I met up with Wolfgang Borchardt in the loveliest summer weather for a photoshoot in Erfurt. We set out for the Erfurt region in his car …
At the time of our meeting, Wolfgang Borchardt is working as a professor of planting design at the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences. His subject area is something very close to my heart. It soon becomes apparent that his interest in the world is featuring more, not less, in his subject. Around every bend on our journey, something new appears. And he has something to say about everything we see, often touching on other relevant social issues too. In the interview, we talk about the often neglected aspect of garden space design, the colour aspect of plantings, naturalistic gardens and climate change.
Reading time: 25 minutes
Interview: Dr. Wolfgang Borchardt, Anke Schmitz ∗ Text editing: Dr. Wolfgang Borchardt ∗ Anke Schmitz ∗ Photos: Anke Schmitz ∗ Translated by Gisela Lindeque
GB: Dr Borchardt, you can look back on many years of creative, scientific and facilitatory involvement in garden design. What has kept you passionate for so many years?
WB: It’s not always easy to trace the starting point that leads to our personal interests. Colours and shapes in nature appealed to me when I was young. My mother and a dedicated biology teacher were the ones who especially encouraged and supported me. The original Karl Foerster catalogues with their informative (and sales-promoting) captions drew me to the diversity and vitality of perennials. Anyone who has ever been exposed to the miracle of their annual “resurrection” would inevitably become hooked. Some volumes of the German Dendrological Society reports, published around 1900, sparked my interest in trees. As a student, I grew tired of school and much preferred the “outdoors”. I was allowed to work in a nature reserve and eventually discovered the profession of landscape designer – the fulfilling combination of plants, technology, applied science and creativity. Even as an “apprentice”, I was particularly enthusiastic about using plants in design, and none of that has changed. I found it difficult to understand that there was hardly any practical, generalizable literature available on this subject. Other manual professions had managed to produce practical handbooks. Creativity may not be teachable, but there are many foundational principles – based on the principles of sensory perception and plant knowledge. (It was only after 1990 that I met a publisher, Roland Ulmer, who immediately understood my concept of “planting design theory” and made the books possible. The result was, “Gärtner 6: Pflanzenverwendung im Garten- und Landschaftsbau“ (Plant Use in Horticulture and Landscaping), published in 1997.) Without garden spaces, we have no quality of living, no content, no setting for people, flowers, attractive individual plants or sculptures.
Without garden spaces, we have no quality of living, no content, no setting for people, flowers, attractive individual plants or sculptures.
GB: In your recently published book “Garten Räume Gestalten” (Garden Spaces Design) you dealt extensively with the principles of garden art as a spatial art. However, public discussion often centres around the detail, that is, species and varieties. Why is there so little talk about garden spaces? Do you have any idea?
WB: Karl Foerster said, “Garden art is spatial art”. And he is undoubtedly right. Without garden spaces, we have no quality of living, no content, no setting for people, flowers, attractive individual plants or sculptures. When we enter architectural spaces, especially churches, we tend to be attentive, or at least a little curious, from the start. Living areas are always exciting. Yet, garden spaces don’t seem to feature. The flowers might seem important, or the biggest possible cabbage, or the new outdoor kitchen. There are (almost) no books on the design of garden spaces. Even in the countless garden magazines, the space is just a side issue. I believe a garden space is not consciously perceived. It could be because garden spaces, in contrast to architectural spaces, have no roof, or because in many gardens these spaces are not present and therefore not experienceable. The “spirit of a place” – noticeable and compelling us to stay in a “pleasant” garden – also tends to escape from unprotected spaces. On garden trips, the spatial quality of a garden creates an impression on the visitors, who will then start developing an eye for this. This is also a form of horticultural therapy!
GB: When did people start interpreting and classifying the garden as a space?
