Of timelessness and moment

One of the unsung aspects of gardens is their super-ability to have one foot in timelessness and the other in the current moment.

In a French garden, for instance, or an English garden, it’s possible to have a building of, lets say five hundred years old alongside trees of one or two hundred years, alongside a flowering shrub of ten years old, alongside a poppy flower that burst from its bud this morning, and will be smashed apart by a sun-shower by three this afternoon: the ‘eternal’ and the ephemeral, and everything in between.  It’s how, even in an old garden, every passing moment beckons to be noticed, and to be appreciated.


For the most part, the passing moment in gardens – the call to seize the day – is flower-generated.  Shorter time-scales are marked by the swaying of plants in wind, and of birds in arrival and departure, but the poignancy of the passing is largely provided by flowers.


In Italian gardens, which are mostly flowerless (at least at this time in history – some suggest they were not always so), and in which I’m currently steeped, it seems to me that the ‘moment’ – the conviction that this very second is unique – is provided by the movement of water. Not much else changes from week to week, season to season, or even year to year, but it doesn’t need to.


Against a background of inanimate and living stability is an eye-grabbing flash and sparkle – the revelation and instant disappearance of jewels that add passing value to every passing moment.


This is never more evident than at Villa Lante (where all these pics were taken), which for all its genius of conception is as flat as a tack without the animation of water.  The stone sits dry and dead.  This year, with plenty of rainfall to keep the natural water source flowing, it was virtually dancing.



  1. Beautifully penned Michael.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Lovely piece of writing. I think you captured what many feel about gardens but would find the words elusive to express it so well.
    Some of the ideas parallel an recent conversation regarding the act of gardening and this piece goes further still into the act of being (in a garden). I know you are interested in the technicalities, thats your job, but behind this you raise profound questions: How does all this contribute to how people feel? What does it do to their spirit? Thei consciousness? How do they see the world? How do they construct their world?
    Thanks for some very interesting food for thought.
    Cheers, Marcus

    1. Thanks Marcus. I can’t help but think that there are physical, psychological, and possibly physiological responses in and from gardens that no one has found words to express, and others yet to even be recognised.

    2. Such an enlightening discussion! My own story with gardening is that what was a sideline interest has become an obsession since getting a long term illness. The pleasure over from being in a garden, working in my garden and even looking at pictures of gardens. I have read of others who find the same healing effect from gardening too. It is indescribable but very real. I am now getting better too, so it must have an effect beyond mere sensory.

    3. Thanks Vicki – I also know of others who have experienced that healing effect – one in particular who was recovering from several bouts of brain surgery and while weeding, lifelessly and mechanically, came literally face-to-face with a peony bloom, and in that moment came alive again. She went on to collect hundreds of peonies, and totally attributes her regained health to her passion for growing.
      Too often this super-power of gardens is de-valued to the point of taking the patronising form of a simple activity in reach of the aged and infirm. It’s fabulous for that, but is way, way more powerful than that.
      We really need Steve Wells opinion on this….. (The driving force behind the amazing garden at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Hospital in Melb, and consequent winner of Gardening Australia’s Gardener of the Year for 2012)

    4. Yes, I saw when he won, such an inspiring garden.

  3. Thought provoking. I just wrote an article on my blog yesterday saying that I really need to see at least some glimmer of seasonal change in any garden. Perhaps I need to think more broadly.

    1. Maybe, but I totally share your need. It seems to me that the best thing is not only to have both ends of the time-spectrum (as so many Italian gardens do), but to cover the full spectrum of time-scales – trees with a life expectancy of 100+ years along with shrubs of a life of half that (or less) alongside perennials that have been in place a decade or less, in the company of annuals that do their thing for a few weeks. If all that can be happening in a setting of medieval buildings, all the better. But thankfully they’re non-essential

    2. Yes, and whilst we don’t have medieval here, arguably our gardens tell more of a story of the last 100 years than most European ones do. We can see the journey from the old English oak, to the 70s eucalypt, the 00s ‘Little Gem’ and very newly bred flowering natives, all growing side by side. It is exciting to be a part of something that is still evolving in front of our eyes.

    3. Thanks for that. I’d never considered that difference – in the greater eloquence of Australian gardens regarding recent evolution

    4. If I may? Yes broad is best. A big canvas where seasonal variation could be one of the elements. But if the focus is just that and just flowers then I can’t see a problem. If depends where one’s focus is. Subtle changes will probably not please everyone. But gardens can be so much more. As Michael’s response to my comment alludes to: we are just on the edge without a vocabulary. Shame to obliterate its nascent development with just the obvious. But these are high flown ideas when already most people get great benefits already just from looking at flowers. I know I do.
      This is a big subject worthy of a book Michael.
      Cheers, Marcus

    5. Absolutely worthy of a book Marcus, though worthy of a much more capable – or at least scholarly – author than me. Let’s get Michael Pollan onto it.

  4. Hi Michael, garden making and garden being is probably universal across all sedentary cultures and across time. So there has to be something profound going on. I don’t think this phenomenon has been taken seriously enough as an area of research. Instead it has been relegated to the the aesthetics basket.
    What about a force for social and personal well being?
    Only last week I read an article in the Age about a guy traveling around the First World (he is currently here) promoting his film on encouraging children to use the free resource of “The Outdoors”. He was prompted to make his film because he was shocked to find that his own 7 year old daughter averaged only 4 mins a day outside the built environment. That’s pretty extreme but you can see the trend. This is completely against our nature, Against what makes us human and What separates from the powerful gadgets we use.
    I think Leunig’s My Device is the Sky, is a classic statement on this dilemma

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