‘The Awkward Gardener’ by Natasha Cantwell

Natasha Cantwell is a photographer and filmmaker from New Zealand, currently living in Melbourne. She snaps for a range of publications like Frankie, Elle Magazine UK, Dumbo Feather Magazine, Frankie Magazine, and Smith Journal, as well as pursuing art and film projects. Whilst plants have always featured in her work, her latest series ‘The Awkward Gardener’ is the first time she’s focused solely on them. We love it, and are stoked to be sharing the series on TPH. We recently caught up with Natasha to ask her some more about it, and her life with plants.

Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell

Can you please tell us about yourself and your life, with plants?
My dad is a keen gardener and when I was a kid he encouraged my sister and I to create our own gardens in the backyard. However, the seemingly futile act of weeding would always get the better of us and it didn’t take long before our little vegie patches and flower beds became neglected, much to Dad’s disappointment.

In my last flat I decided to give gardening another go and with the best intentions my flatmates and I dug up the backyard. There was talk of an archway with runner beans and a home-made hydroponic set-up for the tomatoes but we never quite got that far.

I did, however, enjoy having fresh broad beans and would pick them daily, serving out about nine individual beans for each diner. But much like my childhood gardens, this one quickly got out of hand and with a flat inspection looming, the decision was made to level the whole thing. Our unruly vegetable wilderness was transformed one morning into a prison yard. It was at this point that I became intrigued and rather envious of our neighbours’ low maintenance gardens.

Can you please tell us about The Awkward Gardener series?
I began photographing the gardens of my elderly neighbours in East Brunswick, admiring how practicality often outweighed any aesthetic concerns. I then noticed how defiant they seemed in the face of the suburb’s increasing gentrification. The long-standing residents of this once staunchly working class neighbourhood had no time for current trends. Their gardens weren’t designed to show off and they were often surprised that I wanted to photograph them. In an area full of change I admired how these gardens had slowly evolved, growing with their owners and becoming lower maintenance and more eccentric over the years. My favourite gardens were often the simple concrete expanses that gave way to one lonely but beloved plant.

I find these gardens endearing, inventive and individualistic. I love how they express their owner’s personality and also have a sense of character of their own.

I call the series The Awkward Gardener, referencing how I was drawn to these gardens by my own well-meaning but hapless attempts at gardening. The word awkward also implies something that doesn’t follow society’s conventions and it acknowledges the relationship these gardens have with the neighbouring new apartment blocks.

What are your plans for the series?
If I can find the right venue, I’d love to exhibit them as large prints.

Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell
Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell

Our theme this month is Pattern – How does the Awkward Gardener series relate to the word?
One of the motivations behind this series was to document a neighbourhood before it transformed completely. The patterns of the suburbs in Melbourne’s inner north are continually changing and the mix of people who currently live there is really diverse. However, if current trends continue, we’ll soon lose this diversity and East Brunswick will become a uniform block of apartment buildings.

Where do you find beauty?
I always favour that which is slightly odd rather than just classically beautiful. I also find beauty in things which have a sense of history. I like how these gardens have been slowly evolving over the decades, building up a visual story of their owners.

Do you have a garden? If so, what does it look like? 
My plan is to fill my flat with pot plants. However, as I don’t have the best track record with plants that come under my care, I’m starting slowly. I currently have two indoor ferns and what has been called the ‘world’s saddest daffodil’ on my deck.

Can you describe your relationship to plants in three words?
I’m getting there!

My ferns may be scraggly but they’re growing and there’s always a chance my daffodil may resurrect itself next Spring. I am however always an ardent admirer of other people’s plants.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
Having grown up in the small forestry town of Tokoroa, I’d choose a pine tree or Douglas Fir. From the smell of Christmas trees through to the beauty of the Twin Peaks landscape, there’s something magical about these common plants. If I had to be rooted in the ground, I’d be pretty happy about being stuck in a pine forest.

Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell
Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell
Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell
Image from 'The Awkward Gardener' series by Natasha Cantwell