Thinking About Gardens Thinking About Place ­ Articles ­ ISAA

. . . .

Thinking About Gardens Thinking About Place

Thinking About Gardens Thinking About Place

Presented at ISAA Seminar
Charles Sturt University, Bathurst
15 October 2011

…where we are, the place we occupy, however briefly-has everything to do with what and who we are (and finally that we are).1

Places cannot exist in limbo. The concept of place is inevitably relationship-based. Whether in the mind or linked to a particular locus, a sense of place is mediated by association, be that forged through experience, history or imagination and desire. Creating a garden is quintessentially developing a sense of place and this is so whether at the level of the individual, the community or indeed the nation. Referring to the labours of early women gardeners in Australia Holly Kerr Forsyth observes that gardening is an act of settlement.2

We know that people garden for pleasure - the physical exercise, the sense of freedom in open air, an occupation that guards against the vacuum of leisure, the simple satisfaction of growing plants and, of course, the associated aesthetics. But gardening is not a trivial, inconsequential exercise, there are social, historical, scientific and intellectual dimensions to it.

There are also symbolic reasons for creating a garden - and here I include landscaping - that may have to do with power, with social class sentiments and statements, with mediating cosmic forces, with expressing religious beliefs, with exploring philosophical and intellectual ideas,3 and with asserting virtuous citizenship as well as celebrating and affirming identity and with controlling the natural environment and indigeneity.4 In her essay on settlement fiction Susan Martin explores how gardens have been represented as 'proper or improper settlement, adaptation or erasure, conquest and defeat, amongst other things.'5 Consider then Peter Hartcher's recent observation: 'Symbols are powerful because they are the visible signs of invisible realities.'6 Their potency derives from association. In the Australian context for example, that, despite my peregrinations is really where I want to anchor this discussion, the promotion of the native garden has been argued to be a key to national identity - a symbolic statement indeed.7 While the range of reasons I have cited are symbolic they may also be personal - the desire to transform a natural but strange environment into something familiar may have very personal meaning just as signposts of social class and power may have. But gardens may also reflect very particular personal sentiments of grief, of loss, of memory and of anticipation.

Making a garden (as opposed to a make-over) is a slow process one that I have often found to be dispiriting in the challenging environmental circumstances that attend my efforts and that must surely have been more so for early settlers, but imagination wins the day and is sufficiently bolstered because the glitch between reality and the vision splendid lends itself to all kinds of rationalisations. Marion Halligan makes the telling point that 'Most gardens are gardens of the mind'.8 True, but while fantasising about utopian horticultural achievements can be pleasurable and even inspiring it may also carry the seed of disappointment. It can be particularly delusional when what is in our heads and hopes is ill-suited to the site.

But what of the relationship between gardens and landscapes? It stands as a contested relationship and whether it is a city or urban scape on the one hand or a farming or bush scape on the other, it can be unclear. The locus demonstrably informs the relationship with landscape that may be one of integration, denial or control. There can, of course be insouciance but that kind of cocking a snoot already implies a response, if only of unconscious dismissal and after all one can only dismiss that which has been acknowledged. Simon Schama writes that the idea, and it follows the fact, of landscape is a cultural construct albeit not bearing the signs of human intervention. Landscapes cannot exist but through human perceptions '

...although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception of it into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up a much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.9

And, according to George Seddon '"Landscape" is a way of looking at the terrain: it is a perceptual term, not an objective reality.'10 Any divisions that we may care to draw between landscape and garden become blurred when we consider his words in another essay: 'An environment becomes a landscape only when it is so regarded by people, and especially when they begin to shape it in accordance with their taste and needs.'11 There is a niggling question here as to whether even thinking about an environment can be achieved without the intervention of encultured eyes--mind's eyes or physical orbs. Much of the associated literature has differentiated natural landscape from cultural landscape, with a sometime introduced separate category of designed landscape.12 But it is questionable how tight this taxonomy actually is since even pristine, or relict, organically evolved landscapes are viewed and interpreted, even imagined, through a cultural lens.

It is worth contemplating how Aboriginal people interacted with their environment--the landscape as they interpreted it--an environment that provided them with the means and meaning of existence, full of signs and charged with spiritual significance.13 Early Australian settlers interpreted a good deal of the same landscape in a quite different way. It is, however, physical shaping by humans that can distinguish 'designed' landscapes from other forms, rendering the distinction between that category of landscaping and gardening even hazier.

