What Makes a Garden? Bringing the Garden Indoors

Have you ever given any serious thought to what makes a garden? For as long as I can remember, eminent garden designers and TV pundits have pushed the idea of the garden as an extension to the house – a ‘room outside’. I’ve heard this repeatedly, particularly when researching garden design for my post graduate diploma. Apparently, garden design is not about plants. Comments like ‘ plants are the last thing you think about’, or ‘the plants are just the icing on the cake’ (John Brookes, among others) proliferate. But now, with the rising popularity of indoor gardening, comes the fightback – while they try to persuade us to turn our beloved gardens into ‘indoor rooms’, we’re letting the plants take over our houses!

A small selection of my cactus collection, with the blades of an Australian Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) in the foreground

Indoor planting allows us to compensate for the increasingly denuded state of our outdoor environment by packing our indoor spaces with plants. Maybe we can use this to persuade the unenlightened of the inescapable truth; that as well as being beautiful, plants are a physical and psychological necessity.

My two Aloe plants are coming into flower now; probably because I neglected their watering!

Too many people have been persuaded that what they want and need from a garden is copious space for eating and socialising, play areas for children (and adults), every type of cooking facility you can think of, from a simple BBQ to an ‘outdoor kitchen’, fire pits, hot tubs, covered areas and outdoor heaters (global warming, anyone?) to make the weather irrelevant, and extensive lighting systems to turn night into day. You can even buy powerful weather-proof sound systems, telling us it’s perfectly OK to broadcast our choice of music to the wider environment, as if both neighbours and wildlife don’t have a right to peace and quiet. Too many garden designs are predominantly hard landscaping – a room outside – with very little in the way of plants, and what planting there is tends to be isolated clumps of wildlife dead-zone plants such as bamboo. Don’t even get me started on the state of Britain’s front gardens.

A Schlumbergera (known as ‘Christmas cactus’ because they are often covered in showy blooms at that time of year) looking resplendent in dappled sunshine in the corner of the lounge.

There is another way. My garden hero takes a very different approach. The late Geoff Hamilton wrote of the garden as an escape from the speed, the complexity, the pressure and the noise of everyday life. He wrote of our biological need to spend time in touch with nature. Yes, we might want to be able to eat outside when the weather allows, and share our gardens with family and friends, but for me, the primary functions of a garden are as a sanctuary from the world, and a place to immerse yourself in nature. You can use plants to create a garden that, even in a town or a city, can cocoon you from the outside world, and in which you can imagine you are deep in a beautiful wilderness. Until the neighbours fire up the BBQ and the outdoor hi fi, and the heavy bass beats of what popular culture laughingly considers to be music drives you indoors. But don’t despair, because as they make use of their ‘room outside’, you can retreat to your indoor garden sanctuary.

My Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) is thriving. Peace Lilies are known to be particularly effective at improving the quality of air in rooms
An unknown cultivar of Streptocarpus. Streps, as they’re commonly known, are easy to grow, produce copious flowers all summer, and can be easily divided in the spring to produce more plants). They can even be used as an outdoor bedding plant in the summer if you end up with too many.

If we re-group indoors, maybe one day soon we’ll be ready to go out and change our twisted society’s attitude to gardens. Plants are not ‘the icing on the cake’, but rather the basic building blocks, into which the functional elements of the garden should be fitted. Garden design should attempt to create beautiful environments on a small scale; ‘paradise gardens’ in which we can escape from the ‘real’ world and commune with nature.

You heard it first here – let’s have a revolution…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020