Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pruning, Belgian style - Part 2

To follow up on the pruning blog, I couldn’t leave the topic without talking about pleaching. I have rarely seen this in Canada, but is it ever popular here in Belgium! It seems to be everywhere, from residential to institutional landscaping. I haven’t always had my camera on hand to take pictures, so we’ll have to make do with the few I do have.

Pleaching is the training of trees to form a horizontal framework above the ground. Basically, the effect is that of a hedge on stilts. Pleaching is not exactly straightforward: the right type and size of trees have to be chosen for the job, a sturdy framework built, and every year the trees have to be pruned and trained along the framework. Not only is it a lot of work, but it can also take a bit of time before the desired effect is achieved. No wonder then that it never caught on in North America. However, it's still very popular in Europe, perhaps because here it is grounded in a long tradition of use. Since medieval times, pleached trees have played an important role in gardens, mainly to create walkways or enclose spaces such as kitchen gardens.

Pleaching is a very architectural feature, which allows for an interesting space division at a higher level than a hedge. By using plants to create this division, the feeling is lighter and less overpowering than enclosures created with hardscaping. It’s a great way to raise the garden up and define 3-dimensional space on a comfortable, human scale. As with any garden design tool, there are many good ways of using it, and just as many bad. Here in Belgium, I've mostly seen it used to create privacy in front yards where a high wall would obviously be impractical. I think the look works well here because it's used with either older buildings or very modern ones. In between, one might have to be careful so that it doesn't look out of place.

Here’s an example that I watched being put up just this summer (it's on my way to work). The trees are so thin at this point they’re barely visible. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before it actually looks like something.

This one has probably been in place for a few years and is growing well.

This example in a front yard looks like it’s in need of a trim. As shown here, pleached trees are often combined with a hedge at ground level.

A neat design tool that could offer some interesting opportunities for creative and unconventional use.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pruning, Belgian style

When we moved to Belgium, one local garden practice I was struck by was the pruning. I don’t mean the perfect hedges and little boxwood animals, although there are plenty of those here, but rather big scale pruning of large trees, or pollarding. Pollarding consists of cutting back tree branches either all the way back to the main trunk, or to varying degrees along the main branches (multi-knuckle pollard, high pollard, etc). This treatment is not very popular in North America, but it sure is here. It’s been practiced in Europe for centuries to keep tree sizes in check, control shape or harvest wood. In winter, when deciduous trees are without leaves, it is rather striking. Below is a picture taken in London, Reagent Park area, in early April before leaf budding. Personally, I thought these trees looked like scary monsters subjected to some sort of gruesome experiments, and which will come back to haunt their tormentors at night.

I wondered if this does not affect tree health, but apparently it actually increases lifespan by keeping the tree in a juvenile state and reducing top weight. Still, when I saw the tree below in the Leuven Botanical Garden, I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for it. It almost looks embarrassed by its nakedness – not even some branches to hide behind during winter.
In summer, the trees recover fully – below is the same tree from the Leuven Botanical Garden in summer. It continues to grow throughout the summer, and the canopy now completely covers all the branches in gigantic leaves, a side effect of the pollarding.
Hedge pruning is also extremely popular here, and taken very seriously. Check out these complex, perfectly pruned designs in front of two residential houses, representative of common front yard looks.
Back at the Leuven Botanical Garden, this conifer has perplexed me all year. It has been impeccably pruned every single time I have visited, which is quite often. When does it ever grow??? A lesson in pruning dedication.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mien Ruys Gardens, the Netherlands

Over the past few months, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the chance to visit some fantastic gardens around Europe. They’ve all been amazing, and I’ve learned something from each of them. But growing nice plants and organizing them together in a pleasing way is one thing; creating a garden space that leaves visitors saying “OMG, this is BRILLIANT” at every corner, is a little harder. And that’s exactly what happened when we visited Mien Ruys’ garden in the Netherlands a few weeks ago. I am in complete awe and admiration of Mien Ruys - her garden was a revelation.
First, a little bit about Mien Ruys. I feel very ignorant for not knowing much about her before. Her parents owned a popular perennials nursery, and wanted to add design services to their business. At the age of 19, Mien was put in charge of the new design department since she was more interested in how to use plants rather than how to grow them. Training in landscape design was virtually non-existent at the time, so she studied architecture, and picked up practical training in England. Over the next years, she designed many private gardens as well as public, communal projects. Her projects were mainly in the Netherlands where she’s quite well known, but it seems that she never achieved the same level of fame internationally, which is a real pity.

The Mien Ruys garden is the best that remains of her work. It’s actually her parents’ nursery, which was Mien’s experimental laboratory. The property spans her development over her entire career, from the late 1920’s to the 1990’s. In total, there are 28 separate garden spaces, each of which represents an experiment with a different idea or approach. It’s a unique garden experience to walk through these spaces, each offering a different lesson in garden design. I’ve included pictures from a few of my favorite ‘rooms’, but it would be too much to talk about each one of them here. However, while each space is unique, there were a few consistent themes that struck me (but this is only personal analysis, not sure what the experts have to say about her designs).

Simplicity. There is nothing convoluted or over-the-top in any of the designs. They’re not trying too hard – every element feels right, every element belongs. This is probably the hardest thing to achieve in design – a feeling of inevitability, like this is the only right design for that space, nothing more and nothing less.
Definition of space. Every 3 dimensional space is brilliantly used and defined. The garden rooms aren’t separate, abstract spaces, but they form part of the whole and make use of existing natural features, views or enclosures, and level changes. One ‘garden’ is a perfect circle set in the middle of a small wood on one side of the property. Here, Mien wanted to create a garden in the forest with minimal impact. By only removing a few trees, she created a perfect circle planted only in monochromatic green groundcover. The effect is that of a porthole in the forest with a cathedral-like feeling. Simple and stunning.

Innovation. I was completely amazed by the originality displayed in all of the designs. All the spaces would hold up perfectly well as modern gardens today, and some were created almost 80 years ago! Mien was the first to use railway sleepers in her designs (which I’ve seen in soooo many garden design books now), and exposed aggregated pavers (again, so often seen and copied). In one garden, a square space is planted only in asters. A few other purple plants and grasses poke up through the soft green carpet of asters, as seen below at the time of our visit. But imagine this garden when the soft green cloud of asters will be completely covered in vivid purple bloom – it will be absolutely stunning! The garden has enough to keep it interesting all year round, and then in the fall it will be an unforgettable sight. A completely original use of the plant, which just goes to show the endless possibilities for creativity that garden design allows.

Balance. I found that all the gardens had a fantastic balance of ‘hard’ landscape elements (like paths, fences, patios etc), and plants. Too often, garden designs are either one or the other. They’re both equally important, and each enhances the other. Mien’s unique perspective, which combines architectural training with an intimate knowledge of plants from her parents’ nursery and an obvious artistic touch, is key in her designs.

Overall, this is a garden that should be right at top of the list for both pleasure and educational visits. Mien Ruys is my new garden design hero. This whole garden is like walking through an amazing, living, garden design textbook - imagine seeing all those exercises from design class, like laying out a garden using squares or perfect rectangles only, changing space with diagonals, and many of more things actually put into practice perfectly! It’s a garden for which you’ll need a long time to absorb and properly digest all the lessons it has to offer.