The aesthetics of austerity

Last week I spent a few days in and around Adelaide.  There were some gardens there that I needed to see.  I’d been aware of Kurt Wilkinson’s garden, Brenton Robert’s garden and Sarah Budarick’s garden, Boat’s End, for a few years, and felt like there was stuff going on that I had to get a grip on.  It seemed that each were addressing their super-tough conditions in new ways.  I’d seen plenty of gardens that were working hard to not look dry – to simply replace water-demanding plants with drought tolerant alternatives, but hoping to achieve a degree of verdancy that masked the dry.  I’d gardened like that myself.  What piqued my interest in these gardens was that they seemed to be embracing the dry, and adopting a lean, thin aesthetic as inherent. 

I discovered that Brenton’s isn’t really a dry garden, and he doesn’t pretend that it is.  Even his surroundings are quite verdant.  But the plant palette is mostly very drought tolerant, and the look comes remarkably close to the kind of garrigue gardens explored in the last couple of Olivier Fillipi books, with broad-scale planting of tough evergreens in simple repetition, hovered over by small to medium-sized deciduous trees.  It’s a model, or an aesthetic, that could be adopted for drier conditions that his.

Brenton Robert’s Garden

Kurt’s and Sarah’s gardens were, on the other hand, tough as. 

I’m still absorbing what I saw.  I have the kind of brain that can’t settle until it has distilled what it is seeing into principles, and these are what I’ve come up with so far.  I’d really welcome your responses – getting a grip on these guidelines and principles needs to be a group activity!

1. Establish Pattern.  I suspect that pattern is powerful in all planting, but it seems particularly so in dry, lean planting.  Or maybe it’s just that, as long as there’s a legible pattern, we can cover a lot of seasonal sins, which may (or may not) be more evident in super-dry settings.  Repetition of a strong visual element, whether that’s a plant of emphatic natural form (aeonium, artichoke etc) or a plant clipped into a shape, is the easiest way to achieve this kind of pattern, though forms of paving, or constructed elements, may also perform this function.

2. Eliminate the visibility of bare soil. At its most ‘finished’, this may involve using inorganic mulch, like gravel. At its least finished, it might be that weeds, dead or alive, do the job.  But if it’s a mulch, it should spread over beds and paths as well.  At no time should there be a change of materials between the bed and path – the flow between the two should be seamless.  This has the secondary but important effect of allowing planting to be thin and sparse in some areas.  To be able to diffuse the density of planting is essential, and to achieve this convincingly, it’s important that it doesn’t expose bare soil.

Boats End – Sarah Budarick’s Garden

3. Plant repetitively.  Planting may be diverse, like in Beth Chatto’s gravel garden, or crazily minimal, like in Kurt’s, or somewhere in between, like my steppe garden, but in all cases, it is most effective when the garden reads very simply upon taking a distant or wide view. Complexity should only be revealed on closer inspection.  This is most easily achieved by giving over the larger proportion of the planted space to the repetitive use of a limited plant palette, and, when simplicity is achieved, tickling other species into the simple matrix. This, of course, is related to number 1 above.  But while pattern is more likely to depend on plants of strong form, simple repetition should apply to the bulk of the contents of the garden, whether strong or subtle.

4.  Embrace the browns. ‘Browns’ start to creep into most naturalistic planting in late summer or early autumn, wherever you are in the world. But they invade far, far earlier in brutally summer-dry climates. In both Kurt and Sarah’s gardens they kick in in mid-spring, and remain through the summer and autumn. This is celebrated, to great effect.  

The diffuse boundaries of Kurt Wilkinson’s Garden

5. Consider the natural verdancy.  We’re used to the idea of an oasis in the desert, but the opposite – dry planting in a verdant setting – always seems bizarre.  It’s precisely what’s wrong with most cactus and succulent collections within botanic gardens around the world.  They always feel like a totally inappropriate imposition (and they always make the mistake of being far too diverse (see number 3 above)).  This ‘rule’ can be stretched a little when you’re either unaware of the natural conditions due to the built-up nature of urban environments, or when it’s possible to obscure the view of surrounding vegetation.  But beware.  There’s only a very little wriggle room.  

Title picture is of detail in Kurt Wilkinson’s garden. Check out all these gardens on insta @boatsend_garden, @kurt.wilkinson, @brentonrobertsgardendesigns


  1. It seems to me that the warm beige/ brown colours are being balanced/offset by the use of bluish leaved plants – even echoed by the blue trim on the house at Boats End. I guess it is a way of cooling off the garden without actually having to use water.

    1. You’re exactly right, Irene. I admit I always wondered if Kurt turned up the ‘blue’ in his pics, but when you’re there, the greys/silvers take on exceptional bluish hues in response (in our eyes, at least), to the straw colours that surround them. The same thing happens in a garden of my design in Traralgon, where ‘blue’ agaves look crazy blue when totally surrounded by straw-coloured grasses in winter, and backed up by a rammed-earth house, with galvanised iron roof, guttering and French doors. The gal, in particular, becomes extraordinarily blue-grey

  2. Love this analysis and discussion, Michael! I’ve been wondering in recent months about whether brown might become the new green. Possibly my pessimistic reaction to the unusual level of greenness around here after a relatively mild, damp summer! Brown/beige would seem to be an appropriate base colour for Australian conditions and allows green to be used as an accent (as with Kurt Wilkinson’s clipped domes). I guess the challenge, though, is in getting the colour balance right so that beige doesn’t create the feeling of dry/dusty. I’m wondering whether it’d be helpful to think of brown/beige more in terms of the golden tones (and silhouettes) that they become in the right light?