Given the cultural filter that not only influences but can determine our ways of seeing, it is not surprising that, as Seddon observes, the language of landscape and gardens is anthropocentric : 'a way of positioning ourselves in relation to the external environment'. We project our values and emotions on to the landscape and on to gardens in what is known as the 'pathetic' fallacy. We may speak of a harsh or hostile environment or a serene garden but in truth 'harsh' or 'hostile' are attributions we make when it is not biddable in our terms, it actually suits those elements natural to it perfectly well; spinifex and salt bush flourish in our deserts. Similarly we may experience a garden as 'serene' but the plants and layout have no such sense, indeed horticulturally some forms may be struggling to survive - without any emotions, of serenity or otherwise. It is our experiental and emotional translations that impute these characteristics.

The desire to exert discipline over nature is evident in gardening and in landscaping - undeniably a form of gardening when we seek to change an existing landscape into something more fitting to our sense of aesthetics, the fashions of the time or any social, political or personal statements that we want to make. There is a lovely quote in Seddon's book Landprints: '" I hope I may die before you" said one of Capability Brown's contemporaries, "so that I may see Heaven before you improve it."'14


The emphasis in the personalised history of gardening lies heavily on gardens of the elite. Until relatively recently the small gardens of common people have tended to fade out of memory and historical presence. It is small gardens, the gardens of the common people that are most likely to fall into oblivion--unsupported by family tradition, state or heritage intervention and certainly without the capital to enlarge or even maintain them they slip out of history. They were probably never accorded significance in the first place. Some may have been captured pictorially, in painting or sometimes, and that could only have been since the 1840s, in photographs, but it is the grand gardens, or at least those of the more privileged members of society, that are most recorded graphically or in writing. It is such gardens that are likely to have strong and enduring physical elements such as earth mounds or shaping, water features possibly canals or lakes, and architectural components--water steps, fountains, grottoes, walks and walls as well a statuary-- all of which endure over time. While as a political or social statement, reflecting state and individual power, this grand view of gardening and landscaping has long been undertaken with public money it is only people with adequate disposable incomes who can afford projects on such a scale. In Australia, with a relatively short gardening history, the works of Edna Walling and gardens such as Cruden Farm stand to make it into garden history books, and there are others.15 But even these gardens could not have been made or maintained without considerable financial resources and they now have achieved symbolic status reflecting and further stimulating attention.

My discussion draws principally on English gardens and gardening traditions in Australia simply because for the last two hundred plus years gardening in this country has drawn heavily on British models and practices, and my particular interest in gardens and place is in Australia. That is not to say that gardening here only started at white settlement. Aboriginal practices of firestick farming, of replanting the ends of edible tubers, or scattering seeds, all have the character of gardening and conservation. And all have a very long prehistory, glimpsed through ethnography, archaeology, botany and even palynology. But gardening in the English style continues to be a strong influence, weakening it is true as indigenous flora are ever more incorporated and as modifications in design and planting reflect injections from other sources,16 and more critically as we develop some clearer understanding of the very different environmental challenges confronting us in this country. It is also true that some indigenous flora - usually spectacular, and exotic for the newcomers, although not always of the local area - have long been used in an iconic way. Take for example early planting in the colony of native figs and of Araucarias such as Hoop and Norfolk Pines, trees that have marked important public sites and private curtilages, many remaining today as signposts of important buildings or places.17 And, of course, we know that some early settlers - notably women - demonstrated an interest in and appreciation of indigenous flora; Elizabeth Macarthur, Charlotte Atkinson, Louisa Anne Meredith and Georgiana Molloy come to mind.

In rural Australia a garden setting has always distinguished the houses of the pastoral elite, as well as people with some wealth whose social standing in other fields is high. This category of privilege includes people whose primary residence may be in the city or who enjoy status in a country town or region. While it is true that home gardening increased in line with the suburbanisation of cities my present concern is primarily with gardens in the country where isolation in an Australian rural environment gave rise to a set of different responses to that environment and the creation of a sense of place. There have, of course, been changes in the way that country gardens have been made and maintained over the decades yet most of them seem to share some common underlying characteristics; perhaps it is no more than the very fact that they exist for the most part in a sprawl of country (or what was a sprawl of country) that is a central and differentiating feature. And it may be that many have remained in the same family for generations where the importance of tradition has influenced the garden style. Even so there have certainly been a number of ways of dealing with what registers as a culturally committed existential disjunction between horticulture and landscaping which is not to leach the landscape of its cultural characterisation, but rather to re-assert it.

