Bob Griffin: “Go Forth my Young Writing Warrior”

A long time ago, when I was a landscape designer who wasn’t ready to call herself a writer, I started a side project. I was questioning my path as a designer, and couldn’t quite articulate why. Gardens were my language, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to speak of them, or more importantly, why to speak of them. I started visiting people and asking them why they gardened, and what it was that drew them to the practice.

One of the first people I thought to include in my then side project was Bob Griffin, a gardener, thinker and nurseryman from central NSW. As it is with the subjects I most enjoy writing about, I just had a feeling about him. A hunch. I was right.

I visited him one cold afternoon in 2013 and the conversation we had was formative in many ways. His words still hold a place in my heart and mind.

I recently received an email from Bob’s wife to let me know that he had passed away. I was floored. He was always someone I was going to visit again. To photograph him and his garden properly, to continue our conversation. To tell him how important it was for me to spend time with him when I did. To say thank you. All those years ago I somehow felt brave enough to share my writing with him and he encouraged me – “go forth my young writing warrior”, he said. His confidence in me was a true gift.

Below is the story I wrote about Bob in 2013, before I let myself admit I was a writer. I’m not sure if he knew it, but Bob nurtured a seed in me that’s still growing, twisting and stretching towards the light.

Vale Bob Griffin.

I am not sure why I thought about Bob Griffin. I met him once years ago, my mum and I visited his garden on a cold morning, long before I realised I wanted to write stories of people and plants. Maybe it was a snippet of a conversation we had or something about his manner that cemented his spot in my memory all these years later.

It could have started with the sculpture in his garden. The one with a quote by Ian Hamilton-Findlay carved into a slab of bluestone reading: ‘A garden is a process not an object.’ These words have bounced around my head for a while now, making more and more sense.

I arrive at his garden ‘Cooramilla’ on a cold spring afternoon. The wind blows. I re-introduce myself and put my jacket on, as Bob suggests. We shake hands, his are warm, mine are cold. His eyes are ice blue.

We go for a wander around his garden, Bob shows me the hellebores, which are just finishing their subtle upside down flowering, and a number of other plants I have never heard of. It’s too early in the season for much else and it’s cold. We go inside for a coffee and a talk next to the fire.

Bob started his professional career as an academic, teaching political science at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. His first house in East Balmain was where his relationship with plants began. The garden quickly took precedence over the house renovations and began to spill out down towards Sydney harbour. He started studying horticulture soon after and somehow ended up in the central west of NSW with an 800 acre farm, a sprawling garden, and perennial plant nursery.

Bob is a thinker. It doesn’t take long for our conversation to wander into the philosophical realm. His theory of gardening is this:

All sorts of other art forms and social practices you can finish. There has to be an object at the end of it. The gardener’s task is exactly the opposite. A garden is never finished as an object.’

‘The degree to which you understand this determines the way you accept but also exploit the garden; observing the change, taking part in it, sometimes directing it, sometimes not, sometimes being buffeted by it.’

This is gardening according to Bob. I like it.

I am speculating here but I get the feeling that, like his gardening style, Bob has wandered his own path through life, open to change, evolution and challenge. Talking with him shed some light on some of my own questions about plants, life gardens, and garden design.

I am a landscape designer. It’s how I earn my crust. But, and maybe I shouldn’t admit this, as I evolve and grow as a person I find myself questioning the practice of designing gardens more and more. A great garden is one made with love, it’s an expression of a person and their relationship with the natural world. A designer can create attractive spaces to exist in but it is rare to find a truly amazing and creative garden created by a designer. Most of the time these great gardens are created by someone emotionally and physically invested in the space.

I ask Bob about his ideas on garden design.  He suggests that the act of designing gardens assumes that the space is static, unchanging over time. A plan is drawn, handed to the client, the designer is paid and all is over. What garden design doesn’t address is the essential nature of gardens, and that is change.  He also suggests the real art of gardens lies in the hands of gardeners, not garden designers. ‘I think that art really is for gardeners, not for designers,’ he says. ‘A painter doesn’t know what it is but he has an idea of what he wants to paint. It’s only through the creative process that the answer is found.  This creative process happens with gardeners all the time.’

I remember a painter saying he would have to ‘garden’ a painting because it wasn’t working. It’s nice to see the metaphor used around the other way.

We talk about why people garden. It is a strange question, always without a definite answer, never black and white. I don’t know why I keep asking it, I suppose I find the answers interesting. For Bob, gardening was one of the few ways he could express himself creatively. He suggests that for some people gardening is like show business;

In many ways, show business is one of the better metaphors for gardening I’ve come across,’ he says. ‘What other creative practices involve time, aside from gardening and theatre?’

‘In theatre, every time there is a performance it is never quite the same, things happen, there is chemistry with an audience, the performers themselves change. The play itself evolves over a season, like a garden does. Gardening does have a hint of show business about it. All plants are not equal; some are exquisite. And after all, a garden has to be a show!’

An hour or so goes by and we wind up our musings. I leave the warmth of his little nest of a house and drive home in the cold. I am glad I remembered Bob Griffin. He is a wise man. Talking with him has helped clarify my ideas about gardens, and at the same time has encouraged me further down the winding pathway of questioning, thinking and wondering about what I do and why I do it.