Soil soul

Multiple award-winning designer David Davidson believes gardening is as good for our minds as it is for the planet.

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Imagine: It’s the oh-so-respectable Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Chelsea Flower Show in London and South African David Davidson has broken the rules. He’s exhibited the desiccated skeletons of kokerbome, the striking tree aloes that march across the thirsty plains of the Northern Cape. Murmurings from the organisers indicate “bringing dead plants to Chelsea is rather cheeky”.

But Davidson is unapologetic. “You know how we all joke about talking to our plants? What happens when your plants start talking to you? Telling you: ‘Look, we’re not happy here any longer and it’s your fault.’ Then it’s time to sit up and take notice.”

The kokerbome display that created such a stir in 2008 is a graphic demonstration of climate change; they are dying as their landscape becomes even drier and hotter. “This just blew people’s minds away, that here was a dead tree and this is why it’s dead,” says Davidson. And so, despite the display’s risqué corpses, it scored South Africa yet another gold medal at the show – plus a new award for creativity.

We’re sitting on a bench in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, mountains sweeping grandly into the sky, slopes woolly with Afromontane forest, lawns and flowerbeds dotted with flora worshippers from far and wide. As workspaces go, Davidson’s “office” is better than most.

Soil from the good earth dusts the 58-year-old designer’s clothes and offsets his fingernails: He’s been working on recreating the recent 2009 Chelsea exhibit at Kirstenbosch. The gold medal for this year’s display, a recreation of scenes from four of the country’s biodiverse botanical gardens, brought South Africa’s total number of gold medals won to 30 – with Davidson and collaborator Raymond Hudson responsible for 17 of these.

Davidson’s discovery of garden design was “divine intervention”. He grew up in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and loved the bush and environment, but a hatred for maths saw him study psychology and social work instead of horticulture.  He was a psychiatric social worker for 12 years, only thereafter beginning work for the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, where he was head of graphic services at Kirstenbosch for 18 years – part of which involves designing exhibits and shows. Now he creates gardens and exhibits from Germany to Singapore – a 500m2 outdoor African garden in Thailand is just one notable achievement.

Besides the string of medals and awards for exhibits and garden designs at shows around the world, Davidson is well versed on all the latest trends in garden design. For instance, stacked ceramic, rock or log walls are huge right now as hotels for small creatures. But really, he’s more interested in education and the therapeutic, life-changing possibilities of gardening.

Davidson believes that people’s attitude to gardening is undergoing a seismic shift. “Gardens used to be taken for granted as things that could help you to sell your house if you’d ever done anything with them, but not in terms of helping your own soul,” he says. The effect of getting one’s hands into the soil has been “immensely, completely underestimated”.

The Eden Project’s exhibition at the most recent Chelsea Flower Show backs this thinking: It showcased a community project teaching marginalised people (homeless, unemployed, prisoners and disabled folk) how to garden. “There’s nothing better for restoring your sense of self-worth and dignity than being able to produce something useful. Even eating your own radishes does that.” Davidson goes on to point out that people living in retirement homes without space to garden is “heart-breaking, especially at a time of your life when it would be most useful”.

There are better known reasons for growing one’s own food – more sustainable living, breaking away from genetically modified products, and simply to save money. Allotment gardening is exploding in the UK, which Davidson thinks is a throwback to World War II campaigns like Dig for Victory. Meant to boost rations and help feed soldiers, victory gardens had wider benefits. “What really helped Britain to win the war was the engagement and fulfilment that gardening gives,” Davidson argues. “The sense of being needed and able to make a difference was a significant psychological measure.”

A 2004 exhibition at the Tate Britain, The Art of the Garden also showcased paintings commissioned during WWII. These works celebrated gardens as little pieces of paradise and were designed to lift people’s spirits beyond the mundane reality of war. “All these benefits of gardening have been long overlooked – it’s been the agricultural sector’s job to feed us. But maybe this mega, monoculture model of farming is just not going to suffice… Maybe we should be looking at doing some of this ourselves again.”

Some of Davidson’s sculptural exhibits can be likened to the Tate painting show. They are idyllic showcases (his experience of designing theatre sets is evident), but they also carry concentrated, necessary messages. He’s a floral crusader for change.

And change is washing through cities and minds. New trends include vertical gardening (“wonderful in terms of damping down sound and excluding harmful gases”), green roofs (“easier in countries with high precipitation”) and city gardens. Consider the tiny balconies on Cape Town’s loft apartments… “Terribly important places for entertaining guests and reflecting your taste and lifestyle, just like your interior does,” that according to Davidson are becoming gardens. It’s another example of something that was someone else’s concern – usually a gardener – becoming something residents themselves are taking responsibility for.

South Africa has much to gain from promoting gardening, Davidson feels. He also thinks a South African garden style is emerging: gardens that mimic nature. “Think of gardens in the north, where you have lots of wonderful natural rock and cliff-faces, and succulent gardens with aloes and bushveld trees. To an extent, it’s taming nature, or subduing it a little bit, but actually working with what you’ve got. By using plants that occur naturally, you don’t need special nutrients and extra water. The opposite of that is replacing beautiful natural veld with vast extents of golf courses, where it’s actually necessary to eradicate any remnants of the indigenous flora and then drench the thing in artificial chemicals and fertilisers.”

While Davidson isn’t interested in the money-making enterprise of designing new plants (creating things like “orange brinjals and black daffodils” is an obsession for many Chelsea exhibitors), he does like new ideas. They did once introduce a new flower to Chelsea, but the “fire flower” was a burnt protea seed head, containing a beautiful Fibonacci spiral, set on a restio stem and decorated with beads. Fire flowers allowed some 4 000 protea pickers to keep their jobs after a devastating fire in the Overberg.

“I’m not a pessimist or a fatalist,” he muses, “but having looked at the really high-tech, way-out OTT schemes people are coming up with – like floating islands full of plants, or skyscrapers for growing vast numbers of vegetables and grain – these remain hypotheses.” It may not be the highly scientific technologies that will be the solution to food shortages and environmental concerns, he thinks, but having every single person doing their bit: recycling, growing their own vegetables, producing their own energy. “Only a few people understand the high-tech stuff,” says Davidson. “Besides, who will pay for it? But with the low-tech solutions, we already know exactly what to do.”

David Davidson’s design consultancy business can be contacted at 021 685 4659 or 083 983 3120