“Only those who expect something next year will plant an onion this year.”

On a bitterly cold day in the middle of December, I met up with Hans von Trotha for a photo session in front of the RIAS Funkhaus in Berlin. A while ago we had started corresponding about the gardens of the future.


A longing had subtly been growing in me – to do an interview which would provide a wild ride into the future by looking at the history of garden art. And I was wondering who would be the ideal person to interview. Then I heard a podcast on garden art by the publicist, Hans von Trotha. Just perfect!! Von Trotha wrote his doctoral thesis on landscape gardens and has also written some classic works on the gardens of the different eras. He is knowledgeable about the world’s current gardens as well as those of the various previous periods, so I felt he would be able to answer the questions that had been brooding in me. My wish was granted! He agreed to an interview.

Read: 20 minutes

Interview: Hans von Trotha, Anke Schmitz * Text editing: Hans von Trotha, Anke Schmitz * Photos: Anke Schmitz * Translation: Gisela Lindeque

GB: Mr. von Trotha, thank you for making time for me. What do you find appealing about gardens?

HvT: What draws me to gardens is their sensuality as a medium. It is the only form of art that engages all the senses. Complex content and connections are conveyed by stimulating and overpowering the senses. I find this effect intoxicating when it is well done, also because it’s very unpredictable, unlike with other art. If you indeed consider the garden as an art form, it is the most accessible medium among those able to convey complex content.

GB: You studied German, history and philosophy. How did you come across the topic of gardens during your studies?

HvT: I was interested in the drastic paradigm shift in European aesthetics at the beginning of the 18th century – from the popular rational style to a new aesthetics that achieved a more psychological impact. I noticed that the change from formal to landscape gardens had played a significant role. And then I lost myself in this topic.

A garden is not nature. It is art that makes use of nature, or the world itself, as a material.

GB: In one way or another this era alone would already provide sufficient content to specialise on.  What inspired you to focus on the future, as you do, for example, in your podcasts on Deutschlandfunk?

HvT: The deeper I got into it, the more I began to see gardens not as individual works of art, but rather as a form of expression, or a medium – in the same way that writing (books) and film are mediums that carry content that we can understand, read and interpret. And if you look at it from this perspective, every garden becomes a potential object you can “read” and interpret. I did, after all, study philology!

GB: What is your definition of a garden, when you consider the gardening cultures of the past centuries?

HvT: A garden is not nature. It is art that makes use of nature, or the world itself, as a material. The only thing that all gardens throughout history have had in common is their boundaries, that which separated them from their environment – which was mostly nature, but from the late 19th century tended to be the city.  The border therefore has always defined the garden – from Paradise to the gardens of Pückler and Lenné, and even in the garden movements of the 20th century. In our days, borders are starting to dissolve as we increasingly consider the garden as a concept and a medium. I find this incredibly exciting. However, the question of what all gardens have in common now becomes more challenging. Of course, there is the common aspect of longing or the paradox of a realised dream – the real utopia.

GB: In 2004, the Royal Horticultural Society facilitated a panel discussion on “Are Gardens Art?” In your view, what exactly makes a garden a work of art?

HvT: As I’ve said before, to think of gardens as sophisticated adjustments of nature is a misconception – although this might have been the general perspective of many garden designers, even of entire historical periods. Because of their proximity to nature, gardens are extremely complex works of art. There is also no other medium that expresses the relationship an epoch or a culture has with nature as directly as gardens do. I love what Rudolf Borchardt said: “What people share with nature, what they demand of it and transmit to it, what they desire and reject, all of this may be expressed in songs and poems, or music and philosophy, or myths and religion. But in the visible world, it must sooner or later become a garden.” This conveyance of new thoughts is evident throughout garden history, and it’s what fascinates me about the medium of gardens. That’s why, over the past centuries, instead of being subtle, this medium has been a very central one. In the twentieth century, the relationship between European cultures and gardens (and nature) was mostly lost. Consequently, the content of university courses was insufficient and oversimplified and was merely available as an appendage to architecture – which was only the case in Europe in the 20th century.

There is one common theme among all garden art – infinity.

GB: What, apart from the ability to convey new ideas to all the senses, is the common thread running throughout garden history?

