In filthy weather I set off for the Ruhr area to meet garden therapist Andreas Niepel in Hattingen for a photo session.
What follows is a really cool insight into the broad field of garden therapy, which goes far beyond the diagnosis of a disease. It’s basically about why we plant gardens and why we need them. Thanks for that, Andreas! A true head opener …
Reading time: 30 minutes
Interview: Andreas Niepel, Anke Schmitz ∗ Text editing: Andreas Niepel ∗ Anke Schmitz ∗ Photos: Anke Schmitz ∗ Translation (except Intro): Gisela Lideque
GB: Andreas, I’ll come straight to the point What is horticultural therapy?
Ha! I’ll use this opportunity right at the start to give you my well-rehearsed definition. Horticultural therapy “employs gardening and plant-based activities and experiences to support interaction between humans and the environment. The aim is to promote quality of life and maintain or restore functional health”. We have been working on this definition for a long time in the IGGT (international horticultural therapy company)! It sounds a bit dry now, but fundamentally you can see it’s always about healthy interaction between people and nature.
GB How and when did this form of therapy originate?
Well, it originated in the psychiatric reform movement. It was conceived almost 200 years ago in many parts of the world. The Anglo-Saxon countries, particularly the USA, played a unique role in the subsequent development. The original forms of horticultural therapy were strongly employment-oriented and therefore closely linked to occupational therapy. Even then contact with nature and creation was also described as an element conducive to healing or recovery. Horticultural therapy changed along with the changing living conditions of the target group. By that, I mean the increasingly nature-deprived way of life of humans. Therefore, many therapists, carers and educators who also feel these effects are cooperating to reinvent this form of therapy. In retrospect, you could say that the focus is currently shifting from active engagement to pure contact with creation or nature.
GB: If I understand you correctly, this terminology “nature-deprived” probably doesn’t apply to patients only, does it?
For us, as horticultural therapists, our immediate and primary focus is on our patients and clients. But you are right, we are dealing with development in our overall society. And it’s not without reason that many private garden owners describe their gardens as being “like therapy”, even if this is an awkward expression. But if we widen the circle from therapy to health promotion, a correspondingly larger target group could benefit from the positive potential.
GB: Let’s get back to the development of horticultural therapy in recent years. You mentioned a reinvention. How is it changing?
When we stop seeing nature deprivation as merely something unpleasant or unhealthy and acknowledge it as a direct cause of disorders, horticultural therapy will become a basal necessity and not just a bit of icing on top of the overall therapy concept. Also, we no longer see a person merely as a biologically physical, psychological and social being, with associated diseases and the corresponding need for physiotherapy or psychological and social therapy. We also observe a sensitive being, connected with nature and, therefore, susceptible to corresponding ecological disorders. This is why we should acknowledge that there is a need for ecological therapy too. There is a whole range of effective ecological therapies that are currently available: animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy, and so on, which we often call GREEN CARE. Horticultural therapy, as well as the importance of gardens, are becoming emancipated concepts and being repositioned to fill a unique role.
GB: This reminds me of the philosophical view that we, as humans, are simultaneously part of nature and of everything that is not part of nature. Are we then seen purely as part of nature through the lenses of horticultural therapy?
I think we can agree that humans are, of course, natural beings. But people have also become cultural entities. This process is not very different from the developmental process experienced by every person. All human babies basically experience every perception directly and feel much more central in their world. They need to learn, for example, that the peculiar feeling of weight on their arms and the sensation of temperature on their own skin comes from something outside of themselves. They learn that they exist, which ultimately means they are “exposed”. This personal development process is reflected in the broader cultural development process, where natural humans experience themselves firstly as a component of nature and subsequently also as exposed to nature. We know from developmental psychology that the individual uses transitional objects in this process of separation. If we assume for a moment that gardens, while seeming to be nature-cultural hermaphrodites, play an appropriately important part in humanity’s role as an object, this might explain why gardens are so important in our cultural development process.
GB: What exactly is the garden from the perspective of horticultural therapy?
