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NOT YOUR GARDEN- VARIETY SPACE: Mr Basson's fantasy garden titled Tartarus won him a gold medal during the 2014 edition of the Singapore Garden Festival. The garden also clinched the Best Construction and Best Lighting awards.

"Landscape design is a match between fine arts or being creative and working with the natural world." - Mr Basson

Fine art of green fingers

Landscape designer James Basson is an advocate of dry gardening, working with locally sourced plants and minimal maintenance.
May 14, 2016 5:50 AM

GOING to the garden show is mostly about taking pictures and admiring artful displays of plants that landscape designers deftly craft to transform an environment.

But for the landscape designer, it is more than just putting on a pretty display. Each work gets judged and judges can be tough.

"Not everyone is cut out to participate in garden shows," says James Basson, founder of Scape Design. "Some take it personally when their gardens are being criticised, but I take it as a learning process."

Mr Basson, who is based in the south of Franch and has participated in more than 10 garden shows over his 20-year career, says that he enjoys participating in garden shows. "I like being critiqued, otherwise, I'll be working in my own little world."

He will return to participate in the Singapore Garden Festival (SGF) in July for the second time.

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In the 2014 edition of SGF, he won a gold medal for his fantasy garden, titled Tartarus, after the great abyss in Greek mythos where the Titans were banished for eternity. The garden also won Best Construction and Best Lighting awards.

For his second SGF show, Mr Basson, 43, will be taking part in the landscape garden category. He will be showcasing a Mediterranean garden with plants shipped from the south of France such as the European oak, lavender and a variety of kitchen herbs. The plants will be displayed among plastic rocks that will be coloured blue.

"The garden will be a cross between the natural and the man-made world," he said. "The rocks will be alien-like and obviously man-made."

Mr Basson has taken part in garden shows in Europe (Chelsea Flower Show) and the United States (Philadelphia Flower Show) but he says it is only in Singapore where he can "be bold". He explains that in Europe and the US, "perhaps it is a cultural thing, but the show gardens are more conservative. The judges and audiences like the gardens to fit into a certain mould".

Singapore, however, is on the cutting edge of technology, architecture and the arts, and "the participating designers and contractors are more open-minded towards new technology, materials and approaches", he says.

Some of the awards that he has won include the gold medal for his Perfumer's Garden in Grasse at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015, and the Best Garden award for Ad Infinitum at the Gardening World Cup 2013.

By bringing in plants from the south of France, he will be working with material that he is more used to. These plants are already in Singapore and are adjusting to the local climate.

"But the weather in Singapore is wetter and more humid than in the Mediterranean, and that can make the plants more prone to fungal and bacterial attacks, so we have to be careful in maintaining them till the show dates."

Mr Basson says he became a landscape designer by accident. He studied anthropology and fine arts, and just happened to take a garden design course, where he excelled in landscape design.

"It was the first time that I excelled at anything," he recalls. "Landscape design is a match between fine arts or being creative and working with the natural world."

As a child, he had no idea about gardening, but remembers spending lots of time playing outdoors. "Being made to stay indoors was my punishment," he says.

Mr Basson is known for being a strong advocate of dry gardening and for his efforts to raise awareness of the importance of working with locally sourced plants and traditional materials, using no irrigation and minimal maintenance.

He says it is important to create gardens that fit into the environment. "The south of France has a dry climate, hence dry gardens work best there," he says. His gardens require little mowing, hedge-cutting, watering and fertilising.

Less water means less weeds, less growth, therefore less pruning and weeding are required. He adds that limited use of water also means the garden is more in keeping with its natural surroundings, avoiding the clash of a bright green lawn with the more subdued tones of the landscape in which it is situated.

He points out that low maintenance doesn't mean no maintenance. Maintenance in a dry garden requires hand weeding until plants are established, dividing plants to develop the planting with a seasonal pruning and trim where necessary.

The garden typically would have a three-year programme to allow it to reach its mature self-sustaining state, with a yearly programme for development thereafter, depending on the individual garden.

Mr Basson is also for gardens that have a high biodiversity rather than creating monoculture gardens, where only a single plant is used.

"Our changing climate means that some plants fare better than others, and the result is a garden that has better survival rates," he explains.

Lastly, there is another kind of garden that he does not do. "I don't do postcard-perfect gardens," he says.