Two ill-fitting hats

Is the function of your garden to be primarily a background to your life – the space you sit in when you dine outdoors, or the stage you set for your afternoon G and T? Or is your garden meant to be front and centre – a place of stimulation, of engagement with nature, or of a celebration of your love of plants?

I guess If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be somewhere near, or in, that latter category.

But the reason why it’s a useful distinction, and perhaps even a helpful or liberating one, is that the vast majority of people that seek professional garden design services in Australia are in the former category, while the vast majority of keen home gardeners are in the latter.

All pics – three very different gardens for three very different gardening-loving clients. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have had a few of them in my career. They’re few and far between

This is why, I’d argue, a lot of keen gardeners just didn’t quite ‘get’ ABC TV’s Dream Gardens.  It would have been better if it hadn’t been spruiked as a gardening show at all, but pushed to the homemakers, or advertised as a design show.  I was never more aware, than during the making of that show, of the great divide between the world of professional garden design, and that of the home gardener.

The weirdness for me is that I wear both hats.  And they severely interfere with one another.  Or maybe it’s that neither quite fully fits. As a home gardener, I want as much seasonal change as possible.  I’d go for daily change if I could.  (Actually, maybe not.  I’d be too panicky about what I was missing on the days I couldn’t make time to go and enjoy the shift.  Let’s go with weekly change).  But that’s neither possible, nor even particularly desirable, for home owners who simply want a quiet, consistent, reliable and preferably low maintenance background to their lives.  Whenever I create a garden that tilts in that direction for clients, I can’t help evaluating it through the lens of my horticultural desires and demands and marking it down accordingly.  And whenever I create a horticulturally stimulating and demanding garden, I can’t help criticising and condemning on the opposite criteria.

I find I can wear both hats quite comfortably as a social-media consumer.  I follow several Australian garden designers, and I’m forever looking at their work through the appropriate lens, and thinking something along the lines of  ‘Wow.  That is seriously genius planting.  Dang, I wish I’d thought of that’ without in any way wanting it for myself or my own garden.  And I follow several home gardeners that have me thinking ‘Oh man, that is so magically beautiful’, all the while knowing that the same planting could never work in any professionally designed setting.

Seeing the distinction can help you recognise the need for, and the genius of, both.  Even if it’s only one of them fills you with longing.


  1. As so often, Michael, you have cut to the heart of the matter in a way so simple that it seems obvious! There is to me a further extreme to the sliding scale that goes beyond being a plant person in the gardening sense: I have always enjoyed – no, revelled in – the fleeting nature of the flowering of so many wildings, and the chance nature of encountering them. In the wider expanse of my Sequoia Garden it was a regular part of my walks to look out for them, and also when hiking in the mountains. Now, in the wonderfully diverse fynbos biome, and in this age of easy photography, there is endless sharing by many people of these encounters with the fleeting beauty of plants that would be impossible to accommodate in a garden. Yet that has not stopped me (as I hoped it would) from the desire to create my own garden space and to curate it…

    1. I’m so pleased it hasn’t, Jack. There’s something about that nurturing process that’s richly self-nurturing. Is this some kind of nesting instinct, I wonder?

  2. I don’t know about other home gardeners, but I’ve made some big mistakes along my gardening journey. Some of those mistakes still annoy me. Others I’ve minimised, but it’s taken a while. Well-designed gardens, with spaces that work and plantings that inspire, have provided lessons and offered some different ways to see my garden spaces. They have been part of my gardening learning, as have going to workshops, buying (too many) books and being open to the views of friends who garden. The design coaching course I did with you, Michael, further developed my thinking and confidence to keep playing in the space to achieve a garden that has a stronger sense of place, is responding to climate realities and invites us to spend time in it. And all the while, we can have a good time offering amateur (and humble, of course) opinions on how much better those grandly designed gardens would be if they were”real” gardens.

    1. I honour your attention to humility when expressing such opinions about those grandly designed gardens, Annette. You’re a rare breed! And as to your point, I’ve always found that there’s load to learn even from gardens I don’t like. Sometimes I’ve learned what not to do, but mostly there’s something that I pick up on that a garden has done well, even if I don’t particularly like it.

      Oh, and like you, I’ve made big mistakes. And I intend to keep making them. I just don’t think it’s possible to advance unless you accept their inevitability

  3. I think it’s a question of values and priorities. What do you really want your garden to do for you? What is most important to you? Beauty, diversity,calm, stimulation, habitat, order, chaos ? It must be difficult for garden designers to try and drill down what clients really want and value and then set up a garden that anticipates future needs as the garden matures. I find it’s a constant striving to combine all the things I value – especially as priorities and values change over time. Gardens of keen home gardeners evolve and change over the years to reflect that but garden designers only have a short window to work with – it must be challenging!

