Decolonising Australian gardens: gardening and the ethics of place

by Val Plumwood

© all rights reserved

This paper discusses the dynamic of colonial centre and periphery in the Australian garden, and its reversal in the popular ideal of the all-native garden purified of exotic elements. These ideals of purity have recently strengthened and converged with the wilderness ideal in the model of the native garden based entirely on local indigenous plants. We criticise this reversal ideal on several counts and propose an alternative decolonised ideal: the adaptive garden – which, in our continent of fire, is not at all the same as the local-native garden. We consider the implications of interspecies ecological ethics for feral plants, and emphasise the importance of the distinction between the feral and the exotic. In place of purity, we outline a critical, ecological, interspecies and place-sensitive ethics of gardening.

The Colonial Dynamic – Reversal or Adaptation?

Gardens and gardening can express a large range of relationships. I focus initially on the discrepancy between idealised gardening as an ecologically-aware and nature-sensitising practice versus the actualities of the garden in contemporary urban-industrial contexts. Ideally, gardening is a healthful pursuit that brings gardeners into contact and collaboration with nature and sensitises them to the earth, the rhythms of the seasons, growth processes and the life and death cycles of living things. Potentially, both home and public gardens can make important reductions to energy costs associated with heating or cooling and with food production, transport and storage. They can express commitment to and care for the diversity of particular earth places, something to be encouraged in an increasingly mobile and place-uniform society. There is a shadier side to the garden however, which I explore below.

In the context of Australian settler culture, the character of home and public gardening is an important indicator of our adaptation or lack of adaptation to this continent. Concern with water, fire and drought has problematised inappropriate garden projects that fail or refuse adaptation to the constraints of the local, regional, and continental context. We might think of the desire to produce fine green lawns in hot dry Australian environments such as Perth as one expression of such unadaptive ideals.

Gardening ideals in Australia are strongly influenced by the twin forces of colonialism and commodification, each of which selects in favour of exogenous ideals at odds with adaptation. The ideals of commodified gardening are determined by the world of profit, sales and advertising. The recent trend towards instant effect, containerised gardening removes the garden’s main constraint on commodification, that it takes time to develop and commits its owners to labour in a single, unique home place. Rather than expressing care for and adaptation to local places, the ideal commodified garden is mobile and freed from specific climatic expectations (seen as ‘restrictions’). It is culturally mobile too, employing a stereotypical range of plants such as pansies that can be found from Perth the Peking. The dynamic of commodification turns our creativity, energy and care away from the larger public and common world, perceived increasingly as dangerous and unreliable, striving to make the home a privatised and idealised paradise retreat from the public (including the local) world. Adaptation gets little purchase here.

Settler traditions can be maladaptive because they are part of imposing colonial projects of domestication and Eurocentric ideals of beauty. When gardens express not a collaboration with nature and place, but the urge to re-make these in an alien image, whether the colourful images on television or those of the colonial centre, they are likely to develop poor adaptation to their specific surroundings and conditions. Those who would impose, without negotiation, alien ideals upon the land, must then use the biological equivalent of force to achieve them. This explains why home gardeners are some of the heaviest users of biocides. In pursuit of alien ideals of paradise, home gardens must become part of the war against nature.

Gardens in European colonies and postcolonies often define themselves in relation to an aesthetic sensibility that devalues indigenous plants and animals and idolises the gardens of the Euro-centre. The gardens that result from this aesthetic – and its reversal – are often poorly adapted to local conditions of life, and out of balance with their ecological context. Its star-cast of highly adaptable exotics encourages the release of ‘feral’ organisms that threaten the biodiversity and resilience of native ecosystems.