WB: The oldest surviving garden plans – those of the monastery of St. Gallen from around 820 – show the entire area of the planted gardens. The bed and path arrangements form the surface structures. Rooms need walls, and there is just as little space for them as for the associated, profit-reducing shadow areas. No shade trees! The focus is on work and nutrition, not quality of living. A much later miniature of Boccaccio’s La Teseida from the 14th century is a very different example. It shows a young woman in front of a trellis studded with roses. Here the desire for quality of living is obviously associated with protected spaces delimited by walls. After all, we spend most of our lives in “cosy” rooms. Where we don’t find any, we try to create them (for example, using a tent, sandcastle or camper).
Additionally, some people like to transfer their floor plan into the “open” to define their garden as an extended living space. Space proportions corresponding to human dimensions ensure “cosiness”. Or at least, this is the notion that tags along with the reality of our housing estates.
GB: Baroque and landscape gardens offer two different representations of a garden space. What happens to the garden space in these two very different design styles and how does the spatial quality experienced by visitors differ?
WB: Let’s start with the baroque garden. Not only was it there first, but it also reveals much more than you might think at first glance. The baroque garden – which is not just a garden, but should instead be regarded in the context of baroque music and architecture, courtly “events” and opulent banquets – was a heavyweight counterpart to the world “outside” with its continual perils and wars. Hence, the clearly drawn boundaries, separating it from the landscape, into which only a view is permitted from selected points (“Aha”). Absolute power and control are enforced through a strict symmetry, associated with correct shapes, down to the last plant. A baroque garden doesn’t even allow one centimetre for inconsistency. We should carry this knowledge with us in all design projects involving plants. It means we should always stay on topic. Paths and lines of sight, usually straight, are identical in the baroque garden. At least the central garden areas not limited by hedges can be seen in one glance. It would take no effort to see all of this from a balcony while cradling a glass of wine. This may still apply to our conversation. But it’s not the case in a freely designed landscape garden. Here, paths swing around visual axes – framed by wooded backdrops – that only become visible at the intersection of the two and can easily escape the careless eye. However, visitors find pleasure in making these discoveries together and sharing them. To experience this change in space and sceneries, they have to set off and walk through the garden. In contrast to the baroque garden, this is an active, “dynamic” affair.
GB: What forms might stimuli take on in the future?
WB: Modern landscape architecture draws from everything of the past. In this respect, new things can always arise from the combination of different, historically separated garden space types. Nothing is more exciting than the contrast between discipline and spontaneity, or order and chaos – for example, the contrast between baroque straight lines and free design. It’s not confusing. The clearly defined contours of built edges and shaped, even symmetrically arranged plants are always more concise and loftier than the semi-transparent crowns of loosely scattered birch trees. Hedge compartments on a strictly geometric plan can be freely distributed in exciting groupings. Whether loosely or formally arranged, a beautiful tension forms when you add semi-shade trees above this in a contrastingly free configuration. Two space-forming and structuring principles are spread over two “levels”. Today we often see the combination of regularly spaced grid patterns, borrowed from Renaissance gardens, that employ the symmetric ordering principle of Baroque gardens and free, imaginatively arranged, or even “wild” plant pictures. And all of this in one planting! A garden is perceived as “large” or “small” more because of its spatial layout than its actual size.
A garden is perceived as “large” or “small” more because of its spatial layout than its actual size.
GB: Could we perhaps say that the goal of a successful small garden layout should be to extend exploration time in the garden?
WB: Let’s consider a lookout tower. From here, everything is served to you at once. But there is also a lot to see. That’s not the case in a small garden. That’s why it’s crucial to portion the little you have. A chain of successive subspaces, each with different content, will create surprise and require attention. This keeps us pausing again and again and gives the impression of having seen a much larger garden. The simple “outdoor living space” becomes something (that seems) big with many “rooms”. A garden is perceived as “large” or “small” more because of its spatial layout than its actual size. Space-saving spatial boundaries, like hedges or privacy screens – either tightly curved or straight – facilitate division into sub-spaces that create experiential and living quality even in a small garden. Small gardens, especially, benefit from this approach. And finally, there is the “large diagonal” – an imaginary line across the garden. This line opens up the greatest depth of space, either through individual spaces lined up along it or via a visual axis picking up the line between freely arranged trees. This principle applies to both small and large gardens, like the one in Muskau Park. The best place to study the principles of spatial formation is in a classic landscape park. But it is often difficult to transfer these principles to the smaller scale of a garden, although it can be successfully achieved with different plants or cut plants.
