Sustainable ? Aesthetic ?

– Posted in: Garden Photography

“The Hermit’s Garden” Sustainable ? Aesthetic?

“I have a nearly impossible job.  I am a garden photographer…. “

So begins my article in the current “Finding a Sustainable Aesthetic …”; and so begins my lecture circuit this year with the subtitle – “… What is ‘Good’ Garden Photography” as I promote my book  .  I don’t pretend to define a sustainable aesthetic but I know my job as a garden photographer is taking on increasing relevance in the conversation.

The fanciful “Hermits Garden” created at s by Kate and Ben Fry prods us to consider the role of the gardener and our own assumptions about sustainability.  The questions, Sustainable for who?, Sustainable where ? become important, even vital consideration.

If we are to find a sustainable aesthetic, the media will need to show it.  The photographs that depict it need to be regionally appropriate and authentic.  They also need to look good, which is why my job is so hard.  It is not too hard to find beautiful gardens, nor is it beyond the realm of a professional photo shoot to create a beautiful garden, but how far can I (the media) stretch the truth to communicate an idea ?

This lovely deck drenched in afternoon sun under a canopy of native oaks amid lush, ornamental drought tolerant shrubs might seem like a perfect California, regionally appropriate garden.  It might be. I don’t know for sure because all the shrubs are lying sideways in 5 gallon pots facing the camera.

While it might be a model for long term success, it was sustained for 2 hours.  And today, I would not include such a photo in any of my books.  I want books to be believable, I want my photos to be paired up with authentic information, I want gardeners to have long term success based on real gardens.  I want to be trusted.

As a garden photographer in California, I began to realize about 10 years ago how few authentic and sustainable gardens we Western gardeners saw in the national media.  It was my own fault as much as any Eastern writer or publisher.   We, in the media, and me as a photographer needed to change the aesthetic of what Western gardeners saw in a garden photograph.

California sustainable gardenWhen was conceived I set about to help.  The photograph of this second deck under a canopy of oaks was photographed for that book.  It is completely real, mature, and full of plants that if the gardener walked away would survive on their own.  Without the gardener to sustain it, this garden would not be so pleasing to look at and certain plants would inevitably decline; but I have no pangs of guilt claiming that this is a realistic example of a good garden.

Since that book I have done and now “The American Meadow Garden”.  I am taking even more seriously my obligation to fellow gardeners to illustrate books with ‘good’ photographs.  This posting is really a pep talk for me.   I will be attending the Eco-Farm Conference this week and will be among those who have been committed to sustainable practices for 30 years.

If asked, I want to contribute to the conversation.

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Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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