Martin is critical of the negative representations of gardening in the Australian Realistic fiction of the nineteenth century that stress the struggle in implanting an English garden in an unwelcoming Australian environment and the erasure of native flora from the garden area as the triumph of British culture over the colonised space.18 As a counterweight she points to ways in which Australian fiction from the mid nineteenth century depicts gardens as incorporating introduced and indigenous plants, an accommodation reflecting changes in national identity.

In England Lancelot' Capability' Brown's (1715-1783) approach to landscaping, or 'place-making' as he referred to it was ruthless, a refashioning of existing formal gardens into idealised and extensive parklands which nonetheless sat within a broader picture that could be harmoniously incorporated into controlled, long views. But, for all that Brown's influence19 was felt in the colony the circumstances here were generally unsympathetic to idealised 'improving' on a very large canvas.20 For a start, people had neither the wealth nor the inclination - and often enough in the circumstances of settlement, the time - to pursue such grand schemes; moreover the setting did not generally invite the incorporation of vistas of a strange, and to use that anthropocentric word harsh, environment. For a long time it stood at odds with the place people were trying to make which was so often in denial of the actual setting. The intention to recreate something of the landscape the new settlers had left - the idealised landscape, the remembered landscape or perhaps, for those who were born here, even the imagined landscape - was a means of asserting an identity and the ties that they felt with Britain. The impulse was one of control and through that exercise connection. There was no question of being animated by the spirit of the place, the genius loci, rather, in defiance it became an assertion of owning, imprinting and so of belonging. Their parcel (sometimes vast stretches) of land was shaped in accordance with their desires and their designs. A consequence was the early development of gardens that were frequently inward-turning: whether or not they had defined boundaries the pull of place was strongly centripetal. Many stood, indeed continue to stand, as oases of exotic plantings21 in what Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895), describing the landscape around Bathurst and no doubt echoing the sentiments of others, referred to as 'unpleasing'.22 Not, of course, that every country garden spurned its environment and intentionally or not glimpses of the countryside were increasingly incorporated in the garden aesthetic, used as borrowed landscapes.23 The message conveyed by the expanded sense of place among more privileged land holders is evident. Much, of course, depended on the situation, on the time of year and prevailing climatic conditions: high summer and drought hit some regions hard discouraging feelings of association while softer country was more likely to draw the eye and empathy. Rachel Henning for example, initially found little joy in the countryside around Bulledelah but was later seduced by the rolling green of the Illawarra.24 As time passed and native flora and Australian environments came to be appreciated on their own terms country gardens were designed to sit more easily in them, eschewing formality and with boundaries less impervious, making the setting part of the genius loci. Yet, while sympathetically acknowledging the broad setting a sense of place is expressed most potently in the immediate domestic domain.

Echoing the way in which the incorporation of indigenous plants in gardens symbolised shifts in the construction of national identity acceptance and borrowing of the Australian landscape became an important element in the creation of a new sense of place. Beatrice Bligh, writing in the late 1960s25 specifically recalled her desire to achieve a satisfactory blending between what she called 'the garden proper' and the land beyond. More than that, she sought to connect the domestic arena with the work of farming, opening vistas that allowed station activity to be watched.

Inevitably, given the scant records, I have come across relatively little about the gardens of small landholders, those people who probably gardened principally for sustenance, although the desire for an aesthetic is evident in some of the information. In a photograph of a miner and his wife outside their hut in Hill End the neat garden holds edible and ornamental plants and close inspection suggests it is quite closely bounded although not to the exclusion of the world beyond. Admittedly it is fiction but the command in Henry Lawson's story 'Water them Geraniums'26 implies something of the store put on small gestures of beautification. But it seems that in early days the Australian bush--including open country --was not only foreign, but for many also alien, carrying a threat of encroaching. Boundaries, especially visually impervious boundaries might keep that fear at bay, or at least emphasise the feelings of place created in the domestic space by a statement of disconnect with the surrounding environment. Idealising wilderness, a theme observable in Romantic literature and art, is different from physically being in it, confronting it and coping with it.