GB: Do I need to be fortunate and just naturally have a good sense of proportion to design the spatial quality, or is it possible to learn this?
WB: Each one of us certainly has a sense of space that sets in and triggers a feeling of well-being or discomfort. You don’t even have to think about it. Just as those interested the culinary arts find cooking, roasting and baking ingredients important only if something tasted good. So, they’ll either come back to the restaurant or not. It’s different if you want to work in the field and create spaces that make people feel safe. Then the “how” becomes essential. Knowledge is a prerequisite, and that can be learned. What does “spatial quality” mean? It has something to do with proportions, with the relationship between wall height and enclosed ground space. Is it too narrow, too wide or just cosy? Elongated (“directed”) spaces usually have a purpose, but no quality of living. This quality improves as we approach a square plan. Free and full growing hedges can later unpleasantly restrict the space. Should there be larger openings that remove the intimacy of the room? How dense can or should the frame planting be? Dark colours and large leaves will narrow the space and vice versa. Spaces need content. Neither empty nor full spaces can offer experience quality, structure and orientation. Individual objects, such as solitary shrubs of an appropriate size or sculptures, play an essential role here and require careful selection and placement. The course of paths that connect spaces is just as important as the design of the transition from one space to another. Unfortunately, I can only give you a small glimpse of this exciting and complex topic. One thing is clear: The effective design of open spaces requires knowledge.
GB: In your opinion, after a community has determined how it would like to use a garden space, what are the most important design rules for such a space?
WB: A certain amount of helplessness could play a role. “Knowing how” also applies here. The aim is to bring the existing potential – areas, soil, vegetation, light, viewpoints, external influences and the connection to the terrace and building – in line with the desired use. Always consider the future: What could the playground for the children or grandchildren later become? Sometimes you need to accommodate special requests, such as a sunny yoga area. Of course, you can never have enough seating, all having different perspectives and light constellations. It’s worth walking around all of the garden. You’ll usually discover more potential seating areas. First, you must define fixed points, such as those with a distant view and accesses to the building and patios. The wish list might also contain a herb garden space with the required growing conditions. Whether you use a PC or paper, you can now “shift” these elements back and forth until you find the best possible positions. Proportions will soon become apparent, and you might even realise, disappointingly, that even a small sports field would cramp everything else and should preferably be left out. The resulting viable concept, discussed with all the involved parties, will make every little step of the process more effective. Now for a comforting message: If the concept is right, the work can be spread out over years. Only one thing should never be delayed. It is vital – and very manageable – to plant or build the space boundaries that are to separate the subspaces from one other. Height and opacity are the most important criteria. This will allow the spaces to grow, and they can subsequently be stocked step by step.
GB: You were just talking about the proportions that have to be right. Are there any other mistakes that can we can easily avoid?
WB: Mistakes can only exist if there is a “right” to start off with. The right thing develops from the situation created by the messages we receive. It would be at least a defect not to exhaust these messages in a consistent process because our life experience will never be thoroughly exhausted. This reminds me of Gabriel Laub’s statement, “Creativity is logic that has courage.” Those who can’t make something of a damp garden sink have not taken up the challenge. This could be due to either a lack of attention, a deficiency or perhaps a mistake. And those following after have the joy fixing this. The “real” errors include everything that destroys the aesthetic character of a plant. These can include inappropriate, competing neighbouring plants and soil conditions, “maintenance” measures or unsuitable climatic conditions. Colours are high on the current list of errors. This doesn’t go with that. But everything goes if it conveys the intended message. A chic tonal planting would be wrong if you want a “chaotic” look. Additionally, deliberate dissonance is an effective means of not only creating interest but also stimulating. Have you seen it yet? Nothing is in place there! Those colours are terrible! You must have seen it! Maybe I’ll get a refund for my entrance fee. “
GB: Could I describe the space as a rhythm and the colour in the garden as a melody?