    1. Yep. It’s a question of values and priorities. But it’s interesting, then, how harsh we can be about our criticisms of gardens not made for our priorities and values. Gardens are so personal, aren’t they? And I’m prepared to accept and even love (almost) any expression of idiosyncrasy or wild originality in someone else’s garden, as long as it’s a genuine expression of them. It only gets tricky for me when I’m designing for others, and end up doing something thoroughly worthy but that doesn’t press my buttons at all. Or, on the flip-side, making my own garden to exactly match my own values and priorities, but fretting about what that might say about my abilities as a designer.

      Did I just hear someone think the word ‘overthink’?

  4. This is a very timely discussion for me as I have always loved gardening and now as I have both time and filled my own place to “pussy’s bow” what do I do now- a gardening design course naturally (UOM)- however as I tended over my own garden today I reflected on the fact that if i use the skills I will gain in helping others it will not be the sort of garden I have. Mine is full of “I must have one of those” moments which give me huge delight but don’t necessarily fit with good design aesthetics. So maybe its time for me to be more considered …in other people’s gardens of course!

    1. Yes, it’s a tricky balance, Kaylene – allowing spontaneity and even senselessness to dominate in your own garden (without abandoning all good decision making), while being considered and careful in others’ garden (without abandoning joy and buoyancy)

  5. Michael, so good how you capture otherwise ephemeral gardening contemplations and flesh them right out.

    Perhaps a catchphrase more often applied to content for social media may be equally applicable to understand the needs of those who make a garden… your former category may need a garden to fulfil a range of objectives with more curation than ongoing creation in mind.

    On the other hand, your latter category may be those who have an innate need to create and experiment. Their gardens are not so static in design maybe?
    As usual, these ponderings bring forth more questions. Why does it seem there is a real polarisation between these groups, not a continuum? Or is there a spectrum where every person’s garden needs can be differently placed and if so, I would expect they change as we age and our bones don’t allow us to create and experiment with the degree of enthusiasm previously had!

    1. Hi Jenni, and likewise, I love your insightful answers.

      I’m sure that it’s more of a continuum than I’ve expressed it to be, though I do think that the spectrum ends are rather stark here in Australia, largely due to the fact that nearly all professional design work is commissioned by people with little or no interest in the garden, and that nearly all keen gardeners think that they can design a garden for themselves (and which I’d largely encourage them to do).

      If more keen gardeners decided that they wanted guidance in the garden layout (as did Leo Schofield, when he asked me to consult at Bronte House, back in the late 90’s), or if more owners who utilised garden design services did so out of a genuine desire to engage in their gardens from then on, then I think it’d be more of a continuum.

  6. I have wondered about this as well, as someone who fits into the latter category, I often find myself a bit underwhelmed by professioanlly designed gardens and while I usually admire what the designers have done with the space, as far as plant selection goes, there is for me often an overreliance on texture instead of colour, too much repetition, the garden looks impressive filmed from above, but wonder what does it actually feel like to be in this garden and while perhaps thousands of plants have been used, there is when you boil it down, perhaps only one key element of colour and texture going on. I can look at other gardens and say ‘I appreciate it, but it is not for me’, in my own garden it is a different story and a dilemma. Whilst satisfing my horticultiral interest is always a priority, I constantly feel “guilty” for probably missing a certain “design factor”, not having had a professional involved or done a design course myself. While I would love to take a design course, if it ever became available in my area, I wonder if we keen home gardeners should learn to give ourselves more credit. I think if you are a keen gardener, you will have at least basic design skills, but probably more. I dont believe you would be a keen gardener if you did not have those instincts. You would not break basic design rules and who is to define what goes beyond basic design rules, what defines good design aesthetics exactly. We have become so accustomed to a certain style of professionally designed gardens that home gardens don’t match, can’t achieve or perhaps even should not achieve and perhaps we should not aspire to them too much…that is what I tell myself anyway!

    1. Isn’t it weird, that ‘guilt’ at missing a ‘design factor’? The only real measure of the success of any garden is the extent to which it perfectly matches the needs, desires and resources of the owner. But in my experience, it’s almost inevitable that, as happy as you might be with your own garden, when showing someone else around you’ll feel their lenses drop into your glasses, and you’ll start to imagine that you’re seeing what they’re seeing, and thinking what they’re thinking. Of course you’ll be wrong about what they’re seeing and thinking, but you’ll be knotted with self-consciousness nevertheless

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