HvT: There is one common theme among all garden art – infinity. Depending on your preference, infinity is an attribute of either God or nature. If you consider nature and space, applicable to all gardens, you are always dealing with infinity – or with the currently prevailing concept of infinity. Our definition of infinity has often changed throughout history – for example, in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period as well as during the Enlightenment and in the Romantic period. The medieval Hortus conclusus with its impenetrable high walls represented a vertical concept of infinity. Our gaze and our thoughts should go up. God is there, and God is infinite. During the Renaissance, it became a horizontal concept – the beginning of garden art, as we know it, which expands into the space and brings nature into the garden in the form of plants. This developed even further in French Baroque gardens, that were influenced more by mathematics than by absolutism. And landscape gardens, also called English Gardens, were completely newly conceived and interpreted. It’s fascinating to observe how romanticism developed as it encountered infinity, mainly because we then had a whole new concept of infinity. And the result was the dissolution of certain garden traditions. And this is where the garden concepts of our times, the 21st century, fit in – usually not consciously, but that doesn’t matter.

GB: Wow! That’s amazing! Could you explain a bit more about this “new concept of infinity” in romanticism? And how did it affect garden traditions?

HvT:  I explored the portrayal of romanticism in the gardens of that era in one of my garden books (my most significant one, I believe). The romantic period, more than any other, relied heavily upon and tried to be close to nature. I wondered how it had happened that – precisely at that time – formal, geometric elements once again found their way into garden art and why the tradition of garden art subsequently seemed to start dissolving in many respects. There were, of course, prevailing social, philosophical and cultural reasons. But I realised it was mainly because the romantic arts claimed not to represent, simulate, imply or imitate infinity, but to truly shape it, live it, experience and endure it, and to face all the consequences.  That’s why we see so much crossing of boundaries, fragmentalism, incompleteness and synesthesia – crossing borders wherever possible or at least wherever it was worth trying it out. The ultimate consequence of this approach has always been dissipation. Precisely this is what romantic art explores, be it through painting, literature, music or even gardens that experience a dichotomy. We have extensive parks, that once again imitate infinity by changing to landscape at their edges (while conversely having already changed according to landscape garden principles). There were also the formal, entirely designed leisure grounds, forming a type of cordon sanitaire around a house to protect the residents and visitors from what could be perceived as painful and threatening influences and consequences of infinity. This was the Biedermeier crafted inside the rampant romantic-era fantasy of infinity, almost like the eye of a storm. Thus, formality returned to the medium of garden design before romantic gardens had even disappeared – in literature, music, painting and nature itself – and smaller, private, landscape-delimited sites started heralding a new garden culture.

European garden art generally tended to retreat behind garden walls….

GB: Are you alluding to the Art Nouveau gardens that appeared in Germany and England during the Arts and Crafts movement?

HvT: Well, even that style did not evolve apart from a more significant development. European garden art generally tended to retreat behind garden walls – after the European art gardens had expanded ever further into the landscape since the Middle Ages and the boundaries between them and the redesigned landscape around them had become increasingly more obscured. This was more than a rollback effect – after reaching an extreme point – it was also a response to social, political and ideological changes. My home is my castleandmy own four wallswere typical slogans justifying a retreat into the private sphere after the political restoration of the 19th century, when the era of great revolutions seemed have ended – both politically and aesthetically. And that’s precisely what happened in gardens too. Which, of course, is just one strand of history. The most diverse developments of an era always intersect in gardens. And there were added factors such as growing cities, changes in social structure and the emergence of both public gardens and many small private gardens created by homeowners.  All these influences led to the start of the European garden at the beginning of the 20th century. What then followed was a war, an interim post-war period, another war, another post-war period and then the cold war. None of these times offered suitable conditions for the development of garden art. War has always been the biggest enemy of the garden, literally destroying all of it.

GB: Will the constants you’ve mentioned also play a role in the gardens of the future?

