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River Garden Diaries: An Aesthetic of Care

I posted a photo of my home garden on Instagram a few weeks ago. It was confronting – throwing open the virtual gates to a place that is very personal to me, a place that is not in any way typical of many of the gardens published over the years on The Planthunter. My garden is wild and aesthetically challenging, even to me, and the photos I do share of it on social media are usually cropped or framed in a way that makes visual sense of the madness.

The exercise made me reflect on something I’ve been thinking about lately – the necessity for broadening what is commonly perceived as ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘visually appealing’, ‘Instagrammable’ in the garden. I know, from many years of publishing garden images, what people like and what they don’t. I know, myself, what I am drawn to. It is rarely gardens like mine.

What people like: Clean lines, colour, structure. Wildness is acceptable but only if contained by a hedge or a fence. Mass, void, balance. Lots of flowers, please. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look at a pretty garden. There is nothing wrong with making gardens that people like looking at.

But.

Gardens, in a time of climate crisis and waning biological diversity, can be so much more. They can be places of respite and retreat for more than human beings; their meaning and purpose far broader and deeper than an expression of an aesthetic and cultural ideal. Pretty is not enough.

What a great opportunity for us gardeners! We who have the privilege of caring for a particular place. We who have the skills to foster and support life. Let’s grow gifts to the world, let’s make space for abundance and mess and meaning. Yes!

Let us, too, explore an aesthetics of care that moves beyond the human as source and beneficiary of action. A de-centring, if you like, of human desire in the garden.

A garden is a human construct, but there’s no reason why a human cannot grow a garden that exists for and with other species. It is interesting, and deeply problematic, that Western culture has decided that a neat and tidy, clipped and managed garden is better cared for and therefore more pleasing than one that is not. Control confused for care. We mow and make neat and kill and chemicalize, and for what? For who? Why? Who says it is better this way? The ants? The trees? The glossy black cockatoos?

Most living beings do not give a fuck about whether your garden edges are neat or not. They just want a place to call home. Like you, like me.

My garden is not yet a haven for everyone, yet. It is hard to shake off old world views positing control as care. It is not easy to abandon aesthetic conventions. I imagine it will take me a lifetime. I undertake most of the tasks typical of the gardener. But I try to do less. To disturb only what has to be disturbed. To ask why, before I act. To allow for mess and life and things that don’t look good as I think they could.

An accidental example: A few months ago I removed some Tradescantia fluminensis – a significant weed in eastern Australia – around the side of our house. I filled a big tub to take to the weed pile, got distracted and left it there, just below our bedroom window. Then it rained. And rained. One night I woke to something that sounded like a dripping pipe. At 2am I got dressed, dug out the torch, and went outside to see if I could find the leak. It was no dripping pipe, but a frog. A striped marsh frog living in the weed tub. And so, the weed tub –  along with its ugly tangle of weeds that are still alive and very happy – stays. Every night we have frog music (music, as a description of the sound, might be stretching it slightly) to go to sleep to. The frog has a home.

I break things in my home garden. Ideas, conventions, ingrained behaviours. I plant, weed, work, but the evidence is hard to see. I’ve long downplayed what I’m doing, or not doing, because a part of me still thinks I should do better. Make it prettier. More photogenic. More garden-like. But here’s the thing: I don’t give a damn about pretty. I garden to make a home for myself and others. To grow ideas and futures. To make meaning.

Meaning is not neat or understandable or rational or anywhere near aesthetically acceptable. It is mess and wonder, generosity and madness. Meaning is beautiful.

Gardens should be beautiful. This is non-negotiable. What a garden looks like is another matter.