As time goes on I become more and more inspired by nature, observing increasingly stronger connections between garden design and natural landscapes. So whilst our recent trip to Norway didn’t leave me under any illusions that Norwegians, on the whole, are mad keen gardeners, it did leave me that little further along the learning curve when it comes to garden design.
You can’t blame the Norwegians for having little more than a lawn, a few shrubs and, occasionally, the odd block of carpet bedding at the average suburban home. Having visited in mid to late August, we discovered many restaurants and hotels had already closed for the season, with others imminently following suit. They told us how they will now paint their properties over the winter, before opening their doors again in late May or early June. I found it quite impossible to get my head around this.
But it did explain a lot. Not least of which was the cost of holidaying in Norway. They literally open their doors for three months a year in the western fjords. One can only assume the gardening season has a similar fate and indeed when the wind picked up, showers of golden leaves gave a very foreboding August autumnal feel to the place. As we drove out on our last day, the temperature gauge was reading 4.5 degrees.
The funny thing was, as we hiked around Bergen, Balestrand and Geiranger the vegetation was strikingly familiar. Rowan trees, birches and the odd oak tree stood above wild foxgloves, Achillea and pink clover. It could easily have been the UK. The only discerning difference was the abundance of conifers; spruces and pines standing tall for mile after mile after mile. It very much reminded me of our trip to Canada last year and of that unmistakable smell of Christmas!
The pure scale of the landscape was also very Canadian; almost impossible to capture on ‘film’. The fjords, not generous rivers as I had envisaged, but vast open lakes, or even more sea-like in scale, even quite far inland. I was reminded how nature on a scale like this makes you feel so insignificant and yet so good. Almost as though the mountains are giving you a reassuring hug, just like huge parental arms comforting you as a small child. Problems seem so small and trivial and you can’t help but feel a real connection to the world.
A connection that is so different to anything you can feel in the city. A connection not to newly built structures, but to landforms that – in the case of the fjords – were created some 400 million years ago.
It also made me a little homesick for Australia. I adore the rolling English countryside, but you can’t call the green patchwork of fields ‘natural’ as such. The scenes in Norway held that same captivating rawness that so much of Australia possesses: genuinely untouched wilderness. Something that is much harder to find on my small island.
And it struck me that the colours of Norway were almost as glorious on a cold, wet day, as under bright, blue skies. The reflection of all that green vegetation keeping the water glowing as the rain came down. The mustard, cream and burgundy coloured buildings popping brightly between the conifers, no matter that thick, white cloud sat only metres above. It was a revelation that views could be that bright and spectacular without a glowing blue sky, if only sufficient greenery is present.
We saw the fjords by car rather than boat, enabling us to experience a few special, non-coastal places as we travelled. We found ourselves negotiating rather tight, rather winding roads in a rather large, rather luxurious BMW 5 Series to our immense surprise, having booked an ‘A3 or similar’ and expected the key to a small KIA to be placed in our hands. It turned out neither aircon nor heating were offered in this ‘luxurious’ car and cursed AVIS as we drove from 26 degrees in sunny Bergen down to 4.5 degrees on the very chilly Trollstigen mountain plateau, realising we were paying them an extortionate ‘one way’ fee to relocate their car back to the service centre at Oslo for repair.
But nonetheless, we did get to see the UNESCO stave church near Kaupanger, built in an incredible 1140, with a highly enthusiastic and knowledgable archeologist as our guide. The town around it had disappeared in the fifteenth century – a combination of the Black Death and a civil war – but is now alive and kicking again and the tight community pack into the parish church on Christmas Eve and special occasions. Services still run every Sunday, with the heating being slowly activated from Thursdays to avoid cracking the timber.
And the drive through the deserted Trollstigen plateau was quite surreal; way above the tree line, possibly the bleakest place (and coldest drive!) we had ever experienced. But as we continued along the empty, winding roads we started to pick out more and more features of this stark landscape. More variation in the colours, an absorbing mix of textures and forms. Having wondered where on earth I had brought us, I quickly warmed to this most desolate of places (as I rubbed my hands together in an attempt to avoid frostbite; I dread to think what winter would be like). It really made me open my eyes to what was in front of me.
But what of garden design?
The key take away, for me, was that whilst I adored the untouched nature of the fjords region and thought back with fondness to the rawness of Australia, I realised that, in fact, it was scenes of contrast that actually made me stop the car in amazement. It wasn’t just water and trees, it was water and trees set off against cleared areas with large lawns and typical Norwegian houses that had me transfixed by its beauty. The contrast between the new and the old, the wild and the tamed and the inhabited and uninhabitable, that most caught my attention. You appreciate each so much more for seeing it in contrast with its opposite.
Just as herbaceous borders are set off to perfection by very solid stone walls or manicured yew hedges and clipped topiary looks stunning amongst otherwise vertical, loose meadow plantings, the same thing rang true on a much larger scale. Seeing the effect of contrast play out like this across a whole landscape makes sense of how we design; it consolidates the learning and helps refine our approach. To realise for yourself why something works so well is the most robust form of learning.
I’ve just started reading Arne Maynard’s delightful book, ‘The Gardens of Arne Maynard’, this week. He talks of ‘relaxed confidence’ as a style of garden design, going on to describe:
‘Looking back over the development of my ideas about garden design, I recognise that the older I get, the more confident and relaxed I want my gardens to be (with the maturity that comes from not trying too hard), and the more I want to work with nature.’
I simply couldn’t agree more; it’s funny when a book comes up just at the right time to take your learning to the next stage. Having cheated a little and flicked through many of the photos in this glorious book, I find his work simply exquisite. I’m just itching to read on!