Monthly Archives: January 2014

Many people know the overwhelming feeling of peace and admiration one experiences overlooking a canyon, snow capped mountains, sunset at the beach or tumbling waterfalls. Our relationship with nature is of all times and ranges from worshiping the gods of nature to overcoming or ‘taming’ it. The relation with nature has been the subject of many great thinkers such as the 18th century philosopher Rousseau who, with his admiration for nature, has had a big influence on our current way of thinking. Our desire for unspoiled nature is today perhaps greater than ever. Every year, millions of people have their holidays (to some indeed ‘holy’ days) in the mountains, which seem to have an enormous appeal to us.

Moraine lake, Banff National Park, Canada

Special ecosystems and lots of variety

The variety of (plant)species in the mountains is very big as a lot of different conditions can be found on a relatively small surface. In a North West European lowland forest one can find particularly forest plants due to different conditions. In the mountains these different conditions and gradients are more extreme, think of: altitude, temperature regimes, PH, moisture, soil types, snow coverage, nutrients sunlight etc. The result is a great balanced ecosystem with many different habitats and species.

It is not rare, to experience the grandeur of the mountain scenery during a walk when suddenly a little further, you hear a splashing waterfall and find yourself in front of a vertical cliff filled with rare flowers of Saxifraga, Sempervivum and Ferns; the most beautiful garden on a few square meter! Can we have some of this experience in our Gardens? Let’s have a look at the how we have dealt with this till now?

History of the Rock Garden

Although rocks were already used in Chinese gardens it was in the English landscape gardens that the grotto (rock cave) was introduced. As a reminder to pristine nature, which in those days was right in the spotlight. It was the time of exploring the remote corners of the world, exploring exotic places, but also, for example the Alps. There were also special plants and animals that were brought back to zoos and botanical gardens. Since the late 18th century, rock gardens were laid out and were on display (first one 1772 in London). This was mainly to create an artificial habitat for the plant collections brought back from the mountains, not to experience the feeling of the mountains! Later, local large angular limestone blocks were used to build these gardens and slowly the ‘English Rock Garden’ came into existence as can still be found in Kew Gardens. Around 1900 rock gardens were very popular, especially because Reginald Farrer brought back new species from the Himalayas and China. During an international plant exhibition of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1912 Farrer showed a natural rock garden he built himself. This was actually the start of the continuing interest in rock gardens today by enthusiasts worldwide.

English Rock Garden in Kew Gardens built in 1882

Alpine flowers in our gardens

Over the years, a variety of possibilities were created to grow Alpine plants in our gardens. This varies from the English rock garden, alpine houses, Czech crevice gardens, tufa gardens, using troughs, rubble gardens (rubble instead of rock), artificial and natural stone walls, raised beds and even refrigerated benches. Often this is mainly for genera, which are more difficult to grow as they often need moisture but good drainage, cool root systems but sun! Interestingly many of our perennials, shrubs and bulbs used in our gardens right now, grow naturally in mountain regions of the world think of plants like Bergenia, Buxus and Tulips

Garden secrets

So there are ways to make artificial habitats for a collection of alpine plants. The question now is, can we create the experience of the mountains in our garden. The total effect of plants, rocks and water together! In fact this is not an easy question to answer as I think it touches the core of what garden design & landscape architecture is about. In this respect, a Japanese garden is very interesting! Rocks as islands in the sea (gravel), smoothly pruned Azaleas as rolling hills in the Japanese landscape and so on. The Japanese garden is actually a translation of the local landscape! Which reminds me of William Blake’s poem ‘To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour!

Also very telling is the quest of the renowned landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds. With fellow students he had spent years looking for the essentials of the world’s famous gardens in Japan, China, Tuscany, France, England and so on. What are the secrets of all these gardens? Was it just the lay out, the geometry, order, unity and intricacy or is there more? Somehow they felt the essence of what it was seemed to escape them. Many years later when he sat in a woodland, as he describes it; sunlit trees, motionless air fragrant with Hay fern, purple foliage, squirrels searching for acorns….’an old familiar tingling went through me, a sense of supreme well being, and an indefinable something more’…. It gave him the same feeling as he had felt in some of the gardens, years earlier. It was not the design of the gardens but rather what one experiences there what was the secret! A special garden is not merely ‘an exercise in geometric acrobatics’ but, like in the mountains, an experience or feeling that the garden evokes.

