a fresh approach to garden design

David Musker is a gardener from Jindivik, a small town in rural Victoria. He wrote an article, “A Fresh Approach”, published in “Gippsland Country Life”, Summer 08. In this article he pretty much describes my approach to garden design, what I do and what I try to do.

David argues that many of us are still making gardens like we did in the past, when wealthy people employed teams of gardeners and had an unlimited supply of water to maintain a varied collection of exotic plants from all over the world.

David aims to create gardens that survive and thrive with a minimum of human intervention. Plants need to be drought and heat tolerant. Once established, in the right position, in decent soil that is suitably mulched, these plants should not need to be watered.

David also suggests limiting the number of species and using mass planting. I don’t see this as essential, although it may make it easier to maintain. His aim is to have gardens that look lush and beautiful all the year round. They may not be flowering, but he reminds us that green is a colour, and there are many shades of green.

Most of my garden plants have survived a brutal summer, but they certainly don’t look lush or attractive.

So I look forward to David’s next article, which will provide a garden plan and ideas for specific plants to use.


  1. The subject of politics and being politically correct has woven its tentacles into the gardening world.

    It is a victory when our plants survive the extremes and I'm sure you're heaving a sigh of relief at this point. Sustainable gardening has its merits, for sure. But I bristle when I hear that a garden "should be" this or that. Obviously sustainability is something any garden designer should consider but gardening, as I'm sure you know, Catmint is about more than maintenance. Gardening is an art form, the fruit of our creative expression. It's our canvas. If someone tells me I can only use three colors and the rest of the rainbow is off limits, my creativity might take a tumble. I think that, within reason of course, gardeners should be able to grow what they want, using common sense and abiding any municipal ordinances. I guess I just tire of having supposed "authority figures" telling me what to do. (Am I rebel? Yeah.)

    The photos you've shown of your garden, Catmint, are lovely because they're yours and it's obvious you take pride in your efforts as you should. I guess what I'm saying is gardening is personal and we should take what advice we agree with and toss the rest. :)

  2. Interestig thoughts in his article but I don't personally want my garden to look like corporate planting. Like your other commentator says, gardening is too personal for that.

  3. I do agree with Grace, I generally don't like to be told what to do in the garden by the fashion garden gurus. Generally I do not like the gardens they produce with perhaps three to four different plants. For me this is to boring. I like a lot of interest in the garden, but that is just me. I do agree to adapt the garden to its environment. For me that does not mean that I only want Australian native plants. It is great that many of your plants have survived the extreme temperatures, that shows that your garden is already pretty well adapted.

  4. I think the idea of simplifying and buying plants for your climate are good rules of thumb. I think I'd have a hard time keeping up with hundreds of different plants that all had different soil, water, and temperature requirements. I have a few that I have to look after, but it feels like I can only do that because most of my plants are good solid plants that will tolerate the alkaline soil, the boiling summers, and the drought. These are the plants that give me some peace of mind to experiment. Sure, I have dozens of plants in the ground rather than just a few... but they grow!

    Here in Central Texas, we're dealing with a 4 year drought. The rivers are running very low, and soon there will be even heavier water restrictions. The population keeps growing, and the way we use water here is completely unsustainable. In climates like this, there is a big push to conserve water because people need it for sanitation and drinking which is why there's a big push for xeriscaping and planting with drought tolerance in mind. If we had endless amounts of water, then it'd be different, but we don't. Parts of Australia are in a similar situation and have to watch how they garden because of water usage issues.

    During the summer season, residences can use sprinklers twice a week on certain days which means you have to pick out your lawn very carefully or risk the fine. Not only that, but picking plants that use a lot of water takes water from other necessities and overburdens the rivers and their ecosystems.

    Thankfully, there are lots of drought tolerant plants that do well here and look lovely. Permaculture makes sense, and it's not being "politically correct" (what a terrible phrase) - it's being responsible to the environment and each other by conserving finite resources such as fresh water since resources are quickly disappearing around the world. Then there's the oil, steel, production, travel, etc. that all goes into plants through making plastic pots or shipping plants or all those cardboard boxes or whatever. It's not something I like to think about because I love buying plants, but it's still there.

    And really, a design aesthetic and a certain teaching isn't for everyone. I don't like Elizabethan Gardens particularly, so I don't have an Elizabethan Garden. I've never had someone criticize my garden because of it's lack of absolutely perfect structure, formality, and grooming. The reason is because that's not what my garden is! It's a totally different aesthetic, and that's fine. It'd be like someone critiquing your French Provincial designed home for not having an Asian influence.

    I might be misunderstanding the use of only a few plants, but it seems more for aesthetic/ease of gardening - the fewer the plants, the easier it is. For the sake of biodiversity though, you want many different plants. It'd suck if you had a bunch of arborvitae and unknown arborvitae blight wiped them all out. Losing 1 arborvitae in a diverse landscape won't be as traumatic as losing 10 arborvitae in a simplified landscape.

