All stories

Gardens designed with nature

By Lawrie Smith AM Landscape Architect

Gardens designed with nature are critical to our health and wellbeing, as well as supporting that of the planet.

Most of us have access to nature in a modified form in their own home gardens (although this is rapidly decreasing with lot sizes!) but also in most of the public parks and gardens of the city.

With greater mobility, increasing leisure time and available financial resources, we are able to escape more readily, to enjoy our leisure time away from the urban environment, and encounter nature in a natural form. However we still value creating our own personal piece of nature.  

A successful landscape plan at whatever scale does not consciously set out to ‘design’ attractive landscape or gardens.  Ideally the initial approach should be practical and functional rather than aesthetic.

The design is basically inspired by understanding the diverse physical site conditions, the visual attributes and the functional components to be incorporated. The final outcome should have a strong affinity derived from its location, (generally referred to as ‘Sense of Place’) and there is nothing that provides a stronger visual prompt than using local plant species. This is what it means to create a garden designed with nature.

The importance of gardens

Throughout my career in landscape architecture, I have applied the philosophy of ‘Design with Nature’ in all of the projects, and specifically the public parks and botanic gardens for which I have been responsible. Public gardens generally and Botanic Gardens are places where the community can be encouraged to reconnect with nature.

Contemporary urban communities are increasingly divorced from the ‘natural’ landscape origins from which we all evolved, with increasing physical and psychological problems. A garden is a special space that can restore our association with nature and improve our health and wellbeing.

Tangible and intangible elements offered 

These are some of the tangible and intangible elements that a garden of any scale offers to those who experience them:

  • stroll along the avenues
  • meander the pathways
  • explore progressively, enticed by glimpses, views and vistas
  • appreciate the innovative natural or built focal points
  • stop and smell the roses (or preferably the Lemon Myrtle)
  • appreciate the seasonal diversity
  • experience the sun and shade patterns and
  • understand the preferences of plants suited to differing environments and soils.
Waterwise garden

The intriguing path through this ‘walkabout’ garden encourages exploration and observation of a collection of diverse native species enriched by focal points of natural materials – Toowoomba, image Lawrie Smith

Inspiration for landscape and planting design

In commencing a project I do not consciously set out to ‘design’ a landscape. My initial approach is practical rather than artistic.

The inspiration is primarily derived from a detailed understanding of the physical site, the visual attributes and the functional components of a project.

This is complemented by identification and evaluation of the range of related issues that may be used to influence the planning and detail design – for instance related natural or cultural heritage stories can inspire layers of interest.

To be successful the final outcome must have a strong sense of place and ready acceptance by those who use it – without the combination of these two aspects any park or garden can never reach its intended potential.

Plant knowledge is fundamental

The primary element of a landscape of any scale is the plant material.

This dictates that the designer has a thorough knowledge of plant species for the region, the climate, their form, physical and functional suitability, amenity horticultural potential and particularly availability.

Species selection and massing that considers growth habits, specific forms, seasonal effects and colours is the fundamental palette used to inspire the overall design.

Understanding the natural environment and its plants is essential for the gardener.

Expansive feel to the garden

Observing the associations of landform, rocks, mulches and plants in a natural landscape, assists design and establishment and interpretation in a built garden – Gold Coast Botanic Gardens, image Lawrie Smith

Built form & character

Similarly, understanding the materials chosen for the built landscape elements will inspire and enhance the design, specifically when using innovative approaches to their use in construction.

A park or garden can be distinguished as special or unique if the built elements are inspired by the forms found in the regional landscape or in the detail shapes and textures of rocks, plants or water.

The ability to innovatively synthesise, interpret or conventionalise nature provides a range of planning and design opportunities that will firmly place any project in a logical relationship with its surrounding environment whether this is urban or rural.

water in the garden creates calm

Careful observation of a rocky waterway informs how to create this ‘natural’ garden stream – Brewery Hill Garden, Gympie, image Lawrie Smith

Linking with natural and cultural heritage

Design of any garden, public or private, is fundamentally a creative endeavour. You are constructing a contrived place that, in its planning and design must react appropriately and sometimes innovatively to site constraints and opportunities. 

Generally, these impositions (drainage issues etc) can be designed to be positive elements of the garden. This is the creative challenge that can lift a design above the ordinary.

a swimming pool conversion to a pond, based on nature

Observing nature has inspired the transformation of a formal swimming pool into a ‘natural’ waterhole through the skilful use of rocks and plants, seamlessly integrating with the bushland garden setting – Aitchison Guymer Garden, Melbourne, image Lawrie Smith

Understanding nature and natural processes

Analysing the forms and forces of nature provides prompts that suggest how to combine the various hard and soft landscape elements.

