In 2014, swathes of native grass species appeared to sprout from the earth and spill across the steps of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. The creator of the installation, Australian artist Linda Tegg, was interested in the conversation between the pre-colonial grasslands that once grew freely upon the site, and the images hanging in the gallery that overlooked the space. In the years since, Linda’s exploration of the more-than-human world has continued to blur the boundaries between art and design, ecology and science, history and horticulture. Today, Linda’s work is highly regarded internationally – she exhibits in galleries around the world, in designer showrooms and at the Venice Architecture Biennale. We recently caught up with the artist to learn more about her process, the secret behind cultivating plants indoors, and where her fascination with the natural world began.
It has been a great privilege to have had the opportunity to access and share plenty of wise words, big ideas and deep thoughts over the six years of publishing The Planthunter. We’ve spoken with artists, gardeners, politicians, lawyers, writers and designers – each sharing their knowledge and story with generosity and humility. To celebrate this vast and precious collection of knowledge, we’re bringing together the stories of three landscape architects whose combined visions, commitment and creativity are shaping the earth beneath our feet for the better.
I first met Georgina Reid three years ago in a café in Marrickville. The Planthunter founder and editor was looking for someone to help with cultivating her growing online community, and a mutual friend had put us in touch. Looking across my coffee cup at George as she polished rain spots from her glasses and talked about her country upbringing, I remember thinking how clever, interesting and kooky she seemed, and how at home I felt in the presence of this mysterious woman. Though I didn’t know it then, she was to become a big part of my life. I’ve worked with George over the last few years and have learned a few things – she loves poetry, solitude and her best pal, Scruff; she’s a botanical name nerd who feels strongly that sandwich wraps are a crime against bread; and above all, she has a deep reverence for the intricacies of the natural world. But like all great characters, so much of Georgina Reid still remains something of a mystery to me. And today, I’m hoping to unveil a little of that.
What makes a good life? How do our experiences shape how we see the world? How does landscape inform how we act and what we feel? This month we’re slowing down and asking the big questions about life, with plants. We’re talking to artists, designers, editors and others. Settle down with a cup of tea and join us in reflection.
For more than a hundred years, botanists have puzzled over a floristic mystery: Why does New Zealand have so many shrubs with tiny leaves and interlacing branches? This may seem a strange question – it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the flora of New Zealand. The country is known for its wet Gondwanan rainforests dripping with ferns and mosses, and for its famous horticultural exports like the bold-leaved flax (harakeke, Phormium spp.) and cabbage tree (tī, Cordyline spp.). But another unique feature is a peculiar abundance of shrubs that form a zig-zagging maze of flexible, spineless stems bearing miniaturised leaves.
In 2012, an International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan, made headlines when an 800-year-old pine tree sold for 100,000,000 Japanese Yen (around $1.3 million USD based on exchange rates at the time). With its thick, contorted trunk, gnarled bark and densely bulging canopy, the perfectly proportioned Japanese white pine looked exactly like the kind of magical tree you might find in a prehistoric forest. But with one small exception – the bonsai measured less than a metre tall.
“One of the things I like about being a lawyer is I get to get in very close to issues and lift up the bonnet, have a look at the details. I kind of thought of the garden as a refuge from my work, but maybe it’s just an extension.” Adam Simpson and I are drinking tea in his garden in inner-city Sydney. It’s a tiny, layered and meticulously tended space. If I were alone, I’d likely be lying flat on my stomach, my nose pressed up to the moss covered rocks poking out of the water rill running between timber deck and bamboo. Looking, looking, looking. I’d immerse myself in the tiny world of lush green mossy carpets, burbling water and miniature hillsides of stone and time would float away. But I’m in company, good company, so I settle for sitting still and attempt to contain myself.
A name which should be widely recognised when it comes to any talk of creepy crawlies (although given her clear respect for insects, she might begrudge the disparaging nickname) is Maria Sibylla Merian. Merian, who was both a botanical artist and entomologist in 17th century Germany, developed a passion for insects as a child, when she began collecting and raised caterpillars in order to accurately paint them. Her observations of their lives intrigued her and led to the discovery of the origination of butterflies, a key aspect of modern ecology and entomology. As a single mother against the odds, she became one of the pioneers of a reformed, scientific understanding of the variance, abilities, aptitudes, complexities and roles of insects. Revisiting Maria’s story reminds us that insects have captured the human imagination – both creatively and intellectually – for centuries. We once didn’t know anything about them, and cast them aside with a naive indifference, but thanks to her research, they were revealed to humanity as a crucial (and rather remarkable) part of nature’s puzzle.
I know many of the plants in the bushland behind my house by their botanical names. Eucalyptus punctata, Angophora costata, Scaevola ramosissima. If I don’t know what they are, I work it out in my field guide book. I know them, I think, because I’ve slotted them into the system of knowledge in which I’m most at home, from which I’ve grown. Banda, Yarra, Gulgadya, Wargaldarra. These are some of the names the First Nations people of the Sydney area gave to the plants behind my house. Within these words is a world, a way of seeing vastly different to the one I’ve inherited. A way that has grown from the land itself.
Jo Ferguson and I met on the back seat of a bus in Melbourne. We were heading out of the city for a day of garden visits as part of the Australian Landscape Conference in early 2018, and must have been late to the bus, because we ended up squashed together up the back. Or, maybe we ended up there on purpose, playing out childhood visions of back-seat rebellion? Either way, there was something about Jo that drew me in. It could have been her warm demeanor and easy manner, or it could have been her hands. Jo Ferguson has gardener’s hands.