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Opening windows

Rob Leopold's lifework

In the early summer of 2005, just a few days before the start of the International Specialist Nursery Days at Bingerden, an event where you were bound to run into him, Rob Leopold suddenly left this world. It is time to find out what influence his work and his personality have had on Dutch horticulture, and on so many other fields.

His reputation was initially made when he founded the small-scale seedfirm Cruydt-Hoeck, producing a first simple catalogue in 1978 consisting of a photocopied brochure on recycled grey paper. It contained a list of seeds of 276 indigenous plants and 73 non-indigenous species and herbs. Starting with the second edition (1979-1980), the Seedlist was illustrated with pictures taken from, amongst others, Rembert Dodonaeus' famous Cruydt-Boeck.
Cruydt-Hoeck became the first company able to provide wildflower seeds from reliable sources, thus catering to the increasing need for indigenous plant material for ecological applications. The last edition of what had meanwhile been named the Big Seedlist (1998) was 212 pages thick, still containing many indigenous species and mixtures for different habitats. The bulk of the catalogue, however, had for a number of years been made up of garden seeds, a collection of some 900 species and cultivars of annuals, biennials and non-hardy perennials, most of which were unknown to the general public. This seed bible was lavishly illustrated - still in black-and-white only - and contained lots of other information. In later years, annual supplements were published, some with seeds selected by other nurserymen such as Hans Kramer and Coen Jansen. The Big Seedlist was especially well-known for its highly informative and sometimes downright lyrical descriptions, such as the following one of the Stipa family:

'Stipas are among the most beautiful ornamental grasses! The seeds carry long, fimbriated plumes, and since they are all leaning to one side, they create the unmistakable impression of a bird of paradise's tail covered with a silver lustre. Especially when the wind is playing through them it's an unforgettable display.'

Cruydt-Hoeck's rise to fame was preceded by long years of toil to get the culture and sale of the seeds started. The majority of the seeds was initially grown around a small cottage, bought in a state of semi-ruin and slowly rebuilt, located in the western part of the Groningen province. The contacts with the customers were very intensive, and over the years an immense network came into being of friends and kindred spirits, all working within the same sphere of mutuality, small scale enterprise and love for craftsmanship.

Nature, art and science

At an earlier stage Rob Leopold had gained a certain renown with the head shop - in the language of the era - named Mandala, set up by his wife, and his activities in the MeMo movement for small scale enterprises in the late sixties. Before that he had had a variegated career as a student of philosophy and dutch and as a Wagon-Lits employee, episodes of his life he would tell many amazing stories about. As a grammar school pupil he had written poems that were published in the Poets' Corner of the Algemeen Handelsblad. Rob was the editor of a selection of the poems published in these pages, Vermoeden van Tijd ('Notion of Time', 1962). His own poetry is steeped in existential doubt, but at the same time one finds in it the onset of his later lyricism:

Laughing I recognise in myself:
a being reflected
in a void,
somewhat wrinkled

The penchant for the absurd which is obvious in these lines would never leave him. One also finds it in the immense volumes of his diaries, containing the correspondence he had with people he considered his soul mates. They also contain many of the conversations he had with them - in the flesh or on the phone - which he reproduced meticulously and added his comments to.

Rob Leopold published articles in professional magazines and worked together with others on numerous projects, dealing with subjects in fields as diverse as nature, horticulture, visual arts, music and philosophy. He was one of the initiators of the Polder Gardens, a major exhibit in the 1992 Floriade at Zoetermeer, where in cooperation with the Collective of Wildflower Nurseries he created a series of gardens reflecting six different aspects of the 'polder' landscape. He helped found the Working Party for Farm Gardens Research, the Group of Traditional Nurseries (among them Piet Oudolf, Coen Jansen, Hans Kramer and Eleonore de Koning) and the Perennial Perspectives Foundation. As for the latter, Rob was the driving force behind this loose international association of professionals from the horticultural world, for which he coined the motto of ‘Creative ecology and integral landscape design’. Each participant translated his theoretical principles and practical knowledge into his own particular approaches towards the design and management of garden and landscape. In 1996, Perennial Perspectives organized the Arnhem conference of the same name, where professionals and interested parties discussed, among others, the use of perennials in public green space. In its wake, articles were published in professional magazines in Sweden, England, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. The symposium papers, edited by Rob Leopold, were published under the title of Perennial Preview.

A new perspective

In 1990, the book Blauwe Bloemen (Blue Flowers) was published, edited by Rob Leopold and containing prose and poetry. Another important publication Rob wrote was what he liked to call his 'manifesto', Nature and Garden Art. The Dutch original was published in 1994 by De Volharding Publishers, Groningen, with a German translation in 1995 and an English version in 1996. It contained his ideas on 'impulses for an integral approach in horticulture, the development of a new plant assortment and garden design with a new perspective.' These subjects were later elaborated in a number of lectures and articles in professional magazines. Recurring similes Rob used in them were 'the garden that opens a perspective in which we can move freely', 'the garden that frees from conventions', the garden 'containing the whole spectrum - from striking form to limitless content, from profound mysticism to exterior decoration...' In his prose, Rob strove for what he called 'syntactic density', which sometimes made it slightly hermetic, a problem he expressed in his diaries when he wrote: 'Again this familiar notion: the more information there is, the less likely it becomes that one can make it explicit' (Jan. 1983). That does not alter the fact that Rob Leopold possessed the gift of the word, not just in his written prose, but even more so in the spoken word. He had the rare talent of bringing people together by expressing their common subconscious ideals.

Rob Leopold's power lay in his 'positive dynamist' approach of life itself and the lyrical way in which he described it. Thus he exhorted people to revisit their ideals, to put them in words and to find forms for them which they could use in their personal or professional life.

Sometimes he was very sad about all the rudeness and lack of understanding he encountered in the world. 'Quantitatively, there is no hope whatsoever', he used to say. Yet, he always returned to his fondest image: that of the liberating perspective, the open window through which the spirit flies towards new horizons.

Leo den Dulk.


Originally published in OnzeEigenTuin magazine, winter 2005 issue.