WB: It should be like that, but it doesn’t happen automatically. A long, unstructured hedge line is not only dull, but it also leaves some perspectives as well as the rhythm unused. Rhythm is an expression of pulsating life. Without it, a planting seems dead. You need protrusions and indentations to create depth and set the rhythm for the melody of colours that will fill the space and become particularly effective when set against monochrome boundaries, such as walls or uniform hedges. And then there’s another thing. Colour is not an ingredient in the space. Colour and space are inseparable. Spaces are only perceptible in light, and the light reveals colours, or at least the shadows. The colour design is therefore not only crucial for the bed plantings but even more for the space boundaries. The use of luminous and warm or subdued, “slower”, colours in the foreground and background significantly determines the space, especially its apparent extent. Colour creates moods and supports functions in the space. Walter Gropius produced chapters of different coloured inner spaces. Gardens rarely display this effect. When it comes to maintaining certain colour impressions over a more extended period, it is much more difficult with plants available to us than with tubes of paint. After all, the garden enthusiast Monet tried to show us this with his paintbox flower beds. Good planting design brings out the aesthetic potential of an individual plant – usually in the context of plant composition.
First of all, the basic principle is that good planting design brings out the aesthetic potential of individual plants – usually in the context of plant composition.
GB: How does the choice of plants determine our judgment about the aesthetic quality of a garden?
WB: Where should I start? Let me think. First of all, the basic principle is that good planting design brings out the aesthetic potential of individual plants – usually in the context of plant composition. That is not easily achieved, because “the exterior of a plant is only half the truth”, as Goethe said (and he probably didn’t have only plants in mind). A plant’s flowers don’t reveal anything about the adaptability of the species and its varieties, or desirable or undesirable propagation strategies – aspects that could cause a planting to fail. Only plant knowledge, trials and experience will help. All in all, it’s about application expertise. A planting should open up to the viewer. Otherwise they’ll feel neither satisfied nor enriched. Fine artists don’t care about this, but we work for people who trust us and to whom we feel committed. Why do some plantings appeal to us, and others not? We can determine this with test parameters. If ranking order or varied repetitions and rhythm are present, or if the effectiveness increases through contrasts, a planting can be set up very well even without conspicuous use of colour. We’ve been yearning for patterns since time immemorial. The “discovery experience” is also essential. If a yellowish-green lady’s mantle continues upwards into a yellow-leafed hop, contrasting with a pale blue painted trellis, it creates not only a particular effect but also a visible intention. Discovering these can trigger a feeling of joy.
GB: How do you practically approach planting design? Is there anything fundamental that one should apply?
WB: A convincing design does not start with your favourite plant. The function, message and desired plant pattern form the starting point. This is followed by initial sketches of ideas that also include what is available on the site, such as the colour of a building or an existing tree. The search for the plants that can suitably convey our message starts off with the formulation of selection criteria, drawn from what we want to achieve with the planting. We are all familiar with selection criteria. We even formulate these in our family when we buy a house or a washing machine. When choosing a partner, our list of essential criteria is particularly long. Only when it comes to our use of plants, we seem to buy the ones that we’ve always bought. This behaviour is not only incomprehensible but also shows no respect for the clients or the future design potential of the location. Mind mapping is an excellent idea-generating tool. You could go around in circles for several days, but then you’d finally know why a particular tree needs to be in a precise location. No client will be able to avoid arguments like these!
GB: This sounds like an intensive examination of the genius loci. But also a bit like hard work. Shouldn’t the garden be mainly a place to enjoy? After all, we’re always looking for a “low-maintenance bed.”
