How to be an evolutionary gardener

James Wong
Photograph: Andrew Kearton/Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve been forever fascinated not just by the natural beauty of plants, but by how arranging them can have a profound effect on the overall aesthetics and, by extension, how they make us feel. As an ethnobotanist, I am obsessed by the evolutionary theories that have attempted to explain what appear to be universal rules underpinning garden design. Once you understand the underlying instincts, becoming a better garden designer is suddenly far more straightforward.

We talk about gardens as natural spaces, but they’re the exact opposite: human-made environments engineered using natural ingredients. If they were truly “natural”, we could leave the ecosystem to take its course, letting our plots revert to a wild state – twisted brambles, boggy puddles and all. Ironically, the second we do that these plots stop being real “gardens”. For when you set out to try and define the word “garden”, management is one of the defining features they all have in common.

Evolutionary anthropologists and landscape psychologists have theorised that in creating gardens we are attempting to recreate the ideal habitat for our species. According to this, the richest habitat for the foods we eat are forest edges, including a protected area of tree cover and open area with views and sunlight. These contrasting elements have been coined “prospect and refuge”, offering the psychological safety of a space where you can hide from predators, and have a view of an open landscape for the prospect of hunting prey or gathering plants. Google the words “garden” and “seating area”, and I promise you the vast majority will match this basic blueprint.

If you want to instantly grab attention, there isn’t a better feature than a water source, in particular running water, which in our past would have been safer to drink. Not only will our eyes be drawn to water, thanks to instinctive programming, but our path of travel will be, too. This ability to control the visual attention of the visitor and to dictate the route they take to travel is invaluable when it comes to the illusion of perfect nature. It allows planning of blind spots (where you can hide the compost bin), and to accentuate focal points for your proudest plant achievements.

Aside from human and animal forms, flowers are probably the only other universal motif in art. Anthropologists have postulated that our ability to be excited about flowers helps us remember the location of fruiting plants, so we can return later for harvest. When we create flower-filled gardens, we are engineering an exaggerated vision of nature to satisfy our instincts.

I am of the view that flowers are so exciting that they work best when used sparingly as focal points to draw the attention or surprise the viewer when they appear in the undergrowth, as in the wild. I think they are far more effective that way than using wall-to wall blocks of brash bedding, like drowning a cake in sprinkles. In gardening, like all art, there do appear to be underlying universal rules baked into our DNA, but how those are interpreted by us is as unique as each one of us. So bending, or breaking, these rules is as important as learning them.

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