What is the point of gardening?

Why garden? It’s a question that has long intrigued Georgina Reid, landscape designer, writer and gardener. “I had a side-project when I was studying, asking people why they garden,” she says. “I think I asked because I was trying to work out why I did it myself but nobody else could answer either. It was a question that stumped people.”

She stopped asking, and instead launched the online magazine The Planthunter, which explores why we garden through talking to people about their relationship with plants and the spaces they make with plants. The ideas that have come from those conversations are explored more deeply in her new book, also called The Planthunter.

David Whitworth has created a vibrant, plant-filled, mostly potted garden in Sydney.
David Whitworth has created a vibrant, plant-filled, mostly potted garden in Sydney.Credit:Daniel Shipp

With her long-term collaborator, photographer Daniel Shipp, Reid explores questions of beauty, transformation, solace and faith through the stories of 24 people in Australia, New Zealand and the US, and the gardens they have created. Actually make that present tense: the book begins with a series of aphorisms including this by garden-maker and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay: “A garden is not an object, but a process.”

For David Whitworth, one of the Sydney gardeners featured in the book, gardening is a process of caring. Whitworth has created a vibrant, plant-filled, mostly potted garden in what was formerly the slimy, mosquito-ridden waste space at the back of an inner-city terrace share-house. He tells Reid that he has realised he prefers to work in his garden than sit in it. “I think ‘to tend’ is my favourite verb,” he says. “It implies that you are creative, or nurturing, but almost invisibly so. It’s also aspirational. To tend is to sustain a state of caring. It is a state I’d like to aim for in more areas of my life than just gardening.”

It’s an idea that resonates with Reid. “Gardening is essentially two things,” she says “You have to care and you have to act. You can’t be a gardener and sit here and watch nature happen. Gardening is caring action, and that can be a framework for engaging with the natural world, but I’m also interested in taking that out of the garden and into the world.”

We’ve met to talk about these ideas in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay, a garden that epitomises Reid’s notion of gardening as caring action. Whitley started gardening this space in search of solace, and through her actions has created a garden that offers solace to others. “It’s really a space that has a lot of someone in it, and that’s important in any garden space,” says Reid. “There’s always a story.”