The Skilful Evocation of Nature

The skilful evocation of nature is, depending on your point of view, either the highest expression of the art of garden and landscape making, or an uncreative sentimental pursuit that requires very little imagination.  Of course, as you might expect, I sign up to the first way of seeing the world.   For me the key word here is ‘evocation’: putting together elements in such a way that it provokes an intense emotional response in people that speaks to the freedom and liberation of being in beautiful natural environments.  This definitely isn’t about copying those natural models.  Instead I think it is about exaggerating and enhancing their essence so that their aesthetic appeal is heightened.

Below: a simple wooden bridge spans a narrowing in a woodland pool, framed by arching branches – individual trees are pruned to enhance the pictorial effect.  All photos Nigel Dunnett

The Amstelveen Heem Parks

A supreme and very influential example of designed nature is to be found infiltrating the neighbourhoods of Amstelveen, an Amsterdam suburb.  The parks and community spaces form an interconnected network of green – and they are all designed on the Dutch principle of the ‘Heem Park’.  Heem translates as habitat or home. These started out in the 1920s as educational sites providing refuges for the wild flowers that were rapidly disappearing from the countryside as a result of changing agricultural techniques.  Most towns had their own Heem Park, a community botanical garden where school children and adults could appreciate the richness of the country’s natural flora. The emphasis has changed over the years, however, and now many have come to be seen as places of great beauty instead of educational plant collections.  And nowhere is this beauty expressed more profoundly than in Amstelveen.  The most famous of the Amstelveen Heem Parks is the Jac.P.Thijsse Park – all the photos here are from this park.

Below: winter textures and patterns – heathers, bilberries, drifts of ferns, with the brown mounds of the collapsed foliage of Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis, in the background

“The really remarkable thing about these Amstelveen natural parks and gardens is that they are all completely artificial”

The really remarkable thing about these Amstelveen natural parks and gardens is that they are all completely artificial – created in the mid 20th Century from agricultural land – open fields and polders.  The design principles were very clear: there were to be none of the hallmarks of traditional formal design: no vistas or focal points, and the very minimum of straight lines or angles.  Instead, the parks are built on the idea of mystery, using curving sinuous paths leading you on to discover what’s around the corner.   And these paths are hugely experiential, continuously leading you on from deep shade to sunlit glade and over footbridges, through meadows, heath and woodland, and crossing over or fringing pools, waterways and ditches.

Below: an open glade with sinuous pool, housing in the background

Above: light and dark, open and closed – a winding path moves between woodland glades

Pictorial Planting

The planting is almost exclusively native, there is very little attempt to replicate the countryside exactly in these parks or to copy wild plant communities. Instead the aim is to use native species and wild flowers to create large-scale and uplifting plant pictures.  It’s this ‘pictorial’ approach that has been very influential for me – it’s how I started with the idea of Pictorial Meadows.  In the spring sheets of primrose (Primula vulgaris), wood anemone (Anemone nemoralis), Fumewort (Corydalis solida) and many other woodland delights stretch into the distance.   It’s at this time that parks are at their most dramatic, and the very best time to visit is in April when these shady areas are at their peak.

Although these plantings are spectacular, an important principle underlying the horticultural approach was to use a majority of plants that were common and familiar to people, and to place great emphasis on subtlety rather than attempting to create a constant and tiring ‘wow factor’.  A fundamental idea was that of ‘fascination’: the grabbing of people’s attention through the intricacies of small-scale detail.

Below: Oxlips (Primula elatior) beneath a birch plantation

Pond fringes are planted with great drifts of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).  Great hulks of Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) have magnificent presence, their collapsed brown foliage staying in place throughout the coldest months, their rapidly rising fiddleheads in the spring add bewitching drama, and in summer their sheer bulk gives large-scale structure to the wetter areas.  Marsh Spurge (Euphorbia palustris) is another common occupant of the wetter areas, and here is seems to assume shrub-like character, with orange woody winter stems.

Below: a) the dramatic emerging fronds of Royal Fern; b) brown winter foliage of Royal Fern; c) Marsh Marigold around the edge of a pond d) winter stems of Marsh Spurge

Dutch Modernism

While the main snaking paths lead through the wider landscape, in places it is possible to follow more intimate trails through the plantings.  These follow informal lines of square exposed aggregate concrete pavers that take you away from the main paths, over footbridges, and back to the main path again.  On a visit in February last year with the Dutch garden designer Carrie Preston, she told me that this was an example of ‘Dutch Modernism’ from the 1950s – the use of modern functional materials in design.  Unlike most other parts of the world, Modernism in garden design and landscape architecture in Holland wasn’t associated with an austere minimalist application of horticulture, and therefore these materials sit very happily with diversity of plantings.

Below: exposed aggregate concrete pavers making secondary trails through the plantings

In summer the park feels heavier and more shaded, although the glades and waterside spaces are filled with meadow species such as meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense), greater burnet (Sanguisorba obtusa), orchids (Dactylorhiza) and sown annual meadows.

Below: young spring foliage of Greater Burnet and Meadow Cranesbill in a sunny open area, with emerging Royal Fern fronds

Unlike a lot of nature gardens these sites are neither unkempt nor scruffy but are designed to produce breathtakingly colourful wild-flower landscapes. They definitely require detailed and skilled maintenance, and it is a tragedy that we are losing even the most basic capacity to do this sort of thing in UK public spaces.  Although I don’t restrict myself to the use of native species only, I have found the pictorial nature idea to be profoundly important in shaping my own approach to using plants.

These parks were designed by a unique partnership between a landscape architect and a botanist/horticulturist.  For much more detail on the history and design, see this article by Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury from The Garden magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society

Visit the Heem Park website (with English summary) here

Below: a rowing boat sits in a channel lined with sedges and Alders.

Below: a) dead wood left lying as habitat for invertebrates and fungi; b) bench surrounded by Wood Anemones; c) winding path through woodland wildflowers; d) wood anemone