As a landscape architect, my practice at the start of a project often involves asking: ‘What wants to happen?’ It’s an intuitive listening at its first principle, followed with site analysis and observations, leading to learnings and then design testing. It allows for an understanding and response that involves removing oneself from bringing too much obtuse truth while still assisted by the rich pen of past years’ experience.
This practice is intimately seen (or experienced) through the discipline of gardening; by gardeners and across the garden world. The regular act of engaging with soil, plants, and landscape is inherently a relationship with the land asking: What wants to happen?
The gardener is a custodian of ‘place’ of sorts, and monitors changes in that place such as climate variance, soil moisture, insect attack, plant growth, etc.
Bringing a response to each observation that causes a continual adjustment of that place. Thus, typically, the gardener has a multifaceted relationship from gentle to rigorous with the garden for the hope of creating a refulgent landscape, seasonal highlights and inspiration to all who visit. At the same time many gardeners look to encourage biodiversity, planting contrasts and a balance between species.
In Europe, the Naturalistic Planting movement embodies this sensibility. Where master gardeners intimately know their plant selection, plant performance, soil conditions, and preferred habitat. These are often with exotic planting species, layered and planted to create drifts, varying heights and contrast akin to a wild ecology of sorts. Although typically heavily curated, intentional, and all the while – beautiful!
Capturing the essence
Claire Takacs, an internationally renowned photographer, is someone who regularly visits the world’s premier gardens. Photographing naturalistic planting and varying master gardeners such as Mat Reese (Malverlys), Tom Coward (Gravetye Manor), Cassian Schmidt (Hermannshof), and Fergus Garrett (Great Dixter). All display this ability to have a relationship with plants and the landscape. A listening followed by action, backed by deep knowledge and years of hard work.
Not to presume their own practice, but their gardens exude rhythms found in nature that begin to emulate rich ecologies that abound with life. A certain ‘Wild’ that we respond to and find ourselves directly brushing up against when walking within.
Claire, who pursues beauty through her photography (and life), that can be seen in her most recent book Wild, indelibly captures exquisite moments in these types of gardens. Moments that really are the final expression of the gardener’s relationship with plants and place. With sunlight as her medium, and the gardens as her canvas, she herself has a nuanced relationship with the gardens.
Arriving at dawn before sunrise, she is attentive to both the composition of the garden and the light arcing across the sky bouncing off leaf and flower. In this way the movement of the sun’s rays is constant, so must be her response. With deft feet moving throughout the garden on foot, with drone, and ladder she captures moments that feel as if she’s thrown up sunlight from her pocket to reveal the garden in a way the gardener could never thought be shared with others.
They’re intimate, layered, felt, and all garnered through her own practice of listening and responding. If she came to a site with a theme in mind, she would miss beauty found at select places and angles, she would not have the ability to reveal the intention and hidden moments only a gardener knows and feels when deep in the garden bed.
A recent trip to Mullumbimby for the first time led me to meeting a local couple who regenerate bushland around the Byron Shire. The conversation quickly led to the general populace not always having an understanding of what a strong natural system is.
It’s not enough to simply have trees such as camphor laurel creating verdant valleys. Regeneration requires the management and bias of and for native species towards a balanced ecology. Returning the landscape back from logged or banana plantations to native regrowth with strata and climatic ecologies.
My trip also revealed, like many places, the Byron Shire has an existing and historical need to manage weeds and regenerate parts of the Shire. Historically weed management was prompted with a big push from residents to remove the likes of lantana and groundsel to avoid fines. Not such a bad prompt really, having witnessed the property I stayed at having benefitted.
This all raises the question: How, through a regenerative lens, can we curate beautiful regenerated landscapes? Can we see regeneration as an act of custodianship that also pursues beauty? Can we promote flowering times, layers, structure, and contrasts that inspire native planting to be more than a set-and-forget approach? One that allows for a relationship and ongoing management of site.
Perhaps we should simply call on the master gardeners of the world to contribute to regeneration projects or perhaps books like Wild might inspire a regenerated Byron Shire full of diversity and beauty. Perhaps it’s more of us returning to the land as custodians and starting by asking: What wants to happen? Then stewarding regenerative and beautiful landscapes for Byron Shire residents and all flora and fauna.