This past weekend I went to a plant trade event just outside Leuven for a chance to meet and mingle with local gardeners. The premise of the annual event is simple: anyone is welcome to bring their surplus plants, either to trade with other gardeners, or simply to give away. The only rule is no money allowed.
For me, the star attraction of the event was actually the setting, namely our local abbey Abdij van Park, which is one of the most impressive abbeys in our area dating back more than 9 centuries (that’s almost equivalent to the time of the big bang by North American standards).
In its heyday, the abbey was an important institution housing a thriving and well-off community. Today, the abbey is a little run down, but I think this actually adds to its charm, inviting the mind to wander to thoughts of what it must have been like in its glory days. The large abbey complex contains a complete, self-sufficient universe, including everything from living, eating and administrative quarters for the residents, to a large walled vegetable garden, a small river and mill, multiple animal stables, pasture and farm land, and of course the church and cemetery. You can almost feel the spirit of the community which once shared this ground, living and working closely together.
The plant trade was held in the walled garden behind the main buildings, normally closed off to the public. This area consists of a small medicinal knot garden, an orchard and a woodland park, all bordered by a series of ponds, or rather small lakes. I don’t think I could dream up a more pastorally beautiful scene than this. Imagine sitting out here in the summer, in the gentle meadow underneath the orchard trees (OK, once they grow a little bigger) surrounded by the smell of fresh grass and the buzzing of bees from your own bee hives. Such idyllic, domestic scenes defined by crumbling brick walls and ancient tangles of flowering shrubs are really the best of what old European gardens have to offer. It’s exactly the romance I was hoping to find and learn from here, but it’s also something that realistically is just not translatable to North American gardens - it would look wrong and out of place. The beauty of the best gardens lies in celebrating the spirit of place, and luckily this spirit is unique around the world.