HvT: As I previously indicated, it is currently the second time after the romantic era that garden history constants are dissolving, while at the same time gardens are being employed as a medium, as a form of expression and consequently have again become a central theme in social and aesthetical debates. However, I would describe the 20th century as the “gardenless” century, with gardens functioning much less as a socially relevant medium reflecting the relationship of people with nature and other issues than in the preceding centuries – also revealing a consistent reflection of the relationship that era had with nature. The past 20 or 30 years have shown a return to the garden – in research, teaching and journalism. This revival has also become physically evident in all the new parks, the reconstructed historic gardens, garden tours, landscaping and urban developments. I am sure that the 21st century will become a garden century again, albeit under very different, sometimes extremely sad, alarming and miserable conditions. But the confrontation with nature will lead to a new concept of the garden.

GB: Are you referring to climate change and the destruction of natural areas?

HvT: Yes, precisely. While people used to take refuge from nature in gardens, we now need to use our gardens to protect what is still left of nature.

GB: Garden art of the past was seen mostly in the context of private and sacral gardens. In what environment do you see current garden art implemented? And where do you think we’ll see it in the future?

HvT: A whole new concept of gardens has developed in what we know as urban gardening and its many sub-forms like guerilla gardening and the garden-to-go movement. This entirely new concept that took form in the cities will one day be recorded as early 20th century not only in garden history but also in cultural and media history.  Some movements use elements, forms, themes and materials of garden art to express the basic needs of a young generation in a concrete and direct manner. And in the process, boundaries are permanently overcome. Gardens are created without being attached to property or ownership. They are not confined by the gradually dissolving boundaries between art, urban planning, nutrition, political participation and normal quality of life. Gardens no longer necessarily relate to longstanding traditions and aren’t always permanent. A contemporary relationship with nature is starting to express itself after the excessive destruction of nature of the 20th century. And the garden medium is being reactivated under completely new conditions.

GB: At the start of our interview, you mentioned that you love the sensory quality of gardens. Do you believe urban gardens have this quality too?

HvT: Yes, of course. A sensory appeal is just as much the overriding effect in urban gardens.  However, I find some urban gardening projects lack the conscious sensory rhetoric inherent in all portrayals of life stories. We will probably see a lot of development in the future.

Regarding horticultural forms, I can’t say where this will lead to in the future. But I feel excited and very curious.

GB: Urban gardening often focuses on food production, although the aesthetic value and the preservation of nature or natural vegetation was initially also valued. One example I can think of is Adam Purple’s “Garden of Eden” in New York. In the case of crop gardening, the ideal theme of protecting nature that you mentioned earlier, seems to fall flat. How would you describe the contemporary relationship with nature? What is the philosophy behind it?

HvT: You have asked several different questions. Firstly, the production of food, the sustainable preservation of our livelihood and a billable change –  which have revolutionised urban development – are all reflected in urban gardening. These are central elements of a contemporary relationship with nature, which will go down in the history of garden art as “early 20th century”. Regarding horticultural forms, I can’t say where this will lead to in the future. But I feel excited and very curious. And, in my opinion, this has formed a clear “horticultural thrust”. I’m eagerly watching the process and believe it will encourage sustainability.  Anyone who cares about horticultural forms, believes in a future, even one that starts out modestly. Only those who expect something next year will plant an onion this year. Regarding Adam Purple, he was an absolute pioneer of Urban Gardening with his “Garden of Eden”. The project in the middle of New York had local children helping to design a garden that was not only steeped in playful fantasy but also provided healthy food. The garden is a true paradise and probably one of today’s most successful working examples of meeting the social needs in a tense urban environment. But apart from the project itself, I love the form Adam Purple used. The garden has a clear, tight and strict geometric structure, reminiscent of early Renaissance botanical gardens and Baroque parks, but wild and colourful beds were allowed inside. And this he achieved in the mid-1970s. The design showed a lot of determined expression, concept and form, more so than we see in current urban gardens.

GB: Who develops these gardens?

HvT: The unique thing about Urban Gardening is, or at least initially used to be, that no planning staff or decision-making bodies devise or build these parks. They used to be spontaneous interventions mostly by young urbanites who were dissatisfied with the conditions around them and who no longer kept to the traditional separation of public and private space – and especially disregarded the concept of urban development – and, as I interpret it, they revolutionised the idea of gardens. In Germany, especially in Berlin, more organised forms were soon employed, while a more anarchistic, playful character has been maintained in other cities – in both Europe and the rest of the world. Urban gardening initiatives and interventions can be found in cities all around the world. It is a global phenomenon, typical of our time.