    Gosh I'm rambling today. I'm stopping!

  5. Having lots of one kind of plant could look really dramatic in a big garden but pretty daft and dull in a small one.

    I also think different people have different reasons for gardening. Some mind about the look, some want to eat the plants, some want to test ideas and some just like fiddling around and doing this and that and trying things out and putting plants here and there and . . .

    There's also the question of whether you go to a gardening design book for ideas . . . or whether you have the ideas and then go to a book to find out how to put them into practice.

    I heard a suggestion that one of the reasons fire spread rapidly in some areas of Australia is that there are too many plants - put there by enthusiastic gardeners.

    I have no way (at this distance) of knowing if this is right - but it may be that we should be inspired and guided, to some degree, by what nature does locally and, where plants grow sparsely in the wild, grow them sparingly in our gardens too. (I think one of your earlier posts touched on this.) It's so tempting to do the opposite of what would happen naturally, just to show we 'can'.


  6. Hmmm what they said. I have to agree with planting what I want and like otherwise my garden isn't me if I don't. Some limitations at times depending on conditions.

  7. Interesting to see how much controversy this article has sparked off! I think David's suggestions are worth considering, as suggestions from any designer are worth considering, which means you check them out and see if they work for you. They have the merit of being very practical: not everyone has the luxury of the time or staff for a high-maintenance garden. It's a good idea to think about this before you plant.

    That said, I myself am a botanical-garden-type planter and would never do just a few kinds of plants in a garden - yet I think especially in a small garden this could be a very unifying and peaceful effect, I'm always trying to make my hodgepodge look unified in some way and not always succeeding. It certainly would keep maintenance easy. Dedicated gardeners such as ourselves may not care about that, but others do. Plus, if you take a look at nature, you will find that a lot of the natural world consists of plantings of just a few types of plants in one place.

    About the fires: speaking as another person from wildfire territory, I doubt garden plants have much to do with it. In our area we have the highly inflammable scotch broom, which was an import that escaped (probably from animal bedding) and has spread its beautiful and inflammable way. Other than that, the real danger is in dry air, native plants with lots of oils in them, and stupid or criminal people who don't know that a dropped cigarette or a thrown-away bottle catching sun or achainsaw spark or carelessly-disposed-of ashes or any number of dumb things humans do - those are the real dangers. Pardon my rodomontade. I have strong feelings about wildfires.

  8. I think it's great the designers are looking toward more sustainable gardens. Us gardeners are passionate about our plants, but many people just want a yard that looks nice and doesn't require too much maintenance. They don't care as much about which plants go into it. Simpler, low-water-using gardens are perfect for them. Personally, I'm in love with water-hungry english roses and delphiniums, so I'm including them in my garden (heavily mulched to conserve water). As I try to reconcile the principles of sustainable gardening with the lush garden that I crave, here are my thoughts: our growing season is so short that I only need to water for less than half of the year, a lush garden is my fleeting reward for surviving 6 months of winter and tons of snow, all that snow on the nearby mountains melts slowly and provides water for our summers, my yard isn't large - just a quarter of an acre, if water becomes an issue around here I'll have to make changes in my garden, I am trying to find the least amount of water needed to maintain my lawn(and often underestimating, poor grass!) and I probably use less water than my neighbors anyway (most of whom greatly overwater their lawns - I should try to help educate them on more appropriate watering practices). I tell myself that I can keep making it through these long winters if it means that I can garden as I wish during spring and summer - in milder climates I'd be limited by water instead of by the cold.

  9. Hi Catmint,
    Interesting stuff here!! Of course, it is an 'opinion-based' discussion!! And everyone has an opinion;-) If we're looking at it from purely an environmentally friendly, sustainability perspective, I think his approach is very helpful. Less water, adaptable green life...makes sense!

    But as for me (like others!!) I want COLOR in my garden and will put in as many colors and varieties that I can find, and get to survive in my garden!!) I am trying to be more conservative with water and if need be, I would downsize and do the 'all green, adaptable' approach!! Mentally, I'm not at that 'place' yet!!

  10. Wow! fascinating range of responses. So stimulating, so exciting, where to start to respond? I think what Jan said explains the range of opinions: from an environmental point of view he makes sense but to genuine garden-philes like us it can sound prescriptive and boring. I hoped to make contact with David Musker himself and emailed both him and the mag he published in, but so far have had no answer!

  11. I love reading about the process of making a garden. You're in a rather unique situation in putting things forth in a blog, and getting so much feedback - read: thoughts to ponder. I've created two gardens and as Grace relates, it was very much about art-making with plants, space, texture, form, perspective. Good luck to you. I'll enjoy reading more about your experiences, Alice


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