Whether the creative result is subtle or blatant, the opportunity exists for these artistic elements to enhance the observers understanding of the processes of nature.

This is important in a botanic garden where it is vital to define the environment or habitat for specific plants or plant communities so that the scientific value of the plant collection is enhanced. 

a mix of formality and informality

The surrounding natural bushland and dramatic sandstone cliff has inspired the lower formal garden by reflecting the rock in a dry stone wall. It ‘dissolves’ the informality of the natural plants into more geometric manicured forms – Zande Garden, Sydney, image Lawrie Smith

First impressions are the most lasting

Therefore it is important to set the scene at the arrival locations by creating a strong visual and physical experience that attracts the observer and temps deeper exploration into the park or garden. 

It is important to incorporate or interpret local physical and heritage elements appropriately into the planning and design process to achieve local character and relationships.

This requires detail research into the history and heritage of the site or locality

a path leading into the distance creates a stunning natural vista

Careful selection of species provides an inviting meandering enticing
garden approach, and the aspect offers a diverse range of microclimates
for optimum plant establishment and display – Kawarra Gardens,Melbourne

Be inspired by nature

It is important not to copy or imitate nature but aim to plan gardens and create associated elements that are inspiring due to their physical and / or aesthetic connection with nature.

Be inspired by nature and natural processes in the planning and design process.

These built or sculptural elements might be stylistically embellished to enhance the experience, sometimes using subtle messages or even frivolity to enliven and make a walk through a garden more memorable.’

analysing nature leads to understanding of colour and form

Analysing bushland settings shows ways to transpose the natural simplicity of colour, texture and species to create an attractive and tranquil bush garden – Chermside Hills, Brisbane, image Lawrie Smith

Built environment

Design with nature applies to the full spectrum of our environment – it is just as vital that the structures we build should also consider the dictates of nature’s laws.

For example, until comparatively recently Brisbane was characterised by the predominance of traditional timber framed houses raised on ‘stilts’ and surrounded by wide verandas, and protected by corrugated iron roofs.

Visitors to Queensland, insensitive to the functional reasons for this design style, made derogatory comparisons with the architectural styles of other cities. It is not generally recognised that the ‘Queenslander’ was a logical and direct response to the extremes of the tropical and subtropical climate.

This responsive style evolved to be in harmony with nature – the only housing style to be so classified throughout the continent.

a garden designed with nature

This expansive native garden skilfully transposes the colours and forms of
the diversity observed in nature to create a very attractive semi-formal
landscape setting – Walcott Garden, Canberr

Climate ignored

Unfortunately in recent decades the citizens of Queensland have turned their backs of the wisdom of past generations. They are clamouring instead to build ‘brick veneer fortresses’, complete with sliding glass windows where only one half can be opened. In addition there is virtually no protective roof overhang to exclude the sun or the rain.

But don’t worry! The air conditioning will isolate us from the sun, wind and rain – as well as the perfumes of plants and the sounds of birds in the garden outside!”

To add insult to injury, these houses are crammed together closely. They are on small lot estates carved out of bushland slopes, denuded of trees, with no room for gardens, let alone shade trees. No wonder the residents question why they roast in their unprotected houses throughout the long hot summer. They are completely isolated from the benefits of nature.

Towards the future

For more than 60,000 years First Nations people trod lightly on this continent. But after only 200 years of poor stewardship we contemporary Australians must accept the responsibility to radically change direction toward a sustainable, environmentally aware future.

We must come to terms with this land, to understand that every mountain, river, lake, plant and animal is part of the Australian web of life ….. And like it or not we humans are integrally entwined within that web.

Whatever the future holds for the planning and design of our cities and towns, their parks and gardens I believe it is fundamentally important that Australian native plants are widely acknowledged as a principal component of our built landscapes of any scale.

Career influences

It would not have been possible to create the diverse range of parks and gardens, each with its own unique Australian regional character, without the close association I have enjoyed as a member of the Australian Plants Society (NPQ in Queensland).

Being integrally involved with this organisation at all levels for more than 50 years has allowed me the opportunity to access some of Australia’s foremost botanists and horticulturalists. This has ensured that every project for which I have been responsible celebrates the unique Australian flora of the relative bioregion by interpreting and demonstrating to the community the potential that the local flora has for use in amenity horticulture.

That is the significance of practicing …… Design with nature!