However, we must ask ourselves whether we’ll still be able to afford to draw a line between gardens and nature in the future.

GB: I would also like to touch on another stream of contemporary gardening. Today, “naturalistic plantings” are finding a modern interpretation in gardens such as those by Piet Oudolf, the most well-known figure not only in the Dutch Wave movement but also on the nature-garden scene. Triggers or impulses that led to the emergence of landscape gardens, which also intended to mimic nature, are explored in detail in literature. Could you perhaps outline the ones you consider the most important and suggest a few possible theses for this renaissance?

HvT: I believe it is a misconception to think landscape gardens employ naturalistic planting. Once again, I would like to quote Rudolf Borchardt: “Viewing order in a garden as a human, humane or moral principle always becomes counter-natural…., and expels the flowers, if they don’t obey or become humanised. The garden is anti-naturalistic, it hates and resists wild plants.” This fact has been true for a long time, in fact throughout the 19th century up to today. And it is equally true of landscape gardens, although they conceal precisely this fact. It was not until the 20th century that natural gardens, naturalistic plants and self-abandonment were absorbed into the new forms of garden design. This element, however, only functions as a garden alongside other artistic, formal elements and therefore quickly reaches its limits. However, we must ask ourselves whether we’ll still be able to afford to draw a line between gardens and nature in the future. Are we not obliged to save and protect as much of nature as possible, whether in the city, the countryside or our gardens. The gardening teacher, designer and philosopher Gilles Clément developed the idea of “planetary gardening”, based on the responsibility of gardeners not only for their garden but through and out of it for the whole world. And he asks a radical, yet valid, question. Could looking to the future perhaps be the most appropriate form of gardening?

GB: Does Clement mean that gardeners should observe and try to conserve or that they should adopt principles from nature? How can we practically understand and apply this question?

HvT: I would interpret observation as the opposite of intervention. Design is then a matter of fantasy, intellect, understanding and the idea, and no longer one of building and digging. We have seen a similar perspective before – in the Romantic period when the concept of the garden as an “artificial paradise” was particularly alive in literature, painting and music. I am becoming increasingly convinced that we have much more in common with the Romantic era than with the Enlightenment period and therefore we can learn much more from romanticism even if we don’t always want to admit it.

GB: I think you could help me with a question based on my personal background. Concerning style, art historians have placed garden art into the architecture genre. Do you think this makes sense? This is always a bit of a block in me.

HvT: In the period between the First World War and the end of the Cold War, the theme of gardens was a severely neglected facet of art history and became merely an appendix to architectural history. This neglect mirrored the relationship between the “gardenless” 20th century and gardens, one in which gardens were considered an appendage of nature – which they historically have never been and is not true of their character. In the past, extensive gardens and parks used to be in the countryside, surrounded by nature. Only after the industrial revolution did they migrate into the cities, surrounded by architecture, to which they had to respond. So, garden designers and landscape gardeners became landscape architects. In my opinion, gardening as a medium should be under the auspices of philologists, philosophers and cultural scholars.  We need to consult art historians and architects on special issues – after all, decoding the messages of gardens is not about objects, but about structures.

I’m a garden theorist, not a practitioner. I prefer to read the gardens of others.

GB: So, give me a template. What would your garden look like or what does it look like?

HvT: I’m a garden theorist, not a practitioner. I prefer to read the gardens of others. I find it stimulating and I love sharing it with others, who then also start seeing their surroundings differently and more intensely. That’s what I enjoy doing.

GB: Which parks or attractions would you say embody current gardens and could or may already cast their shadows over gardens of the future?

HvT: We are in a transitional phase. We haven’t yet fully developed an identity or a language in our gardens. In fact, we don’t even know how much we should regard “our” gardens as gardens in the traditional sense. But wherever large-scale construction takes place, the garden has become an integral part of architectural ensembles. Take, for a recent example, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens. It has a modern garden designed in full awareness of the European garden tradition, linking architecture to sea, landscape and city. Only a garden can experientially unfold such a connecting force, encompassing all the senses, all the arts and all the times. At least we have understood that again. I remain excited and anticipative..

GB: Mr. von Trotha, thank you very much for sharing your expertise.

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)