Saturday, October 30, 2010

Those Robinia logs, and the Dutch Wave

Lots of queries about how Monique & Thierry Dronet at Berchigranges (see last blog) use robinia logs to build up slopes. Philippe Ferret kindly sent me some pictures of the technique soon after construction:

Meanwhile back home, the Garden Museum have launched their Dutch Wave exhibition, funny to see one's life become history, The exhibition probably would not have been there if it hadn't been my plugging away telling everyone about the Dutch garden scene back in the mid 1990s. There have been a series of events featuring Piet Oudolf, "they sold out quicker than anything else we have ever organised" said museum director, Christopher Woodward. Back in the 1990s we bewailed the chauvinistic inward-looking nature of the British gardening scene. How things have changed!

See an article in The Daily Telegraph. to hear some reminiscences.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Is this the most beautiful garden ever? Travels in Mitteleuropa part5.

             Well I have been back home now for a week, and le Jardin de Berchigranges, isn’t in Mitteleuropa, but in France, on the way back home, but the Vosges mountains do feel a bit like central Europe. It is a lovely setting in which to create a garden, and this particular one blends into its landscape perfectly. It is the garden I think I would like to create if I had the time, the commitment to opening it to the public, and an endless source of robinia logs.
            I was absolutely blown away, which to be honest I am very rarely these days.
Knew the garden was going to be good when i met these box
            The planting, needless to say is very naturalistic, with some bold new departures, such as asters growing in rough grass, lots of self-seeding, and the feeling that the plants have a large say in deciding where they grow. There are lots of just the kind of additional elements I love - slightly whacky, imaginatively creative touches in the form of buildings, sculptures, odd structures, unexpected views. There is hardly a straight line in the place, so the massive hornbeam hedge ‘structure’  at one end of the garden which reads like a fortress has all the more impact. What I particularly like is how they have achieved structure without using cement, brick and the usual array of ‘hard landscaping’ materials (I have a deep loathing of hard landscaping). Much of this is by using logs rammed vertically into the ground with the gaps between them filled with soil, and needless to say plants - so dealing with elevations. Its all so inventive.  And technically, really well done. I love it! I love it! I love it!
Gärtneri Hügin
            The house, is so like our own ‘pavilion’, even down to the angle of the roof and the ornamental ‘dagging’ fascia. Clearly people after my own heart. I can’t wait to get back here.

Before leaving Germany
            I dropped in on Ewald Hügin, who is one of the most talked about  nurserymen in Germany. His nursery is reassuringly British, which is  a way of saving its idiosyncratic, rather untidy and full of really unusual plants. He has created some very good display gardens since I was last here – perennials and annuals together, wonderfully colour schemed.

And on the way back.
            France’s reputation for good summer planting is now well-known and appreciated this side of the channel. I dropped into Metz on the long drive home, which markets itself as a ‘ville de jardin’. The plantings I saw were in a way nothing special for France, but streets ahead of anything you see back home. What I like about them is the sheer inventiveness and range, and they look very well trialled, in terms of composition, getting height and spread right – that kind of thing. There is obviously a whole genre of planting design here . Why  isn’t anybody in Britain doing anything like this? I mean, why?
Spot the celery!
            To illustrate the inventiveness, in the park I looked at in Metz, there was a very glossy leaved plant which looked vaguely familiar, obviously an umbellifer – a bite proved it to celery. This lateral thinking approach to planting design is what I love about the French style – and you see it in Germany sometimes too.
            Final stop en route to the ferry was Chris Ghyselen just outside Bruges in Belgium (or perhaps I should say Flanders). I’ve wanted to meet him for years, as Belgium has not figured highly in the new perennial movement;  he combines a classically Flemish love of hedges with a passion for plants. And some very clever little secret paths through the garden, so very much a garden where there is so much more than what you see at first.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Swissinnovation - Travels in Mittleuropa part 4

