Rewilding our Aesthetics

Rewilding our Aesthetics.


I define the garden as the only territory where man and nature meet, in which dreaming is allowed. It is in this space that humans can be in a utopia that is the happiness of which we dream. This is why is does not need to follow the aesthetic canons of a particular style.” Gilles Clement


Recently I have been asked to define my garden. Is it a Naturalistic garden? Is it a wildlife garden? I feel it is both and neither of these things – as Gilles Clement would have it, it is a place of dreaming. The closest description I have come up with is ‘Nature-led’, but what does that mean?


While a naturalistic planting has become a distinct style and trend, a nature-led garden could never be defined by a single aesthetic. Even though naturalistic gardens may look natural, with wild-looking plantings and soft natural forms imitating archetypal landscapes such as Savannah and Steppe, they can have limited wildlife value. Although nature is the muse in these gardens, some are in danger of objectifying the natural world: idealizing nature rather than engaging with it. As Timothy Morton puts it: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”


In his book Naturalistic planting design Nigel Dunnet sets out the principles of the Naturalistic movement. He discusses how attitudes towards nature in current naturalistic gardens are inherited from the 18th century English landscape movement of the ‘Picturesque’. He also examines how much of the current thinking about our need for naturalistic gardens is informed by Biophilia. Biophilia, a term invented by the biologist E.O. Wilson, is the theory that all humans have an innate and genetically determined affinity with the natural world. Our history as hunter-gatherers has genetically predisposed us to derive pleasure from natural landscapes, in particular landscapes that provide fertile land, open savannah-like prospects, shelter and water. This has led to certain commonalities within the naturalistic movement, one overriding one being that naturalistic landscapes are designed to create an ‘immersive’ experience that is overwhelmingly one of evoking strong emotions of childlike fascination, awe and joyfulness. This emotion, what the Romantic poets would have called the ‘sublime’, connects us to the natural world.


The awe and veneration inspired by naturalistic landscapes would seem, to me, to be a little problematic. Yes, it connects us to nature, but nature is still on that pedestal, still not being understood, protected or cared for. The concentration on evoking certain ‘sublime’ emotions means that our ‘baser’ needs for food, shelter, security, belonging and esteem are considered less important. Modern psychology has moved away from this ethnocentric ‘hierarchy of needs’ and now considers human behavior to be driven by a variety of needs operating on many levels simultaneously. This pluralistic messier idea of what we need, what motivates us and what gratifies us seems to be much more accepting of an insecure world plagued with questions about identity and belonging. Rather than being a depiction of nature engineered to evoke a response of awe a garden can grow into other possibilities: a garden can be a place of sanctuary, a place of production, a place of belonging, a place of restoration, a place of connection, a place of invention, a place to hang your washing and a place of play. Importantly, this move further away from an ‘ideal’ nature to a plethora of interpretations of co-existing with nature allows for different cultures, voices, senses of ‘belonging’ and people from outside the canon of garden design to make their marks and live in the landscape.


My favourite naturalistic gardens are those that are in urban public spaces. The High Line in New York; the Lurie Garden; the Barbican. These are gardens that use their ‘immersive’ qualities to interrupt the homogeneity of city life. They are eminently successful gardens. In the Lurie garden, a once overlooked car park and train siding, plants have been used to break up the grey Chicago skyline. The garden is successful because of where it sits. Here is an oasis of bird song, insect life, green softness and a relief from looking up. The garden is a respite from the Anthropocene nightmare – it allows us to not just reconnect with nature but to recognise that nature’s repossession is swift and exultant. However, we now need gardens in other arenas to gratify other needs and to encourage other ways of thinking. A fixed representation of natural settings and naturalistic scenes leaves no room for food production, energy production and resources, ecological restoration, bioremediation, soil regeneration, sustainable engineering, education, forest bathing, herbal medicines, seed sovereignty, – other ways that humans can interact and relate with plants other than gazing at them.


In 2009, Oliver Sacks coined the phrase Hortophila. “Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us.”

It would make sense to me that as well as favouring those of us who can relate to landscape (biophilia) our genes favour those of us who tend gardens and understand that the more you care the more you can yourself gain both sustenance, belonging and fulfillment. In other words, hortophilic design or, what I would call, nature-led gardens, will achieve a fulfillment that Naturalistic gardens cannot. They will go one step beyond Naturalism and enable that deep need within us to manage, collaborate with and interact with the natural world.


Hortophilic design would include many Naturalistic gardens but it could also include other gardens – Productive gardens, Brownfield gardens, Derek Jarman’s beach garden, Forest gardens, Guerrilla gardens, Community gardens, the Sudgelande and Landschaftspark parks in Germany etc.