In the past, the colonising dynamic of centre and periphery involved not only the devaluation of native plants, ecosystems and animals (the ‘bright songless birds’), but the deliberate introduction of ferals by ‘acclimatisation societies’, and the privileging of traditional carnivorous pets such as cats and dogs over native animals, the latter treated as ‘pests’. This outlook is by no means a thing of the past. For example, I have been involved for the last decade in a struggle to protect native vegetation in the Major’s Creek Cemetery. The Progress Association, aiming to establish a rose garden in this beautiful bush cemetery, persistently destroyed by mowing an outstanding relic grassland community which included two endangered native species.1 The native orchids, they insisted, ignoring scientific advise to the contrary, were common, indeed pests, and deserved no consideration. In The Secret Life of Wombats, James Woodford documents the ongoing destruction of the last colonies of the endangered hairy-nosed wombat in Queensland by adjacent station dogs that have privileged status in legislation.2 Clearly we need to give native plants and animals much higher status than in these examples. But countering the colonial legacy, I want to suggest, is a rather more complex matter than simply revaluing positively native flora and fauna.

In anti-colonial dynamics, reversing the values accorded the over-valued and disvalued sides of division is usually the first strategy the colonised try. Critics of reversal include the great Algerian anti-colonial theorist Albert Memmi.3 The colonisers tried to destroy and undermine the colonised’s traditions, so tradition must be indiscriminately defended and continued, even in its worst forms. Men are the problem, we’ll have women in power instead, or women’s culture. Native plants were devalued, exotics overvalued, so we’ll banish the hated exotics entirely from our gardens, and have nothing but indigenous flora. Those who see decolonisation in terms of the all-native garden purified of all exotic elements shudder when the leaves turn gold or the daffodils bloom. Germaine Greer’s recent comments exemplified this rather simplistic approach to the aesthetics of decolonisation in Canberra.4 Despite the great care given by public landscape experts over many decades to selecting plants suitable for Canberra’s unusually demanding environment, the continued appearance of exotics in our plantings was taken by Greer to show that ‘you are still pretending you live somewhere else’. Adaptation must mean valuing and gardening with exclusively indigenous flora.

The troubles with reversal are manifold, not least that it preserves in its negation and its structure the very division it is supposedly trying to get away from. In the garden case, it would completely deny a cultural heritage of attachment to certain old-world plant assemblages (such as narcissus), an attachment that does not have to be in opposition to esteem for native flora. In the simple recipe of reversal, the demand for the all-native garden has more recently been replaced by the demand for the all-local garden – the gardening equivalent of replacing vegetarianism by veganism. If we want to eat from our gardens in the style to which we are accustomed, we must either abandon the all-local ideal or draw a very strong distinction between useful plants and ornamental plants that seems problematic.

Another problem here is that the rigidity of the reactive ideal induces conflict between garden aesthetics and other adaptive requirements we might reasonably have of the garden: that it also welcome native animals, that it mediate the house environment by reducing energy usage for heating and cooling, and suburban fire-proneness, for example. Gardens after all, are not just about how things look, especially whether they look suitably national; they are also about adapting our dwellings to the specific conditions we face in our continent of drought and fire. For example: avoiding planting close to housing a highly fire-promoting group of trees and shrubs, whether native or exotic, is an important factor in fire-prevention strategies. A great deal of native flora is fire-promoting, and the major group of exceptions, the rainforest flora, is, with only a few exceptions such as Melia (White Cedar), unsuited to a climate like Canberra’s. So in places like Canberra, there is a conflict between the visually-focused settler aesthetic of reversal and the important adaptation requirement for our settlements imposed by our continent of fire.

We should consider whether we might not show more respect for native elements in our landscapes by giving them their own spaces to thrive in rather than by trying to trim them down to fit the role of domestic companions. Which is better, which shows more regard for native plants: to plant fire-promoting natives around our houses and suburbs and then demand burn-off for big areas of adjacent native vegetation with over-frequent fire regimes that sacrifice biodiversity? Or to plant more fire-resistant flora, native or exotic, and drop our demands to fire-proof the bush to protect our real-estate? I’d say the second wins hands down, allowing our large-area burning policies to reflect concern for biodiversity values rather than concern for real estate values.

Similarly, there is much to be said, from a home energy and footprint perspective, for planting trees around the home that, in addition to reducing fire hazards, provide sun in winter and shade in summer and thrive in the rigours of Canberra’s climate. Since many exotics but few natives fall into this category, we have another conflict between ecological garden ideals and the reversal aesthetic of purity.

