Saturday, January 30, 2010

Museum Insel Hombroich

Orangery, a sculpture by Erwin Heerich, 1983.
Wandering through the grounds of Museum Insel Hombroich is a strangely quiet but yet strong experience. All parts of this unusual museum are art: the landscape and pathways are carefully designed to offer a meditative experience; the pavilions scattered in the landscape are giant, minimalistic sculptures in themselves; and then the amazing collection of artworks, carefully exhibited inside the pavilions.
Inside the orangery, sculptures in direct connection with the surrounding landscape.

Museum Insel Hombroich had its start in 1982 when real estate broker Karl Heinrich Muller purchased the property by the Erft River near Dusseldorf to display his extensive collection of art. Despite its name, Insel Hombroich is not a true island but an enclosure, where the busy life of the surrounding metropolitan Dusseldorf seems to disappear far away behind the surrounding tall greenery. The landscape is a naturalistic combination of wetlands, meadows and wooded areas, sensitively designed by landscape architect Bernhard Korte. Wandering through it, the visitor passes through fifteen pavilions, most of them by sculptor Erwin Heerich. Built of recycled, rough bricks, steel and glass, these minimalist buildings have a cloister like feeling. Some of them contain artworks, some are empty, functioning themselves as huge sculptures to be experienced both from outside and inside.

Inside of Turm, by Erwin Heerich, 1989.

After entering Museum Insel Hombroich, there are no guards or attendants. The works of art are shown without any artificial light, so the experience of them changes depending on the time of day and the season of the visit. The scope and quality of the collection is amazing: there is ethnic art from Africa, Polynesia, Mexico and East Asia, and then works by Western artists, from the traditional to the ultra-contemporary. Rembrandt, Matisse and Cezanne, Schwitters, Arp and Calder are just few of the artists on display. There are no signs or nametags around, and the visitors are left alone with the artworks, taking them in without any explanations. An eccentric but effective choice, and a great contrast to the information overload confronting visitors in most museums today. The cloister like atmosphere continues in the museum restaurant; nothing there can be bought with money, all is included in the entrance fee. The choices are minimalistic. When my sister and I visited (in the mid-90s), it was late afternoon and the only things left were whole, red onions, some dark rye bread and cold, hard cooked eggs; not a feast directly. But despite having walked through the extensive grounds, no food was needed: we felt completely satisfied, filled up by the tranquil and meditative experience of the art and the landscape of Insel Hombroich.

The pavilions and art are surrounded with gently undulating meadows and woods.

I could not find my own paper pictures from Hombroich from the mid 90's, so I borrowed some from the Museum Insel Hombroich. Special thanks to Hanna for taking me to this unusual and memorable place!


Friday, January 29, 2010

When everything still seemed to be possible...

Unidentified garden by Edward van Altena. Florida, 1930.
If you feel like a bit of armchair travel in history and time, see the breathtakingly beautiful, historical garden images from the Archive of American Gardens available online at flickr since last October.
A small selection of their complete collection, these images from the 1920s and '30s show the bucolic playgrounds of the affluent during the 'golden era' of the American gardens. Many of them were designed by the most renoved landscape architects of that time, like Beatrix Farrand and Jens Jensen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Quote of the day

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' in full bloom, its sweet scent carrying through the endless drops of rain.
Words are things, and a small drop of ink,
falling like dew upon a thought,
produces that which makes thousands,
perhaps millions, think.

- Lord Byron, from Don Juan, Canto III, 1820 -

No, I am not a great lover of writers of the Romantic era; I don't think I have even read Lord Byron's version of the legend of Don Juan. But this wonderful quote came up last week at a writers course I am taking, trying to figure out if I can ever be good enough to 'really' write in English, now my third language. 'A small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought...', such a perfect metaphor for the process of writing. They say that all writing is translating, turning your thoughts into symbols on paper; writing in a foreign language adds still another dimension, as there are so many meanings that each word carry, not obvious to someone like me, who didn't grow up with the language. Seeking the right words takes time, and sometimes the small drop of ink evaporates, like a dew drop in the morning sun, taking my thoughts with it before they reach the paper.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Have you ever read...

The Desert Garden at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Picture from Wikimedia, I'm visiting this garden in late February.