Rotstuin Rock Garden Ber Slangen Maastricht

Experience the mountains in your garden

It is precisely this experience of the mountains that Ber Slangen in Maastricht tried to take home in 1950 when he cycled to the Alps Without a preconceived design he tried to create some of experiences of the Alps in his garden. A small magical landscape was created with rocks, plants and water. Several species of evergreen give depth of field and make it a special and harmonious place. Streamlets and waterfalls come from little gorges and water tumbles over rocks finding it’s way to the central pond in the garden. Vertical cliffs are covered with ferns, Epimediums, Solomon’s Seal and other interesting plants like Ramonda, and Haberlea. Large groups of one genus are used which gives some unity but also provides a background for a few solitary gems! The overall effect of the garden has always been a priority to the plants used. It didn’t matter if this effect was achieved by planting local easy growing ferns or endemic choice species, as long as the overall effect, which is the feeling of the mountains, was there. Vertical green cliffs are great to help to reach this effect. French botanist Patrick Blanc’s green walls are fine examples of this and have added new possibilities in the urban landscape to experience nature in our urban areas or at least try to plan for it. As Simonds describes it: ‘A garden, perhaps the highest most difficult art form, is best conceived as a series of planned relationships of human to human, human to structure, and human to some facet or facets of nature, such as the lichen-encrusted tree bole of an ancient ginkgo tree, a sprightly sun flecked magnolia clump, a trickle of water, a foaming cascade, a pool, a collection of rare tree peonies, or a New Hamshire upland meadow view’.

One of Patrick Blanc’s Green Walls

Although I love travelling and experience the beauty of pristine nature I still would like to end with Ber Slangen’s favourite quote by Italian writer Alberto Moravia. “And those nature lovers should not only decide to travel to Italy or remote areas to refresh their minds with it’s natural beauty. Those who have an eye for beauty can be endlessly happy in their back yard gardens” (Alberto Moravia, De Tijd, May 25, 1984)


Simonds O. John, Landscape Architecture: The shaping of man’s natural environment, New York, Toronto, London, 1961

Facebook page Rock Garden Ber Slangen


De Zeeheldentuin is definitely designed – This week a group of volunteer students and professionals of Landscape Architecture under my guidance as a teacher and practitioner finished the definitive design of De Zeeheldentuin. For the last six months we met almost every Monday in our studio DGJ Architects & Landscapes in The Hague, around the corner from our future community garden ( ).

De Zeeheldentuin is an urban garden initiated by inhabitants of the Zeehelden neighbourhood. It is closed to the centre of The Hague, between the Royal Palace Noordeinde and the International Peace Palace. After a fire at the Mariaschool in Tasmanstraat a large plot of land here was empty for years. The local housing cooperation Haag Wonen had made plans to build a larger project called Tasmanhof across the whole terrain.

In years of standstill residents of the current dense ‘stony’ neighbourhood came up with other ideas though. One day two mothers and a child became the core of a quickly growing group of inhabitants that imagined a ‘green oasis’ for them to play with friends, grow plants, meet each other and enjoy ‘nature’ or ‘a green hart’ in the centre of this dense, colourful and popular urban area.

Not everybody was evenly happy about the initiative to build a garden, but the 2008 credit crunch came to help in reducing the potential investment and number of social housing units needed at the Tasmanhof. It took long and persisting negotiations, many afternoons of standing on local markets, a petition, the support of the a city councillor and a whole range of sponsors to get hold of the land and a construction budget.

Large numbers of inhabitants, local entrepreneurs, NGO’s and politicians and officials of The City of The Hague embraced the project and carried the hardheaded few Zeehelden gardeners with large support. At the crucial phase in 2012, when the cooperation agreed to sell the land partially to the initiative a concrete project was needed to bring together ideas of all parties interests of the current and future inhabitants and owners of the surrounding.

While the program was quite clear the plan needed a form and many concrete questions and frictions between parties had to find a convergence.

Together with designers and garden lovers in the group DGJ entered, designing and working out in with small groups of volunteer students form TU Delft. At first I proposed the initiative to organise a design competition, but the fear was that a signature design would be more in the interest of a designer than for the locals. So an old crumbled sketch from a kitchen table was modified and worked out in a sketch design in 2012.

