Seeking the Elusive Emotive Element in Garden Design

Nigel Dunnett wants his gardens to reach those parts that other gardens cannot reach.

In his thoughts, plans, designs and creations he aims to go beyond that found in most gardens; he wishes to create something which will elicit an emotional response – a basic human response deeper than the simple appreciation of beauty, of plant selection, of colour combinations or of garden design. He wishes his gardens to connect with our basic human instincts and emotions; that they are places where we immediately feel comfortable; places where we feel safe and unthreatened; places we regard as beautiful and where we might feel at home.

He does this through the uncomplicated nature of his designs, the limited selection of plants used in each project and the unfussy nature of his garden layouts. It may all sound so very simple but the creation of simple beauty in a garden design requires the work, imagination, creativity and skill of a true artist. Nigel Dunnett’s book, Naturalistic Planting Design: The Essential Guide, gives us a wonderful insight into his art.

Nigel Dunnett recalls his childhood and his reactions to his home garden and to areas of natural beauty in his neighbourhood. Later in life, a visit to Great Dixter garden in Kent evoked a similar reaction – an  emotional response, a primeval response – something far deeper than a simply admiration of the beauty of the garden and these experiences provided the moments of enlightenment and of understanding which have lead to a life-long personal and professional search for this Shangri-La of garden design.

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Great Dixter – an inspiration for Nigel Dunnett

At first glance, Nigel Dunnett’s creations are similar to those of the New Perennial movement or the prairie gardens which have been popular over past years but there are significant differences. Although naturalistic, inspired by and imitating natural landscapes, the planting is very structured and not free-form, leading to ecologically coherent plantings with an artistic overlay through a considered use of colour and form. Using a limited number of plant species/cultivars in each planting means that the creations are low input/high impact – leading to plant communities which work as those in nature, a created nature, but going beyond that, exaggerating it, so that they are pictorial as well as ecological, gilded with an artistic flair, and aiming to evoke an emotional response.

Quite honestly, my mind was blown by Nigel Dunnett’s account of his inspiration and design methods. The results may be very simple in appearance but their creation is considered, planned, technical and artistic. This is planting design as an art form, tuned to nature; a visual ecology not simply recreating wild plantings but making plantings inspired by the forms, colours, textures and aesthetics found in nature and then adding the touch of an artist. The designs are not a taxonomical repetition of natural landscapes but an aesthetic replication, capturing the spirit of a landscape and, most importantly, evoking an emotional response.

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The Barbican – designed by Nigel Dunnett

The book gives a masterly insight into Nigel Dunnett’s creations from his inspirations, through the development of his approach, with comparisons to other gardening methodologies, and a very detailed account of his working methods. It is a masterclass in the appreciation of the art of gardening.

[Naturalistic Planting Design: The Essential Guide, Nigel Dunnett, Filbert Press, 2019, Hardback, 239 pages, £35, ISBN: 978-0-9933892-6-9]

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9 thoughts on “Seeking the Elusive Emotive Element in Garden Design

    1. Probably not! I’m old and set in my ways. My garden is the way it is after nearly 40 years here and I am very unlikely to make such major changes at this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I was in Lacadio ahearns Tramore garden today and my mind was blown apart by the simplicity and effectiveness of the planting and the use of rock stream and rustic stairs. I had seen it last autumn but today was a revelation

    Liked by 1 person

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