Wonderful garden writing can sometimes turn up in completely unexpected places. My family has been subscribing to the Financial Times for some time, and I usually skim it through just to get an idea of what is going on in the world. However, their weekend edition has turned into a favourite of mine, full of articles about art and culture around the world. On Saturday mornings, it is a treat to read the last page at the House and Home section, which often contains a garden column by Robin Lane Fox, an English historian. Lane Fox is a Fellow of New College in Oxford, and University of Oxford Reader in Ancient History. His book Alexander the Great (1974) was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and he has written about the different cultural aspects of the Classical Mediterranean world. As gardening is another of Lane Fox's great interests, he has also written a book with title Better Gardening besides his gardening column in Financial Times.

Sphaeralcea ambiqua, Desert Mallow, blooming in the Desert Garden. Photo Huntington Botanical.

In his garden columns in Financial Times, Robin Lane Fox writes about plants, gardens and garden history around the world. He often complements his texts with personal associations and details related to his main theme. Often, he gives details that can be quite unexpected in the context. Lane Fox's texts are always well-researched and have an enjoyable depth of knowledge, and his background gives him a strong credibility even as a garden writer. In the latest column, Appetite for Desert, he writes about the Desert Garden in the Botanical Garden of the Huntington Library in California, and gives some interesting quotes, for example by Roberto Burle Marx, a great 20th century landscape architect, who thought that Huntington was the most extraordinary garden in the world.K
In my opinion, Lane Fox's texts are enjoyably British in their style, even if his frequent use of words like 'lovely', exceptional' and 'extraordinary' put sometimes a slight smile on my face. I can almost hear his voice speaking (in this case, in correct Oxford English...) while reading his writings, which is something that only very good writers manage to do. See if you enjoy Robin Lane Fox's columns too, one of my favourites was about the mysterious gardens at Ninfa, which I hope to visit some time in the not so distant future.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Without plants, a dull and lifeless home

A housewife discussing with her servant; flourishing plants form a suitable background depicting a happy household... 'Husmoderns rådgivare' by Kerstin Wenström, Stockholm 1923.

Potted plants are a symbol for a happy home. Think about all pictures in books and magazines: even the most streamlined modernist interiors have something live and green, preferably with a striking, architectural form. They gratify our need for a bit of nature midst our busy, often urban lives, and give us the joy of experiencing the miracle of growth.

In Scandinavia, plants seem to have a special place in peoples hearts as carriers of hope during the long, dark winters when nothing in the nature seems to be alive. Nowhere is this love for potted plants more visible than in Carl Larsson's paintings about his wife Karin's flowers filling the windowsills, adding to the charm of the home of these two, prolific artists. Even today, an average Swedish home has between 20 and 40 houseplants, many of which start their lives as cuttings from friends and family.
Azalea, by Carl Larsson (1906), shows Karin Larsson with her flowers. The handloom that she used for her textile designs is in the background.

Most of us never give a second thought to why we grow potted plants. But Clas Bergvall, an ethnologist at Umeå University, was so intrigued by how much joy his wife got from plants, that he dedicated eight years and his doctoral dissertation to the subject. In Life, Mood and Meaning, Bergvall researches the relationship between indoor plants and their owners, looking at how potted plants affect the way they view their lives, their identity, and their space. By interviewing hundreds of plant owners, Bergvall found out that the satisfaction of seeing plants grow and change over the seasons and time was as important as the aesthetic reasons for having them. While attending to their plants, the owners felt that they got their own space for thoughts and reflections, undisturbed by other people or daily chores. Also, being able to nurture the plants was a confirmation of their capability to create a real home; many thought that a home without indoor plants is dull and lifeless.
A selection of indoor plants from 'Husmoderns rådgivare'. Roses 'Hermosa', 'Marechal Niel' and 'Gloire de Dijon', which are still available from some growers, are given as examples of reliable choices for forcing in pots.
Bergvall tells also the history of potted plants in Sweden. First, they appeared in the orangeries of the nobility during the 17th century and were symbols for wealth and status. From there they slowly spread to the houses of the new and affluent middle classes of the 19th century. By the end of that century, even the modest homes had potted plants, often grown from cuttings taken by people who worked as servants in the wealthier households. By the first half of the 20th century potted plants were a given part of a home.
In my life, I've gone through periods of having many plants and absolutely no plants. Some of them I still miss, like the lemon tree that I grew from pips that came from a huge Meyer lemon tree in my garden in Melbourne. In only five years, it shot up to over two meters, showing clearly its genetic parentage. It felt like a living, direct link to our wonderful life in Australia, and I spent many times contemplating how to take it with me to the US. Fortunately, my mother with green fingers is babysitting it now. The lemon tree seemed like an exception to my success with indoor plants in general. I've always doubted the link between successful indoor and outdoor gardening; I seem to be much more capable of nurturing plants in the open, somehow forgetting about the poor indoor ones until their wilting leaves nearly shout out their need of water. But with or without plants, I've luckily still never thought of my home as dull and lifeless...
'Husmoderns rådgivare', a book about housekeeping by Kerstin Wenström was published in Stockholm 1923. It was hugely popular; eight editions came out during its first year in print.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First ones out!

