Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spring in the forest

This past weekend we enjoyed that special occurrence of perfect weather as spring merged into summer: sunshine, temperatures hot enough for just a t-shirt but not too hot, and still fresh, crisp air. And what better to do on such a perfect day than to spend it outside, in our case rock climbing in Freyr, in the south-eastern part of Belgium. It’s a beautiful area with an unusual topography – rock faces and random pillars rise out of the ground in the most unexpected places, dotting a strip of forest along the banks of the Meuse river.

Our day at Freyr reminded me that the forest in spring is a magical place. Can anything ever match the incredible green colour of new leaves, or spring sun trickling through the emerging forest? Ahh, the poetry... maybe I’ll just leave it to the pictures to hopefully convey the magic.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Trees in flower

Last year, I was amazed by the spring display put on by the many flowering trees scattered throughout Leuven. Their profusion seems to be on a whole other level compared to flowering trees in Eastern Canada – each is literally an explosion of blooms. At other times of the year, this overwhelming bounty of flowers might be garish and unnatural. But now, after many months of grays, browns, and overcast skies, it's the most beautiful sight in the world. Here are a few pictures of what's been blooming in Leuven over the last two weeks.

Old fashioned saucer magnolia in the Leuven Begijnhof.

Cherry tree (don't know the variety) in bud and bloom.

Magnolia kobus, one of the most magnificent magnolias I have ever seen, in the Leuven Botanical garden.

Kerria japonica in the Leuven botanical garden.

Flowering pear trained along the brick wall in the walled garden of the Leuven Botanical Garden. The plants on the south and west walls are in full bloom, with the east wall lagging a little behind.

And random shrubs on the side of the road, still blooming their hearts out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Plant trade day, Abdij van Park

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.

Friday, April 2, 2010

La Chatonnière, France

We included the relatively new Chatonnière garden on our Loire Valley trip because it was conveniently on our route and because books and brochures described this supposed hidden jewel as a “novel garden with a rich range of designs” which “provokes awakenings of the soul”. Wow! What gardener could resist?

Unfortunately, the result of our visit was that I re-learned a valuable lesson: it’s much easier to proclaim beauty in writing than to actually pull it off in real life. To be blunt, the garden was a disappointment. It was sadder still because there was such potential in the site – a beautiful castle surrounded by gently sloped land, natural meadows and old forest, with gorgeous views to the countryside beyond.

The first failure of the garden is obvious as soon as you walk through the gates. The property is simply neglected, especially the first few spaces which greet the visitor. I’m all for a light hand and a little wilderness in the garden, which can lend charm and romance especially in older gardens, but in a young garden it just gives the unshakeable impression of misery. There’s no way around it – tiny plants struggling to survive and looking uncared for are just depressing to look at. It’s also doubly unfortunate that the most derelict garden spaces are the first ones you visit, burning a first impression of neglect in the mind which is hard to shake even in the nicer parts of the garden.
Maybe I’m being terribly harsh and unfair, since the gardens are still relatively new and some sympathy should be given to the awkward teenager stage of young gardens. However, even disregarding the state of the garden, I just wasn’t feeling the overall design. The garden is divided into an overwhelming number of small gardens (currently numbering 12), each with a different theme, ranging from silence, to intelligence, to improbability. Personally, I’m not a fan of gardens with imposed themes. That’s a whole different topic of discussion, but what the heck does an intelligence garden look like??? I’ve never been able to guess the supposed themes of such gardens without prior knowledge.

The overall concept of several small rooms, often divided by level changes and pathways enclosed by greenery, reminded me of Villandry. And indeed, I found out that the gardens were actually designed by the Villandry head gardener. You can see the good intentions, but it just doesn’t work here. There are too many gardens and therefore not enough space for each of them to develop their theme, to ensure the right proportions with the fairly impressive castle, and to make for good transitions between the spaces. Unlike Villandry, which featured far fewer gardens in a much larger space, these gardens try to do way too much in a too small a space. For example, the leaf-shaped “abundance” garden, which is the highlight of all brochure pictures, just feels like a strange fit in the landscape and doesn’t link to the other spaces. It might be cool viewed from a balloon, but on the ground it doesn’t do much for the visitor.

It’s not all bad news though. There are some really nice parts in this garden, which not surprisingly are the older, less manipulated areas not designed with a certain theme in mind. The old stone wall at the back of the castle with aged lavender and backed by a simple meadow was perfect.
The cyclamen drifts on the forest edge of the castle were also lovely (bulbs on the forest floor always look like spring to me, so it was a little odd encountering these at the end of August).

And the front entrance gardens, based on a simple, classic four square design, seemed to fit the castle and the space much more comfortably than any of the other new gardens, and were also much better maintained than the rest of the property.

If you do visit, don't expect the hidden jewel of the Loire Valley, but it's still not a bad way to spend an afternoon.