For all that the passage of time has dissolved the desire to define sharply any differences between essentially European gardening practices and styles and Australian forms I have become aware of very few country gardens reflecting anything of the bush garden movement that flourished in the 1950s and 60s in suburban settings.27 The notion of a bush garden, with its messages of national identity, extended the concept of a native garden in that it aimed to leave the bush standing with some enrichment, rather than simply incorporating indigenous flora into established patterns of gardening--an approach that has some history although later Edna Walling advocated it as a practice in ways that actually rejigged customary attitudes and established what might be called an Australian tradition.

Trisha Dixon28 accords Walling the honour of being 'the single most important person in the metamorphosis of an Australian style'. It is worth noting that women have played really important roles in the history of gardening for many years although in the first instance they came to attention as women gardener-writers. In England this tradition can be traced back to the 17th century.29 For Australia Katie Holmes et al write:

While male and female settlers created and cultivated the gardens which were laid out across Australia accompanying the waves of migration, it was women who were most likely to write about them. They imagined and wrote about their gardens in diaries and described them in letters 'home'. By bringing the garden into being through their words and actions, white settler women negotiated a sense of place, even amidst the experience of dislocation and homesickness.30



The notion of place that has trickled through this narrative is central to it. Edward Casey, in his book Getting Back into Place argues that '...where we are - the place we occupy, however briefly - has everything to do with what and who we are...'31 Further I argue, there is a place spectrum. It is true that wherever you are you are 'in place' although as Casey opines, to follow through this Parmedinean line of thinking brings one to the view that 'Being guarantees Place', a way of coping with the panic of the emptiness of space that leaches the notion of place of its potent subjectivity.32 The reflexivity of being and place is undeniable but for place to have meaning it must be consciously experienced. There is something of a continuum here running through simple awareness to a strong emotional attachment, ultimately expressed as a sense of belonging: that is the shift is from simple recognition of an association with sites through to a 'lived place'. It is the development of this sense of belonging that interests me - a connectedness with implications for identity, for who we think we are or who we would like to be, that can be mediated or at least enhanced through the creation of a garden.

Casey writes '...the sense of self, personal or collective, grows out of and reflects the places from which we came and where we have been.'33 But there may also be anticipation in that awareness, how we would like to see ourselves and where. There is certainly nostalgia when we yearn for past times and perhaps lost places and even for times and places beyond our ken, such as appears to have been the emotion of settlers who were born in Australia yet associated - and with deep affection - with Britain. Inevitably their gardens reflected a British tradition. Instancing that association of the mind and emotion on a personal note, there was a time in the 60s, reading Lawrence Durrell's writing on Greece, that the spirit of the age imprinted me with the genius loci. At great distance, and never having been there I entertained a sense of place on a Greek island.
 Repeating Holly Kerr Forsyth's observation: creating a garden is an act of settlement.34 But it is the dovetailing of nostalgia and hope that provides an insight in understanding the significance of gardens in the settlement of Australia. Casey35 writes of 'homesteading'--journeying to a new place that is to become home, thereby involving re-implacement, a process that requires the development of sentiments of attachment to both the physical and cultural environment. And he writes of 'homecoming' with its self-evident meaning of returning to the same place with a sense of familiarity. In making gardens as closely as they had experienced them, settlers were both homesteading and homecoming; they sought to develop anew a remembered place in the recreation of affective relationships and in the memories (or illusory memories) of experience, for it is true that memory is place-saturated as place is memory-saturated.

It is the stabilizing persistence of place as a container of experiences that contributes so powerfully to its intrinsic memorability.
...memory is naturally place-oriented or at least place-supported.36




1 Edward S Casey, Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press1993, p xiii.

2 Holly Kerr Forsyth, Remembered Gardens:Eight Women and their Visions of an Australian Landscape, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2006.

3 Medieval monastery gardens were imbued with symbolic values reflecting a religious cosmos. Contemplate also '…the Garden of Cosmic Speculation with its Double Helix and Snail Mount where the paths force you to walk up to go down, and down to go up, suggesting a complex of meanings from Marxist dialectic to the structure of DNA.'Ambra Edwards, 'Sculpting the Land' Gardens Illustrated, Jan. 2009, pp 52-55.

4 A recent symbolic statement of breathtaking scope is the Tokachi Millenium Forest in Japan.Situated on the island of Hokkaido it covers 240 hectares and is intended to last for 1,000 years, an assertion about the continuing value of the natural environment. In the first year alone 24,000 trees were planted. The Forest is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi who acquired the land in 1994 with the intention of offsetting the carbon footprint of his newspaper business.Dan Pearson 'Big in Japan' Gardens Illustrated, 2009, pp 28-3.