Experimental 'perennial hedge'
       Lots of good things happen at Hochschule Wädenswil. The ‘integrated planting system’ for one, which aims at making randomised mixes of perennials and bulbs, and annuals for the first two years, and some other ‘mixed planting’ systems where again the emphasis is on choosing plants compatible with the site, and each other and then randomising them. Works well in slabs rather than conventional borders. And they are trialling a ‘perennial hedge’ too, with Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ as the main element, oddly flowering component not randomised, but interesting idea – more of a summer-autumn screen planting than a hedge. I’ve always thought tallish perennials work well as shallow screen type plantings.
Doris, maestra of the urban annual mix
            They have also started working with annual mixes, using them on sites left temporarily vacant in the constant rebuilding which seems to afflict Zürich. Public love them. They work here as the country gets quite high summer rainfall (which I remember only too well from childhood holidays); stress annuals with low soil moisture, and they go into seed-production mode and an early death, a trajectory difficult to stop, but keep them moist and many will flower all summer. Annual mixes don’ t work in eastern Austria or further east as the summer is too dry and they will all be dead by the end of July.
Doris Tausendpfund who designs the annual mixes (and the very promising looking perennial mixes) describes how she sees the mixes working on two levels – one colour dominates from the distance, perhaps as you drive by in your car, but then if you stop and look more closely, like whilst waiting for the tram, you see that there are many other colours.
Climbing plants in containers in Basel (Hochbergerstr.)
On the subject of building sites, it never ceases to amaze me how much the Swiss love cement, in fact the smell of wet cement always reminds me, in a really Proustian way, of Switzerland, as I spent several months here as a child and the frenetic building with cement clearly impacted the hard-wiring of the scent bit of my brain. Perhaps all this rather unsustainable use of cement is one reason for the counter-reaction, that the country is the world leader in green architecture and engineering; green roofs are everywhere, climbers are used to dramatic effect on buildings, whilst slope stabilisation using plants is increasingly seen, or actually not seen, as it is a lot less obvious than great concrete bastions or gabions.
            Whilst I’m having a moan about my recent dear hosts, it also never ceases to amaze me how much the Swiss smoke. Like the proverbial chimneys, so unless you have an alp to yourself you can forget about the pure mountain air. Although, smoking in restaurants has finally been made Verboten. Putting two things together, perhaps the country should be symbolised note by the alpenhorn, the Emmentaler cheese or the Swiss army knife but a re-inforced concrete ashtray.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What do you do when the Schau is over? Travels in Mitteleuropa part 3.

     What happens when the last Stein has been drunk, the last leaflet on bio-dynamic slug control handed out and the last Tagetes wilts in autumn's first frost?        
     Gardenshows are a big part of the German garden scene, lasting all summer and (key thing this) leaving behind the legacy of a regenerated urban space. Many of the best parks are former Gartenschau sites. We tried it in Britain during the Thatcherreich but no attempt was ever made to keep them as public spaces, and in the sad case of Liverpool, the show site is now quite well-known for its grafitti daubed ruined Chinese garden.
Playground - durability all right! Had to stop myself running up it.

            How you turn a one-summer event into something permanent is a challenge, one which has apparently been met pretty well here. Of course I tend to visit the successful ones, but I have seen places with  artworks that look like beached whales, avenues which go nowhere, and perennial borders run amok. A couple of days ago I dropped in on a 2004 Bavaria State show at Burghausen. On the whole a successful transformation, 8 out of 10, I think Herr  (or Frau) Burgermeister. One series of perennial borders pretty well abandoned – why not just replace with ground cover? and some strange objects which could only be artworks, but a fantastic children’s playground – the kind of really inventive place which can be one of the best features of these events, overall a good urban green space, and a whole series of little gardens between beech hedges – nice intimate spaces (assuming the good folk of Burghausen don’t go in for too much spliff-rolling or needle-based activities, which is always a problem if you create too much quiet space in urban parks). These were all designed by design practices, a bit like Chelsea Flower Show gardens, but permanent. Some looked really good, the others … well, I am sure the designers would be horrified if they could see their names attached. There is always a real problem with these individual gardens in places where they become permanent and get maintained by the same staff – they all sink to a common level. On the whole though they make for garden vignettes you would never get normally in a public park.
Panicum virgatum grass with Aster dumosus at Weihenstephan
            Quick visit to Weihenstephan, home to the world’s leading collection of perennials, meet the new prof. of planting design, Swantje Duthweiler, whose interest in early 20th century planting styles heralds the prospect of some interesting new takes on plant use (watch this space?).
            Now in Switzerland where I have spent a fascinating day at Hochschule Wädenswil, a teaching and research centre in canton Zürich. They have done a lot of work on perennial mixtures – randomized combinations of plants for particular visual effects or management techniques, sometimes just perennials, but sometimes including bulbs and annuals too. Some very high tech means of teaching plant ID too – you use an iPhone app. to zap a code on a pillar and your phone downloads a plant list, plant information and other stuff about the planting; meanwhile some nicely designed little leaflets give you plants lists too.
Most stunning of all though are the vertical gardens they are working on for indoor environments, including some wonderful ‘plant pictures’, exploiting the fact that a lot of tropicals perform well when growing vertically.
            A lot of fruit growing happens at Wädenswil too – it has a mild climate, being on Lake Zürich; some fascinating unusual fruit here too. Actinidia arguta makes tiny sweet little Kiwi fruit – much nicer than the normal kind, and I never realised you can eat Schisandra chinensis berries – although to be honest the flavour made me think of what it would be like if you bit into a chunk of incense – a challenge for the truly innovative cook perhaps.
            Odd how in the German- speaking world, it is public horticulture  which is where innovation happens, and private gardens are relatively unsophisticated - mirror image of back home. Our nearly all having private gardens (in the UK) has meant, sadly, a lack of political pressure for quality public space. But given the very different agendas of private and public gardening, there is so much scope for cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Travels in Mitteleuropa 2

