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10 Questions with @ShitGardens

Garden Home by Christa Cowell

Are you tired of oversaturated beach scenes, breathy clouds of flowers, and manicured contemporary plazas filling your Instagram feed? Head over to @shitgardens, the popular Instagram feed where Bede Brennan and James Hull present images of landscapes that won’t be winning any beautification awards. We had the opportunity to ask @shitgardens a series of questions about their work. These guys focus on landscapes that don’t make it into glossy design magazines or landscape architecture textbooks. Pay attention, you might learn something – and get some good laughs along the way. Make sure to give them a follow @shitgardens on Instagram – and buy their book, Shitgardens.

What makes a @ShitGarden? How do you define it?

There is a spectrum. For us, shit is often a term of endearment, equivalent to quirky, eccentric or bizarre. We like gardens which take a concept further than anyone else or gardens where you can see the bold vision of the gardener, especially if the reality is not a realisation of this vision.

But there are also those more condemned varieties of shit gardens: neglected expanses of concrete, weed harbouring swamps, or lifeless and loveless coloured gravel. These are not our main focus, though they are sometimes worth a laugh.

While our Instagram feed has diversified into whatever we find funny on the day, we become much more purist and true to the original vision when it comes to exhibitions and publications.

All Aboard for Good Old Fashioned Fun by by @RegressionaryMovements

How do you classify types of shit gardens? What are your favourite trends in the landscapes that you feature?

We’re both fascinated with topiaries at the moment. They symbolise such a bizarre relationship between person and plant – growth by the plant constantly checked by the neurosis of the gardener – constantly in pursuit of the unattainable: a plant in the shape of something other than a plant.

Topiaries are infectious too. They seem to spread from one garden to another from over the fence. We devoted a whole chapter from our book to this phenomenon.

What’s the materials palette of a shit garden? What are its essential features?  

The types of shit gardens we prefer tend to have grand statues, mid-century breeze blocks, and unprofessionally restored historic items. The types we don’t like are usually dominated by expanses of astroturf, with glowing red mulch, feature gravel and the odd Yucca. Once again there is a broad spectrum.

Fantasy Castle by Richard Unsworth

In creating @ShitGardens, and presenting on Detail Debacles at the  2019 International Festival of Landscape Architecture, what did you discover about how designers’ intentions can be interpreted in unexpected ways?

Designers’ intentions are not always an easy thing to read, or measure – but there is lots of fun to be had in subverting them. Often these subversions are a valid reclaiming of public space by groups or individuals who have been ‘designed out’, people with skateboards or spray-paint or whatever. I don’t think designers should be upset when people use the spaces they have designed in unexpected ways. 

In what ways would you like landscape architects to make space for humor in practice? How do we stay (or become) playful?

Well, there is a long history of playfulness in practice, from automatons in renaissance gardens to Martha Shwartz Bagel Garden. Perhaps it feels harder, or less appropriate, to be humourous in the Anthropocene though. Maybe a darker sense of humour will emerge over the next few years…

Birds of Paradise by Tessa Shwartz

What are your favorite representations of shit gardens in popular culture – movies, tv, literature, advertisements?

There are so many good shit gardens in films. The scene from Broken Flowers where Bill Murray visits his uptight ex Dora in suburbia has some excellent shit gardens. Another good one is the “You just got three feet of air” scene in Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon is flanked by two glorious Roman Catholic statues –  a Jesus and a Mary. Once you start looking for shit gardens in films, they turn out to be an often used motif, deserving of more recognition for their mood creation. It’s something we’d love to explore more. 

What are you bored with on @ShitGardens? What gets submitted too much? What are you always happy to see?

So glad to get this question! Please dear readers, stop sending the one with lots of pairs of jeans stuffed with soil. We get this daily and it brings us no joy, any longer.

The Carpenter’s Son by @jorgosphotos

What did you learn from intentionally trying to make installations evocative of shit gardens at the 2019 AILA conference?

Making things is hard, even shit things. We have so much respect for everyone who creates real physical things. The tyre swan we made turned out to be the most arduous task either of us have ever undertaken. Even with the help of friends we spent a good 5 hours wrestling the thing until eventually the tyre invented and swanny could spread her wings. 

Have you heard of other designers doing things differently as a result of your work?

Haha, well not in terms of changing their practice as designers. But we have had a number of submissions we suspect of being ‘staged’. I dare say that the most significant influence our work has had on design would be the potential discontinuation of certain trends, i.e. a decline in yuccas and radioactive gravel, due to us having made fun of these themes countless times. 

Heaven is a Garden by Christa Cowell

If you could organize a tour of the world’s shittest gardens, what places would you want to include?

Shit gardens seem to be universal. Or at least present in all suburbs we’ve visited, with definite hotspots in certain areas. I guess shit is in the eye of the beholder. The northern suburbs of Melbourne will always be a Mecca for this aesthetic but internationally speaking, the US has a lot to offer. We get a lot of submissions from “middle America” which we are always astounded by.

Bede & James present at Festival of Landscape Architecture

Meet @shitgardens:

Bede Brennan is a landscape architect most interested in investigating our connections to the non-human world. He divides his time working between Melbourne firm Pollen Studio, teaching at the University of Melbourne, and on collaborative projects as BBLA. Bede has written for a number of publications, including The Planthunter and Kerb Journal. But his secret passion is, of course, shit gardens.

James Hull is a school teacher and plant enthusiast. He works with children who have special needs in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. James likes to keep himself sane by surveying and documenting the vast array of gardens and yard-spaces throughout Melbourne and surrounding environs. He has a passion for all things ‘internet’ and has a keen eye for the burgeoning aesthetics of suburban ‘shitgardens’.

Bede & James presented ‘Detailing Debacles’ at the 2019 International Festival of Landscape Architecture. They have also published a coffee table book “Shitgardens”, available online or in the odd bookshop if you care to hear their deeper thoughts on plastic flamingos.


Lead Image: Welcome to the Garden Home by Christa Cowell

Published in Blog, Cover Story
Caleb Melchior is a planting designer based in the southeastern United States. He's currently working with ASA Engineering Inc in Chattanooga to create engaging public spaces in east Tennessee. Caleb has a Masters of Landscape Architecture from Kansas State University, along with extensive experience designing fine gardens and estates throughout the southeast. His work is frequently published in national gardening and design publications, including Horticulture and The American Gardener. You can follow Caleb on his blog (calebmelchior.com/journal) or on Instagram @the_curious_gardener.

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