5 Susan K Martin '"…hurry up them Pines": Gardens in Nineteenth-Century Australian Fiction' in Max Bourke AM and Colleen Morris (eds), Studies in Australian Garden History, vol 2, Australian Garden History Society, Melbourne, 2006, p 98.

6 Peter Hartcher, 'A transformed sequel'. News Review, Sydney Morning Herald, June 18-19, 2011.

7 Reading the Stephenson's correspondence about the garden around their bush hut Katie Holmes reflects on the nationalistic strains in their choice of native plants, a disposition already well in evidence in Australian literature betokening the assertion of a specificnational identity.Katie Holmes, Between the Leaves: Stories of Australian Women, Writing and Gardens, UWA Publishing, The University of Western Australia, 2011, pp 159-61. The bush garden movement gained real momentum 1950s and 60s.

8 Marion Halligan, 'A sufficiently exciting occupation' in Peter Timms (ed) The Nature of Gardens, Allen and Unwin Pty Ltd, St Leonards, Australia, 1999, pp 1-32, p 2.

9 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1995.

10 George Seddon, Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and Melbourne, 1997, p 1.

11 Seddon, p 111.

12 See for example the discussion in Jeannie Sim, 'Explorations in landscape design theory: designed landscapes and cultural landscapes', Australian Garden History, 22: 4, April/May/June, 2011, pp19-22.

13 See the writings of T G H Strehlow eg Aranda Traditions, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1947 inter alia.

14 Seddon, p 112.

15 See eg Holly Kerr Forsyth; Trisha Dixon, Under the Spell of the Ages; Australian Country Gardens, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2007; various issues of Australian Garden History.

16 See eg the work of Piet Oudolf in promoting the New Perennial Movement principally in Europe, or James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme. developing an American style of gardening and earlier the painterly designs of the Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx in South America.

17 Camden Park,Rousehill and Varroville impress as good examples.The question is can the arrogation of selective native forms be read as reflecting a changing colonial identity, an incorporative approach in the processes of colonialism or simply the attraction of exotica.

18 Martin, p 99.

19 While 'Capability' Brown's name may be the best known, Humphry Repton, often seen as his successor, closely followed him in time and impact. Nor were they alone in developing and popularising an English style, the influences of later designers and gardeners such as later William Robinson, Gertrude Jeykll and Edward Lutyens inter alia--albeit different from the Romantic and later picturesque vision - were and continue to be reflected in England and abroad.

20 During the late 18th century in England Brown's designs themselves subsequently became the subject of criticism.

21 The plants that Charlotte Augusta Anne Suttor included in her garden outside Bathurst and listed at the end of her diary entry 1894-1850 reflects this old world orientation-hollyhocks, lupins, verbena, mignonette, stock, primrose and penstemon. ML MSS 1520/1.

22 Cited in Holly Kerr Forsyth, p 76.

23 Many of the photographs in Dixon's book 2007, provide examples where that landscape was more than glimpsed, rather where it established the context for interpretation.

24 Rachel Henning, The Letters of Rachel Henning, ed David Adams, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1986, [1951-2 in The Bulletin].   

25 Bligh, Down to Earth,Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1968.

26 Henry Lawson, 'Water them Geraniums' in Joe Wilson's Mates, Lloyd O'Neil Pty Ltd, Hawthorn, Victoria, 1970, pp 48-72.

27 See the work of two sisters, Maloney and Walker, as outlined in Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, Designing Australian Bush Gardens, Grahame Horwitz. Cammeray, NSW, 1966.

28 Trisha Dixon, 'Walling, Edna Margaret 1895-1973) in The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, eds Richard Aitken & Michael Looker, Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Garden History Society, Melbourne, 2002, pp 625-6.

29 See Deborah Kellaway, ed, Women Gardeners, Virago Press, London, 1995.

30 Katie Holmes, Susan K Martin & Kylie Mirmohamadi, Reading the Garden: the Settlement of Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2008, p 5.

31 Edward S Casey, Getting Back into Place, p xiii.

32 Parmenides argued against 'nothingness' that is denying the possibility of a void. What exists 'is now, all at once, one and continuous…Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is.' B.8.5-6, 8.22-24., 1 July 2011.

33 Casey, Getting Back into Place, p 38.

34 Kerr Forsyth, p 6.

35 Casey, Getting Back into Place, p 290.

36 Casey, Remembering, a Phenomenological Study, Indiana Press, Bloomington 2000, p 186.