“If you’ve never experienced failure in a garden, you haven’t been brave enough.”

Grünes Blut meets garden designer Joachim Hegmann on a beautiful golden October day in Ludwigshafen am Rhein.


I met Joachim at a
Gartenpraxis seminar in Grünberg during one of the breaks. Because I already recognised his name and face from social media, he immediately seemed familiar. Only, I didn’t know what exactly it was that he did.  Joachim, however, quickly made me feel at ease and we could have a very relaxed conversation. So it was even before his lecture that I learnt more about his work as a designer and about his friendship with Harald Sauer, with whom he shared a design space at the 2015 Landesgartenschau in Landau. And Ludwigshafen is basically just around the corner. We arranged to meet again on the condition that I could interview him. Three weeks later I set off to the Ludwigshafen am Rhein cemetery and Ebertpark to visit the former chemist. Joachim Hegmann decided to make the best use of the beautiful autumn weather to show me the plantings designed by Harald Sauer – who popped his head around the corner every now and then and also joined us for lunch.

Reading time: 25 minutes

Interview: Joachim Hegmann, Anke Schmitz Text editing: Anke Schmitz Photos Joachim Hegmann: Anke Schmitz Photo gallery: Joachim Hegmann Translation: Gisela Lindeque

GB: Joachim, in your case the first question is probably an obvious one. What do you think chemistry and garden design have in common?

JH: I’ve been a chemist, and even perhaps an alchemist, practically most of my life. It’s like having a large cauldron into which you keep adding different chemicals and other ingredients. An alchemist would use ingredients like lime blossoms and lead and then boil and distil the mixture. What eventually emerges from this ancient type of soup – from 4 or 5 billion years ago – condensed through the alembic above the cauldron, is a tiny magical drop, the essence. For me, that describes the skill involved in both areas. To extract that drop and say, “This is the essence for our location!” In this regard, that process describes a beautiful parallel between chemistry and garden design.

GB: I had a thought recently – I don’t know if you’re very interested in music, but I somehow like to form analogies in life … If you were to associate a musical genre with prairie gardens, as I like to call contemporary designs with perennials, would you perhaps compare them to jazz pieces?

JH: Yes, that might be possible, and it’s an interesting comparison. I can’t say for sure, but there are parallels. You do get jazz compositions, but when you think about improvised jazz sessions, you often find some measure of agreement among the musicians. They might follow a theme or a rhythm that might change into a new beat, but then these sessions also involve a lot of freedom and phantasy, and in the end, some parts come together purely by chance. Whenever musicians improvise, a lot of their emotion surfaces and, ultimately, I don’t think anyone quite knows what an improvised jazz piece will develop into.

As a garden designer, you should not only understand gardens and plants, you should also be a reasonably good psychologist….

GB: So, perhaps not a comparison that you should mention to a customer

JH: (smiling) Well, I wouldn’t do something like that with every customer. When I design a garden for a client, I need to consider the dynamics, and the type of chances I can expect them to take. Will they be able to accept and live with naughty plants, that sometimes increase profusely? In that sense, I sometimes have to apply a subtle form of jazz.

GB: And what do you rely on when you’re trying to sum up a client? Perhaps the type of decor in their home? Or do you focus more on their pattern of behaviour or the way they’re dressed? What do you see as good clues?

JH: Well, I think it was Jörg Pfennigschmidt who said he always uses some excuse to get into a client’s home to see their taste in furniture. This can help you learn a lot about a person. But I don’t have to do that. It almost always happens anyway. I think it’s the feelings and emotions of people that I’m able to capture. I might intuitively feel what makes a person tick and then I’ll have a sense of what I can expect from them. As a garden designer, you should not only understand gardens and plants, you should also be a reasonably good psychologist – otherwise, it might be difficult to get clients to feel enthusiastic about what you have in mind for them. Ultimately the atmosphere and the location are classic criteria of garden design. A garden right next to BASF [a large German chemical company] will have a much different atmosphere than one surrounded by a beautiful natural landscape. And then, of course, I always consider the current phase of life of my clients. Do they have 5 small children or are they 70 years old? So, there are many factors.

GB: Are you also one of those factors?

JH: Well, of course a garden is also shaped by my personal history, my plant preferences, my experiences in general and in nature, by my feelings and by the gardens I’ve seen. The exciting aspect is to choose from these many influences, there really are infinitely many, “It’s precisely this garden that is right for this house.” Sometimes it feels a bit arrogant to declare that out of those billions of solutions, this is the right one. It really is a difficult birth in the truest sense of the word. Obviously not as hard as for a woman giving birth to a child, but it is hard.

