"Nature itself is often an illusion of equilibrium, pure chance and movement, and therefore gardening has to constantly adapt and cope with this state of affairs"
The degree of progress and achievement of our modern society is often identified by its level of urbanisation and capacity to control nature. However, I would argue that far from rejecting the achievements of our modern age, the success of humankind should also be measured in its ability to learn and derive inspiration from nature and its shapes.
Plants (the key element of any ecosystem on earth) are one of the most familiar shapes of nature and at the same time a powerful living media with which nature communicates and describes itself.
I believe that designing and gardening, 'led by plants' has the potential to be an overarching experience that re-opens the communication and mutual understanding between humanity and nature. This is because the very moment that we enjoy the pleasure of growing and seeing plants growing we become aware that we are also part of a natural circle of life.
Before understanding what a 'plant led design' means, it is necessary to agree on what nature is and what 'natural' means.
The surrounding nature, the one we encounter when leaving the realm of urbanisation, is surely not the virgin wilderness that was lost ten thousand years ago and which will never return. Using the word 'natural', we have to also be aware that most of what we associate with this romantic ideal is the consequence of human activity. Naturally recognised ecosystems, such as alpine meadows, Mediterranean garrigue, north-American prairies and the English countryside, to mention but a few, are all the result, in a cause-effect dynamic, of the interaction between humanity and environment.
It is also crucial to establish what a garden is. Even accepting the fact that surrounding nature is a response to human activity, when left undisturbed nature always succeeds in regaining its freedom, evolving towards a climatic state and a new point of natural equilibrium. In this context, it is evident that no garden is natural, but rather an artificial, essentially controlled entity, where nature itself is free to evolve, up to a point.
When we see a garden, we always comment on if it relies on a valid design concept, or whether the composition is attractive on the eye, if its design is classical, romantic, naturalistic, or whether it is merely a collection of plants. We seem to forget that gardens, as with all human creations, are ruled by human purposes such as production, pleasure, beauty or even the desire for power.
Whatever the purpose, what makes a human creation a garden is that it is a place designed to be cultivated and a living organism where plants are the protagonists. A garden is not simply the initial vision of a designer, but an ongoing process of editing, revising and caring. As such, no garden is ever finished.
Even a place where there is no growth, change or diversity (and ultimately no plants) can be beautiful. However, the garden’s designer (and in turn, the garden’s owner) has to be aware that this is a piece of art or architecture: a landscape installation, a furnished terrace, a flower arrangement, but it is not necessarily a garden.
Nature itself is often an illusion of equilibrium, pure chance and movement, and therefore gardening has to constantly adapt and cope with this state of affairs. As in real life, perfection in a garden does not exist. But the acceptance of an ongoing relationship with plants and nature does give pleasure in the form of many perfect moments.
Given this premise, the concept of bringing nature into a garden should, in my opinion, be achieved via a bond between environment and plants. Each garden or landscape can best be considered a complex of variables (and restrains), which should best be addressed by communities of plants adapted to the same peculiar background conditions. This way of 'respectful gardening' is, I would argue, more sustainable and ethical and also gives better horticultural and aesthetic results.
We should accept that the possibilities in a garden are not unlimited. Climate and natural soil type and our maintenance of it are the elements with which the gardener and designer have to work. Nature is the more powerful party in this relationship and we should accept and embrace it.
Gardening with nature is like opening a Pandora's box that can release demons in the form of rampant weeds, heavy frosts and long droughts. There is however no such thing as poor soil or a bad climate, but only ill-conceived designs and poorly chosen plants. Gardening becomes art at the moment that the gardener or designer finds a compromise between the offer of the environment and the demands of people. Designing a garden is in the ability of respectfully listening to the spirit of the location, which should not be obliterated by arrogant design.
This is the only way to find a sense of place in a garden and to also create well-tempered harmonious gardens.
The goal of the modern gardener and landscape designer should, therefore, be the creation of a man-made nature that is somehow able to evolve naturally, where authentic nature is only the inspiration and the goodness to celebrate, but not the model to copy. In this way, the garden becomes a live projection into the future and an authentic experience in itself of time and space.