Gutter Talk with Adam Robinson

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a gutter in Surry Hills with landscape designer Adam Robinson. It’s a warm summer day and the location – under the canopy of a London plane tree and close to the ground – seems appropriate for our conversation about Adam’s personal and professional growth and sense of identity, and the role plants have played in this.

Adam is a successful Sydney based landscape designer. Over the last six years he’s grown his business, Adam Robinson Design, from a one man band to a holistic design studio specialising in urban spaces and outdoor styling. His aesthetic is crisp and clean, warm and inviting. On the surface, all is grand. It looks so easy, being a successful designer and businessperson, doesn’t it? Of course it does, and of course it’s not. I guess that’s why Adam and I are sitting in the gutter – to explore the dirt and grit, not just the glitter.

Adam Robinson. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay

Georgina: Were you a gardener as a kid? How did you come to love plants?

Adam: I used to garden only when my two older brothers were out because they’d come and tease me if they found me pottering around.

Georgina: How old were you then?

Adam: Around 12, I think.

Georgina: Then what happened?

Adam: I wasn’t the most studious kid at school. I knew I wanted to go into the landscape sector but I had a stutter and didn’t have the confidence to be a landscape designer because I’d have to talk through my plans, sell them. So, I did a trade course in landscaping. Whilst I was doing this, I undertook an amazing program, the McGuire Programme, for people with a stutter. It’s run by either recovered or recovering stutterers – so they understand all the emotional side of it. It was just the most incredible thing.

Once I finished my trade course, I had the confidence to move into landscape design.

Georgina: How do you get a stutter?  Are you born with it?

Adam: They don’t actually know. They’re researching it. There seems to be some kind of hereditary connection but it’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental pattern. I’ve had it since I was young. Most people grow out of it.

Georgina: Is stuttering connected to anxiety?

Adam: Totally. Anxiety and stuttering are so intertwined for me. I still don’t know which comes first.  But on days where I’m not feeling my strong self or I have a bit of anxiety, the stuttering is a by-product of that. If I’m not anxious and I stutter, then I can have a lightness around it and think ‘oh OK, I can just stop what I’m saying and start again’. Whereas if I’m a bit anxious then it’s a bit of a vicious cycle, I get awkward and become more anxious, more stuttering.

Georgina: I imagine that the more you’re aware of it, the more you end up trapped in it. Was gardening by yourself as a child a nice way to escape the pressure and anxiety?

Adam: Totally. Gardening was a real release for me. because I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

Georgina: But you’re so good at talking to people now!

Adam:  I’ve worked so hard on it. It’s definitely my biggest achievement in life. Managing a stutter takes maintenance. That’s why I try and seek out places to do public speaking. You constantly need to push yourself.

Georgina: Gosh, you’re brave, Adam.

Adam: Thanks! The stutter was driving my life, so I  just needed to get over it.

Georgina: As an adult, how do you think playing with plants, not necessarily in a professional sense, has helped manage your anxiety?

Adam: It totally helps manage my anxiety. I know that when I spend time in the garden I feel it from a mental and a physical sense. There’s something nice about working with plants, because there’s a mindfulness to it. If you’re pruning, you’re thinking ‘OK, how is this going to grow back? What am I looking to achieve? Do I need to fertilize or water this plant?’

Having my hands in the soil or being connected to plants grounds me.”

Georgina: I think that’s what gardens do; they get you out of your head.

Adam: Absolutely.

Design project by Adam Robinson. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay
Design project by Adam Robinson. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay

Georgina: You’ve been working for yourself for over six years now. How have you grown over this time, professionally and personally?

Adam: The business has been a great platform for personal development for me because to make money I need to be out there speaking to people – whether it’s with clients, suppliers, other consultants etcetera. You can’t be a businessperson and hide behind an email. You need to connect with people. If you’re going to connect with people, then you need to be connected within yourself.

Georgina: Where do you find balance? What does that look like for you?

Adam: Balance is activities. I’m not very good at sitting still. I like going for a bushwalk or spending the day at the beach. A day in the garden is heaven – whether it’s being a visitor to a garden or actually getting my hands dirty.  I think as I get older, I’ve realised I need that more.  When you’re young, you’re just trying to keep face. When you’re older you realise that time on your own is great, and important. There’s nothing worse than being at your desk at work riddled with anxiety and not feeling very present.

Georgina: Which happens to all of us.

Adam: Absolutely.

Georgina: Were you a shy kid?

Adam:  Yeah, I was. I think I was an extrovert caught in an introvert’s body. The stutter didn’t make me very forthcoming. When I was young, I used to drink a lot just to push myself and get through it.

Georgina:  I think at that age we all run from ourselves in one way or another. One thing I’ve realised, though, as I’ve gotten older is that everyone, regardless of how their lives look on social media, is dealing with their own shit.

Adam: Yep, that’s true. When you’re a child, you think your parents are gods. But they’re dealing with their own battles and quite often it’s the same battles that you’re having.

Georgina: Exactly.  And they hand them down sometimes, too. So generous. But, back to plants. Plants can save us. That is the moral of the story, don’t you reckon?

Adam: Plants can save us! Absolutely. Personally, they’ve given me a grounding and a space to just be myself. Going forward, I want to expand my work in the wellbeing space. I’ve recently become a member and corporate sponsor of Cultivate NSW, a not for profit horticultural therapy organisation that promotes training and education around the benefits of horticultural therapy. I don’t want or need to change the direction of my business, but I do think it’s important to deepen my understanding of the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening, and be able to encourage more people to connect to plants and as a result, connect to themselves and their family.

As we meander towards the end of our conversation the sky grows darker and the thunder starts rumbling. A garbage truck arrives. The combination of noisy elemental and human nudging encourages us to move on.

Sitting in the gutter with Adam Robinson reminded me of a few things. Firstly, interacting with plants increases human wellbeing. It’s a fact worth remembering, celebrating and yelling from rooftops. The other fact is this: We all have our battles to fight. We all have hurdles to jump over in the effort to live a life of integrity, whatever that means. Adam, rather than gingerly tip-toeing towards the edge of his comfort zone, throws himself off daily, landing feet first in a pile of hedge clippings, secateurs in hand.

Find out more about Adam Robinson’s landscape design work on his WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM / FACEBOOK

All images by Natalie Hunfalvay, supplied by Adam Robinson Design.

Design project by Adam Robinson. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay
Design project by Adam Robinson. Image by Natalie Hunfalvay