WB: In fact, the “low maintenance garden” topic comes up far too often, and sadly it quite often ends up in the form of a gravel garden, which in the long run turns out to be high maintenance instead. (The successful design of a captivating gravel garden – of which there are only a few – would be too demanding for most, anyway). The widespread disregard for gardens shows that most individuals prefer to spend their time and effort on other things. Attentive and creative devotion to our gardens and plants gives us something in return – such as experiences, insights, calm and balance. This must first be learned or experienced. Garden owners, who become educated through guidance, could provide better input during garden consultations, generate more orders and help raise the level of gardens because they will no longer be satisfied with what they have. Of course, a garden also implies enjoyment. Enjoyment can range from a mood, through experiencing nature to eating the fruit produced in your garden. But enjoyment also has to be learned. Every cook, sommelier and erotic consultant can explain that to you. If you’ve learnt to distinguish between timber joints – even if only through a “journey of discovery” – you’ll have much more fun viewing a beautiful half-built timber house. Why shouldn’t the same be valid for a garden? There are many accessible gardening coffee table books and magazines that put a lot of work into the colours in their photos. I believe the garden especially is a place of vision. To make it a reality requires purposeful and sometimes strenuous action. It requires knowledge. But it’s not difficult to learn if your curiosity draws you.
GB: Joachim Hegmann quoted your statement that the dot on the “i” of any design comes down to a provocation. What lies behind this phrase and what could act as a provocation?
WB: It’s great that Mr Hegmann can remember that. As a teacher, it is gratifying when seminar participants (as he was) take suggestions to heart and enthusiastically and independently implement them with great success. I was fascinated by his change from chemist to landscape designer. However, only he knows the secret relationship between the two (although Goethe might disagree). But let’s get back to the “provocation”! In the simplest scenario, we collect our favourite plants. This is very common and doesn’t provoke at all. Then we start realising that the effect of our favourite plants will increase if we give them to suitable neighbours. Companion plants for roses are well-known examples. This “level of assignment” is more important for plant collectors than they think. And finally, we look beyond the edge of the bed to interpret existing things, ideally within the planting. For example, the border of a bed could pick up on the contour of an adjacent stair string. The result is convincing because it seems to be “cast from the same mould”. Now it’s time to think about a provoking detail. We feel some resistance when something is “marching to a different tune”. In a refreshing spring planting, would a single red tulip not clearly be a “wrong colour” just waiting to be removed? No! Its contrast calls attention to the planting by re-enforcing the underlying theme without challenging it. Adding an “incorrect” element is one way to provoke. Another technique is to omit an expected and seemingly essential element. For example, leaving out one bed in a rhythm of similarly shaped beds. One cannot provoke with something that just fits in. But it does make sense always to consider that option. What is nature? It is in us and around us, but is often reduced to flowering meadows, surrounded by floating butterflies and bees.
What is nature? It’s in us and around us, but it’s often reduced to flowering meadows, surrounded by floating butterflies and bees.
GB: I’ve often heard you refer to “aspect plantings.” I don’t fully understand what this term means?
WB: Hardly anyone could forget a meadow of flowering dandelions. All yellow. That (almost) says it all. But, let’s start at the beginning. In vegetation ecology, the concept of “aspect” applies to a period when the colours of only a few plants defined the vegetation images of the time. Apart from the flower colours, the autumn leaf shades also played a unique role, and in individual cases these were supplemented by concise shapes. Foxgloves, foxtail lilies and globe thistles are examples that come to mind. Almost no-one can escape their effect. And the design is not complicated. You only need to think about it and bring in sufficient quantities of the plants you select as “aspect-formers”. And to allow for the winter fade, alliums and bulb perennials (early spring bloomers) can be included. Every aspect-forming plant has a limited time window. Some, however, could continue – either in a similar or different colour scheme. Therefore, a sequence of aspects can be designed. For example, acanthus could replace perennial poppies.
GB: Everyone is talking about semi-natural or ‘naturalistic’ plantings. As so often, hearing about something does not imply understanding. Everyone may imagine something different. What are your thoughts on this?
