To look at or to live in?

The wall is coming along nicely – thanks for asking.

But as is almost invariably the case for me, simple steps lead to big questions.

For all sorts of reasons (septic tank placement/visual and physical linkage to other parts of the garden), this wall moved further from the house than was ideal, and the space at the bottom of the wall (hemmed in by the chook house) is smaller than I wanted and expected it to be.

That has forced a last-minute redesign, and a revisiting of the great dilemma – do I want a garden of one big idea – one that’d be exciting and impressive to visit, or do I want a garden to live with, and live in?

You turn up at gardens like Marqueyssac, and are so blown away by the extravagant outworking of one idea – so intoxicated that it can make you dizzy.  You know the kind of thing..

Or to add a less-known angle..

While in the area, you’ll probably drop into Eyrignac and again find yourself totally destabilized by how overwhelmingly desirable pure geometry can be.  This is particularly troubling to a plant lover.  These gardens are emphatically not about plants, or at least not about plant variety.  They’re more a celebration of pattern than a celebration of botany.  It’s essential that they’re green and growing – the same forms made of concrete wouldn’t capture any of the charm.  Maybe it all pivots on the tension of creating strong architectural pattern of live, growing organisms that don’t have any architectural quality in their own right.   Dunno.  But they’re fabulously desirable.

And you might find yourself, on a warm early summer afternoon after a couple of wines over lunch, faced with a large squarish bit of rough grass like that down the back of the Priory at Orsan.

It may look like nothing, but believe me, it feels amazing

It’s pretty much enclosed with chest-height hedging, and about four metres in from that, on all sides, it is arcaded, cloister-like, with a row of widely spaced lindens.  You stand there, totally enchanted, transfixed, spell-bound, but are at a total loss to understand why anything so outrageously simple can be that powerful.

So you get what I mean.  Every time I start thinking of an area like my newly walled zone, I can’t help but play with ideas like those I’ve found magical in gardens I’ve visited.  But that always leads to the question “would I be happy with it in the long-term? Will it continue to engage and excite me after a few years?”

In the last hour I’ve arrived home from a plant-research trip to Melbourne Zoo (you should see it – seriously phenomenal planting design around the Elephant enclosure in particular),  and in a few spare minutes between teen-taxi responsibilities, I set out eagerly, cup of tea in hand, to see if the Crocus pulcellus which showed its head yesterday has opened, to check if the dodgier bits of my stone wall annoy me as much today as they did yesterday, to see if the chervil seedlings that I’m hardening off are coping with the sun, and to check on the progress of the so-far ground-level flower-buds of the only autumn flowering form of true snowdrop (Galanthus reginae-olgae, above).  I think that it’s this sort of detail that keeps me fully and immediately engaged in my own garden – that will make it worth the regular quick dash around, even when time’s limited.

Those other gardens are amazing to visit, and are undeniably astonishing and important creations.  But I think what I need in a home garden could best be described as a plant playground.  Given that such gardens are always best within a strong and disciplined structure, maybe there’s room for a bit of both.


  1. I admire many things I could not possibly live with myself. Francis Bacon’s art, swathes of Oudolf-esque grasses, Gough Whitlam……. And aren’t the best gardens always a reflection of the owner’s personality? For me, that intimacy is what I like best when I visit a garden and I’m most often disappointed when it’s missing, however tasteful the spaces and charming the compositions. I can’t imagine a more appropriate garden for Michael McCoy than a plant playground.

    1. I couldn’t live with my mum. Bad things would happen, but our garden spaces aren’t just about us. It’s about the street, our neighbours and the greater landscape too.

      Personally I go for formality out the front….coupla good shrubs, bit of topiary and hardly any bling, but for the private areas I’m all up for some hog stomping baroque.

      It’s good to be a dag.

      Walls aren’t too shabby either Michael. One point I feel compelled to make (I do it for a quid) is to keep your best big rock for the capping. Secure it with some mortar made just from some subsoil clay and water. Sticks like the proverbial.

    2. Thanks for the tip – I’m going to go back over that capping with some sticky clay putty, or else the dog, who’s decided to use it for a lookout in order to better fulfil her self-appointed role as full time sentry, will dislodge the lot in a matter of days.

      And as for hog-stomping baroque – there’s not nearly enough in gardens, is there. It’s the perfect description, I reckon, for that crazy confection of black bananas at Chanticleer. I’m back there in a few weeks, to see if the baroque is restricted to the autumn. I’m imagining spring’s more likely to lean to the classical.

    3. I’d like to lay claim to hog-stomping baroque Michael, but I knicked it from Tom Wolfe and his great book – “From Bauhaus to Our House” – a satirical critique on classic modernist architects. I use the term for most everything exuberant and those musa “Black Thai” are sublimely hog-stomping! I’ve been thinking about that image you took and I think I’ve got a spot too…

      Your walls are good. You’ve got a stretcher bond going on and that’s one of my maxims too. The others are – in no particular order –

      * an even distribution of the biggies across the face.
      * a consistent batter.
      * a string line (top and bottom for the straights, you sight down from the top) and a bit of conduit for curves are your best friend.
      * good rock work takes time.

      There are others, but the above get me by. Just mix your subsoil thoroughly in a bucket and goop it on. Before it goes off I hose the face down with a stiff jet to get of the squelchy bits. It really sets the top course off hard. Paw proof!

      Look forward to seeing and reading about your next trip too.

    4. Totally agree that it’s that (often unwitting) expression of personality that makes a garden really engaging. In fact, I often fall for gardens where this is really evident, even if I don’t much like their style. But is this elusive quality limited to gardens created by a single personality? I’m struggling to think of any exceptions. It’s certainly why institutional gardens, and those run by committees, virtually never achieve it.

  2. My heart beats faster when I see pictures of those kinds of gardens, too, but the reality is, once the grand idea has been executed, the rest is just maintenance. Thrilling to visit, but no fun for a gardener to live with.

    1. Funny, that. I know at other times in other places I’ve been dying for my garden to be finished, only to become bored with it the moment it was.

  3. Do you suppose the idea of ‘garden rooms’ has come from grappling with the dilemma of creating a garden with a single impressive concept vs a garden to live with and in? Am thinking now perhaps some rooms in our garden have plantings that offer an intimate and casual feel (family room?), some feel more formal and structured (chintzy sitting room? Perhaps a bit stuck up actually) and also there’s the utilitarian and functional sense one has when poking in the veggie patch (kitchen/laundry?). Perhaps your plant playground is not unlike how you’d feel walking through the kid’s rooms… filled with a diversity of burgeoning fun ideas? Thinking garden rooms give us an opportunity to scale our single impressive planting concepts into a space and decorate it how we want to feel when we pass through… a little more difficult to shift the furniture(plantings) around when you feel like redecorating though.

    1. Garden rooms = indecision? I wonder… Certainly pushes the house design analogy to new and quite useful heights. But as for the difficulty of moving the furniture, I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that a friend’s children started calling their Mum’s garden the velcro garden, given how often things were lifted and moved.

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