Biophilic/naturalistic gardens Hortophilic/ nature-led gardens
Connects occupant to natural environment. Enables occupant to tend and care for natural environment.
Staged performance Authenticity
Evokes awe, wonder Evokes harmony, balance and understanding
Hierarchy of ‘wow’ factor – a “super nature” A balance of needs and benefits – a “holistic nature”
Audience Collaborator
Pleasure and aesthetics related to notion of ‘sublime’ Pleasure and aesthetics are diverse and about connecting with other life forms
The processes, engineering and workings of the garden are hidden from view. The processes, engineering and workings of the garden are part of the display and the aesthetic.
Sympathise and enjoy Empathise and engage


A nature-led garden moves away from a binary appreciation of nature as something that is distinct from us and based on a false opposition. The notion of beauty, in turn, becomes something that is more profound than a purely visual aesthetic. A garden becomes beautiful because of the relationship it has with its gardener and visitor, a relationship that is based on knowledge and an understanding of what it represents. The more understanding there is about the environment and regenerative garden practice the harder it is to appreciate gardens that aren’t ecological or sustainable, – even if they look beautiful or natural.


This same shift in aesthetics is occurring in retail, food and leisure activities. As we become aware of environmental problems the ‘back story’ of how something is produced and delivered is integral to whether you can enjoy it and whether you find it beautiful. Ultimately aesthetics is about pleasure and in order for us to take pleasure from our gardens we now need to understand their functional relationship with nature if we are to feel liberated to enjoy them.


The aesthetic outcome of the nature-led approach will be an interpretation that is original and eclectic. Where one person might have an edible forest garden another may grow a naturalised carpet of woodland bulbs and ferns evocative of a woodland edge. In this brave new world of gardening your needs and the needs of the landscape will dictate the aesthetic and the mood. The notion of a minimalist, modernist, or new perennial garden becomes obsolete as we have increasingly idiosyncratic landscapes. Leaving us free to create and dream gardens that will be as diverse as the people who tend them and the wild things that they shelter and grow.

There are certain important areas of commonality between these gardens:

  1. The Goal is not perfection it is harmony and balance.
  2. The Gardener is a collaborator and an agent for diversity.
  3. The garden ‘belongs’ to its place – both environmentally and culturally.
  4. The design of the garden observes environmental principles: no chemicals; sustainable use of resources; adapting planting to the site; incorporating habitat; allowing soft boundaries and green corridors; encouraging natural processes.


The shift from perfection to harmony and balance is one which again is occurring across much of our cultural axes of appreciation. Perfection and its associated adjectives of manicured; ideal; ultimate; epitome; absolute, is at odds with an aesthetic that is a dynamic collaboration with living things and natural processes. Perfection seeks to control, to maintain a static picture that can’t evolve, age, die and decay. Perfection seeks to minimize our expression of difference and to homogenize aesthetic expression into one singular ‘ideal’. In short, perfection excludes and prescribes.


For the gardener this shift in aesthetic is both incredibly liberating and also one in which the privilege of gardening is suffused with the awareness of our responsibility and the burden of that responsibility. So, the seeding of a plant within the crack of a paving slab becomes a choice of not just whether the plant looks good or blocks the path or is part of a ‘scheme’ but also one of how much the gardener will be allowing self-seeding plants to find their own expression and journey through the garden. This inevitably means that the act of gardening changes from a number of set tasks or ‘to do’ lists to a series of goals and objectives that can be achieved through management rather than maintenance. The gardener becomes keenly observant about how plants within a planting interact with each other and the surrounding wildlife. The acts of ‘gardening’ become an immersive relationship – more editorial and prognostic rather than slavishly repetitive. Allowing some successional growth within planting schemes and some self-seeding, but, also reducing vegetation to allow room for regeneration. Gardening becomes a thoughtful balancing act that engages the gardener in the needs of the ecosystem and the rhythms of plant growth.


The antithesis to perfection is imperfection; worthlessness; flawed; inferiority; failure; and deficiency. A binary trap that the conventional ‘Wildlife Garden’ archetype has fallen into and failed to shake off. Wildlife gardens have almost become characterized by lists of sacrifice and diminution:

  • Tolerate ‘mess’; ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’
  • Forgo ‘neatness’ and ‘beauty’
  • Accept ‘casualties’
  • Forebear ‘ugliness’ and ‘decay’

A long, uninspiring list of what you can’t have, – suggesting that gardening for wildlife would be like a type of eternal gardening penance. No one wants to garden like this. It is no surprise that this sort of garden has become ghettoized and marginalized from the mainstream. Nature-led gardens must now avoid engaging with this obsolete binary semiotics and embrace a new space and a new aesthetic.


Gardens have always occupied the liminal spaces between nature and culture; between domestic and wild; between public and private. It is time now for us to reject the binary aesthetics that have constrained our ability to harness this in-between space to our creative advantage.


Ecosystems are ways of describing the relationships between living things. They are about the community and the space between things: liminal spaces where creative or destructive, mutualistic or parasitic relations can occur. By designing and managing gardens with an awareness of the ecosystem we can create a space that engages with the natural world instead of idealizing it (Naturalism) or being puritanical about it (wildlife gardens).


By abandoning binary notions of perfection (and imperfection/ messiness) we can creatively explore the liminal aesthetic space that has opened up in between. Rather than looking for a ‘sublime’ exalted emotional reaction to a landscape, we should be aiming for an empathetic connection to the ecosystem, a sublimation of our individual selves and a reintegration into a wider web of life. It is in relinquishing our egos and rejoining community of living connections we can find a release. Our pleasure and aesthetics will be born from that release.