However, anti-colonial critiques can suggest how we might become positively-other-than, creatively adapted, rather than passively reactive, still caught by negation within the colonial agenda. On these sorts of critical and ecological grounds, I would reject the reversal all-native ideal and propose an alternative and less self-consciously nationalist decolonised ideal: the adaptive garden – which, in our continent of drought and fire, is not at all the same as the local-native garden. In place of a commodity aesthetic or an aesthetic of national or local purity, I suggest, we need a critical, ecological, interspecies and place-sensitive ethics of gardening as our guide.

Critical gardening and place ethics: against the privatisation of paradise

Privatisation and commodification appear to foster care for local (home) places, but often encourage a form of care that involves a turning inward towards the private as a response to an increasingly ugly and threatening public world. We need a critical ethical response to the dilemmas and conflicts generated by this dynamic, which replaces an ethic of singular home-place attachment by an ethic of respect for complexity and multiplicity of place, human and non-human, local and non-local, and attention to regional and planetary context.

In short, we must go beyond the vague ‘sense of place’ to an ethics of place. We note first that an ethics of place requires justice as well as care ; care for one’s own place is laudable provided it does not depend on degrading other places. Care as intimacy with place (intimate knowledge), engagement with place, and maintenance of relationships with home place, active cherishing — all of these are great ideals for the garden. But it is crucial that we supplement them with an ethic of place justice. That includes engagement with (attention to) and responsibility towards distant places, caring for your place without degrading other places. In the commodity system, beautification of some places often means stripping other, more remote resource places.5 Public, cooperative and community gardens are important alternatives to privatised and consumerised gardening, as is consumer-supported agriculture.

The Adaptive Garden and the Ethics of Place

I want to propose an alternative decolonising ideal – the adaptive garden. This is not at all the same as the completely local or completely native garden, and represents not a simple reversal but a complex project in which the garden negotiates with or comes to terms with its environment. The adaptive garden represents a negotiation or dialogical relationship with surrounding elements, both of natural and of cultural heritage, including the past. The adaptive garden must come to terms with the way the so-called ‘ cultural landscape’6is embedded in the natural landscape around it, and with the larger sphere of more-than-human presence and agency. This recognition of larger and prior presences and stories is a crucial anti-colonial corrective for a settler culture aiming at decolonisation. For the colonial mind, the land is empty land, empty of presences, human or non-human, that might impose constraints on appropriation or development, including garden development. This counter-hegemonic principle of recognising prior presences has major ethical implications for adaptive gardening and for the problem of ferality I explore below.

When does the garden project become or collaborate with colonisation, as it often has done?7 There are multiple aspects of gardening as a process we need to distinguish here, some of which can be extended without limit and some of which cannot. In particular we should distinguish between gardening as a practice of creating interspecies benefit by nurturing plants and gardening as a practice of land transformation and humanisation. Gardening involves practices of attention to, engagement with, and cherishing of plants that can beneficially be extended outwards towards the ‘wild’, potentially without limit8. These kinds of practices are not necessarily incompatible with, and even can foster, similar attitudes towards non-cultivated plants. But they are also often part of a dualism in which the gardener’s own plant ‘children’ are cherished, but the wild plant, the unplanned, the unplanted is invariably rejected as a weed. Garden projects can be imposed too rigidly on the land, as part of a gardener’s self-extension project, and in this case there will be a desire for mastery and strong resistance to acceptance of and dialogue with a larger order. Gardeners can try to counter this tendency by ethical (some would say ‘spiritual’) practices of respecting and welcoming the gifts of the wild, the garden’s contrast space of non-cultivated land, the domain of prior presences, and by being open to the unplanned and spontaneous. Welcoming native animals in the garden is a good counter-discipline for those inclined excessively to garden mastery.