The first snowdrops of this spring are already out

I think I should confess it: I am an incurable galanthophile, even if my collection still is in the making... But snowdrops, these joyful harbingers of spring, are one of the plants that I do not want to be without. I love the nodding little bells with their clean white and jade green colors, and the delicate, honey-like scent of them. Despite their dainty looks snowdrops are very easy to grow and completely hardy, bravely withstanding the harsh weather of the North. They even keep well as cut flowers, if you have the heart to snip some off for a tiny vase indoors.
In Saltsjöbaden, I was lucky to inherit thousands of them, shooting up happily in crowded groups under the old lilac hedges every spring. They didn't mind me separating them and spreading them eagerly all around my garden. Here in Seattle, my garden is much less poetic in appearance, so I was very happy to receive a large tuft of these little 'milk flowers' (from Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos meaning flower), from my gardening friend Marian. I divided it to seven smaller groups, planted them during the Christmas week and now they are already pushing up from the dark soil near my entrance. That tells you how mild this winter has been in Seattle, while the rest of the Northern hemisphere has been covered in snow, shivering in temperatures of arctic cold.
Unidentified Galanthus (same as above) already flowering in a south facing slope near my house

My newly planted snowdrops are just out from the soil, but I spotted some already in flower in a south facing slope nearby. Their white outer tepals (snowdrops have no petals, only tepals, which I just learned in a book about them...) are larger and more rounded than in the common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and the markings on the inner tepals are bright green and very distinctive, as can be seen in the first picture. I tried to find the name for this Galanthus species or variety, but after viewing over hundred pictures of them, I gave up. The International Bulb Society had some pictures of Galanthus 'Sibbertoft Manor' and Judy's snowdrops in England showed G. elwesii 'Kyre Park', both of which looked quite similar to the ones above. It seems that I still have a long way to go on my galanthophile career, but in this case, I really am one happy learner...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A book by Gunnar Martinsson, a poetic modernist

If I would have to choose the most beautiful garden book in my library, Gunnar Martinsson's En bok om trädgårdar (A book about gardens) would be up there as a candidate for the first place.
I've always been seduced by the line in art (just think of Japanese or Chinese calligraphy, scroll paintings and old copperplate engravings, and you get the idea), so this book with its simple and graceful but yet powerful illustrations is an absolutely feast for my eyes. It was first published in in Sweden in 1957, and it is a wonderful testament for some of the finest achievements in modernist garden design of that time in Scandinavia.

Gunnar Martinsson was 33 years old when his book came out and had the year before established his own landscape architecture business. During his studies of both landscape architecture and art, and by training at different practices in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, Martinsson had absorbed the international modernist thinking of that time. The outcome is well visible in his designs and drawings; they are highly linear, often relying on basic geometric forms, always designed with functionality in focus. His use of materials is discriminating, limited to the minimal and most practical. But despite all this, his designs are anything but austere and dreary: their expression is truly modern, completely timeless and highly poetic, mainly because of his skillful use of plants against the clean, simplified structures of the gardens. Martinsson's style comes out very well in his drawings in this book.