    1. I love how you’ve described this, with the green being an accent, for that is exactly what happens in Kurt’s garden. He has domes of a number of different plants, but one is a Melaleuca, which you’d never recognise (or at least I didn’t), and it just glows green – it radiates green, as if green is more than just a background garden colour but a tree feature-colour. The balance, as you suggest, would be critical, and I think set by the natural balance of the surrounds (as if point 5 above). It’d also be influenced by the glamour-factor of the colours used past mid-summer. I used Phlomis tuberosa in the garden at Stone Hill, which flowers before everything else, and therefore produces its very brown wobbly seed heads before most other things even begin to flower. I always have to fight the sense that they’re adding an unwelcome senility to an otherwise youthful seasonal display, until late summer/early autumn, when they just start to feel like the earliest representatives of a party in terminal decline…

    2. That was supposed to read ‘nobbly seed heads’

  3. That’s my stumbling block, embracing the browns. I just can’t do it in the Spring and Summer. I really like the dead stems of many flowering perennials in late autumn and winter though. I can’t explain why not in all seasons.

    1. It may have to do with the colours of the surrounding countryside, or nearby planting. I have a theory that this will only work when surrounded by dry country, in which the ‘browns’ and straws are validated by the wider setting

  4. Thanks for these absorbing reflections on those SA gardens, Michael. Your principles make so much sense. Implicit in them is the need to accept where we are gardening and capitalise on the environmental and climate realities of the location. I sometimes fall into the trap of almost apologising to my garden visitors because I am aiming to get better at “embracing the dry”, rather than struggling to maintain a garden its doesn’t fit the location. Sometimes brown with either the morning or late afternoon sun behind it can be shimmering rust or golden. Magical.

  5. Micheal I wonder if you have come across Jonathan Froines – link to blog you (and others) may find of interest -The Dry Succession Garden- He observes “Not irrigating through the dry summer months makes things difficult, a hardship to endure. Our gardens will look brown and dry and a bit sad perhaps. But with this, the return of growth with the winter rains becomes a grand thing to look forward to and be celebrated. And what is more, it challenges gardeners to find ways to make this dormant period beautiful, just as cold-climate gardeners have excelled at in recent years and captivated the world.” The blog also includes seasonal plant lists – fyi additional information from Jonathan: the rainfall in the area ranges from 200-400mm usually at lower end; temps never below freezing; planting is in layer of 20-30cm sand/gravel mix on top of existing soil; all nursery soil is washed off roots prior to planting (based on Peter Korn’s sand planting technique in Sweden).

    1. Hi Deborah, must look that up. Though it sounds like he has it much more difficult that I do. But it’s precisely that ‘our gardens will look….a bit sad perhaps’ that I’m determined to challenge. I have a sad(ish) winter garden. I don’t want a sad summer garden. What I love about what Kurt and Sarah (at Boat’s End) are doing is that it embraces the dry and turns it into an asset. That might overstate it a bit, but I feel like they’re opening a door through to a world we should explore. But thanks for the link. I’m hungry for this sort of stuff!

  6. I’ve enjoyed this post and its responses, and it evokes many thoughts! Here are some:
    1) Most of us in drier, hotter, harsher climates in Australia and South Africa (where I am) “grow up” with an English sensibility of a beautiful garden which is difficult to shed, and we try to adapt it to our conditions. Conversely, I remember on first seeing Great Dixter’s tropical (former rose) garden that was at the time the most talked about revolution in UK gardening, and thinking that it looked like any unkept garden in the more sub-tropical parts of SA. I was totally unimpressed, but it helped shape another thought:
    2) central to most gardening philosophy since time began is Alexander Pope’s “nature methodised”. We don’t WANT a garden to look natural. But modern sensibilities prescribe the exact opposite: work with nature, not against it. That has influenced everything from design, to using endemic plants, to weed and pest control, and at its extreme, the ego of the garden designer (and even the gardener’s) is completely subservient to pleasing nature.
    3) Add to this that for three odd months in summer, I have no desire to garden or even be in it for the middle 8 hours of the day, but would rather have a static view of it from the shade. This dramatically changes our experience of gardening. (I admittedly am particularly shy of harsh sunlight, dislike hats and hate sunscreen.) At a purely pragmatic level, ‘methodising nature’ becomes undesirable.
    4)The dilemma of dry gardening is thus that the broad view of the garden is important for a large part of the day, but over time I’ve concluded that the beauty of a dry garden usually resides in the details: textures of plants and rocks, subtle shading in succulents, etc. These are best experienced in the golden hours anyway, which is when one WANTS to be in the garden.
    5) And so the main problem of the dry garden is the broad picture, the one we can experience from limited vantage points. And here this post gives some very valuable design pointers, for which many thanks!

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