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Sustainable Australian garden wins gold at Chelsea

Footprint interviews Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner Phillip Johnson

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 What is the driving concept behind your garden design?

Our garden is about connecting humanity back to nature. We desperately need biodiversity back in our urban environments to green our cities and cool them down.

What is most innovative about your design?

We’ve harnessed water off adjacent roofs to highlight the fact that we should not be using precious drinking water other than just for drinking. For us, it’s not really innovative, but for many in the UK, it is.

We have harnessed water off the roof of the temporary BBC structure behind us, and this is what sustains our installation. For Chelsea, this is a first. It rained the other day and our billabong was topped up. That’s a big message.

In Australia, we have big issues with storm water. There is too much hard surface which limits permeability. Water is collected, drained away and run off the site. So what we are doing is slowing that storm water surge so that it replenishes the billabong. It can drop right down and when it rains, it recharges the system. The billabong would then overflow through an ephemeral dry creek bed or rain garden or a swale before it exits as storm water.

I also want to challenge the pool industries of the world to re-think the way they use salt and chlorine. We need to avoid completely sterile soulless water that gives people an allergic reaction when they swim in it. The billabong  at the centre of our garden is a natural pool. We’re working with cutting edge natural pool technology to develop more environmentally friendly ways of cleaning water that support biodiversity.  

Is this approach widely accepted in your home state of Victoria, Australia or are you pushing the boundaries?

The Victoria government has been really innovative in developing an integrated approach to water management. They are motivated to drive this further. We have been approached to bring elements of our Chelsea garden to a permanent installation in the centre of Melbourne so the public can visit this beautiful habitat and understand the messaging behind it: harnessing water, making gardens permeable, using local materials, using FSC-certified and reclaimed timbers.

Why do you think your garden won?

Our environmental message is a major reason, and the size and ambition of the design. At 24x12m, it is a massive build, one of the largest builds in the history of Chelsea. Most show gardens are 10x15m, 10x20m,  or 10x10m. Also our attention to detail has been absolutely impeccable. I’ve researched and researched, particularly how natural systems can mimick natural environments. 

What are your sources of inspiration?

My own garden, just outside of Melbourne, is my research laboratory and has been a major inspiration. The Chelsea garden is a kind of replica but it’s taken to a whole new level. What is beautiful in my own garden is how a habitat evolves and is self-seeding, such as the germination of fern fronds and new discernible fern spores. That’s a detail we’ve had to execute so it’s not just about these large plants but also about the lifecycle that occurs in a natural system.

We’ve got rainwater tanks, and we’ve also got solar power to show how these technologies can be integrated into the landscape. I don’t like using this word, but ours is a holistic approach. Sometimes people ask ‘why are you putting solar panels in?’ I’ve seen research that shows that solar panels with planting underneath actually makes the solar panels more efficient in certain circumstances.

Is your rain water harvesting tank visible?

Yes, it’s partly visible. It’s only a small tank. I wanted it to be bigger but in proportion to the place we wanted to put it, it wouldn’t fit so we’ve got roughly a 4000-litre tank.

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My own home has no mains water so I’m completely self-sufficient. For drinking and house use, I have 70,000 litres, and then I have 186,000 litres of billabong water for a natural pool, for bush fire prevention, for habitat creation - all those things.

The soul of our garden and the soul of our life is this water. We should celebrate it, not hide it away. I wanted it to stand out to the world and educate everyone.

It’s a big thing for me as a sustainable landscape designer to come to the other side of the world to build a garden. We’ve used a whole range of local materials sustainably sourced in the UK, but it’s a balance.

The reason why I am here is to inspire humanity to connect back with nature and to add that biodiversity. We’ve flown here - that is a significant factor and I feel bad about it, but the reason is to inspire others about how we need to change. We can design sustainable landscapes in every back yard, in every front yard, on every rooftop and in every commercial and public open space.

The environmental reason for showcasing a biodiverse habitat approach to planting is to inspire people to slowly start to heal our planet. This is what we need to be doing. We are so behind; we need to accelerate.

Given that one of the fundamental principles of sustainability is doing what is locally appropriate, why would you design a garden of indigenous Australian plants, imminently suited for an Australian setting and bring it to Chelsea?

My reasoning is that it represents our country. Australia has serious issues when it comes to horticulture; our horticulture needs leveraging. It needs to be taken to a whole new level. Horticulturalists, landscape designers and landscape architects need to be consulted in major urban planning decisions and policy governing macro-level climate change. We aren’t being consulted.

I have just received a phone call from the Victoria government. They want a permanent installation like this garden, and they want it in every single municipality, every single council. They want to take this message to every community to see how it can be applied in living examples. This is just amazing. 

So why I am doing this? I have been asked to represent Australia. I wanted to showcase the beauty of Australian plants to the world. This might take you by surprise, but in Australia we don’t use that many Australian native plants. I have felt like a pioneer trying to push Australian native gardens for the last twenty years. People often say, ‘I don’t want an Australian garden, I want an English garden, or I want a garden that is a contemporary one mono-culture of species’. 

I have gone out on limb with this bio-diversity, ‘bring back nature’ habitat approach. I want to show the world how remarkable Australian gardens are and inspire Australians to have an Australian garden. 

But the garden is not all indigenous plants. Indigenous plants means native to a local area. We’ve portrayed certain micro-climates within Australia: a cool temperate habitat, a rainforest  ferny environment which is like my home, and a well-drained sandy wildflower meadow. 

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All our plants were sourced from the UK, Spain and Sicily. Our aquatic plants are not Australian. I wanted to use local, not indigenous plants, because I couldn’t even find indigenous aquatic plants to Chelsea. I have used aquatic plants from the UK. If we brought Australian plants to Europe, that would be a massive environmental issue so we used similar species to create the same effect.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to AJ readers?

Since yours is an architecture journal, I must talk about the Waratah artist’s studio. A critical issue is for landscape designers, landscape architects and horticulturalists to work more closely with architects. Often we are engaged only at the completion of  a project, and we have to do the landscape design based on the remaining available space and budget. 

On this project, we wanted to work with Melbourne practice Studio 505. I briefed them about a personal narrative. My mother lived in London fifty years ago. While she was away for over a year, she and my father wrote love letters every week. When she returned, my Dad gave her a bunch of Waratah flowers. They were engaged that night and are still married today. They’ve come together to the UK for the first time today.

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Studio 505 used this flower as the basis of this Waratah studio, studying the geometry that occurs in the inflorescence of the flower. It’s built out of reclaimed aluminium, offcuts of aluminium designed in Australia to pack down and easy to ship here. The petals are made from FSC-certified timber. It’s designed so that when you stand in the centre of the studio, the timber petals completely disappear and the whole landscape of the garden opens up. This is an example of how landscape and architecture can work together. 

We also have a louvre and window system so that the micro-climate created by the billabong’s waterfalls assists in cooling this space. The solar panels assist in supplying power. In a normal landscape, we wouldn’t run the power for waterfalls all the time, but because it’s a show garden, we wanted to show how beautiful they can be.

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