GB: Is there an ideal context for your gardens?

JH: Basically, my gardens can be anywhere. The best examples are the gardens that I designed in my old company, in the middle of an industrial landscape with many buildings that you wouldn’t necessarily describe as beautiful. Precisely this contrast, incorporated with the wild nature, makes it so charming. This is the lovely type of tension that you can create. But I am also someone who needs a lot of harmony. That’s why I love creating a garden in a beautiful landscape, as well. In France, I designed a garden that is still next to a river in the old town of Wissembourg. It includes an old fortified tower and looks out onto the forest. There are gentle hills right next to it, and groves and beautiful houses around the garden. The surrounding landscape gives it incredible potential.  That’s a real gift. So, the environment doesn’t always have to be ugly.

Order does not always demand that everything should be neat and clean.

GB: I’m from the Ruhr region. Given this fact, ugliness is subjective.

JH: Well, Ludwigshafen is the Ruhr area of the Upper Rhine region.

GB: Well… yes, Ludwigshafen probably beats Dortmund anyway. But perhaps not Gelsenkirchen, well … I should rather keep quiet now.

JH: Sometimes there’s an ideal landscape anyway – beautiful buildings with their histories, and the wonderful Palatine forest plus the vineyards that I love so much because that’s where I’m from. And if all of that flows into a garden, it becomes a source of inspiration and beauty, and it’s as if you can almost just skim off some of that. This also relates to the question you asked me at the beginning, how I moved from chemistry to gardens. On the one hand, it’s because of my sentimental side, my love for nature and plants that comes from deep within my heart. And on the other hand, I’m also a scientist. This explains my curiosity, my love for experimenting and the desire to know as much as possible about nature and gardens.

GB: Could you explain what you mean?

JH: I need to know plants, I must know something about design, I also have to know something about handcraft, how to build a path. I don’t necessarily need to do it myself, but it’s important to understand how it’s done. I must know how it can be implemented by gardeners and landscapers. That’s why I read so many books. I’m a self-educated person. I never attended a university for this, but I would like to think that I’ve read at least as many books as any gardening and landscape architecture student.

GB: What are your design rules?

JH: I find the words of Wolfgang Borchardt, “Design means order”, very significant.  At first, I didn’t realise that almost everything I did in the garden could be seen as a form of order. Order does not always demand that everything should be neat and clean. Another ordering principle is, of course, leaving something over to a random principle or a larger dynamic. Of course, this could also mean that there is some aspect of geometry involved. Order has many facets. That’s what I find so exciting. You can learn in a book how to compose something. There are only a few good books on garden design. In fact, Wolfgang Borchardt – who I really, really respect – wrote two or three excellent ones. He deals scientifically with the description of design and with conveying design in a teaching environment. This approach helped me tremendously. You could call this the intellectual part. Then the other level, the one that develops from vast experience and intuition, also flows in.

….trial and error.  That’s always a good school.

GB: And did you also get a few handles or tips from garden experts, or could you deduce everything from your books?

JH: A large part of my knowledge comes from books and, I must say, from trial and error.  That’s always a good school.

GB: A brilliant heading.

JH: I think so too – it’s a good phrase. If you’ve never experienced failure in a garden, you haven’t been brave enough. If you’ve never lost a plant, or never laid out a garden which in the end turned out awful, you’ve probably simply not yet been brave enough. Failure is always part of the journey, even in science. When I still worked as a chemist, I realised that no experiment always succeeds. Because the nature of experimenting is to try something and if you don’t get the desired result, it doesn’t mean you failed. It means you learnt something.

GB: So basically, it’s a verification process.

JH: Exactly. You know the famous example of the invention of penicillin. It was primarily an impurity or a failure, but then an incredible substance was derived from that failure. That’s why you have to do this. To fail. And then you need to convert your mistakes into knowledge or insight.

GB: Germans are supposedly not so good at doing this, right?

JH: Yes, as Germans we’re so terribly error-intolerant. Mistakes are considered awful. Even as a personal defeat, which is not at all true.

GB: Are there three or four terms or characteristics you would use to describe yourself?