The garden consists of a fruit orchard, vegetable gardens, a decorative garden and an adventure playground. Little sea heroes can play, while their parents get their hands dirty in the vegetables of watch the children while chilling in between perennial flowerbeds. Plantings are biologically nursed and attractive for all kinds of insects and other animals.

DGJ and the team members have contributed their design work on a voluntary basis. Regular meetings where held with the client side, luckily consisting of the future users and professionals in urban renewal and design. Haag Wonen was and is regularly informed and negotiated all interfaces and various aspects of usability of housing and garden. The city checked the design in a hearing at a special commission for public space under presidency of the chief city planner of The Hague. The studio was open to public every Monday and dozens of children have contributed their drawings of their dream playground.

In the end the pride is to have been able to bring together so many interests and firmly join together a project with partners that started out in a clear conflict of interests. Meanwhile construction of Tasmanhof started and will be finished before the summer holiday. ( )

The student volunteers could enrich their experience with a real project and experience the dynamics of real interests in public space. One of the volunteers will take over control of the execution under DGJ’s legal responsibly as Landscape Architect. Garden Enthusiast and potential builders can now sign op on the website ( ) to build the garden in September 2014. Dozens of people already opted for having a small allotment garden shared with other neighbours.

Another volunteer will start a plant nursery ‘Stadskweekerij Groene Helden’ on the roof of Parking garage “De Zeeheld” just behind the Zeeheldentuin with my ‘silent’ partnership. We will introduce a fine collection of biologically grown perennial garden plants with the support of the renowned nursery “De Hessenhof’ ( ). Clippings of the stock in the ornamental flowerbeds of De Zeeheldentuin will be nursed to a take-away product for hopefully hundreds of gardens to grow in the backyards, balconies, rooftops and walkways of the inspired neighbours.

After we could gather so many interests and enjoy the dynamics and gardening enthusiasm of our neighbours we are looking forward to a great 2014. The garden we will plant hopefully will carry a transformation off our entire neighbourhood and inspire many others to be as persistent and keen as us on improving sustainability of their urban community from bottom up.

January 22nd 2014
Presentation (in Dutch, questions can be answered in English)
Doors Opening 20h30
Zorghotel Residence Haganum, Tasmanstraat 188-1, The Hague
As places are limited RSVP wit Event link on
Facebook > Zeeheldentuin

In February 2013, MSc students of Landscape Architecture were taken to the Nieuwland Museum in Leystad for a three day workshop, led by an artist. Cora Jongsma, who has worked extensively with felt, introduced students to the fascinating similarities between two seemingly incongruent occurrences: the creation of felt from wool and the creation of polders.

Exhibition by Cora Jonsma in Nieuwland Erfgoedcentrum, LelystadExhibition by Cora Jongsma in Nieuwland Erfgoedcentrum, Lelystad

“Essentially, polders are created when water is pumped out of land. Similarly, to create felt, wet wool is flattened with a rolling pin. The constant rolling shrinks the fabric to create a smooth surface,” explains Inge Bobbink, coordinator of education at the Chair of Landscape Architecture. “Going through the process of making this fabric themselves gave students an insight into the process of how polders were created and how the land subsided due to the fact of drainage,” she adds.

During the course of the workshop students were first taught how to make felt and then about mixing colours, creating layers and texturing. On the final day they were asked to recreate a part of ‘their’ polder using the felt and colours made by them. Each student works parallel to the workshop on a design for ‘a recrational waterlandscape’ in a polder.

WoolSketching landscape structureTesting felt landscapeThe final effect of the workshop is definitely remarkable. As Bobbink walks us through the exhibition, the scraps of fabric begin to make sense. One is a landscape surrounded by crisscrossing water bodies; the fabric has been dyed in different hues of blue to create a sense of depth. Another is a greener landscape – a park on a polder. One looks like a prize-winning landscape garden.

The tableOverall, it is equal parts scientific and aesthetic. “The making of felt is for me the same as cultivating the landscape… I keep this natural process in mind with my Experimental Polders of Felt, with the only difference that felt softens instead of hardens… I try, as an alchemist, to transform the area into gold, and to say the least, in felt,” says Jongsma, in an introduction to the workshop.

Bobbink says that since the workshop she has noticed a marked improvement in how the students engage with the course. That’s not all. “Playing with designs, using technical know-how with imagination is something that will be handy to them in the long run as landscape artists,” she adds.

Interview by Damini Purkayastha from DELTA

Proeftuinen van Vilt on Cora Jongsma’s website