of healing for people. Our job is to encourage people to explore and connect with nature, and help them bring something of that into their own space.

GR: I know from previous conversations with you that nature has played a big part in your personal healing journey. Can you speak to this a little?

RU:  Mental health issues and substance abuse have played a part in my life. Being in nature has been a huge part of my recovery journey. Particularly gardening – it is something that absolutely fills me up. It makes me realize how unimportant I am in the scheme of things. It reminds me of the strength of nature and the power of regrowth.  

You know, it’s a daily practice for me. Surrendering and letting go. I am a controlling person, a recovering perfectionist. I think being up there at Trinco, surrendering to the force of nature, is part of that comfort. It helps me let go. I lose myself in pottering and in meandering. It quietens the mind.

Richard Unsworth’s new book, The City Gardener, (Thames and Hudson, $49.99 AUD) is available in bookshops now. Follow Richard and Garden Life on Instagram and Facebook.