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… my grandfather … was a smiling man and an untidy gardener. When you poked his cabbages, they squeaked with health; his beans snapped with a crack like a pistol shot and you needed a bib when you ate one of his apples. ‘Nature isn’t tidy,’ he used to say, loading us up with flowers and veggies all picked from the same patch.

From Companion Planting in Australia by Brenda Little.

Over the years I’ve imbibed most of the wisdom from the small volume quoted above. Published in 1983, it is, remarkably, still in one piece, although its well-thumbed pages are turning sepia and brittle. It’s books such as this, along with other people’s gardens all over the world, that infect a gardener’s aesthetic and practice, connecting gardens and their creators across time and space, and across nationality, age and culture.

Do non-gardeners read books about gardens? I’m not sure of the answer to this, although I suspect it is, generally, ‘no’. Which is odd, as I know for a fact that non-filmmakers read books about film; non-writers read books about literature; non-artists read books about artists, and so on. At the same time, you don’t have to be a filmmaker to go to a film; an artist to go to a gallery; or a poet to listen to poetry. And yet, it is unlikely that a non-gardener would take a tour of a garden, write a book about a gardener, or read obsessively about gardens and gardeners throughout history.


So gardeners, unlike artists or musicians or writers, live in a fairly isolated world, with other gardens and gardeners as the mirror for their pursuits. I’m not saying that non-gardeners don’t appreciate an impressive garden – the popularity of botanic gardens all over the world would prove otherwise. But these are ‘official’ gardens, laden with history and science and providing green open spaces for leisure. A gardener, on the other hand, wandering through a botanic garden is noting variations of scale, colour, texture; they are memorising Latin names and more than likely wondering how they can pinch a few seeds, or take a cutting without being noticed.

This separation of gardening from the other arts is interesting; it produces a kind of apologetic in the gardener, where gardening is not something that can be written about, or thought about, or even appreciated, in the same elevated way as the study of social theory or the writing of novels. Maybe this has something to do with the combination of form and function in gardening, where subsistence and aesthetics lie side-by-side. But isn’t this the preoccupation of the entire history of western art – a combination of form and function? And yet, when people ask me what I do, I would rarely answer, ‘I’m a gardener’.

Shed and garden

Right the way back through history, to when the women who grew herbs and flowers for medicine were labelled witches, gardening has occupied a strange place in relation to more ‘worldly’ activities – to commerce, art, philosophy or literature. While the construction of the garden, as a discrete space, is arguably central to a ‘western’ notion of leisure and pleasure, its real function (the production of food, medicine, oxygen, mental and physical fitness, and, of course, pleasure) has been largely subsumed. So, for a long time gardening has been seen, by the more serious disciplines, as either an indulgence of the wealthy or a slightly out of kilter obsession. The real history of gardens, beginning at the moment that humans stopped being nomadic, as both productive and aesthetic places, has been swept aside by the last 300 years, along with many other things integral to human survival.

The point about companion planting, then, is that a garden dedicated to production is also, by necessity, a garden dedicated to an aesthetic – to have bees, you must provide flowers and water. And all gardeners, like artists and musicians and writers, crave an appreciative ‘audience’ for their creation. This is why gardeners tend to gravitate towards other gardeners and other gardens, because here they will find both an audience and a mirror; someone who understands the intricate attention to detail that has gone into the placing of one plant with another, and something from which they can learn, borrow and interpret.

In the community of gardeners (now ever-widening) there is a patent acknowledgment that, like the tree falling in the forest, a garden (and its gardener) needs an audience, even if it is an audience of one. Thankfully, I’ve had a series of planting companions throughout my gardening life; friends whose gardens I can both admire, help out in and borrow from. The common theme, when visiting these companions, or when they visit me, is the ritual ‘tour’ of the garden, because a garden, unlike a painting or a song, is changing and added to all the time. And, more than any other art form, gardening is fully in and of the world, always responding to things outside its control: the climate, the weather, pests, the environment in which it is created.

bath etc

While there’s not space or time here to do justice to the complex place of the garden in history, I think that there is, and needs to be, a reappraisal of the garden that constructs it outside its emergence as a form of middle-class indulgence. Yes, TV garden makeovers claim a large audience, but popping off to Bunnings and paying a landscape designer to place a few aesthetically pleasing plants around your ‘outdoor room’ is a sideline to the bigger, more important narrative of the garden as the source of life itself, of food, air and health.

There is a reason why much of the era of imperialism was about bringing flora back to Europe; and there is a reason why, in the present, there is a battle being fought over the right to grow organic food on a subsistence scale against the neo-imperialism of companies like Monsanto. Controlling what we eat and how its grown is far from an indulgence in the present – it is a war occurring on many fronts across the globe. From the smallest patio garden to organic farms, wresting control of what we eat away from the ‘chemocracy’, from the military/industrial complex, is an act of defiance, and one that brings along with it the added bonus of creating beauty and spaces for aesthetic pleasure.


Postscript: The photos throughout are of Robynann’s garden, companion planter, neighbour and fellow traveller in the art of gardening. The feature image is Robynann checking on the aloe in her nature-strip guerilla garden. Above is Robynann’s orchid and bromeliad garden, down the side of her shed.