Jo and I try out the exercise machines on Bratislava's new Danube river promade - a real boost for the way you can enjoy the city and the river.

The perennial revolution marches on! The Czechs and Slovaks are now doing research into public use of perennials, very much inspired by the German randomised mixing technique. Extremely interesting afternoon at the Landscape Dept. of the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra. Jo worked at Bratislava Comenius Univ. from 1993-5, so we now all about alcoholic Stalinist heads of department, reinforced concrete buildings , dead hand of Marxism-Leninism exams etc, etc. So delighted to find lovely new building,  ditto perennial border, ditto prof, and young staff well clued up on all the German research, on Oudolf, and ‘the Sheffield school’. On the subject of profs. a sure sign of age is when the professors start to be younger than you are.

Reading Prof. Hallova’s research I realise that she’d brought up an issue none of the rest of us have ever considered – that plants engage in chemical warfare through ‘allelopathy’ amongst themselves and that this impacts on planting combinations, so for eg. nepeta and euphorbia suppress the growth of asters and geraniums. I immediately think of all the Euphorbia cyparissias I let rampage in my borders. Fascinating! I think I should set up some trials back home this winter and really see if it is an impact we should really worry about in a practical sense. 

Perennial beds in every town I drove through! Plus trusty Renault Kangoo
Given that it's a long time since I’ve driven round Austrian roundabouts it is just amazing to see how much perennials (in the 40-60cms height range) are used in traffic islands and roadside environments. Really just about every place I have driven through in Oberösterreich seems to. Wunderbar!

A misty, soggy, chilly stomp around some dry meadow habitat near Mikulov in Czechia, Scabiosa ochroleuca and Aster linosyris flowering away in profusion. Sabine Plenk (a colleague from Vienna’s BOKU) and I agreed it was a ‘second spring’ effect as autumn rains re-moisten very thin stony soils. Nice to see the local flora (Pannonian-Pontic) used in the grounds of the castle in town in an ornamental way. Not so sure about the monstrous Christmas tree in the town square and all the artificial snow – but it turned out to be a film set. Made me freeze just looking at it.
Dialectic of locally native dry meadow plants with box parteer at Mikulov Castle, CZ.

More soggy foggy in Austria, can’t see the mountains! Furchtbar! Schade! However thinking long-tmer garden visiting in Austria is looking up. There is a new guidebook, published by Callwey Verlag and based on the very thorough Gärten Reiseführer for Germany. Lots of really rather nice sounding Privatgarten open too – how soon can I get back to check them all out? Only managed Linz Bot. Gdn. (good, some nice mature rarely-seen shrubs) and Christian Kreß’s nursery – Sarastro – at Ort-in-Innkreis. FAB, FAB, FAB. If this nursery were outside Guildford, you’d be blown away by it. Its not just plants, its really funky architectural salvage, kinky walls, alpines grown in all sorts of weird rubble. Its Berlin grunge meets Alpine Garden Society. Its cool. Ain’t nothing like it back home.