JH: Creative, definitely! How should I put this? I don’t merely want to show the positive aspects. Sometimes I find it hard to move from my creative mode to practical implementation. When I was still working as a chemist, I had a wonderful colleague who was brilliant at practically implementing everything. I was the creative one – so we were an ideal team. And it worked wonderfully. And now I’m fortunate enough to know people, like landscape gardeners, who can practically apply my creativity. I have an extensive network, but sometimes I have to implement my own projects, which can often become a grind. It’s what I described as a painful birth, but it works. I can empathise well with others, I think, which is essential in every situation. Sometimes I get annoyed when things don’t go my way when I want to go in one direction, and that direction won’t work because someone else doesn’t want to go there. It’s difficult for me to accept that. So those are my characteristics.

GB: And by practical implementation do you mean laying out the plants or deciding on which plants to ultimately use?

JH: No, basically it’s more the practical stuff. Things like choosing the paving, organising the right gardener and landscaper, organising things such as work processes… I can, and will, do these things. I did a lot of project work when I was a chemist, and being forced to deal with so many different people back then has turned out to be a huge benefit in my current work.

I still have images of meadows, stemming from my childhood, in my head – or perhaps I should say in my heart or in my soul. 

GB: How would you describe your style and what has contributed to it?

JH: As Harald told you during our lunch, I am probably a meadow person. I still have images of meadows, stemming from my childhood, in my head – or perhaps I should say in my heart or in my soul. Although they’re not conscious memories, these pictures are just as much part of me as some landscapes are, and they have shaped me. Pictures of meadow always include a fair amount of disorder, wildness and chance, and they also include some detail of the plants themselves – for example, the Umbelliferae. Meadow plants typically include flowers that are small or inconspicuous and natural. In the end, a very natural picture, which of course I don’t always use in its purest form. Now it’s all about the contrasts, where formal frames like hedges, a particularly eye-catching tree, a wall or other formal elements such as paths are quite important. People also long for some aspects of order in a garden, so it’s essential to think about those aspects too. But, as I said, let’s get back to meadows. You can see in my behaviour, in the way I express myself, that I’m a bit wild and I like coincidences, even in my language. Well, sometimes I get a bit side-tracked.

GB: Shall we call it meditation?

JH: Yeah, that’s the way I flow. And, of course, some crazy stories add to the natural meadow pictures. Try to imagine, for example, a meadow growing on the outskirts of Offenbach, and then add in some torch lilies. I love that type of picture.

GB: In other words, do you try to exaggerate to increase the effect?

JH: That’s right, but not to increase the effect. I do it because I love the resulting picture. Sometimes it’s also an experiment, a desire for something crazy, for colour, for the orange of torch lilies or for something completely foreign. I want to surprise myself and others. There’s nothing more boring than pictures that have become too familiar because you’ve seen them over and over. Gardens that have always been there. I think having constant surprises and incorporating possibly provocative new things is incredible. By the way, there’s another phrase of Wolfgang Borchardt I really treasure, … uhm, how did he express himself? … ‘at the end of the day provocation is the dot on the ‘i’ of a design.’ A design can still be well balanced with contrasts, harmony, etc. Finally, you also need a drop of provocation. That creates the ultimate effect in a design. You shouldn’t overdo it. Only a small dose, like adding a pinch of spice to food, perhaps something hot or a bit of cardamom. Just a little something, that makes everyone wonder, “Wow! What’s that?”.

GB: Sort of like a bit of zest?

Maybe a bit more than zest. Provocation also challenges you and causes contradictions. Of course, it shouldn’t be too much, resulting in “That doesn’t fit in all!” But perhaps a few reactions like “That doesn’t fit in!” “Why is this yellow flower in here?” I want to hear that.

GB: What would you describe as the emphases of, for example, your good friend and companion in the gardening world Harald Sauer? If you were to stop and ask, “Who planted this?”, how would you know it was Harald?

I have a garden on sandy soil, and at some point, I grew tired of nursing my Larkspur back to life.

JH: Firstly, many designers simply have their favourite plants. I would call these signature plants. For example, Petra Pelz prefers the Kalimeris incisa madiva, and before Piet Oudolf started re-using astilbes, they were almost pronounced dead. Now they’ve been experiencing a renaissance for some time. Harald I would now recognise by the presence of Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis, which is Chinese liquorice, and definitely by grasses, grasses and more grasses and by plants that are boldly expressive and have a very unique structure and then also by certain combinations he uses. I can’t describe it. I just feel it, or I see it. I mean, I also know Harald quite well. I think you could wake me up at 3 am, and I would still be able to recognise Harald’s work.