WB: What is nature? It’s in us and around us, but it’s often reduced to flowering meadows, surrounded by floating butterflies and bees. On a lonely, icy mountain peak nature is very close to most of us. In horticultural practice, we often think of specific plant pictures, perceived as idyllic, and acting as counterparts to the city and its noise. Much effort is often put into creating a necessary, but mostly out of place, “biotope”. Being close to nature means not working against it, but working with it. The reward is individual plant pictures that have the added benefit of being “low maintenance”. You can even become friends with goutweed if you understand how to use it. Space for plants that fit between pavement joints, enjoyment of life between the buildings, more sensible use of demanding working hours. The advice usually comes too late – after the topsoil has been ordered and applied. And the potential of the existing soil remains unnoticed and unused. This could be correct if a high maintenance rose garden has been planned, despite the poor soil. Certainly not for “semi-natural” wild roses, because they don’t need expensive soil preparation. Closeness to nature required the appropriate use of plants. This aspect precedes the design. And the plan won’t work with plants that are not appropriate for the location. Global warming is weakening our few remaining tree species.
Global warming is weakening our few remaining tree species.
GB: Do I understand you correctly? Do you have a relativistic view on this rather radical avoidance of exotic species that is currently circulating through the naturalistic gardening circles?
WB: Plantings have to work. Otherwise, the result would be maintenance and frustration. Only plantings appropriate to the location work. Now the “location” is a complex and changing framework. We are seeing climate changes that may be affecting us more rapidly than before. This is also new for domestic plants and a challenge to which they respond in different ways. Global warming is weakening our few remaining tree species. Insects and diseases can, therefore, more easily take over. This is not only evident in the annual forest damage reports, but you can also clearly see it when you take a walk through the forest. New plant communities are even emerging. Some include species, such as the black locust, that were originally foreign, but have now naturalized. Our forests, including their herbaceous vegetation, will look different in the future. Sticking to what is already present is not sustainable if the conditions keep changing. The term “native” refers to national borders and overlooks the fact that nature acts globally.
GB: What prejudices do you see on the part of some in the naturalistic gardening scene?
WB: Indigenous plants are often portrayed as more suitable because they are more resistant than exotic plants. City trees prove that this is not the case. Foreign species are mostly better suited to the extreme urban climate, that doesn’t exist in the original landscape of indigenous (forest) trees, At the same time, there is concern that “exotic species” are displacing rare native species (like the rhododendrons in Ireland). Eradication campaigns are expensive and are mostly in vain. Under their optimal growing conditions, domestic nettles and goutweed cannot be eradicated and are usually not welcome.
Domestic vegetation is preferable wherever it can do the job.
GB: Many people seem to fear the local fauna can hardly adapt to the changing and exotic flora …
WB:100 years ago there was a heated argument as to whether the indigenous goldfinch could be ready to build its nest on the foreign Robinia (it does). Anyone who claims that foreign plants have nothing to offer domestic insects should pay closer attention. Many foreign shrubs imported into our domestic gardens enrich our “traditional costume” calendar and extend it until late summer or early autumn. The local ivy, which only blooms in October, is more of an exception. The Pagoda tree, Styphnolobium japonicum, is a midsummer Euodia (bee tree) that copes well with heat, sunlight and drought. The East Asian scented ash tree, Tetradium daniellii, only blooms from July to September and is the most excellent bee tree. Insects already start flocking to half-opened flowers. These relationships are particularly important in the urban climate, where most of the native tree partners are sick. But not the indigenous field maple, in its different varieties – including spherical and columnar. This species faces a bright future as a city tree. The Barbarossa even has a red-leafed variety.
GB: The bee theme is quite emotionally loaded. As far as I know, conservationists are not concerned about the abundant honeybees, but with wild bees – many of whom are specialists and rely on select “indigenous” species to care for their brood. In this context, honeybees are more often seen as a threat than a possible back-up to wild bees. This is the regular argument in favour of “indigenous” flora. In your view, what are good reasons for using cultivated plants?
WB: The rejection of cultivated plants, including varieties of indigenous plants, also means rejecting the achievements of centuries-old gardening culture. However, you would usually prefer cox orange trees to wild apple trees. And (South American) potatoes form an integral part of our menu. It’s also the “exotic” plants that strengthen the biodiversity in urban green spaces, especially in cemeteries and parks. This is more evident in cities than in the intensive agricultural regions. As is so often the case, it’s all about balance. Domestic vegetation is preferable wherever it can do the job. Extreme locations require a more extensive range of species to spread the risk of failure and ensure sustainability. Also, a research report recently published in “Nature Conservation and Landscape Management” showed that indigenous and foreign city trees hosted the same insects. It’s all about the right mixture! Strictly concentrating on local flora hardly reflects the trend towards more. We are looking for a strong impression.
