Tropical garden

In praise of dirty fingers

Here’s a question: what’s the difference between an outdoor room and a garden? Apparently Sydneysiders love the former and are ambivalent about the latter. While Melbournians embrace ’garden’ with all its redolent history, Sydneysiders prefer the connotations of modernity and interior-exterior connectedness of the ‘outdoor room’. Leading landscape designer Dean Herald expresses the prevailing view: “I work all over the country and each city has its own culture. In Melbourne gardening is acceptable; they love it. In Sydney what comes first is the lifestyle element. It’s about a beautiful external space for entertaining. The garden is event and activity-based: an outdoor kitchen, sizable pool, big table. Horticulture comes well down the list.”


Outdoor room or garden? Barbara Vansberg says she designed this one for activity: a pool, outdoor kitchen, big entertaining area, treehouse and even a slippery dip to join the levels.

Our ambivalence about ‘garden’ may stem from its double life as noun and verb. We love looking at and being in gardens but doing gardening sounds like work. I reckon it was those dread words ‘low-maintenance’ that sent gardening underground. If low-maintenance means a hedge, a patch of lawn and plenty of paving, gardening becomes a boring list of jobs to do – trim the hedge, mow the lawn, sweep the paving. Every weekend offers more of the same. On the contrary, actual gardening – growing stuff to look at, attend to, smell, feel, touch, eat and admire – is all about change. Plants change with the seasons, with the years, in relation to each other and in response to the attention or neglect of the gardener. Real gardening is unpredictable and endlessly engaging. It’s not work, it’s fun.


Outdoor room and garden! Designed by Jon Jensen with lots of input – and gardening – from his client.

Many of us already know this. We know the thrill of growing plants and of crafting them into satisfying combinations; of watching and listening to the birds they bring; of having a deep knowledge and connection with our ‘outdoor room’.  And we know that gardening isn’t always easy and it doesn’t always work, despite what they tell you on the television.  Plants might die or disappoint, grand plans for brilliant effects turn out to be damp squibs, and caterpillars can decimate a lily patch overnight. But in gardening every failure is a hole in which to try something new and every day offers the possibility to marvel at things growing and flowering; to witness the marvellous alchemy that turns water and sunlight into delicious food; and to conjure a vision of serenity from the shapes of trees and the patterns of light they cast. If there weren’t failures there might not be quite so much satisfaction to be had. Gardening is worth it.

Queen of the night

Queen of the night – she’s too gangly to belong in an outdoor room but she’s a joy to pick from a garden.

It’s time Sydney took back the garden – as noun and verb. Join me here every week to meet gardeners, plants and gardens to inspire, encourage and nurture. And wear your stained fingernails with pride!

(And yes, that’s my garden at the top of this post, photographed in our weirdly long warm autumn.)



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