While gardening as a practice of attention to and respect for plants can be extended outwards without limit, gardening as a project of land transformation and humanisation, rearranging the land for human (or even mutual) benefit, must acknowledge its own limits as a humanised space. It risks becoming colonisation. if it does not respect its other, its limit, and recognise the need for a sphere of nature beyond itself which is ‘wild’, free, not as an emptiness of presence or of care, but as a domain of independent presences. As a negotiation between culture and nature, between new presences and prior presences, the adaptive garden can welcome the native, especially native animals, and their sometimes inconvenient and cross-cutting projects. The non-colonising garden concedes ethical space to its ‘wild’ neighbours as earth-others, paying homage to those older and larger stories that are not of our authorship. Human interests may sometimes be prioritised within a certain space, but this must acknowledge a limit. Often better than a strict division of human space and non-human space though is the practice of gardening for interspecies benefit I discuss below.

Once we move to an ethical framework, the demand, apparently based on reversal, that we limit planting to locally indigenous plants, can be seen to have an important ethical basis in recognising the constraining presence of adjacent native ecosystems, rather than being based in an aesthetics of nationality and purity. Limiting planting to local species is a way of dealing with the important problem of FERALITY. It is estimated that two thirds of feral plants in Australia have been introduced by home gardeners9. The ethical basis for the prohibition on ferality has been challenged recently by Donna Haraway, who has suggested that there is a strong parallel between racist demands for racial purity and the demands for ecological purity she sees as implicit in the concept of a feral species.10I believe that the complex issues involved in ferality are not well served by this parallel, and that the problem with ferality is not a matter of purity but an ethical issue of recognising earth-others with prior claims — natives.

Haraway’s objection overlooks the important distinction between the feral — defined by their ecological role — and the exotic, species introduced from outside, whether by human or other agency. We can say that ‘feral’ plants or animals are ones that are ecologically disruptive, reducing ecosystem diversity and resilience. Often this is because they are exotic, and have not co-evolved with other organisms in a system. There is a link here, partly contingent, between the feral and the exotic, but ‘feral organism’, whether introduced by human or some other agency, doesn’t mean the same as ‘exotic organism’ or the same as ‘human-introduced’ organism. Sometimes natives (non-exotics) can become feral or disruptive in a new context, and sometimes exotics are not ecologically disruptive, either because they remain in a very limited area, (eg daffodils) or because they do not compete with native organisms since they occupy a new ecological niche (eg the sparrows outside the bakery). ‘Wild’ animals can be glossed as ‘free-living’ animals, as opposed to other categories of pets or economic animals tied to human-chosen places ; wild animals and plants may be native or exotic, and either can be feral.

The problem with ‘ferals’ is not their ‘impure’ exotic origin but their ecological disruptiveness. The story of the camphor laurel illustrates the way feral organisms reduce ecosystem resilience and biodiversity. Introduced from China and thriving in warm temperate zones, Cinnamomun camphori has fruit that is highly palatable to fruit eating birds such as parrots and pigeons. These birds carry the seed off to nearby rainforest, where the camphor laurel germinates, out-competes and displaces co-evolved native species with a more widely distributed fruiting season. The result is ecosystem simplification, the replacement of fruiting that supported fruit-eaters throughout the year by fruiting concentrated in a single season that does not support nearly so many birds or animals.

Although restricting planting to local species is generally a good recipe for avoiding ferality, it goes much further than is necessary to avoid garden plants becoming feral. Many non-local plants will not become feral, so the planting of carefully selected natives and exotics, chosen on the condition that they are known not to risk escape, should be just as good as limitation to the local as a means of avoiding ecological damage to local ecosystems.11 We need much more work on identifying these plants for particular environments, and better methods of knowledge sharing. But by more precisely targeting the problem – damage to native ecosystems as prior presences – we can not only avoid the conceptual confusion that identifies concern with ferality with racism, but have a better chance of getting cooperation from a gardening population that mostly perceives the native/exotic choice as a fashion fad to be decided by personal taste rather than as a serious question of ecological damage.12