GB: In the case of the apple tree, I still follow your explanation. But I’m lost me when it comes to the idea of some varieties that I associate with the term agony breeding, for example, a plant that can no longer reproduce generically because no animal knows what to do with it, or a grass that spreads if not combed, or a rose that would be bare from June onwards if no herbicide were applied. I’m an avid fan of the plants that I can find in my surrounding landscape. I know they’ll manage here. Some of them are neophytes, after all. You could also try to arrange these and experiment with them.
WB: Of course, it can also be appealing to design an exclusively “native” garden. It would be interesting to see how the specific growing conditions at the planting location strengthen or weaken the competition between different species and what the resulting shifts would be. But is the point of a garden to establish nature from what isn’t and never was “free nature”? Or should it interpret nature instead? It would, therefore, be interesting to see how an added aesthetic value could be achieved. As “aspect formers”, domestic species can also dominate the colour of the planting and create impressive plant pictures.
GB: Why is this still very rarely achieved or not at all? Do we not find it striking enough? Not spectacular enough? Are we unable to endure any unhighlighted phase? Or should this classic gardening theme belong in the realm of nature interpretation, as you just mentioned? Or is it not just pure luxury to forego a garden that was primarily designed as a living space?
WB: You might have anticipated the answer. The natural garden trend is often mentioned, but not reflected in the purchase behaviour of garden owners. Strictly concentrating on local flora hardly reflects the trend towards more. We are looking for a strong impression. People often have no time to perceive subtle beauty or “slow” colours. Both are also harder to display. After all, many gardens also have to meet specific representation requirements. It would be easier to acknowledge the beauty of an indigenous burdock or wild teasel if we were dealing with American prairie perennials. Instead, we could rather use the magnolia with giant flowers (“Meganolia”). Our fascination with ornamental trees from other parts of the world is, of course, justified, because our natural selection here is quite small. Pre-ice-age biodiversity was largely wiped out by the Alps, lying crosswise in the South, and the glaciers that were approaching from the north during the ice age. Therefore, there was a lot of interest in shrubs from the eastern parts of North America and flora from East Asia, as both these regions have a similar climate. The many new species that are evergreen, late-blooming, blue flowering (or bearing blue fruit), red blooming, autumn-red coloured, site-tolerant and insect-friendly have greatly enriched us. And curiosity continues to determine the gardening market. Only the experienced know that some “novelties” are, in fact, well-tried varieties in new packaging, that is, with a new name. For example, an Amelanchier with its edible fruit became a “Juneberry” and the old ball hydrangea, ‘Bouquet Rose’ (1907), that blooms from June to September, got a new lease of life in the ‘Endless Summer’ family. This was recently discovered and reported by Oliver Kipp. Crises are not only employed positively in politics.
Crises are not only employed positively in politics.
GB: That’s so interesting. I didn’t know the ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea was a re-issue. But I would like to ask you something again. When you spoke of the garden as a place where nature could be interpreted, we could probably describe this as an artistic approach to gardening. Yet, many public garden areas, in particular, had to be used for growing vegetables instead during the war. Now everyone is talking about global warming, shrinking habitats, and species and insect extinction. How volatile do you think the situation is? The media is causing a lot of panic these days. Considering all your years of experience and scientific expertise, do you think that in this current situation we can afford to disregard a garden that primarily functions as a living space, or an ark, or a stepping-stone biotope?