Of mid-20th century landscape architects, my associations go to Christopher Tunnard, whose article series (and later book, 1938) Gardens in the Modern Landscape had a great influence in the view of landscape architecture, rethinking the modern garden as a social, aesthetic and rational milieu for rest and recreation; and Thomas Dolliver Church, who in Gardens are for people (1955) outlined his four principles for design process as unity (of both house and garden), function, simplicity (both economic and aesthetic), and scale (a pleasant relation of parts to one another). Even if Martinsson was 20 years younger than Church and 10 years younger than Tunnard, they where clearly kindred souls in their principles for design. In Scandinavia and Sweden in special, Martinsson is one of the great landscape designers of the 20th century with an enormous influence on the younger generations. Looking at Chelsea Flower Show gold winner Ulf Nordfjell's designs tells directly that he is a child of the same spirit as Martinsson, combining clean lines and strong forms with sensitive, graceful plantings in the cool, contemporary style of today.

As a garden and gardening book, En bok om trädgårdar is very clear and instructive. It advises on choosing the land for the garden and goes through the functions and principles of design to be considered. There are detailed instructions for the choice of materials materials and how to build the various elements of garden, as steps, walls, water features, pergolas and so on. For those who think the modernist gardens consist only of lawns, there is a pleasant surprise: Martinsson includes ten short chapters about plants for different purposes and situations, all illustrated with beautiful, simple but informative drawings, like the one above. In 1955, when En bok om trädgårdar came out, it was chosen as one of the most beautiful books of that year in Sweden. Now, over a half century later, I think this small, black and white book could earn a place as one of the most beautiful garden books of the whole century, despite all the fancy coffee table books that have come out since then. The simple line is sometimes the most powerful tool of all.

Gunnar Martinsson: En bok om trädgårdar. Tomtval, idéritningar, trädgårdsdetaljer. Albert Bonniers förlag, Stockholm, 1957. Unfortunately, the scanned pictures above do not show the crisp quality of the drawings in the book.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blooming in the midwinter mist

An old, unidentified Camellia sasanqua variety flowering in my garden.

For the moment, Washington state seems to be one of the few places in North America saved from the hard winter storms, experiencing milder than average weather. Rain, fog, and again rain... In Scandinavia, winters are a time of complete calm and rest in the garden, all mistakes of the last year covered by snow and the next season existing only in dreams. Here, the garden year continues through all seasons, with no forced breaks to relief the tired gardener. Every month and week, there is something flowering or otherwise in season; so many possibilities to add to your enjoyment and to the beauty of your garden.
I was just looking at my post about Witchhazels and other midwinter wonders from January 2009, and found that it could have been written now. Actually, I think that post was so much more beautiful than this (being a mere list of plants in bloom), but I still want to document some of the flowers out in gardens this January. Maybe next year will be a lot colder, and then it will be interesting to come back and see the difference...?
The gracefully arching Sarcococcas are in full bloom; kneeling amongst the bushes at the Washington Arboretum I tried to find a label that would tell which species I was admiring, but there was none to be found. Could this be S. confusa?

And Witchhazels, one of the first out again; the Chinese species Hamamelis mollis with its bright yellow stamens reaching the sun in the wet, cold weather.

Mahonias seem to have many enemies; earlier I also thought them to be quite unattractive and coarse in appearance. But lately, I've started to appreciate how their flowerheads burst out like fireworks in the midwinter sun. Here Mahonia x media 'Arthur Menzies' finding its way to the sun through a thicket of Witchhazel bushes.

Lonicera stadishii, Standish's honeysuckle, comes originally from China, and grows up to large bush, ca 6 feet tall. It seems to be semi-evergreen here in Washington, and the fragrant, white flowers open up in the middle of the cold of winter.

Viburnum tinus, the Laurustinus, is a Mediterranian native and the last plant on my list today. It was a great favourite in the Victorian shrubberies, and I've always thought there is something prudish about its neat and proper appearance (nothing luscious or extravagant here...!). It has dark green leaves and pink buds that open to clusters of tiny white flowers and turn into black-blue berries in late summer. It is very resilient and tolerates even drought during summers, and therefore still very popular in gardens in temperate zones. A common and not very exciting plant, really, but one that still earns its place in many gardens as a hardworking performer.