The best piece of garden design advice I’ve ever come across isn’t from a designer. Nor is it from a gardener. It is a line from an early 18th century poem by the third most quoted writer in the English language, Alexander Pope. In his Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, Pope writes the immortal words, “Consult the Genius of the Place in all”.
In doing so, the poet laid the foundations for modern landscape architecture, but the principle can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They believed that certain places were inhabited by protective spirits, which they called genius loci. Pope’s interpretation of the ancient concept was more along the lines of what we might call the “spirit of a place”, that unique sense of atmosphere of a given place that is determined by a combination of factors including climate, geography, geology, and culture.
Professional garden designers worth their salt will make a point to “consult the genius loci” every time they begin a new design, but for reasons that are mostly beyond me, the same is rarely true of home gardeners. Instead of looking to the surroundings, home gardeners tend to consult magazines, books and websites, the consequence of which is that the landscape is peppered with cookie cutter gardens that attempt to transplant the spirit of a different place. England and Japan are popular options, but these places have little in common with Australia, let alone the part we call the Darling Downs.
Nurseries have become so generic that they exacerbate the problem. Most retail nurseries these days are resellers, that is, they buy in stock from wholesale nurseries (who themselves may purchase stock from production nurseries) and sell it at a premium to customers. I’ve got no problem with the retail model, but the issue lies with the fact that big wholesale nurseries tend to have the cheapest prices, and get the bulk of the business. Small, specialised players are often overlooked. The consequence of this is that the range of plants being sold in nurseries throughout South East Queensland tends to be very similar.
I’m not trying to denigrate the nursery industry in saying this. I know many nursery owners across the region, and apart from the odd rogue, they’re good people doing their best to run family businesses in a difficult economic climate. I wish them success, not failure. But the truth is that, almost without exception, a customer can walk into any nursery in Toowoomba and buy an identical bootload of plants.
As recently as 15 years ago there was more specialisation. The number of retail nurseries was greater, more nurserymen and women propagated their own stock, and the giant plant factories that dominate the wholesale market today didn’t really exist. In other words, there was far more diversity, both in terms of the plants available for purchase, and in the way they were used in local gardens. Today, you can drive through a new housing estate on the Toowoomba fringe and be bored witless by the “blandscape” before your eyes. In fact, you could be in any new estate in south east Queensland.
Rant over. Here’s what I’d love to see more of: A diversity of gardens that reflect both the diversity of their creators, and the diversity of the land. I long for more gardens that feel absolutely at home in their locality. An East Toowoomba garden should be quite distinct from a Glenvale garden. A Hampton garden should be different to a Pittsworth garden. A Westbrook garden unique to Westbrook, and so on. This should even be true when growing generic plants such as vegetables and fruit trees. Why? Every locality is unique, with its own genius loci, its own “spirit”.
To consult the genius of your place, I suggest doing a few things. First have a look around you, not necessarily at neighbouring gardens (although in some cases this is a good place to start) but the landscape. Try to get a feel for it’s geography and native flora. Check the elevation. Get to know the native soil. Find out what the prevailing weather patterns are. Learn to read the land.
Do your best to select a range of plants that suit your place, and that you like. Try not to plant exactly what your neighbours have planted, and if you do, find unique combinations or grow the plants in unique ways. Propagate. Keep an eye out for nurseries that specialise. Use locally available materials in the garden, rather than importing them from far afield.
Finally, get to know yourself. As an individual, you are a one off, a single edition, and in my view it is only when we truly know ourselves, that we can start to understand, love, and conserve the places we inhabit.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 30th March 2013. Photo by Justin.