Unravelling Gardens

Along the Ijssel, a river that partly forms the border between the two eastern provinces Gelderland en Overijssel in the Netherlands, one can find a beautiful biodynamic garden known as De Oosterwaarde. For over a timespan of twenty-five years, its farmers have been growing all sorts of vegetables and have recently dedicated a part of their grounds to the production of fruits, such as berries, apples and pears. Even though the farm is only a quarter of a century old, the soil on which it grows has been cultivated for over a hundred years. Originally, the fields functioned as the growing plots of a country house that belonged to a prominent family, a house that can still be visited and is within walking distance from the garden. Due to the long history of soil cultivation, during which organic matter and manure has been added intensively, a rich and healthy base — officially called enk degree soil — has formed. Besides the soil, from which we can only see the toplayer, it is the strokes of trees enclosing the garden that remind us of its history: originally planted as low hedges of hornbeam, the bushes have grown out into high trees which now take away all view upon the surroundings of the garden.

Like most professional vegetable gardens, the plots of De Oosterwaarde are arranged through a system of beds, in which the vegetables are grown by type and sort and are planted in long rows. This form leads to a well-structured garden, something that not only works most efficiently, but is also calming for the eye. From a distance, the garden — when fully covered — looks like a solid consistency, wherein all the plants of the same sort seem to replicate one and other. Walking in between the beds however shows that it is only the distance that creates this illusion. Strikingly often, the vegetables grown in one specific row differ strongly in size and colour from the same kind of vegetables grown in the row just besides it. Even more noticeable is that for the greater part, the two outer rows – four rows are used in total – contain the plants that grow fastest.


The Learned Pig

Over the last year I have been working at De Oosterwaarde. Since my decision to become a gardener has only been recent — and this was my first ever attempt to work at a garden full season — most of the situations I encountered where new to me. In some way, I felt strongly that becoming a good gardener meant I needed to understand the garden in its entirety, that only with being able to answer all the whys I could succeed on this new path I had taken. How, then, could I know what has led to the uneven growth I had ascertained?

As a typical product of modern times, I am used to approach my surroundings with reason, objectivity and abstraction. This is how I have been taught to know. I aim, and maybe even expect, to find unequivocal answers and conclusions, as if everything has been recorded in a script in the beginning of our time and has been fixed ever since. To find answers, to be able to understand, I reach for written sources, theories and academic researches. It was henceforth this attitude I had when walking through the garden, aiming to unravel its script and to find the lines that would help me to know how to act next season and create a more stable growth.

Reading through books and books, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. No single source could help me in my search. Possibilities occurred, of course. It might have been the pressure of the tractor wheels that led to a more compacted soil. It could be that not enough manure was given in some specific parts. Or that the seeds were sown too close together in some rows. Maybe there was a lack of nutrients in some places due to the possibility that nothing had grown there during the last season, meaning no organic matter was added to the soil. All seemed plausible but none I was sure of. I felt confused by this uncertainty, insecure about my ability to become a good gardener. How was I supposed to learn how to garden if I couldn’t figure out something that looked so simple in the beginning?


The Learned Pig

I now understand that I have been looking in the wrong place, or rather, in the wrong way. Objectivity, reason and abstraction led to a misunderstanding of the garden. Aiming to recompute the situation and then fix it, I confused the plots of De Oosterwaarde with an almost factory-like space, wherein the plants function as machines whose input and output can be calculated, and the gardener as the person controlling the buttons. A space where all non-human entities, such as animals, insects and fungi, act according to their role. As if an uneven growth was merely the consequence of a single loose bolt.

It has exactly been this thinking — and I now realize I followed this thinking — that has led to destructive farming forms wherein fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are used to control a garden space. It has been this thinking that has led to major interventions in nature by creating seeds in petri dishes, to ‘farmers’ growing tomatoes from an office room overlooking their machinery-like plants. This modern approach to a garden does not acknowledge that subjectivity, experiment, close observation and patient are also crucial in one’s garden practice. When I asked the head gardener about the uneven growth, she responded in a manner that surprised me. She could also only come up with hypothetical answers. The gardener puts her faith in the mere passage of time since she had experienced in another garden that uneven growth will balance itself out again, but that this might take a few seasons. It was hence her experience as a gardener, her observations through years and years, that led to a self-assured response that she did not have an unambiguous answer, bur rather an ambiguous answer. Uncertainty and failure might then be not the opposite of knowing, but rather inherent parts of it.


The Learned Pig

Approaching the end of the season, I walk between the beds for the last time. The leaves of the outgrown hornbeams are already falling off, making it possible to glance at what lies outside of the garden. More trees lie beyond. Maybe they have been planted as well, or maybe they have grown from seeds that coincidentally fell from their mother trees. Again it is a story I tell here, a story that — just like history and gardening — is solely a narration of certain events, and perhaps is only rightfully told when acknowledged it can never be fully understood.


Image credit: Marloe Mens.


This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig


Marloe Mens

Marloe graduated in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Amsterdam. Currently, she is learning how to grow (organic) vegetables, and is researching the relationship between the arts, nature and food.