Top of my lockdown reading pile this time round was Isabella Tree’s Wilding, which tells the story of the 20-year project to turn no-longer-profitable farmland into a self-sustaining ecological community. Ancestors of Tree’s husband Charlie Burrell had farmed the ancient Knepp Estate in West Sussex since the 12th century but though the couple worked, innovated and invested, by the beginning of this century farming it no longer made any financial sense. So they decided to try something radically different with the land: returning it to a pre-industrial state.
The journey starts with weeds, neighbour complaints and anxiety and ends with rare butterflies and birds, healthy land, a new tourism and education business, and a model for saving British wildlife. It’s an exhilarating, optimistic read.
Peter Shaw’s garden in Anglesea.
Wilding has become a romantic label for a science-based approach to building ecological systems that are self-sustaining and biodiverse. This is the approach taken by Australia’s growing tribe of regenerative farmers and while it resonates through agriculture, it’s also a big theme at the sharp edge of garden design.
Gardens are by definition cultivated spaces, but increasingly designers are asking how gardens can also contribute to healthy ecosystems, and how they fit into the landscapes around them. Part of the answer is in treasuring the local. This is what designer Peter Shaw does with the gardens he designs along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. He outlines his approach in his new book Soulscape.
Shaw’s gardens use a plant palette largely drawn from what has been growing in the area for thousands of years so that his gardens sit in the landscape as a more cultivated version of what lies beyond their boundaries. More than just making local plants the heroes though, the gardens also respond to the rhythms of natural planting, through repetition in planting and through pruning that echoes the wind-shaping of sea-scape plants.
One of Shaw’s insights is the appeal of a clear line of sight at about eye-level. He likes to underprune trees to lift the canopy and under plant with a low layer of mounding shrubs or grasses, allowing a view to unfold through the sculptural forms of vertical trunks. The looking-through echoes part of what we love about walking in the bush, and is a very different approach to the garden room style.
Either book would be appreciated by any garden or nature-lover on your gift list, as would a ticket to a two-day conference called Land Escapism, which will cover similar territory. The conference takes place at Willinga Park, at Bawley Point on the South Coast, February 8-10 2022.
Speakers include the aforementioned Peter Shaw, as well as fellow garden designers Hugh Main, of Spirit Level Designs, and Michael Cooke of Michael Cooke Garden Design, along with the cultural historian John Blay who has written a book on the Bundian Way, and artist/gardener Lucy Culliton. Details at landscapeconference.com.
A few days at beautiful Bawley, with exciting ideas to ponder? This could be a gift to self!
Five more gardening books every green thumb will appreciate
Gum: the story of eucalypts and their champion by Ashley Hay
I am resigned to never being able to identify all the thousand-odd eucalypts that shape our continent; which doesn’t mean they don’t fascinate me. This is a brilliant introduction to their place in our culture, history and environment, now in a new edition.
Dreamscapes by Claire Takacs
When my own garden is disappointing me, this gorgeous international array of beautiful, contemporary gardens is curiously uplifting.
Plant: exploring the botanical world by Phaidon
This is art, plants, botany, culture, history and science in bite-sized bits with stunning images. One double page of contrasting or complementary plant-based artworks has enough ideas for days. See also the companion volume, Flower.
Second Nature by Michael Pollan
Thirty years after he wrote it, this remains a book of profound insight into our relationships with plants and gardens. It’s also personal, funny, beautifully written and deeply researched.
Ground Studio Landscapes by Bernard Trainor
After hearing this California-based, Australian-born garden designer in an online chat on Michael McCoy’s Planting Design Symposium, I bought his book as a Christmas present for myself – inspiring!
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