Well, firstly let me briefly depart from this rather theoretical view of the garden. Because the garden works on three different fundamental levels. First of all, it’s a therapy room, which admittedly sounds horribly functional. It is a place that — insofar as it was designed to align with the concept of therapy — is very well suited to carry out a wide variety of treatments. So, in the best sense of the word, it’s a kitchen garden. But gardens also serve as therapy toolboxes. The plants are the first essential tool for a horticultural therapist. Depending on what I wanted to do with a patient or client, I would select fruits, flowers or leaves, but also other materials such as earth or stones. Lastly, this toolbox also contains various specific movements or actions, such as sowing or harvesting. Americans would describe these actions as “doing in the garden”. Thirdly, the garden itself can be the therapy medium. As I just mentioned, it has its unique effect on whoever moves around in it. So, it is also about “being in the garden”. We all know that a space can impact any experience. If you can’t relate to that directly, you may like to think of a so-called “place of fear” as a mental game. A dark underpass or a parking garage with harsh echoes and confusing corners… And you could observe your physical reaction to these thoughts. Naturally, effects such as these also apply in our comfort zones. Therefore, it is crucial to use gardens to create a form of “healthy place”. For the first two levels, it’s essential to deal intensively with diseases, disorders and the various therapeutic approaches. In contrast, the third level requires a thorough dealing with people, their relationship with nature, plants and gardens, and the subsequent emergence and development of health. The gardener becomes a gardener of humans.
GB: What aspects resulting in human wellbeing can be addressed by horticulture?
Well, the question is, what are the conditions that could ensure a visible increase in wellbeing or could allow the so-called human gardener to grow not only plants but human health? Of course, I could just cite the prayer-like mantra of “green does good”, but that won’t bring you far in the world of therapy and health promotion. If, however, you look at the various available approaches, theories and studies, you can group these results into seven terms described by the German mnemonic “POSITIV”. This word POSITIV denotes the following: Positive Emotionen — The importance of experiencing positive emotions, for example through enjoyment or reward, Ökologische Einbindung — To retain an ecological involvement of humans, whereby we are somehow in the “green does good” zone. Soziale Integration — Social integration is important. Identität — Seeing our identity and self-worth in a positive context. Tonusregulierung — Tone regulation, i.e. the relationship between movement and relaxation, Intention — Intention that will drive the different topics and the search for meaning — one of the most critical points. Verstehbarkeit — comprehensibility. In line with these well-documented approaches, I even developed my own form of therapy together with a colleague, the so-called POSITIV basic therapy. In this context, the garden is an almost indispensable therapeutic place and medium.
There is well over a hundred tons of plant matter per person. That is the nature in which we originated, of which we are part and in which we have developed.
GB: How do these POSITIV aspects affect the design of a garden space?
Let’s just take the last letter “V”, which is translated as comprehensibility. Psychologists also speak of comprehension or control and know that if this basic need were threatened, we would suffer real harm, perhaps even resulting in atrophy caused in some areas of the brain. Many diseases, such as psychosis or dementia, have already proven to do this. Thoughts like “What am I supposed to do here? What am I doing here? … but I still want to go home” plague many patients. They no longer understand the world and feel exposed to the uncontrollable and unpredictable turmoil of the environment. And let’s be honest, some treatment environments don’t exactly make us feel safe. We know from numerous studies that a loss of control experienced in this way is not only unsuitable for therapy, it also directly damages the brain and the person. And if we consider the alignment of medicine and therapy, the primary principle of “don’t cause harm” still applies. Consequently, we urgently need a corresponding therapeutic counter-intervention. If our specially designed gardens are to represent such an opposite pole, then we need to create something very clear, ensuring quick familiarity and thus security. Of course, this has many effects on, for example, the basic shape and immediately recognizable targets in the therapeutic garden, and on the use of familiar objects and plants.
GB: In this case, does it imply a definite shape of the beds and a not too exotic selection of plants?
Exactly! But you must be careful that you approach the matter with an appropriate degree of thoroughness. For example, a basic form that can achieve this is the “reclining eight.” Some of the first gardens adopted this form — especially those designed for people with dementia, who find this concept essential. But at some point, this form became something like a blueprint, and many believe therapy gardens must have this form, which is nonsense. There are many other well-suited forms. Just think of the classic axis form. It’s the same with the plants. It is not a question of memorizing positive and negative lists and then working through them. You always need to ask yourself a few clarifying questions. “How do I want to achieve this particular garden, what is the world and the situation of these special users, what should be the therapeutic approach? And which plants could be useful?” So, my hope is that our human gardeners don’t merely know a series of patterns and lists, but that they also identify with and understand the situation of their target group. And that doesn’t have to imply a total abandonment of any specific plant. No, the demand for better training for the designers doesn’t mean it’s not okay to use your own ideas. On the contrary.
GB: Speaking of assortment. What role do plants generally play?
First of all, it’s a good thing to work with plants! After all, this is a planet full of plants! For example, there’s a trillion tons of plant mass on our planet’s dry land but only two billion tons of animals. There is well over a hundred tons of plant matter per person. That is the nature in which we originated, of which we are part and in which we have developed. And then we can look at some health facilities. The obvious route would be to speak of nature deprivation or of a nature-deficit syndrome, as it would be termed in America. Incidentally, this could define our first ecological illness. So, we’re dealing firstly with quantity. Quality is an entirely different topic.
GB: If it’s a quantity problem, why is horticulture a more logical therapy solution than a natural landscape?
This brings us back to what I said before about human gardeners preferring to deal with the relationship pattern between gardens, plants, nature and people. Because in these relationship patterns, gardens are much more than miniature or replacement forms of nature. I previously spoke about the necessary transition objects and how important they are for the healthy development of human beings. Therefore, the garden appears repeatedly as a type of mediator for nature throughout the history of almost every culture. Just think of the archetype of paradise. “And the Lord God planted a garden to the east… and took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” Gardens achieve two things with nature. First of all, they sort, re-evaluate and create order in nature, thus creating a man-made, understandable form out of chaotic nature. Therefore, it’s not surprising that studies have shown that it is more beneficial to relax in a garden than in nature. Gardens make being in nature more bearable for people. Secondly, gardens give us a role to play. Here, humans are not merely passive external observers in the systemic relationship with nature, but they are actively involved. They can maintain and preserve, and ideally also directly experience the impact of their actions. They can also invest their own potential, such as harmony and balance, into this nature. In short, gardens play an intermediary role. They’re a kind of transition object of nature, and in this sense, they’re building blocks of social health. And in horticultural therapy, we try to individualize this aspect.
GB: You were talking about plant lists, which in some respects you see very critically. To what extent does plant knowledge play a role in your work? Or do you rely more on personally perceived or time-proven all-rounders?
It’s not that I see plant lists as fundamentally taboo. In the IGGT, for example, we have developed the GarThePedia (Garden Therapy Pedia). This database is an excellent tool, documenting previous horticultural therapy records. Based on past goals, you can obtain a corresponding selection of suitable plants, together with their intended use. Of course, we benefit from the many records kept by garden therapists of their previous experience. I’m merely against automatic responses like: “Give me lavender, tomatoes and this and that, a raised bed and a barefoot path and my therapy garden is ready”. Just as I don’t take a few cubic meters of gravel, pour it into a front garden, add a Misaki garden lamp and plant a maple to create a Japanese garden. Nobody does that, do they? Now, unfortunately, we do see this kind of thing too often in therapy gardens. What we undoubtedly need is a vast knowledge of plants and plenty of gardening expertise. But this needs to be combined with a therapeutic understanding and approach. Almost like a dialogue between green and white.
GB: On our train trip to Heilbronn, you said you sometimes receive enquiries from abroad — as in the case of a garden for traumatized women and children in Northern Iraq. For a project like this, you don’t merely have to familiarize yourself with a new culture and its habits, but also with a completely new range of plants. How do you go about this?
It’s true! I’m no expert in this specific case. But we also face fundamental questions such as “Can a man be an expert on a garden for women?”, “Can an adult be an expert on a garden for children?”, in fact, “Can a garden planner be an expert for the Müller family garden?” Ultimately, we always have to assume that our project partners themselves are the experts and carry the solution within them. That is why I always insist on the participation of, for example, a working group in all such planning. My contribution is to play the part of a guide. In the case of horticultural therapy projects, whether they involve training, conceptualising or garden creation, the route often centres around therapy. Firstly, all of us together do what we like to call anamnesis: what are we dealing with? What is the story? What happened? What is the current situation? What resources are available? Etc. Then it’s a matter of describing goals on that basis. What do I want, and what can I achieve? And then, as a third step, the process is planned. In other words, how and with what means do I plan to achieve it? Up to this point, we are mainly on therapeutic terrain. Only now do we start incorporating the garden and plants, namely with the thought of what structures are needed for the process we just developed. Should this garden be a field or only a small bed? Does it need free open spaces or protected spaces? In summary: Even difficult projects — and it doesn’t matter whether they concern people abroad or in absolute crisis situations — can actually be accompanied well. As long as you don’t feel like the omniscient expert, but more like a good gardener who knows the conditions necessary for the garden to thrive and who can then also create those. A therapy garden project and a horticultural therapy concept will become suitable and successful if they develop from the ideas, wishes and experiences of the partners.
Even if it’s always true that nature deprivation has negative consequences, the opposite assumption, that all contact with nature guarantees healing, does not apply equally.
GB: In what context or establishment would a therapy garden make sense?
Basically, we have already addressed two necessities. Firstly, the situations characterized by loss of control. Dementia and mental illness or trauma situations such as the experience of victims of captivity and torture are two key points here. We also touched on nature deprivation, which we encounter in confined conditions, such as in the penal system or with bedridden people. If we keep following this thread and return to the topic of the POSITIV list, we can answer your question by going through it point by point. For example, is the need for social integration limited by the illness or treatment situation and can the garden be used sensibly here? What about self-esteem, sense of meaning, exercise and relaxation? And this applies very well to the fundamental conclusion — the need to experience positive emotions — especially in the case of a disease. Why is this? Let me take a little step back. When asked what the most outstanding quality of a gardener should be, I like to say it’s the ability to create the conditions necessary for a plant to grow. After that, the gardener trusts the plant’s own ability to continue doing this. And it’s not without reason that I used the word “growing” earlier in connection with people and the POSITIV list. Because the distinguishing ability of a therapist is to ensure that conditions prevail which will enable a person to grow. And we have learned a great deal over the past 40 years in terms of the conditions we need for this type of reconstruction or rebuilding. We now know that it is precisely these positive emotions, such as enjoyment and reward, that are fundamental in activating the dopamine system which we need to form new pathways in the brain, creating the basis for learning and thus for therapy. A colleague of mine once stated that good therapy shouldn’t just be allowed to be fun, it has to be fun. This leads us back to the potential of gardens.
GB: Does it then not also make sense to connect gardens to schools and the healthy development of children?
Of course. If we change our brains by allowing the formation of new connection pathways (that define learning), we need the same conditions as those I mentioned before for mental health — with special emphasis on reward. And when I return to the fact that we as humans are natural and cultural beings, it only seems logical that these attributes also describe the environment, suitable for healthy development, shaped through evolution or created by us.
GB: Well then, cheers to the forest kindergarten! In simple terms, does that mean that nature and in cases of illness gardens specifically are the ideal settings to shape our brains to be free of stress? Am I summarizing this correctly?
I’m floundering a bit over the general. Because, in the first place, it’s an oversimplification to say: “Take all the children into the forest” or “Take the patients into the garden”, then everything will be fine. The dosage and approach we apply are, in fact, essential. Even if it’s always true that nature deprivation has negative consequences, the opposite assumption, that all contact with nature guarantees healing, does not apply equally. But I guess you don’t want to draw that conclusion.
GB: I mean, are natural spaces not perhaps the ideal setting to optimally develop motor and social skills?
It is, after all, like going “back to the roots”. Let’s not fool ourselves: our physical bodies, our organs and our social behaviour were evolutionarily designed for primitive people. And our movement, digestive and perhaps social problems stem partly from the fact that our daily behaviour doesn’t match this original equipment. Too little exercise, too much nutrition and at the same time too much anonymous social contact, i.e. with people who do not belong to our tribe. And too few intimate relationships. We learn to deal with this in the course of our lives, of course, but we start off with our original equipment. And on the topic of a forest kindergarten, of course, I think that’s great. But I find the few that do exist an extreme solution for exceptional cases. The kindergartens either have rooms inside, and a playground outside, or they consist of an unprotected outdoor space. Perhaps it would be nice if the kindergarten became a GARDEN for children (“kinder- GARTEN”) in the first place. So not an either-or situation, but a protected all-over space with more nature and more garden.
GB: Waldorf schools offer gardening as a subject and therapy institutions are also investigating this activity. Could we apply the successes from the horticultural learning process in the classroom as well as in therapy concepts, as a kind of brain impetus? To what extent or in what form does input from the garden flow into the rest of everyday life?
I’m sure that the experience people have had in gardens significantly impacts their character – both concerning their environment and themselves. Let me give you an example. Late frosts, hailstorms and snails are all examples of failures. They all form part of gardening, and we learn how to cope with these setbacks and manage them. I spoke earlier about the need to understand the world. And this understanding is entirely different from always being in control and experiencing things according to your will. Recognizing and accepting external influences is very educational and develops our ability to deal with crises later in our lives. In therapy, one would speak of “coping”. In an educational context, we’re familiar with the term resilience, and I believe that early gardening experiences can be beneficial here.
GB: You said that enjoyment and reward form part of our basic psychological needs. If these were absent, a person would become ill. Of course, I’m immediately reminded of the trend of growing one’s own fruit and vegetables (for example, the edible city, Andernach). From a social perspective and in your therapeutic experience: what is causing a renaissance in this trend? What else might be involved — apart from enjoyment and reward?
It is a good thing that you have now made the connection to the “non-patient”. Because, perhaps it has become clear that, in the relationship between gardening and therapy, our focus is less on the disturbed or disabled part of a patient than on his or her healthy part. The sentence, “even a patient is only human”, applies and even though it might not be easy, we can turn the whole thing around and ask, where does the “normal healthy person” experience his disturbed part and how does he react to it? Of course, the reward concept is essential in this process. In an increasingly collaborative world, where each person is only partially responsible for a product, it is becoming more difficult to benefit psychologically from the results of your own actions. Taking pride in something like a table when you were only involved in the development of a specific screw is difficult. It cannot compare to eating a head of lettuce that you have sown, cared for and harvested. And, to keep singing the praises of the head of lettuce, it gets even better! In your question, you mentioned the “edible city”. In this type of context, it’s not just about the individual’s gardening. People give away and swop over the garden fence, which makes the produce a social tool. And as I described before. Even if the snails were to grate off most of the lettuce, it would still be different from suddenly finding out that your company has stopped producing the tables. Because you would understand the snail situation and would ascribe it to an external force and even learn to accept something like fate. At the start, I spoke of contemporary, nature-deprived living conditions. This applies in the example of the partial share in the kitchen table production. Yes, I believe the gardening trend you mentioned, whether in the context of therapy or not, can be seen as a counterbalance in the face of the onslaughts on our basic needs.
GB: I was really touched by the steppe experiment. In search of the type of landscape with the most relaxing effect on people, their responses were measured while looking at different landscapes. The results clearly showed that to this day, the savanna landscape causes the least stress. In the case of children, the results of this “Savanna experiment” were even more concise. Prairie gardens have now become popular, especially those stemming from the “Dutch Wave” or the “New German Style”. Both styles have large areas with perennials and grasses set in contrast to hedges or large perennials and shrubs. This reminds me of the synthesis of your therapy garden in Hattingen with its vistas, bordered by a hedgerow, or of the steppe model I just described. So, I wonder whether we’re living in therapy gardens without even noticing? Do you think the prairie gardens inspire us because of their relaxing effect? Are we dealing with epigenetics here?
The question, beyond the Savanna theory and prairie gardens, is whether we might, knowingly or perhaps unknowingly, be using our gardens to create our own natural therapeutic agents. It becomes apparent when you listen to what garden users define as the driving factor for their gardening. There are familiar phrases like, “it lets my mind wander”, “it’s my balance for everyday life”, or “I can switch off there”. Well, in fact, gardens are always a kind of ideal world, a little homemade paradise. Desert tribes, for example, liked to imagine this Garden of Eden with water gushing from everywhere. People also conceived and designed them as shelters in very uncertain times, as with inner castle gardens. So, you can ask yourself what the ideal image of today’s stressed city dweller is. And it’s not surprising that the places they choose and design represent a personal paradise with Asian, clear order and tranquillity, or a renewed sense of community, or as pictures of romantic country life. Yes, as you so beautifully put it, we are, in fact, living in our own therapy gardens.
And you have to admit that many gravel front gardens could awaken the thought of what type of perverted soul was at work there.
GB: So, are we subconsciously setting ourselves up to allow our gardens to activate a mental balance in us, a kind of healing effect?
Balance is the right word for it. Yes. I do believe that wherever we design our own living space — and the garden has become a prime example after being forced to become selfsufficient – we, consciously or subconsciously, create a counter-model, a kind of utopia, which implies something like a non-place, or a “place not yet assigned a meaning”. If we were left to ourselves and didn’t just run after an ideal picture from some gardening magazine, the result could be something meaningful for ourselves and our sense of balance. It could be lazing around or active movement, taking responsibility or handing it over, stimulating our senses or achieving a structured sense of peace — whatever it is we need at that moment.
GB: They say when you hold a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. Is it possible for you to enter a private garden without creating a psychological profile of the planner?
Ah, you caught me out! Of course, I do that from time to time. And you have to admit that many gravel front gardens could awaken the thought of what type of perverted soul was at work there. But, besides observing the other person, a therapist’s life also consists of asking: “What does it do to me?” You know, when I observe a patient who I believe is not behaving normally, my first question should be about what precisely the norm is. Is that norm even good? And why would behaviour that doesn’t correspond to this norm stand out or even bother me? And if you take your life as a therapist seriously in this sense, you’ll be hesitant to diagnose, or at best you will find yourself not judging … except in the case of some gravel gardens …
GB: Let’s play an imaginary game! You may know that I love horticultural history. Let’s take a mental walk, an imaginary trip … we arrive in Versailles and look across from the ground floor, at the water basins. The garden terrain extends to the horizon. The intransigent bosquets form the left and right borders. Now you are not the Sun King, but Andreas, the garden therapist. What kind of person was this garden created for? We need a psychological analysis, please!
OK, this sounds like fun. Well, of course, I immediately think of terms such as pronounced narcissism, need for control, striving for power, and so on … but then I have to start with my own principles. So, first, the question of why it triggers these reactions in ME. And now I’m afraid the answer will be a little longer. Because, of course, to obtain a reasonable perspective, I must see the user in their context. And that’s not so easy. Louis was very unique. On the one hand, he was very self-confident, and apparently very sporty, but also intelligent and gallant. He was almost always surrounded by adoring fans, especially women, and he was physically tall. On the other hand, he was plagued by illness all his life. His rotting teeth were extracted one by one. He had parasitic worms and was given a weekly enema. And furthermore, you need to include the gardening culture of that time and not just look at it from our current perspective. If I said earlier that gardens are important transition objects between man and nature, then this also means that they serve to represent our own understanding of nature. Or even more, to set a kind of “human ideal nature” against real nature. For this baroque garden and its time, this implied a clear fixed order and consequently legal security in contrast to a chaotic and uncertain time of disease, wars and marauding warlords. This solid framework ensures that fine art, a courtly phenomenon, I would say, could now be revived. And this worldview with a penchant for calm and order is not entirely out of this world, is it? The main features of Versailles were, of course, even from the perspective of that time, seen as an ideal world.And when as Andreas, the garden therapist, I put myself in Louis’ shoes and at the same time take a positive and resource-oriented view, I see someone whose first concern is his public image. After all, a garden is the most public form of representation. Of course, such an adjustment into the environment did not mean that Louis had to limit himself somehow. Why would he, his role was evident. But he certainly wanted to be perceived as not merely powerful, but very positive, as well as subtle and educated. He could demonstrate pure power through fortresses, defences and military presence. But yet he also felt like highly creative being, and you should see that too. Didn’t he even personally write a guide for this garden that directs you through it? Indeed! In addition to this social task, the garden also fulfils an individual role. Of course, even Louis needed something like well-being or a pleasant place like everyone else. Just think of the enemas! And in addition to his regular mistresses, this garden could also be something that gave him some form of distraction, even a certain sense of pleasure. And thirdly, to get back to the beginning, obviously, this user is one who finds control extremely important. As described, he was a child of his time. But it is also about control over his image, what others think of him, and perhaps even his self-image. I mean, given the physical situation with constantly emerging health disasters, it’s understandable that you’d want to move around in a clear, ordered environment with no surprises.
GB: Next round: landscape garden. The time of revelation. You, dressed as Alexander von Humboldt, set off on a walk into a suggested nature area. The castle you set off from soon disappears behind you as you walk on your narrow path. You can mostly only see up to the next bend. With every step, you see a bit more, until water gradually shows through gaps between the planting over your left shoulder. And then, suddenly, there it is! All at once you have a great view of a lake. And on the opposite bank, you see a temple. You also have the option of enjoying the view from a bench, but you keep going. The view of the water gradually disappears. You continue on your intransigent path into the gradually darkening forest … Andreas, now it’s your turn!
That’s a lovely scenario. So, who does this garden belong to? I’ll start with the human-nature relationship. The relationship to nature is, of course, much more pronounced here than in the previous example. It is not the threatening chaos that needs a counteracting human order — one could also say a corset. But we don’t see complete freedom either. This also must submit to human desires and needs. Therefore, there is never a total surprise, but things announce themselves as the lake does. Even the route doesn’t offer a complete view, but at least the view opens up slowly as you walk. I think, even if I kept going, I would never experience a moment where I’d suddenly come across something.
GB: Basically, this is already true in the landscape garden. Either a gradual revealing and gradual hiding or just the chance of everything being hidden or closed up and suddenly wide open.
Yes, but fundamentally it’s a garden that not merely prompts you to view it passively, but to move around and investigate the different locations actively. The user, therefore, becomes an active part of this system, already pulling strings. The concept of perceived security also seems to be relevant here. Even though he admires the nature around him, he chooses some special moments in a very targeted manner. He modifies them according to his perception horizon. It seems a little like, “I have nothing against a wilderness, but …” I hope that this is not his usual attitude …
GB: (laughs) … finally, the prairie garden that you see in front of you. After the two previous gardens, the emphasis is probably more on the wild, horizontal. In the background, I would like to believe, there’s a hedge …
In fact, I’m almost sure there’s a hedge — definitely some kind of line that lends support. Because security and legibility of nature impressions don’t only characterize Louis or the unknown nobleman of the previous example. They’re a prerequisite. So, I could also imagine that there is some rhythm on the wild prairie. Nevertheless, the human-nature relationship in the case of this user is certainly a different one. With Louis, nature was somewhat disordered, bad and maybe even sinful if you ask me. And humans had the task of sorting it out and taming it. The opposite seems to be the case here. The wildness of nature is seen as an ideal or a “healed world”. And humans shouldn’t interfere too much. I don’t see anything resembling a path. I feel a bit like a viewer and admirer like I was on the Versailles terrace. The hedge — as I said, I am sure that there is one — provides order but by its limitation also protection. That is, the garden owner shows that he is part of this creation, that he is the good one, he protects this wilderness. And generally, I am reminded much of my meeting with Louis. Here, too, someone may want to present themselves to the outside world, and in the best possible way. I’m modern, I know the trend of the times, and of course, I’m environmentally conscious. And here, too, I can well imagine that this wilderness achieves a fair amount of balance and represents somewhat of a counter-model to its natural environment. The person may usually have to assume responsibility constantly, and here they can partially hand it over. Just look, not have to organize anything, but still experiencing themselves as positive. That’s not so bad, is it? Well, these imaginary games have really been fun, but of course, they’re all just speculation. However, with garden therapy, it’s true that you can never really separate a garden from the person, its user.
GB: Now we’ve merrily travelled through time. But would you say these patterns of behaviour were typical for our species? In other words, is this perception characteristic of the human species and was it at work even 100, 1.000 or 10.000 years ago?
I think we encountered an extraordinary turning point when humans started living a more sedentary lifestyle. As you said, at least 10 000 years ago. At that point, we changed our relationship with nature. We changed from being moving objects to moving subjects and became a counterpart of nature. It was not without reason that this separation brought forth the garden culture, the transitional object. It’s astounding that people have probably put more effort into creating gardens than anything else. And I’m not talking about agriculture here, but about creations such as Versailles. Apparently, we need these gardens as a society to represent our nature-cultural identity. And as a garden therapist, I believe that this can also be broken down to the individual level.
The New York Times once wrote that gardening puberty started at 40.
GB: In fact, I wonder — perhaps you could give me an answer — whether every generation doesn’t carry their own picture with them? In the 1950s and 60s, our surrounding area looked different from what it looked like in the 80s and 90s. Most people only become interested in gardens from their middle age. Could this be why the gardening scene is not very cross-generational? Do you have a perspective on this?
I don’t know why many people only become interested in gardening later. The New York Times once wrote that gardening puberty started at 40. Last year I was in Silesia with my father — in the village he comes from. In our conversations, I realised again that his father’s world was almost the same as that of his ancestors up to his great-great-great-great grandfather. There weren’t that many changes in everyday life. But his childhood world has virtually nothing in common with the world of my children. What a rapid development. Undoubtedly, that has also impacted our human relationships as well as the nature-culture relationships that we’ve mentioned a few times. In a heterogeneous society, this must inevitably lead to different garden images. A “contemporary garden” should therefore be far more diverse and open. As a kind of museum piece worth preserving it can only fail in cases like Landlust, (a yearning for country life), and perhaps conventional allotment estates. And this is what I find exciting. To watch and possibly help shape a slow-growing, patient thing like a garden that grows piece by piece and then starts becoming worthy of all the challenges and effort. The fact that garden therapists have suggested that we should see gardens playing an essential role in our health is undoubtedly a vital piece of the puzzle.
GB: Now for the finale, Andreas! What makes gardens so much part of human beings that they could ultimately become the link between “healthy” and “sick” people?
An excellent question, which I can use to summarize a few things. Every person has a disturbed part. Everyone! It might be tooth decay or lactose intolerance, headaches or a graze, the affinity toward gravel gardens or, for me, a degree of forgetfulness … or even paralysis, depression or heart failure. But every person also has a healthy portion. Everyone! There are therapy forms that focus primarily on reducing the disturbed portion. In contrast, others like garden therapy try to promote the healthy part. Ultimately, you always need both. We mostly employ gardens to emphasize the healthy part of people who are seriously ill. A patient might smell and enjoy the roses or have memories of strawberries. They might sow seeds or pick peas. We aim to create a connection to the “healthier” counterpart. This is comparable to other therapeutic media that work in a similar way. For example, music. We could deny many things to a person with dementia, for example. Or to those with paralysis or depression. Or to those on the social fringes of society or to refugees from a completely different culture. But we could also search for what is positive and what connects us. In addition to music and art, this undoubtedly includes the garden.
GB. Thank you very much, Andreas!