26 July 2023

Ben Tallon: What Can Designers and Creatives Learn From Gardening?

As part of his new series reflecting on the nature of creativity, this month Tallon takes to gardening which he finds to be both a grand metaphor for nurturing creativity and a creative endeavour in itself.


Illustrations by Ben Tallon


Where did that come from?” is a question I’ve had to answer for as long as I can remember. On occasion, I am able to backtrack and offer some form of tenuous recap of my thought process. Dots joined in a brain which bolts like a startled horse, galloping and lunging at an array of references before skidding to a halt back at the starting topic. Usually, I cannot answer. In Sensitive: The Power of a Thoughtful Mind in an Overwhelming Worldco-authored by Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo, the following is written of this kind of mind:


“Wired to make connections between vastly different concepts, the sensitive mind can blend frames of reference without ever leaving home. Sensitive people are perhaps the ultimate polymaths, thinking not in terms of science, or poetry, or lived experience, or hopes and dreams, but in terms of the themes that run across them all. Many sensitive people speak this way too, readily offering metaphors and linking different topics to make a point… This creativity doesn’t operate alone. It is built on the next three gifts of sensitivity – sensory intelligence, depth of processing, and depth of emotion – which together, add up to a creative mind.”


It was during a moment of conscious emptiness that my unconscious alerted me to the many similarities between gardening and creativity.


Like many of my generation, I’ve been spoiled. Ruined by the obscene convenience of a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury’s Local on what feels like every street corner. Foods from around the world readily available to pander to the whims of my appetite on any given day. So, unlike my granddad, who like many of his generation grew his own food and plants, I shirked gardening and looked forward to my next gourmet tea.


Illustrations by Ben Tallon


Now at the age of 40, alarmed and panicked into action by the biodiversity crisis which threatens to destabilise our food supply, I turn to the glut of online learning tools and set about digging two small wildflower plots and the installation of a DIY pond. If I can get myself up to speed, I can set my children up to be far better attuned to nature.


Can we reap what we sow?

One unexpected joy from this is a welcome, rare hit of delayed gratification. After the first session, muscles tend not to work, aching and tense, and my back covered in sweat, I scatter the seeds. Then… nothing. This is now out of my hands aside from watering when rain is scarce. So, somewhat morosely, I shuffle back in and get on with my Sunday.


Weeks later, I stand over five or six tiny green shoots, worrying that I haven’t cleared enough of the grass roots – wildflowers do not like competition. It’s here that my brain begins its divergent thought process and starts to see reflections of the creative process – the lack of guarantees, the need to accept that some things must fail while others will underwhelm as we try many approaches. And oh, the joy of the things that thrive. But even then, it can change. What I suspected yesterday was a yellow marsh marigold screaming up at the sun with lust for life, now sulks at the knees of a dandelion, with hangdog petals. I grin, recalling Quenched Music – my collaborative independent music project with Dirty Freud, which opened so many doors for us before it went the way of the marigold, no longer serving our creative needs.


Perseverance, learning and luck

Of course, this is all as natural as it gets. Life and death, lessons and learnings. For anything to succeed, in design or the garden, we rely on many factors, not least good timing and good fortune. We have only so much control over creativity, so the emphasis must be placed on the ground work, insights, diligent application of knowledge and skill, all while learning through mistakes. Then we must accept and embrace what is beyond our control, always considering the duality of everything, while remaining alert to opportunity – fortune only favours those who are willing to receive it.


After 6 weeks or so, like my earliest illustration practice, the garden is equal parts shambolic and beautiful. Both were made with naivety, the green shoots of knowledge, zero experience, but no shortage of desire. I had to endure periods of great doubt that anything would ever happen, but work like I believed it would regardless. Early breakthroughs are exhilarating. My first illustration commission for football magazine When Saturday Comes after three lifetimes’ worth of rejection, and a young frog perched on the highest rock of my plant pot pond last Friday night both led me to break into an angry football goal celebration – the latest in full view of Colin, my green-fingered wizard of a next-door neighbour, whose decades matured pond reduces mine to a slimy shot glass.


Try not to compare your work to that of others

There’s another similarity here, the all-too-common creativity self-mutilation exercise that is comparison. The glimmer in Collin’s eyes as I ramble about my frog visitor gives me mounds of satisfaction. Endorsement from a more experienced peer can be a great lift, but comparison is not always healthy. Every garden, just like each individual blend of creativity, is unique; a rising, falling, ever-changing jungle which must be lovingly maintained. So, telling ourselves we are better, or worse than another, rather than different is a false economy. Focus on your own work or your own garden and you’ll achieve the best outcomes. The finished work will probably turn out differently to the original idea anyway.


Ben Tallon is exploring “the nature, behaviour and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a current podcast and a book is set to follow in late 2023. 


Written by: Ben Tallon

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