Interspecies garden ethics

These conclusions about the ethical problems of ferality and the need to respect prior presences converge with the case for an interspecies ethics of gardening and interspecies sharing of ‘humanised’ spaces. Recognising non-human agency and inter-species good in the garden is a way of rethinking the garden in more decentred and dialogical terms. Interspecies gardens designed to provide mutual agency and mutual benefits for a mixed community of humans and non-humans can be both highly practical and highly adaptive, but require a shift in the dominant imaginary for both gardens and animals. I will illustrate my points with examples based on my own garden, where wombat grazing replaces lawn mowing and a large part of the garden is shared with bush animals. I grow waratahs for pleasure and profit. The Proteaceae family to which they belong is Gondwanan in origin, waratahs, like several related genera, sending their children off into the world in little wooden boats. I find that waratahs, although generally considered difficult to grow, are very well adapted to my high rainfall climate and basalt soil conditions and never require watering once established. I grow a complete range of waratah species and hybrids, and enjoy sharing the flowers. About half my 150 plants are local in origin.

My garden is located in a pre-existing clearing in surrounding forest. The biggest issue for me as a gardener (apart from fire) is that of accommodating to prior presences, recognising what lies beyond the garden (the justice component of ethics). Those of us who garden in the city or take over a piece of already cleared land can more easily imagine they have tabula rasa or terra nullius situation. The surrounding community of plants and animals and the presence of the adjoining Budawang National Park places very strong constraints on my garden, to avoid garden escapes especially. The ideal of welcoming native animals also presents strong constraints on garden projects and plantings, the demand to recognise their cross-cutting projects and to adopt conflict resolution approaches. For example, in plantings I aim to reduce conflict by growing things that give me pleasure but which local animals don’t want to eat, for example daffodils, which virtually all animals find inedible, and which don’t escape. The presence of native animals enforces a gardening discipline of not holding onto projects too tightly or rigidly, of allowing them to be modified for and by other needs, other intentions.

I have a mixed garden of local, native and exotic plants that mediate the space around my dwelling, a stone house I built myself from local stone with fire survival in mind. Gardens provide much more than appearance, visual beauty, vegetables and flowers. Appropriate deciduous trees mediate climate – providing summer shade, winter sun, and above all, in this context, some fire protection for the house. The best varieties to choose are those palatable to wallabies, which then don’t pose a ferality risk. My objectives are to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with my surroundings, the mixed human-non-human community, an interspecies project. I don’t hazard reduce my land – because of the rainforest components, which I want to encourage. These constraints blur the usual dualism between wilderness ideals of total virginity, prescribing complete human passivity, and opposing domestic garden ideals in which we humans and our welfare are unconstrained and are the sole criteria for choosing domestic companions and managing garden outcomes.

Wombats are legendary for their intransigence and hostility to fences, but I have lived closely with wombats for over 20 years, and find them to be ideal garden animals as well as delightful neighbours. The fence problem can be overcome by installing wombat gates and persistently blocking other entrances.13 Wombats graze grasses and groundcovers, so well that I do not need to own a motorised lawnmower, but they rarely graze garden plants. A marsupial lawn is beautiful to behold, closely grazed, but often full of native orchids. Making space for wombat lawnmowers is an example of an adaptive and mutually beneficial gardening mode which negotiates with a prior presence, since what benefits the wombats also benefits me.

Living with bush animals requires some human willingness to adapt, and is usually not compatible with fostering the familiar range of relationships with ‘pets’ such as dogs and cats that take precedence over native animals and usually kill them or keep them away. I would see the interspecies garden as giving shelter and pleasure too to a mixed community of humans and non-humans. A typical interspecies project for me is arranging rocks and sculpture to make lizard and reptile habitat in my garden. This also has mutual value because lizards and bandicoots dig up and eat the funnel-web spiders that are very common around my house – another good reason not to keep dogs and cats.

