Since the spring of 2015, the grounds next to Het Nieuwe Instituut have been home to a public garden. Called ‘The New Garden’, it was designed and planted by artist and designer Frank Bruggeman with ecological gardener Hans Engelbrecht. Here they talk about their choice of plants and design, and about the effort to increase biodiversity in the city.
What, in your view, is the significance of The New Garden?
Frank Bruggeman: In general, city parks like Museumpark next to Het Nieuwe Instituut are highly cultivated. With The New Garden, Hans and I want to promote ecologically valuable nature, with a wider range of species than you normally find in the city. We took the plants growing alongside the grass on the site itself as our starting point and worked from there. The ponds inspired us to look at the Dutch water landscape. Up until the early part of the last century, this area was known as the Land of Hoboken, an estate made up for the most part of wetland.
Hans Engelbrecht: In the garden we stimulate biodiversity and, at the same time, facilitate social occupation. I want to let visitors, designers and park managers enjoy the results of maintaining natural vegetation. What’s more, we use materials sourced nearby and respond to conditions in the immediate surroundings, such as the soil and surfacing, flora and fauna, neighbouring buildings, site orientation, skyline and so on.
Besides existing plants you introduced some new ones. What types?
FB: Mostly native plants such as elderberry, sallow and teasel, which contrast with the cultivated plants in the surrounding gardens. Next to and in the water are reed, bulrush, yellow iris and other plants. We also added a number of exotic species to the garden. Some of them are perhaps a little too wild. These so-called ‘invasive’ exotics are considered dangerous because they can spread quickly at the expense of other plants. That’s why some ecologists call for such plants to be banned. Japanese knotweed is a typical invasive exotic.
HE: I think it’s interesting to try and contain these aggressive species in how the garden is managed, without suppressing them. Flexible and creative vegetation management makes it possible to give these ‘troublesome’ plants an aesthetically and ecologically valuable place in the garden.
FB: Much of what we now consider to be native originated elsewhere. And it is precisely in city gardens and parks and along city canals that exotic species tend to grow and often flourish.
So it isn’t your intention to let The New Garden run wild as an abandoned piece of land? You really do steer and stimulate.
FB: The New Garden occupies the site where The New Pavilion previously stood. When that was demolished, what remained was a mound of earth and a battered patch of grass. We took that situation as our starting point, so that you now experience the area more as a temporary landscape. Hans regularly mows strips in the grass to encourage variety in growth. We stimulate a wild garden, but the aesthetics of such an intervention ensure that the garden doesn’t look neglected. We deliberately made a space that welcomes use. Also, the connection with Museumpark is successful I think: as you walk towards the city you pass through a totally different world.
HE: For me it’s a challenge to translate insights and methods taken from large-scale nature and landscape management to the scale of a garden. Aspects of natural cycles such as sowing and developing spontaneous herbs, allowing plants to finish flowering, die off and turn to compost, not interfering with fungus, insects and insecticide, all played a role in the detailing and aesthetics of The New Garden. Such processes are rarely, if ever, accepted in garden design.
So you’re actually staging a wild garden?
FB: That, of course, is a pretty ambivalent matter. When you start you have to constantly remember where to intervene and where not to. After a while it all happens more automatically, but our approach calls for another way of working than the public gardens department is accustomed to. Local authorities have to contract out the maintenance of gardens, so that job usually goes to the lowest bidder. That isn’t always a good way to stimulate biodiversity.
Hans, in the city of Groningen you look after a number of sites in an ecological manner. What, in your view, is the biggest difference between your method and the approach normally taken by local authorities?
HE: The authorities in Groningen have contracted out the maintenance of a number of sites to specialised companies, among them my company De Groene Stap. A special mowing regime and minor alterations to the site stimulate greater ecological diversity. We team up with local authority workers who ensure that the area around benches and some verges along roads and paths are kept short. In addition to the mowing regime, certain sites have been included along the route of a flock of sheep that grazes through the city.
Since I’ve been managing a number of sites for many years now, I’m able to pay special attention to vulnerable species and places. Also, when mowing I can create certain forms. That has resulted in ecologically and aesthetically valuable areas, which makes for happy walkers and locals. And all that for less money, because my approach is less labour-intensive than the usual maintenance required for lawns and gardens.
Frank, how does The New Garden fit into your work as an artist?
FB: That story about the cultivated plant versus the native plant is a silver thread running through my work. Hans thinks more in terms of plant communities and biotopes. In this respect our collaboration is an experiment, and it ultimately produced a balance. The New Garden has become a composed landscape. The various biotopes are mostly the work of Hans. I bring things into focus here and there, not only by adding exotic species but also by deliberately including concrete elements and urban rubble in the garden.
There are so many different ways to garden, different ways to shape nature. You could consider Louis Le Roy the originator of a wild form of nature management in the city. In the 1970s he started with a highly distinctive approach, stacking stones on top of one another and then letting nature take its course.
What interests me most of all is the search to find a balance between controlling things and letting things happen. We deliberately do our best to make The New Garden look as natural as possible, making it a model for tackling other green spaces in the city. You notice that more and more people feel attracted to the freedom expressed by a wilder form of management – that’s what we’re calling for with The New Garden.
The New Garden as a platform for greater diversity in urban nature?
FB: That’s exactly how we like to view it, and why it would be wonderful if the garden could exist for a little longer. Our rich variety of plants could then show itself to better effect. At this stage it’s about searching and testing. It’ll be two or three years before it becomes clear how the plant community develops further.