What gardening tells us about the design process

Border with Sedum and Eupatorium

Fredrik Jönsson
27 Sep 2023

4 min read

In early 2020, we took the plunge and left the city behind. Part of the reason for relocating was that we wanted to create our own garden, a haven for bees and insects. And so, for the past three years, creating this garden has been a parallel endeavour to our design practice. While we both have a strong interest in plants and ecology, neither of us had much experience in planning, creating, or tending a garden when we started. However, we soon realised that gardening and design, although ostensibly different activities, are actually closely connected. They share a common language of intention, emergence, and iteration.

Viewed in a broader context, both gardening and design reflect our desire to shape the world around us. It's not just about planting perennials and trees or arranging vectors and pixels. It's about creating spaces of intentionality amidst natural disorder, spaces where our visions can thrive and flourish. Gardening, as an act, mirrors our urge to organise and cultivate, to transform the wild into the orderly.

But here's the thing: gardening isn’t a one-way street. As much as we impose our ideas on the landscape, the landscape responds, influences, and even shapes us in return. A similar exchange takes place during the design process. It's this reciprocity, this mesh of intention and response that’s at the core of both practices.

A 'design system' for a sunny, dry. and exposed area of the garden…

…providing structural interest throughout the year

A sheltered corner of the garden

Tapping into a contrasting language near the vegetable plot

In the garden, just as in design, every element has a role to play. Each plant plays its part in the overall design by combining different forms, textures, and colours in a carefully curated arrangement. But the essence lies not only in the arrangement but in the journey of growth and transformation. One must tend to the soil, water the roots, and attend to the ever-changing composition as plants unfold. The joy of gardening lies in nurturing this process—connecting with and following the natural forces and flows of organic matter. Similarly, a designer selects colours, typefaces, shapes, and materials based on initial concepts as well as ideas that develop throughout the design process. Alterations and refinements are integral to the evolution of ideas into tangible solutions.

However, in the garden, it’s easy to observe how the consequences of our actions are visible not just in the object itself, but also in its interactions with the surroundings. A garden will flourish when it's in tune with its environment and can adapt to changing conditions like wind, rain, or drought. Likewise, design must be attuned to its cultural, social, and technological contexts in order to ensure the outcome is both useful and relevant to its intended audience.

Verbascum nigrum — a native short-lived perennial that has self-seeded from the surrounding landscape — integrates seamlessly in our garden

A stone's throw away

To us, the garden embodies resilience. It reminds us that unexpected turns and challenges are not necessarily interferences, but rather opportunities for adaptation. When we first started planting our garden, we noticed that deer were visiting and expertly pruning a variety of plants with precise Chelsea chops. While that spells bad news for some smaller and slow-growing trees and bushes, other plants—for example Echinacea, Echinops, or Helenium—seem to produce longer-lasting blooms than normally, permitting us to combine them with other late-flowering plants. In design, too, unforeseen changes are often not setbacks but triggers for ideation and innovation. Essentially, gardens and designs both mirror the tenets of process over product. Gardening is a constant commitment to change, not the pursuit of a fixed goal. In a similar way, design thrives when engaging in an iterative approach that emphasises the continuous exploration of ideas rather than obsessing over a single end result.

“Design carries a responsibility that goes beyond simply addressing functionality or discrete problem-solving.”

What’s more, in both gardening and design, there is a deeper layer: an ethical dimension. Considering the environmental impact of a garden is unavoidable. The choice of plants, the use of pesticides, and water utilisation all affect the surrounding ecosystem. The better informed we are about any potentially damaging effects of our activities, the more likely we are to seek out alternative solutions. This is equally true in design, as our choices of material, manufacturing procedures, and user interactions all have lasting consequences. Design carries a responsibility that goes beyond simply addressing functionality or discrete problem-solving. Whenever we create something new, we may disrupt something else. So, as designers, we should strive to deepen our domain knowledge, approach challenges from multiple perspectives, and prioritise ethical, social, and sustainable considerations just as much as aesthetics.

But let’s not forget the magic of playfulness. Gardens, with their surprises—pop-up flowers, hidden paths, smells, sounds—inspire wonder and tell stories. Design, too, can introduce joyful surprises that elevate the user experience from mere functionality to moments of delight. It can tell a story by inviting users to an experience that resonates on an emotional level.

 John Gerard observed in Herball (1597) that Stachys "maketh a man to pisse well"

Derek Jarman too had a thing for Red Hot Pokers

“Looking at design through the lens of gardening we are reminded that rather than progressing algorithmically, our most delightful and memorable journeys unfold organically.”

So, briefly exploring the key principles of gardening and design, we find they are about intention, iteration, and emergence. Both of these activities require us to gain a deeper understanding of the ecosystems they are a part of and to be open to the messy and unpredictable process of creation.

Much like climate change is having an effect on gardening, AI advances are pushing design, raising questions about the role of the designer and the value of the design process. Looking at design through the lens of gardening we are reminded that rather than progressing algorithmically, our most delightful and memorable journeys unfold organically.