Do you prefer to work in urban areas or in the countryside?
They each have their own charm. Somerset is in the middle of the countryside and works well. But my work usually has a much stronger impact in cities. On the one hand, because there’s more of a contrast with the surroundings, and on the other, because I usually create urban projects in public spaces, where they are viewed by many more people. I like that. It’s like art. You don’t want to hide it. You want to have it in a museum, not in a private home.
Over the years, your own garden in Hummelo has attracted many people to the Dutch countryside.
True, but outside my own garden, I’m forced to deal with a completely different set of conditions, wishes and interests, as well as restrictions. This challenges and inspires me. Each new project is a playground for me. If I can implement it in a place where millions of people will pass by, all the better.
Why is that?
It’s very important to me that people don’t just see my gardens in pictures, but that they can experience the same thing that happens to me when I walk through a garden. I’m interested in the feelings that are triggered. I react very emotionally to plants, even more so than usual at the moment. This morning I was outside and was deeply moved by what I saw. This sensitivity might also be the reason why I can work so well with plants. From the very beginning, I have seen plants as a means of expressing myself and bringing out strong emotions in other people.
Does that make you an artist? If one believes your admirers, such as the gallery owner Iwan Wirth or the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, then you certainly are.
I leave it to others to say what I am. For some people, I’m just a gardener, while others think my work is art. There are certainly some parallels to art. I work with ideas and points of view, aesthetics, emotions, the way something affects the mind and touches people. But then again, I make something that is so fluid, so changeable. My work is never finished, but is always just the beginning of something. It’s not making a painting and putting it on the wall. It’s making a painting and letting it grow and decay.
But there are more and more people who want to have one, despite the fleeting nature of your ‘paintings’. Does that surprise you?
Sometimes I wonder why I get so much attention and how it happened that I’ve been able to achieve everything I’d dreamed of. It’s certainly to my advantage that I’m doing something that is relevant to the time we live in. Just think of the popularity of urban gardening or sustainably managed farms. Today people are forced to think differently about our environment. My years of experience help me here. Back in the 1980s, I dreamed of gardens that were less decorative and labour-intensive, but more resource-efficient, wild and emotionally poignant. Gardens in which plants that are out of flower wouldn’t be instantly torn out, and where there would also be room for things that don’t correspond to conventional ideals of beauty.
Was there also a political message behind it, a call for more sustainability?
It wasn’t really a deliberate appeal for environmental protection, even if it appears that way in retrospect. Even today, I don’t want to tell people how to act. But if I can inspire an enthusiasm for plants through my work, of course I’m pleased. I rely more on inspiration than confrontation. Over the last 30 years, I’ve tried to offer an alternative to traditional landscape gardening and hopefully my projects and publications have contributed to the way people think about gardens today.
In this light, your success doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it’s a logical outcome of the path you’ve taken.
Yes, there’s some truth to that. But not everything was planned. I’ve come a very long way from my parents’ bar and restaurant to various odd jobs, and then switching to gardening when I was 25. Before that, I never had any idea about plants. In 1982 my wife and I started a nursery out of financial necessity, which would go on to become famous – but I did not receive my first public commission as a garden designer until 1996. So I didn’t start with big ideas but with hard work. Maybe this is one of the reasons why it’s sometimes difficult for me to call myself an artist.