WB: The fence formed the garden (old High German Garto, Middle High German Garte: umgerten, umfassen[comprise]). The first gardens were kitchen gardens, and the fruit needed to be protected from wild animals. Today the focus is on ownership titles and neighbouring rights with their legal relevance. If you intend to leave your garden over to nature, you no longer require a fence. (Be careful, though. Your vigilant neighbour could demand that you trim your neglected hedge). I don’t think something like this is particularly ambitious. No fallow land that could be improved by targeted sowing, or made more interesting for people on their walks, and better for bees, butterflies and birds. Everywhere, people intervene in the landscape and then have to take responsibility for it. The greatest biodiversity and quality of experience can be found in the varied cultural landscape, not on the agricultural steppe or in the jungle. Many of our “nature reserves” protect cultural landscapes. Extensive maintenance measures preserve valuable and impressive orchid-rich semi-arid grasslands, orchards and heathlands – all originally man-made habitats. Letting go is not enough. Even a forest that has to provide economically indispensable wood (where the CO2 is permanently bound in our furniture) cannot do this without human intervention, given the unusual climate conditions. On the other hand, if you feel committed to garden art, because you find personal fulfilment and joy in it, and you also like to share this with others, you have a different, more far-reaching demand, because the garden reflects the world. And who wouldn’t see that as a form of enrichment? The variety of plants we use in our design ideas also draw more and more insects. What we see in gardens – apart from the colours, ornamental foliage, unique shapes and sculptures – is mass visits of bees and bumblebees to calamint, wild marjoram or autumn asters, and moths and butterflies floating around butterfly bushes. I don’t know of any landscape gardener who wouldn’t want to include “insect magnets” such as these in their designs. Perhaps we need to reproach them for doing this out of a selfish lust for experience quality. Do they lack a sense of seriousness or ecological mission? Certainly not, because the result does count. And these results usually include habitats, greenhouses and stepping-stone biotopes – just because of the biodiversity and stratification that the gardens of these enthusiasts have. What garden lover would still have space left over for a lawn and “dead” slabs? Lifeless gardens abound in our housing estates. But, who wanted to demand their “revival”? You are right in saying that climate change and the exploitation of our natural foundations of life fuel fear and hysteria. What is still allowed? Who is not in favour of it? Casting blame, cursing and marginalization have political implications and harm our democracy. Crises are not only employed positively in politics. It’s better to see this as a challenge and an opportunity that can release positive energy and ultimately provide solutions. Fear is a lousy advocate because it paralyzes and disables. We can only solve problems by starting to act. All the things we do to put on a green coat to be politically correct are neither necessary nor solution-oriented.
GB: What does this mean in a very practical way?
WB: What lies at our feet could also be a meadow. Targeted replanting with a few, sufficiently competitive species leads to colourful aspects. Inlaid turf patterns reduce regular cutting to the lawn areas. In between, exciting contrasts develop: Smooth lawn with “clear edges” set against “rough” meadow; The monochrome green of the grass against a variety of colours; Tenacious lawn versus a windy meadow. In this respect, one of the most gratifying tasks is working in a “mature” garden with existing trees. It does start with some well-considered clearing out (yes, we have Pückler’s corrective “golden axe”, that often triggers resistance) followed by the appropriate and value-enhancing planting of suitable species. The wooded frame is already there and doesn’t need to grow tall over time.
GB: So, contemporary gardening comes from a certain attitude …
WB: Everything implies a careful look at what nature puts at our feet. Then it’s a matter of recognizing the essentials, clearing out the non-essentials and increasing what remains. If you want to see nuts looking splendid and tasting good in a nut cake, you must first shell them. I agree with Lyonel Feininger, who said, “What you see has to be transformed and crystallized internally.” And what about “black box gardening” from a packet of seeds? What happens? How should we cope with that? At least now, it should start becoming clear that without knowledge about the plants, their shape qualities and their propagation strategies, it will be challenging to do the right thing. If the maintenance is low, we need even more care competence. We need smart gardening that engages in a dialogue with the seasonal and lifelong changes of a plant. Thoughtful and attentive observation and the consequent gentle (or protective) intervention has replaced the extermination campaigns of earlier gardeners.
GB: Professor Borchardt, this conversation was very enriching. Thank you so much for your time!
If YOU like my work and would LIKE to read more of my content, you can HELP by subscribing to my newsletter, posting links to my site or sharing my posts.
This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)