The Oasis in Reverse

I was dashing through Melbourne the other day, and hurtled past a high-walled garden over which peeped the Dr. Suessy tops of one of the taller aloes, like Aloe arborescens or Aloe bainesii.  The wall folded at 45 degrees at the corner, allowing for am external planter box with the same planting – tall aloes with a dense underplanting of succulents.  It threw me back into the thinking of my earlier post about about the translation of certain styles, out of their climate of origin.  This garden presented a slightly different question.  In isolation, it was quite good planting, with well-grown plants in pleasing combinations.  But in context it struck me as uncomfortable and inappropriate in such a suburb as this, in which it is deeply surrounded by – almost buried in – the rich, juicy foliage of old deciduous trees.

It made me wonder whether it’s ever possible to succeed with the ‘reverse oasis’.

I love The 21st Century Garden at the Geelong Botanic Gardens. It’s a seriously beautiful piece of work – fabulous planting with superb and innovative hard landscaping (which is a very rare combination). But it has never sat very well in its larger context, in my opinion. Given the appalling drought Geelong was in at the time, you could argue that it was the most rainfall-appropriate part of the gardens, but the great billowing canopies of nearby deciduous trees tell another story. It just feels one or two steps too dry for it’s surrounds. In fact, the surrounding trees are clearly one or two steps too water-demanding for their situation, so why isn’t it them that feels wrong?

Gardens that are wetter and greener than their surrounds are as old as gardens themselves.  There’s all the old Persian models, and even the garden of Eden, which was a little pocket of fecundity amongst briars, thorns and wasteland.  We seem to be able to adjust to the idea of gardens being more lush than their surrounds, but I don’t know that the reverse of this ever, ever really works.

I can’t help but wonder why.  Is it simply yet to become a cultural norm like the oasis garden, or is it some primal response to the life-giving effects of water that allows moist gardens in the desert to provide a deep sense of relief and repose, but that there’s no psychological validity to the opposite of that?

The gravel garden at Chanticleer is a very subtle example of the same thing. It is a great concept (a huge set of stone stairs that merge back into the planting) beautifully executed, and full of appropriate plants grown to perfection. But it doesn’t feel great – unlike most of the rest of the garden. It feels like it’s carved out of deep forest-fecundity. Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex works in situ because it’s visually cut off from the rest of the garden – a separate visual element – despite being dangerously close to her wonderfully lush damp garden.

The last few decades’ obsession with things Tuscan or Provencal has led to so many suburban gardens attempting the dry look, and very few really succeed.  They can look great in mag pics, but don’t feel great when you’re in them, and aware of the larger landscape they’re in.  It’s as if the undoubted beauty in austerity is emasculated or totally invalidated when it’s taken out of the macro dry context, and applied to areas that are deeply and inherently leafy.

I hate rules, and am determined to find an exception to this one, but it seems like we can get away with a degree of variation from the surrounding vegetation, but it’s always got to be a step-up in leafiness and fecundity, and never a step down.

What do you reckon?



I had to chuck this in, just cos it reminds me of some slightly faded hand-coloured lithograph, when its just a pic taken in Adelaide Bot. in July 07. It’s Aloe bainesii as far as I know, and it looks brilliant here, but you can’t just go shoving it in anywhere…



Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

4 thoughts on “The Oasis in Reverse

  1. Michael, thank you so much for articulating something that’s been scratching about inside my head for years. I live in San Francisco, where the variety of micro-climates and ‘place of origin’ of its non-native residents make for some unreasonable design requests as well as bizarre plant combinations (i.e variegated bird’s foot ivy swaddling a Philodendron selluom, around the corner from some lavender).

    There is one famous local nursery that I had always felt pushed an aesthetic more suited to Hollywood or Santa Barbara than the Bay Area, yet it is considered a taste-maker. In my opinion, less reliance on trade magazines and their emphasis on extending the home to ‘outdoor living space’ and more attention to nature will make for more authentic and earth honoring gardens.

  2. I think you’re right that it seems more in context to have a lusher garden surrounded by drier surroundings than the other way around. When I really thought about it, I realised that it seems natural to me that the further away the landscape is, the drier it should appear. Perhaps it’s an Australian reaction, as our gardens have always been greener than the surrounding bush or desert? Or it may, as you say, simply be a human thing, that we feel most comfortable with the evidence of abundant water in our immediate vicinity. Succulent and cacti gardens surrounded by temperate climate always feel like some kind of theme park, however well designed. They have to be completely visually cut off to be effective. The problem is that as gardeners, we want a bit of everything that’s going – water gardens, xeriscapes and everything in between – because we want the excitement and the challenge of designing and growing different landscapes. It’s the creative urge, but for most of us, it has to be satisfied on only a small scale. I would love the challenge of making a succulent garden, but with only a back yard, and on clay soil with cold winters, a few pots have to suffice.

    • Yes, we suffer for our greed (as do our gardens).
      Great point about gardens getting drier further from the house – probably from a need to transition, gradually, into the drier surrounds.

  3. What a can of worms, or should that be norms!

    There is no doubting that this is a very persistent design dilemma. Maybe you have presented the solution by suggesting a degree of variation is necessary. So many clients request that they ‘just want the garden to bleed’ or fuse with the bush or paddock beyond.. In saying this I suspect they instinctively recognise the dichotomy, or disparity between their own oasis and the larger environment.

    When we first arrived on this continent we had an utterly complete need to conquer and dominate the alien bush and to create a retreat of the familiar fecundity of the English garden. There is very deep seated emotional habit to our perception of an oasis in this respect, that I think we are only just growing beyond. It is only in the last 50/60 years of globalization that we have been exposed to different styles of garden that in all reality have been determined by locality and climate only.

    Gardens were the space you were in. Given the reason for their creation the larger context was ignored. The intent was to exclude the larger context.

    To the present oases , or cellular gardens, as I think of them; they are created as places of horticultural and design challenge, not as places of retreat, as places of new and purposefully contrasting experiance. Having achieved the larger retreat on a broad scale over 150 years of gardening here, that retreat has now become the context.

    My what circles we weave. This disparity is going to be particularly obvious now in cooler climes such as ours where we are trying to cope with climate change and the remnants of fecundity persist.

    Adelaide has never been blessed with much rain and so the dimorphism is not so evident. The Aloe bainessii seems very comfortable with the dry , grey scerophyllus foliage behind. There is not a huge contrast.

    is this just an emotional response, a degree of companionship or comfort in context. Especially as the Aloe bears no relationship to the back ground at all levels. It is from a different continent ; for Pete’s sake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *