GRÜNES BLUT meets the garden planner and author Torsten Matschiess on an autumnal Friday in early October in the garden Alst in Brüggen.
It could be the vastness here on the Lower Rhine, the unobstructed view or just simply the personality of Torsten Matschiess with his sharp wit, that decided him to dedicate himself to gardening after moving from the city to the country side.
He has written a book about it called “AvantGardening / (Plädoyer für gegenwärtiges Gärtnern) a case for contemporary gardening”. He holds talks and is a garden designer in “Studio tm”.
I visited Torsten Matschiess on an autumny Friday at the beginning of October 2017. During a break between rain showers after an exceptionally good cup of coffee, we went for a stroll through a former maize field, approx. 8000 m² that he had converted into a garden.
At this time of year it is the grasses, asters, hemp agrimony and mountain fleece that dominate the scenery that is spanned by wind turbines. A disparity that only makes the story more thrilling. Flourishing land. Something new to be appreciated. The planted perennials, grasses and shrubs are not all known to me and my vision feels totally stimulated.
The impression of being confronted with a force of nature beneath the passing clouds is in contrast to the spiritual foundation of the Alst Garden. After assessing the structural topography like soil, climate, past history and surrounding landscape the available work capacity needed to be evaluated. Facing the sea of perennials and grasses the information surprises that the garden mainly is maintained at weekends by Torsten and his partner. Paths of wooden chips were laid out every 8 metres, no constructed pathways on purpose, so that the landscape can be converted back for agricultural use again. No work, no planning measures seem to have been left to chance and were evaluated thoughtfully and appraised with respect for flora and fauna.
I am happy to be able to interview Torsten about the beginnings of his gardening career, his planning approach, climate change and German gardening culture.
GB: Torsten, you are regarded as a maverick by the current gardening scene. Your book “Avant Gardening” is praised by gardeners and celebrity planners in lectures and on social media. It is your ambition to uphold gardening culture in Germany. Why on earth do you not wear any gardening gear?
TM: Because, I must admit, I am a bit vain and even when gardening I want to be stylish with a certain chic – does this expression even exist anymore? I also maintain the illusion that gardening work is not really work. Gardening gear looks so deliberate while a rose clipper in the pocket of a dressing gown gives you room for a spark of hedonism in the other pocket.
GB: In one hand the clippers and an espresso in the other?
TM: I sometimes forget the clippers. By the way that is Cuban coffee that is roasted here in Kempen. I guess only we prepare it like an espresso.
Sometimes it is sufficient to just see a planting or a garden to feel the inspiration of their creators.
GB: Did something inspire you, after you and your partner moved to the countryside in 2004, to think: something is wrong with the gardening culture in Germany and I will commit myself professionally to start changing this? For all intents and purposes how did fun become serious business?
TM: Great question, if, in combination with megalomania, you do not fear contact!
But seriously, it was brief moments, inspirations and some people, who awakened the desire in me to design gardens myself. For example, the talks and walks with Klaus Oetjen, the Director of the Botanical Garden Alpinum Schatzalp near Davos were very inspiring. It is unbelievable what a wonderful garden has been created there and I really wish he would finally write a book about his experiences and knowledge. Sometimes it is sufficient to just see a planting or a garden to feel the inspiration of their creators. We once visited a garden – one of the few – that Henk Gerritsen hat designed. It was an amazing experience and the same trip also led us to Rousham. Some real gardening friends also warned me that enthusiasm can quickly decrease when you start doing the work professionally. What is helpful are continuous updates, like meeting like-minded people or visiting fantastic plantings, like the work Gräserband (Grass Ropes) by Ingrid Gock at the IGA (International Gardening Exhibition) in Berlin or the planting by Petra Pelz in Ahrensberg. Show me plantings that are still looking as great after seven years!
GB: The exchange with kindred spirits is fruitful, but what about the nation-wide enthusiasm for gardens? What do you think about the garden culture in this country?
TM: I find it difficult to say something nice about garden culture in Germany. Just look at the media alone, for example, how the topic is reported on TV. Only programs on railwaymen and marine animals are more boring. “When do I need to prune my rhododendrons, when do I fertilize my lawn or when do I have to scarify?” It is hard to believe, but the correct answer could for a change be: Never! Either it is about the individual fate of some nerds’ trendy vegetable plants, usually urbanites, the competition with alibi plants or even the bigger picture when Prussian’s gardens stand to attention. TV likes treating its patients as if the they are borderline moronic pensioners or stupid kids, who supposedly cannot follow an idea for longer than 20 seconds. There are exceptions. … Very few. At the MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk = Central German Broadcaster) and in some parts of the South the sun has not disappeared completely over the horizon. Recently the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk = West German Broadcaster) presented a TV-cook-who-spoke-about-balcony-and-garden-topics. I personally prefer listening to music when ironing.
GB: Okay, but who only watches TV today? There are also other media …
TM: Indeed there are a few good magazines available like Gartenpaxis (Practical Gardening), Gartendesign Inspiration (Garden Design Inspiration) and sometimes a kraut&rüben (Topsy-Turvy Gardening), Grüner Anzeiger (Green Gazette) or occasionally a Mein schöner Garten (My Beautiful Garden). But print media is not really making progress. Even Dutch Illu, this is Gardens Illustrated, is barely able to have good photos to start with. The magazines positioned next to gardening magazines that include the name “land” in their titles can hardly be included. Are gardening people really so conservative, so conventional, so un-funky, so boring and petty bourgeois as the magazines want us to believe? And even though some of these flower magazines can present very good sales figures, gardens are being dismantled in vast numbers. Planting areas are being converted to gravel areas. The owners are not even ashamed. And the younger gardener generation does not want to learn about plants anymore as their customers no longer make any demands. Luckily there are exceptions and rays of hope everywhere. You can work with them!
GB: What especially worries you the most?
TM: In any case it is not the gardens that are the problem or what is left over. It is their owners, who no longer know their obligations. Obligations sounds bourgeois but it is the petty bourgeois who like everything to be orderly, clean, cut back, edged and accurate till nothing is left to be recognised from garden as such. Low-maintenance is one of their battle cries. What the younger philistines do not have to do and the older ones cannot do at all is serve.
Does the aesthetic value of plant-free gravel gardens or the vertical gravel that is appearing seriously need to be discussed?
GB: How can that be understood?
TM: I like to quote: with ownership comes responsibility. Its use should also serve the benefit of the public good. The first sentence will soon celebrate its centenary and the second is only younger as hardly anybody after 1949 knew what Common Good meant.
GB: You are alluding to the constitution. What does this have to do with our front gardens?
TM: If we as a society would acknowledge these sentences from Article 14 and take them seriously, then municipal by-laws would be feasible that would forbid these typical hostile rock avalanches in front gardens. Does the aesthetic value of plant-free gravel gardens or the vertical gravel that is appearing seriously need to be discussed? Nobody needs such large drives or access roads! At least they have a potential ecological value. With the increased barrenness of the soil with gravel or stones the habitat is created that the important forage plants for bumble bees, bees and butterflies miss in our over-fertilized landscape. The garden owners only need to stop the maintenance, namely the spraying of the areas with Roundup or vinegar-based cleaner. Then the appropriate bee meadows will appear by themselves. An excellent payoff in my opinion.
GB: Apart from designing front gardens as gravel areas you regard boxwood borders and Prussian style gardens very critically. Essentially these features are symbolic for the control of the owner over the piece of nature entrusted into his care. Originally with lawns they showed the world how much area they could afford to have with the highest maintenance without receiving anything in return. Pure showing-off. This form of garden use does not appeal to you either. Aren’t these then maybe garden styles that excellently suit our current meritocracy and consumer society?
TM: Please substitute the expression showing off with distinguished representation, interestingly has a feminine definition in the German language. An important aspect of a garden was in fact formerly the demonstration of power, wealth and unfortunately, not always in good taste. That is often the same case with the gardens of the oligarchy today. What I often dislike about these gardens is not their pretentiousness but the gaps in their splendour and their lack of respect towards the gardener. Splendour can be portrayed excellently with plants. What is a rolled turf lawn compared to having your own park, your own woods or for all I care your own rose garden in the gardens surrounding the estate? There are enough modern planting concepts. You do not need to make bad citations of the classics.
I love baroque and above all rococo churches, especially as not much has survived of the gardens of that period. But who still understands the symbolism today? Maybe the hearts of some female art historians beat faster underneath their gold button blazers, but are they the addressees of this splendour? I am only surprised when this fresh garden dream of upper-class young ladies in certain circles is still conceived to be the only garden culture per se and the search for modern forms of pageantry are quickly stopped.
There are enough modern planting concepts. You do not need to make bad citations of the classics.
GB: How do you proceed practically when you are tasked with creating a new garden in unknown terrain and you first of all for example analyse the soil?
TM: When I first enter a garden or let us better say: future garden, the soil does not really interest me. Usually I have passed through a region unknown to me beforehand with its own topography, its own climate and often its own very unique cultural landscape. The first thing is to to make a visual assessment of the surrounding area. What trees – if there are any – grow in the woods, what grows in the meadows? What settlement structures are present, how do they build, and to become more specific: what grows in the gardens there? Informative are visits to the local garden centres and tree nurseries. Afterwards you know how cold the winters can be, what plants characterize the landscape and have a first idea about the soils. And you get an impression of the typical local garden culture. In this regard there are still many lively and pretty areas in Germany where gravel is only found in driveways and gabions are used to reinforce slopes.
GB: How do you then proceed? Do you have a ritualised process?
TM: That depends on what you find on site. A construction site or an existing garden? I am especially interested in what is already growing there. And it does not matter if it is spontaneous growth or planted plants. It only becomes difficult when irrigation is artificial and automatic as that falsifies the picture. Then plants can grow there that would otherwise die in that location as it would either be too dry for them or there is no constant humidity for them. This is not about watering plants as a one-off during a dry period, but about continuous optimisation of the available water amounts. Theoretically with a modern irrigation system the optimal water supply for certain types of plants can be established. I would love to know how long such integrated systems last on average. That it functions is proven by the vegetable farming under glass and even tropical plantings can be realised with the corresponding maintenance.
GB: What exactly does spontaneous growth mean?
TM: Those are often only 7 to 12 short-lived plants per site, usually perennials that are easy to identify. Older neighbours can often help with identifying them. They also know how vigorously these plants grow locally. Let us take the popular large nettle that is a sign for nitrogen that we normally need in most gardens. However, it can range in height from 30 cm to 3 metres. The latter indicates lots of nitrogen and a very fresh to uniformly humid soil. Exactly these more extreme sites in the garden need to be identified and to be understood as a chance and planted accordingly. There are a number of trees and shrubs that love such a location and wither on other sites. Amur cork trees for example, or on calcareous soil ash trees, that are supposedly becoming extinct in Germany, or almond trees and basket willow trees.
GB: What type of soils are a challenge?
TM: A real problem are compacted soils, often as a result of ignorance. On construction sites the problem is hardly given any attention and even gardeners overlook it and cheerfully continue planting. In fact there are a number of plants that feel happy in such soils but gardening is no real fun in these cases. I know a number of gardeners, who, when they are called to look at a problem in a garden, already lay bets that the reason is soil compaction.
GB: Generally it is recommended to have the soil analysed first of all when creating a new garden. What fallacies can a soil analysis possibly entail? What pitfalls do you need to avoid?
TM: The classical way is a soil analysis in a laboratory. The best way is to take samples in multiple places throughout the year. These results should match the conclusions made on the basis of the existing plants on site. These can be the already mentioned existing garden plants or such indicative plants that grow spontaneously on-site. If the plants indicate a calciferous loam soil, the soil analysis will unlikely confirm an acidic sandy soil. What is important is to take the weather into consideration during the observation period, especially the rainfall. In recent years the weather in many regions has been, let’s say, unbalanced. Extreme rainfall alternates with phases of extreme drought. Furthermore, all things considered sometimes there is too much, sometimes too little rain in a year. This favours plants in the short-term that can cope with such extremes very well. It disadvantages plants that do not survive this stress. In this case a good compromise needs to be found long-term for the selection of plants for the garden. Especially in cases of drought over long periods the customers need not standby by idly till not only the shrubs but also the trees have started to wilt.
GB: If you want to have as broad a selection of plants as possible in your domestic garden then, based on what you reported about the weather of the past years, it is highly recommended to have soil that on the one hand absorbs water well and on the other hand can also retain it best. Are there possibilities of optimising soil to fulfil both these requirements?
TM: The question in this case is if the soil structure can even be altered sustainably. Take silty and clayey soils for example, also with a layer of clay in 40 cm depth till one metre deep. They need no construction machines to quickly and intensively compact, if they are not planted accordingly. How much sand or gravel do you plan to mix into these soils to increase the permeability and arability? And roll turf lawn is also not the answer in this case!
Fine, what is an adequate planting? With compacted soil you have to differentiate between soils regularly submersed in water, only periodically wet or if they are likely to be compacted and dry more like in slopes. There are a number of bushes, some of them large, that do very well on periodically wet soil, like veronicastrum virginicum, meadow rues (thalictrum), lythrum salicaria, astrantia, bistorta officinalis or bistorta amplexicaulis, filipdendula rubra and a number of sedges, tufted hair grass and sesleria autumnalis.
The other extreme are soils that are too permeable that can neither store water, nor humus nor nutrients. In these cases it is important to create a layer of humus and to keep it. Open soil must be avoided at all costs. On the other hand there are a number of plants that thrive perfectly in such settings once they have established themselves. It is not necessary to convert the soil of every garden into vegetable soil for hard and medium consuming plants. You can make good use of many existing circumstances.
You can view an object from many perspectives. Apart from the general point of view there are the controversial ones. It gets exciting when other points of view are added.
GB: You gained attention for your Goutweed Garden, a weed that would be at the top of the elimination list of many gardeners if there was a possibility of getting rid of it without immense effort. You integrate this weed in the plantings. Which idea does this garden represent?
TM: Either goutweed is the devil or there are recipe recommendations for goutweed spinach, strudel or pesto. The goutweed garden was created many years ago as a shrub garden in a sunny inner courtyard with asters, sunflower shrubberies, lady’s mantle, sage, hydrangeas and roses. The latter were there beforehand just like a wonderful mature star magnolia tree. The inner courtyard is bordered by a planning office, some flats and a shop. A resident with a good knowledge of plants had declared herself willing to take on future maintenance. But still the question arose on how to get to grips with the goutweed that had established itself in the whole garden. We could have exchanged the soil but goutweed also likes hiding out in the roots of trees. The use of chemicals would have been more promising but was not even taken into consideration by the residents. Neither was black foil that would have had to remain in place for years. So a list was established of the shrubs and grasses that can assert themselves against goutweed and establish themselves long-term. The plants that had already established themselves provided guidance. Interesting from today’s perspective is that no more plants died than in the case of a normal shrub planting in well prepared soil.
You can view an object from many perspectives. Apart from the general point of view there are the controversial ones. It gets exciting when other points of view are added. We regarded the goutweed as an already established ground cover and wasted no more time in fighting against it. Today, after two years, the area needs far less maintenance than a typical shrub planting and at the end of summer you have to search for the weed.
GB: Walking through your garden you see a rather exotic range of plants. Why must it be exotics for the various niches/biotopes? Couldn’t you could also plant the native experts of the various niches?
TM: Just because I occupy myself with exotics does not mean that I do not give priority to native experts. If native experts still prove to be the most suitable. Anyhow there is the climate change and questions arise which of the native plants are too used to the existing native climate and which ones are tolerant enough to face the upcoming predicted or feared changes. Incidentally giant sequoias, bald cypresses grew here in the Lower Rhine Area before the last Ice Age and in all we gardeners had a far higher diversity of plants to select from. What benefit do we have – regardless of nature conservation – if we only plant native trees that hardly have a life expectancy of more than 30 or 50 years here? Try to speak with dendrologists about suitable and future trees for avenues. Occasionally I have the impression that the demand – even from the municipalities – only to use native local species also constitutes an obstructionist policy. Shrubs and grasses are usually shorter lived, easier to replenish or to replace than trees.
Another niche has less to do with the climate. The gardens are becoming increasingly smaller and also the trees in these gardens, if any are planted. Furthermore, I observe numerous trees that remain small, for example many sorbus species, in an associated garden that we planted there years ago, including some rare species that are hardly available commercially here. As long as there are tree nurseries like Schwieters in Westphalie Münsterland and the Herrenkamper Gardens I need not worry about supplies.
GB: But there are also controversial exotics…
TM: The whole story has become more complex. What formerly meant a migration with the ice to the south or the ice-free regions and then back again is far more permeable. Modern and fast methods of transportation do not only bring plants but also insects, spores and fungi from everywhere to everywhere. At least theoretically the mixing, whether intentional or by accident is far higher. This offers many opportunities but also always some unforeseen risks, sometimes with fatal effects. Some foresters in the USA cannot laugh about it as the paulownia tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is spreading through the undergrowth and is writing the script. We have the Japanese knotweed, the giant hogweed, about which things have calmed down more and slowly we are also realising what a problem plant the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is, which a well know nature conservation organisation is still recommending as bumble bee pasturage while it is no longer recommended in Switzerland.
We need far less mono cultures today!
GB: Your prediction that in 30 to 50 years some of the common species will become victims of the changing climatic conditions appears dramatic initially. How are you preparing yourself or how should we prepare ourselves for these changes when selecting plants?
TM: We need far less mono cultures today! Many trees and nearly all roses apart from wild roses are grafted, which means many different species are growing vegetatively on one substructure, so to speak clones of one source plant. That means that one virus, one fungi or harmful insect need only adapt to one special individual and need not anticipate various variants. Computer viruses can spread far easier when all computers have the same software.
Then there are interdependencies that gardeners should increasingly focus on more. Chemical research was always so nice as to present solutions for our problems that we would not have had without them or without ignorance – I cannot think of a nicer word. The selection alone for rose lovers is impressive. There are repellents for every leaf illness, every pest, against every attack scenario there are repellents. Exceedingly few think of the idea of offering food and shelter for beneficial insects. The focus is purely on beauty, a beautiful tree, a beautiful rose are planted but usefulness is too readily forgotten or takes a back seat. We do not need to send people photos of useful ichneumon flies whose habitat we want to expand. Let us look at the Wikipedia entry on the horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella) that apart from the weather and the sac fungus weaken the horse-chestnut, especially because of the feeding tunnels of the larvae. Under combating infestation we de facto find “chemical products / substances”, then the rather ineffective “fighting insects with pheromones” and only afterwards “natural enemies”. What does that tell us? Wikipedia first of all considers the interests of industry before they explain biological interrelationships. That is, by your leave, a bit perverse isn’t it? I have not been giving them money for a while now! I know that I have not answered your question. How should I know today which trees will still be healthy in the front gardens in 20 to 30 years? We are currently observing some extreme weather conditions, that is weather that gardeners talk about months later and some trees suffer and prove to be far more susceptible to pests. Or occasionally to extreme storm situations.
GB: Many climate predictions assume there will be increasing temperatures, longer draught periods in summer, wet winters and increasing numbers of storms. So an escalation of what you have just described. What strategy are you pursuing?
TM: Diversity and observation are important. Observation incidentally means to recognize dangers quickly and to react. Diversity and observation are important. Observation also means to recognize dangers on time and to act. Recently I was very sad because a rhus chinesis fell victim to a gale just before flowering. The 4 meter high tree virtually broke off completely and now there is a 60 cm piece of trunk left over. Now it will take some time till we know if it has spread its seed wide and far or remains rather harmless. Of the shrubs so far dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) is the only one to be kicked out. I cannot believe that there are cultivations of Florida’s number 1 weed that are sterile. We will only know when further clones are traded.
Whoever studies glyphosate as an isolated substance and not the formulas that are used in agriculture is not working scientifically.
GB: Recently a long-term study was published in the magazine PLOS ONE in which it could be proven that the insect bio mass in Germany has decreased by 76% since 1989. The reasons remain unclear, but pesticides have not been excluded. The European Environmental Agency EEA at least associates neonicotinoids with the bee and butterfly deaths and they are used by agriculture …
TM: If you should suffer strongly from cheerfulness then research the following “pesticide use info for leeks” or any other vegetable in your favourite trusted search machine. Bon appetit! If this cocktail was given to humans we would need to take at least one broad-spectrum antibiotic a month. As prophylaxis. And the much discussed glyphosate will also still be here in 20 years because it is practical to use, comparatively atoxic and has an enormous market. In addition, it has also contaminated our environment so much that studies on the use of small amounts have become impossible as we were unable to find a comparable group free of glyphosate. By the way it is not the glyphosate that is the problem but pesticides that are mixed with glyphosate in combination with adhesion substances or substances that it transports into the cells that make it effective in the first place. That is when you first see the cancerous effect in the studies. Whoever studies glyphosate as an isolated substance and not the formulas that are used in agriculture is not working scientifically. At least not according to the interests of consumers of agricultural products and drinking water.
GB: As an author, lecturer and planner you are yourself actively encouraging people to introduce their good taste into their gardens. I understood in our conversation that you want to see gardens regarded as artistic forms on par with other art forms. I have always been amazed by how small the role of garden art is in art history. Palace gardens are used as temporary exhibition possibilities that in no way take into consideration the design rules of the garden and therefore make the lack of sensitivity for garden art obvious. What do you think needs to be done in general so that people will get up from watching TV and be sensitized on the topic of gardens and even innovationally rethink the garden?
TM: If the general decline of insects and butterflies still is not sufficient to achieve a change of heart then the question may be asked when emergency relief against gravel invasions is advisable and allowed and what this can look like. Will seed bombing become the graffiti of the Twenties? In China they are far more advanced and have been pollinating by hand for some years now. Everything. With a new study they reputedly confirm that this form of pollination is more reliable and productive. You can really whitewash everything.
Maybe we will have the opportunity to experience the garden as a cultural space and the affirmation of vitality. Instead of art it is far too often only decorative or a background for other decorations. In Berlin recently a nearly two decades old existing shrubbery garden in a public space in the Olivaer Square was to be downsized and in future to be used as the decorative backdrop for a work of art that was to be set up there. What the friends of the new work of art had not realized at all was that there already was a work of art installed there that itself was supposed to enjoy integrity, meaning protection from intrusions and destruction.
GB: And finally, which personage, totally independent of gardens, inspires you the most at the moment and of course why?
TM: There is no big inspiration by a person. Personages function or constitute themselves as a rule through projects and their media eligibility. This even exists among gardeners and I am observing this with great interest as I am interested in media and in gardens. But it is hardly possible to be inspired this way. I would like to name one personage. I have named the long axis in our garden the Edward Snowden Boulevard. Indeed, he did not inspire me but hopefully many other people who work for certain organisations. If people really valued their privacy then it would not be limited to visual protection in the garden.
GB: Dear Torsten, thank you for the conversation, your time and your direct actions.
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