GB: You’ve already spoken about the many books you’ve worked through. Which ones have had a lasting effect on you or would you describe as having enabled you to implement your potential practically?

JH: Well, one book that really influenced me was “The Dry Garden” by Beth Chatto. That was a quantum leap for me. I’m a huge fan of drought-resistant or steppe plantations. I have a garden on sandy soil, and at some point, I grew tired of nursing my Larkspur back to life. When I discovered this book, all of it was a revelation to me. The way plants were used, the type of plants she used, and her insistence that a beautiful garden could be established and maintained in miserable, gravelly soil. And the garden needed no watering and no excessive maintenance. My beds might not always have this elegant English look, but the book was one of my great discoveries. In the area of design, I discovered Wolfgang Borchert. I really devoured the few books he wrote, because no other literature has the same scientific approach to garden design. And then, of course, THE book by Hansen and Stahl, Die Stauden und ihre Lebensbereiche [Perennials and their habitats]. That was another great discovery. I didn’t know about this book and discovered it purely by chance. Well, I found that to be my technical foundation. And then, of course, Piet Oudolf’s achievements were such an inspiration. After discovering Oudolf, I started reading every book he wrote, especially his more recent manuals wherein he presents his garden projects. For example, Landscape in Landscape. From small gardens to gardens comprising several hectares, including the famous High Line. Projects like these have certainly influenced me.

GB: And if we then move from books to gardens?

JH: Of course I have to mention Hermannshof in Weinheim, which is just around the corner from us. It was a major discovery for me when I first visited it in 2005. I think it was in April or May. The tulips and daffodils were obviously blooming then. At first, it was the riot of colours that grabbed me. But at the time I didn’t yet grasp the full potential of Hermannshof. I sort of filed it away and was only reminded of it again in 2007, when I designed the first gardens for my chemical company. Only then did I really see how much more, besides the tulips, Hermannshof had to offer. I was inspired by the naturalistic plantings. One of my favourite plantings is called Salbei-Schafgarbe-Beet [sage yarrow bed], a completely drought-tolerant planting. It’s a steppe planting that looks wonderful in every season. Ultimately, that was my foundation. My second discovery, after Hermannshof, was Staudengärtnerei Kirschenlohr  [a perennial nursery] in Speyer. It was enlightenment. Their diverse plant selection blew me away, and then primarily formed my colour palette. I knew there were, figuratively speaking, red, yellow, and green plants. For example, day-lilies and bearded irises. But that each of them had hundreds or thousands of varieties, and dozens of different species, that was new to me. So essentially Hermannshof gave me some design tools or an idea of what I wanted to do, and the Kirschenlohr nursery had the plant palette I needed. Piet Oudolf created some of his pallets with the help of his own nursery. I didn’t have that, but then I started designing one garden after the other because after each project and every individual garden I just fell more in love with doing this. The better it worked, the more gardens came my way.

GB: When we first met, we talked about how you often used to travel through forests as a boy and how you already had a passion for plants at a young age. How did the bug bite you again later? Or what made you decide “This is what I want to pour my life into?”

JH: I always experimented, very modestly, in my own little garden. I tried out plants that came from their natural environment or that I discovered by chance in some nursery.  For decades, I knew there were Hemerocallis, but as I said before it was only much later that I learnt about the 10 000 different varieties.

And suddenly a landscape that you’ve dreamed about for ages opens up to you. It’s blissful. And that’s what happened to me.

GB: Wow! It must have been a crazy experience when this cosmos suddenly opened up to you. How did you experience this process?

JH: It’s like sitting in a bare room and then discovering a door. And suddenly a landscape that you’ve dreamed about for ages opens up to you. It’s blissful. And that’s what happened to me. I was sitting in my little garden, and I thought there must be more than the few plants I know, and there must be more than what I’ve experimented with so far. I had these landscapes and gardens in my head and in my heart. And later it literally exploded inside me! Then I travelled to England and went to Holland just to look at other gardens. I joined the Gesellschaft der Staudenfreunde [friends of perennials society] and met many, many garden lovers – people just like you and like Harald. Ultimately this was a quantum leap for me, to meet and become friends with such a gifted, creative and sensitive designer.  And brave too, I must say. We have a mutual love for experimenting. In my case, it probably comes from chemistry; in his case from wherever. So, it’s almost like a function that keeps making everything faster and increasing our eagerness.

GB: Thank you so much for the interview, Joachim, and for the wonderful day. Ludwigshafen is beautiful.



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