Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Appeltern Gardens, the Netherlands

Appeltern is a difficult place to describe. Basically, it's a permanent exhibition park for show gardens which, as of 2009, featured an astounding 190 individual model gardens. Exhibitors range from large suppliers in the horticultural and construction trades, to smaller landscape firms, to individual designers. At first glance, the concept sounds amazing. I was picturing a permanent Chelsea Flower Show, with more gardens, more designers, and real-life, walk-through gardens. Sadly, while there are some interesting and worthwhile things at Appeltern, overall it just doesn’t work. At the end of the visit, I was left with the awful feeling that I don’t want to see another model garden for as long as I live.
Let’s start with the good things about Appeltern. This may seem superficial, but I was completely blown away by the maintenance of the whole place. I’m not sure whose responsibility this is, but every garden was impeccable. All the plantings were full and lush with not a single diseased plant or weed in sight (maybe this should be worrisome). In the formal areas, everything was perfectly clipped, while in the natural areas, there was just the right balance of contained wilderness.
Some gardens were really worthwhile, especially in the Architects Gardens (Architectentuinen) area. They were creative and managed to rise above the crowd, which is pretty impressive in a crowd this size. One of these was the garden by Ton ter Linden (below). We walked into the garden, not knowing the designer, and immediately loved it. It got me thinking about how good gardens are instantly recognizable, and what sets these gardens apart from the rest?
Now to the bad part. It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly is wrong at Appeltern. As I think the pictures show, there are many good things here (all the pictures are of the 'good' stuff), and in fact none of the gardens were obviously ‘bad’. However, at their core, it seemed to me that the majority of gardens suffered from an unshakable feeling of fakeness (sorry, that’s the best term I can come up with). Clearly, the gardens are ‘fake’ because of the very premise of the park. Most other art forms, such as paintings or sculpture, are easy to exhibit. Garden exhibition, however, is a tricky thing, and a garden must be that much better to succeed in such a setting. It’s certainly possible, but unfortunately most gardens at Appeltern don’t manage to achieve this.
In many gardens, the ‘fake’ element was obvious – anything with a perfectly set ‘entertainment’ area or a built-in barbeque (the whole ‘outdoor living room’ concept) automatically falls into this category for me. Disappointingly, even many of the gardens with no specific tacky elements felt that way. The gardens that tried to break out of the mold by offering something new and creative seemed like they were just copying the latest trends.
But perhaps the biggest downfall of Appeltern, ironically advertised as its biggest attraction, is the sheer size of the place. At 13 hectares (32 acres), it took us a few hours at a brisk pace to get through it. At the end, we were completely gardened out. Nobody can enjoy and absorb this many gardens. Gardens are supposed to be unique and magical, not 190 in a row.
Overall, I wish I could erase my experience at Appeltern. It has tainted my view of show gardens by reducing them to mass-produced, assembly line commodities (of which gardens are supposed to be the exact antithesis!). Gardens are meant to inspire a feeling, to evoke an emotional response. As a place that is supposed to be a source of education for the gardener, I suppose Appeltern teaches us that great gardens can’t be achieved simply through nice paving, some plants, and the latest outdoor decoration.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Priona Gardens, the Netherlands

The third garden we visited during our trip to the Netherlands was the Priona Garden, designed by Henk Gerritsen together with the late Anton Schlepers. This garden is closely connected with the gardens of Mien Ruys and Piet Oudolf, the other two famous Dutch gardens we saw on our trip. Together, I found that this beautiful trio perfectly illustrates the evolution of Dutch garden philosophy over the last 50 years.
The starting point for all is Mien Ruys’ garden philosophy of "wild planting in a strong design", where structure and plants get equal billing. Piet Oudolf builds on Ruys’ concept, but tips the balance in favour of the plantings, with his strong swathes of prairie style plantings and bold perennials and grasses. The Priona Gardens go one step further: Ruys structural foundation is now almost completely obscured by the plantings, which have gone from ‘natural’ to downright wild.
The Priona Gardens blur the line between tended garden and wild area. At first, I was taken aback by just how loose the garden is, just how un-gardened. The feel, at least as I experienced it as a visitor, was that of a very recently abandoned garden. The garden elements are there, it is clearly tended by a human hand, but it’s as if the gardener just happens to be away this season. This is as natural as a garden can possibly get while still retaining some fundamentally recognizable garden features. Some will definitely not like it, but perhaps this is what gardening needs – to push the envelope of what exactly gardening is, a phase many other arts have gone through. Of course, it’s a fine line, and it doesn’t always work.
At times, the Priona Gardens are brilliant, while other times you lose the feel of the garden. The pond and patio in the two pictures above were beautiful, as was the weird and wonderful topiary area below. I think both captured the intended feel of the garden exactly. Other areas pushed the garden a little too far into the wild, and the result was only a jumble.
Overall, a really interesting garden offering a glimpse of a very different, and thoughtful, garden philosophy.