Connected: Phillip Johnson’s Sustainable Garden Designs

ConnectedThe ‘do something you love so you’ll never work a day in your life’ edict is both trite and too often touted. But in the case of Phillip Johnson, it’s probably the one time the saying should be applied: the award-winning landscape designer slash horticulturalist seems to truly have found his perfect-fit career.

Johnson relished being in the garden from a young age. His parents recognised and fostered this love, even carving out a two-metre by two-metre space on their suburban Victoria block for him to cultivate from age eight.

At the same time, Johnson grappled with dyslexia, which no doubt made school a challenge and heightened his love for his non-words-based garden sanctuary. He was also diagnosed as colour blind. How, then, he’s gone on to forge a career combining different hues of plants is impressive and extraordinary.

Johnson advocates creating ‘healing habitats’ to repair the damage we’ve inflicted (and are still inflicting) on the environment. Those habitats also work to heal us.

The forthcoming Connected: The Sustainable Landscapes of Phillip Johnson (by Murdoch Books—thanks to them I managed to get my hands on an advanced copy) features a range of landscape sizes and styles in Johnson’s impressive, grounded, deeply inspiring portfolio.

Packed with vibrant images and accompany explanatory text outlining each garden’s backstory and guiding principles, the book is largely laid out chronologically. It starts with Johnson’s parents’ English cottage garden—the one he grew up in and the first he was ever commissioned to design. It moves on to his own home, with Johnson outlining it as the test site where he devises and refines ideas that filter in to his other designs.

The book then features a surprisingly eclectic mix of properties Johnson and his team have created (it might just be me, but I always assumed it was just the super wealthy who could afford to commission garden design–Johnson shows landscape design to be a lot more accessible).

These range from a tiny Victoria cottage front yard reworked as a testament and celebration of the life of a recently deceased man to a former sewage pumping station. There’s also an urban, produce-producing garden for a beginner and time-poor gardener, a suburban turtle habitat, and rural working farms requiring drought and bushfire considerations. The through line is the focus on native and indigenous plants and the garden designs’ considerations of, and nods to, sustainability.

The book then finishes with slash culminates in Johnson’s award-winning garden show designs (he most recently won Best In Show at the 2013 Centenary Chelsea Flower Show in London—the first Australian to ever accomplish what has been deemed the gardening equivalent of winning Olympic gold).

Both exquisite to admire as a coffee table book and pragmatic to apply to our own lives, Connected’s pages include water tables, diagrams, and plant lists. The underlying thesis is that we can create sustainable landscapes on any plot of land.

My one constructive criticism would be of the book’s image layout choices. With images abutting each other and even used as borders for other images, it’s busy and unclear where one image finishes and another begins. The gardens—and the images capturing them—are breathtaking, but my eyes were desperate for some white space to allow me to fully absorb and appreciate them. I feel this lack of white space diminishes the effect of the images overall.

But that’s a small gripe about what is ultimately a beautifully put together and inspiring book. Connected is characteristic of Murdoch Books’ impressive standard*.

It’s a title I’ll be happy to display on my bookshelf or my coffee table, gift to others, and thumb through for gardening inspiration. Who knows, with Johnson including chickens (AKA chookens) in some of his garden designs, I may be able to glean some ideas for creating a sustainable, chooken- and bee-friendly garden of my own.


*I should also probably apologise to the postperson who had to lug this book to my place and then upstairs to my apartment—this full-colour, glossy-paged book is high quality hefty.