Forget the Sleazyjet flight to ‘Vienna’ (in reality Bratislava). Get the car out – the GB sticker, the green card, the ferry/chunnel  ticket, the headlight deflectors, and thrash down the autobahns (yes, you really can drive as fast as you like) and load the car up with plants. There’ll be loads here you’ve never seen before. And while you about it you can load up with Austrian wine, all of it totally gluggable and varieties like Grüner Veltliner you never find amongst the Chard and SauviBlank in Sainsbury’s, and the time spent on the autobahn will feel like its worth it. I did one better, stocked up with Slovak wine at the Nitra Tesco – just as good and miles cheaper. Stuff the Dordogne, up the Danube!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


An invite to lecture at a new garden event in Vienna – Flora Mirabilis. Very stylish, in the way that these things usually are over here. The posters for it are shown above. Wonderfully kitsch-Botticelli,  and rather naughty (look at the guy’s pants). Probably wouldn’t be acceptable in prudish Britain.

Over here – on the mainland. I drove over, a long way, but having the car enables you to be so flexible and you can just throw all your possessions in the back and not worry about squeezing everything into a flight bag; and you can stop at nurseries and buy plants, ditto winemakers and cases of wine etc. I used to do this a lot – drive all the way to central Europe, but haven’t done so for years. Back in the mid to late 1990s it was when I discovered the wonders of what was going on in German and Dutch gardens – crucially Jo was working in Bratislava 1993-1995, just after Slovak independence, and so I got into the habit of driving, which enabled me to visit gardens on the way – and if you take a kind of broad corridor from disembarking at Calais to say Munich, there are just so many stunning examples of horticultural innovation on the way. And so many great historical gardens too – if the sight of perennials and grasses gets a bit much after a while.

I made the first trip in June 1994. This was a month after my mother died, which was kind of symbolic, as she had been a great traveller in Germany and Austria in her youth. It is one of the curses of the human condition  that we burst with questions for our parents when it is too late. There is so much now that I would have liked to ask her. She came over with a bicycle and made several big trips in the 1930s – the last time a month before war was declared in 1939. This was a time when educated Brits were far more likely to spend time in Germany than France; it seems strange now – the Brit summer middle-class rush to their second homes/gîte in France now takes on the appearance of the annual departure of the Gadarene Swine – but most of them come back complaining - about a) too many other Brits and b) the French. Now Germany is just seen as a large car factory with a bit of rather gloomy forested scenery attached.

I have my mother’s diary of her German cycling travels – I have thought about trying to retrace it (although how much I would do on a bike is debatable). Reading it now, I inevitably do so with the knowledge of the horrors that came after, which I think is a real problem in dealing with anything to do with 1930s Germany. On the garden front, Karl Foerster had the sense/decency to go into exile (Sweden), Willy Lange accepted a Nazi medal – do we trash his reputation as a result? Anyway back to my mum’s diary – most of it is actually pretty boring, she wasn’t a very political person and anyway life in ‘interesting times’ goes on much as the same as it always does. She complains a lot about how dirty places are, and how friendly everyone is.

As a kid we often had family holidays in Switzerland, where my mother’s German proved invaluable. Her first trip back to Germany was in 1966? when we did one of those boat cruises down the Rhine. I remember standing in a bomb site in Cologne which just seemed to go on for ever – it must have been a deeply emotional moment for her. Another time we did the Romantishe Straße through all those fairytale towns in Bavaria (now signposted in Japanese by the way), and I remember a lot of her memories came back. I have her photograph albums – which are fascinating to look at, especially when you realise that much of the cityscapes she photographed were bombed into ash in 1944-5. There are a number of photographs missing – just as I’m sure you’d find with many surviving German/Austrian  albums of the time too.

Students at BOKU show off their planting design projects
Since 1994, I think I have been back to Germany almost every year. There is so much to see here in the garden world, but in a kind of mirror image of back home – the interesting things, the innovation, is all in the public sphere: garden shows, urban planting schemes, parks, green roofs. The same is largely true of Austria and Switzerland, which makes events like Flora Mirabilis, aimed at the private gardener, all the more interesting. I hope it succeeds, I’d love to come every year. And those posters – well – maybe these will become the garden equivalent of the Pirelli calendar.