Georgina Reid is the founder and editor The Planthunter, an online magazine concerned with exploring the ordinary and extraordinary ways people connect with and find beauty through plants. She says what she loves about plants is they “inspire people to fall in love with the world around them.”
And that’s exactly what Reid and Sydney-based photographer and Planthunter contributor Daniel Shipp cover in The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants, a new book that documents the amazing garden creations of 24 people in Australia, New Zealand and the US.
There’s an activist in LA who got international attention when he argued something as simple as a street garden can be an agent for change, a “plant obsessive” who travels the globe to find seeds to bring back to Brisbane, and the tale of how Australian artist Bill Henson finds mystery, order and chaos at home in Melbourne.
And from Sydney, there’s landscape architect and painter David Whitworth, who has created a green oasis in the inner-city suburb of Chippendale. Here’s an extract from his story.
David Whitworth, landscape architect and painter, is a thoughtful man with a deep appreciation for beauty. For him, beauty is not a superficial pursuit. It is a powerful force that stimulates imagination and creativity. “Beauty does not linger; it only visits,” wrote Irish poet and philosopher John D’Donohue. “Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm; it calls us to feel, think and act beautifully in the world. ... A life without delight is only half a life.”
David knows this instinctively.
“I consider beauty as something much broader than just pleasing arrangements. I think of beautiful gardens as places that inspire and then reward my curiosity.” David Whitworth’s description of beauty in relation to gardens is pretty much the way I’d describe David himself.
David is a gentle and intelligent man, with a dry sense of humour and an incredible aesthetic. He sticks out from the crowd – not in a “look at me” way, more in a “this is me” way. I didn’t need to see David’s garden to know it was fabulous. Soon after we met, I invited myself over. David and I share an affinity for beauty, gardens, poetry and stuffing tiny rental courtyards with plants. “I’m like one of those ladies who ends up with a house full of frog ornaments. Everyone knows she has a soft spot for frogs, so they keep giving them to her. That’s what’s happened with me. I don’t ever say no to plants. I just say, ‘Sure, I’ll find space’.”
David’s backyard belongs to a rambling, old inner-city terrace house that he rents with three flatmates. Over the last 10 years he has slowly transformed the small rear courtyard from a “run-down, mosquito-ridden mud puddle” to a lush and leafy jungle. “We had a chook run to begin with, and then we tried growing vegetables but it was too shady.”
The most recent incarnation of the garden began in 2012, after David started studying landscape architecture. Slowly but surely, he evicted the mosquitoes, removed the clotheslines that criss-crossed the walkway, and covered the slimy paving with timber decking tiles. He built a raised deck using scavenged timber boards and old pallets, and began to fill the space with plants.
It’s a one-of-every-plant kind of garden. The sort we were advised against creating at design school (the rules: plants should be in clumps of three or more, and less is more). Yet David’s garden, with a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) elbowing a bird of paradise (Strelitzia Nicolai), a rubber plant (Ficus elastic “Rubra”) dancing with a euphorbia (Euphorbia tirucalli), a monstera (Monstera deliciosa) lurching up one wall and a tea tree (Leptospermum spp.) screening the other, and masses of pots all filled with special little specimen plants, is gorgeous. It breaks the rules beautifully.
David’s plant acquisition strategy is simple. “I either request plants for my birthday, or I give them to myself as a reward. I once finished a shitty exam and I was like, ‘Right, I need a $300 Ficus lyrata right NOW!’”
David loves working in his garden, not sitting in it. “In a way, gardeners are always building to a point that never arrives. I often think I’ll fix something and then just sit back, have a cup of tea and enjoy it, but it doesn’t happen. I’ve realised I prefer the rearranging, the tending, the watering. I think ‘to tend’ is my favourite verb. It implies that you are creative, or nurturing, but almost invisibly so. It’s also aspirational. To tend is to sustain a state of caring. It is a state I’d like to aim for in more areas of my life than just gardening.”
As the gardener tends to the garden, the garden nurtures the gardener. It’s a space that teaches patience, perspective and connection. “I like that my plants don’t share my worries. The leaves don’t fall off my maple if I’ve had a bad day, which is a nice way to be reminded that I’m a tiny part of a bigger system. Gardening gives me quiet time to sit with my thoughts and let them evaporate or get closer to resolution.”
As well as being a place of action and contemplation, David’s garden is an expression of his ideas of beauty. Plants take centre stage. David uses them to create rooms, microclimates and, most importantly, atmosphere. It’s in this space – somewhere between the physicality of a garden and its intangible essence – that David finds beauty. “Often when I find a garden beautiful, it’s the imperceptible, immaterial elements that make it sing – a quality of light, or the sound of certain plants in the wind, or a scent. That’s the magic of gardening. It’s almost like filmmaking – it’s a complete, holistic and experiential art form.”
Where to next for the man with the fullest and most magical garden in town? “I’m daydreaming of building a suspended bird’s nest–style garden. I’ve got to go up, because I’ve run out of space on the ground.”
The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants by Georgina Reid with photography by Daniel Shipp, published by Thames & Hudson, costs $59.99 and is available to buy here.