There are several relevant concepts for thinking about this community. Rather than the common concept of the dependent individual ‘pet’ or the subservient ‘companion’ animal14 who must fit into carefully contrived interstices in a predominantly human life space, we can think in terms of the friend, the familiar or the neighbour, animals who may be known as individuals but who are part of a non-human family or community context. The project is not commensality but conviviality, and involves creating habitat for familiars who retain most of their wildness and independence, for example, rarely allowing you to touch them and maintaining what they see as a safe spatial distance. The major obstacle to developing such relationships is the capturing of our imaginations for interspecies conviviality by the dog and cat model which demands surrender in the form of commensality, obedience, and petting15.

Is living in interspecies bliss with native animals just a luxury for those few of us who are able to live and garden in the bush? As Tim Low illustrates, city gardens can be made friendly to a large range of native animals whose presence may be recognised (for example birds) or unsuspected.16 But I think we could all have these possibilities for a rich conviviality with animals like wombats, if we were willing to change our garden imaginaries and our lifestyles. Since wombats cannot handle motorcar traffic, (although we could do more to design roads that help them avoid traffic), the biggest obstacle at present to this precious collaboration is the impoverishment of the town and city environment by fuel-guzzling traffic. Once we have moved beyond fossil fuel society, as we inevitably must, I believe we will be able to live very well with wombat lawnmowers as garden co-workers and mutual beneficiaries. And of course wombat lawnmowers are also part of winding down our use of fossil fuels.

I think the ultimate interspecies gardening achievement for me would be to have a lyre bird make a mound or performance space in a corner of the garden. This did happen once a few years ago when a lyre bird came out of the forest to perform for 20 minutes on a mound of soil I had made inadvertently while building a path by the back door. I live in hope.


Val Plumwood is at the Humanities Research Centre and the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University.


1. Val Plumwood, ‘The Cemetery Wars’, paper presented at the Two Fires Festival March 2005.

2. James Woodford, The Secret Life of Wombats Melbourne, Text 2001.

3. Albert Memmi, The Coloniser and the Colonised New York, Orion Press 1965.

4. Germaine Greer, Public lecture Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, December 2004.

5. I discuss the problem of privileged groups and remoteness from consequences, (ethical, aesthetic and ecological) in Val Plumwood Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason London, Routledge, 2002.The mining of peat moss for garden use is a good example of gardening destroying remote land beyond the garden, as is ferality.

6. I use the term ‘cultural landscape’ reluctantly, finding both elements problematic. The term ‘landscape’ is a rather rigid, eye-and-self dominated and stereotypical term for an ecological and mindful mixed community of humans and non-humans.

7. Frieda Knobloch, The Culture of Wilderness: Agriculture as Colonisation in the American West ( University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC ), 1996.

8. I do not mean here by ‘wild’ a state of pure nature but rather one where spontaneous and non-human elements still remain. To the extent that gardens are never completely under our control, they themselves contain elements of the wild, so the distinction applies not so much to landscapes as a whole as to unmanaged elements and processes in those landscapes.

9. See especially Tim Low, Feral Future Melbourne, Viking 1999.

10. Donna Haraway, Modest Witness@Second Millennium New York, Routledge 1997.

11. There remains the difficulty of knowing the negative existential, that a plant that has not escaped so far will never do so, so what is most desirable here is actually some positive knowledge of a condition that prevents or works against escape, such as wallaby palatability.

12. There can of course be other reasons for limiting gardens to local plants, such as the desire to maintain the integrity and variety of local places in the face of growing uniformity, and bioregionalism, the ideal of living within a single bioregion. These seem more like reasons for the dominance of local plants in the landscape at large than for the complete exclusion of non-locals from home gardens. The elimination of non-local food plants and crops clearly poses a problem for both these positions.

13. Houses in forested land are best built on slab floors rather than piers, which are highly fire prone, thus removing another source of conflict with wombats.

14. As outlined by Donna Haraway, whose own regime for the pet dog prescribes 100% obedience. See Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2003.

15. This model is not sufficiently questioned by Michael Archer and Bob Beale Going Native: Living in the Australian Environment Sydney, Hodder 2004, whose suggested options for conviviality with native species are correspondingly reduced.

16. Tim Low, The New Nature Melbourne Viking 2002.

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