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A different way of looking

For our first Open Days in 1984 we invited Rob Leopold. We had heard about him and Cruydt-Hoeck from Henk Gerritsen, who was among our first customers. The Open Days were meant to generate attention and to bring in new customers. So I phoned Rob who was interested and wanted to join us right away. In the tunnel greenhouse that was to the rear of our house Rob hung all his seed packets for display. I thought it wonderful, I had never seen anything like it.
This first meeting was the start of a long relationship in which we kept growing closer. As Rob started to appreciate garden plants more, he began developing what was to become Cruydt-Hoeck’s Big Seed list, which implied the creation of a kind of symbiosis between wild and cultivated plants. In addition he became interested in classical garden plants such as roses.

We philosophized about the things that were important to us and had intense discussions. He always wanted me to explain what it was that motivated me in my work, where it all came from. This ongoing discussion was sort of a repeating circle, going one stage deeper every time – or one should probably say higher, until it touched heaven. Rob became a very dear friend, and our conversations after the Open Days always continued until 2, 3 o’clock at night. And it was always about the depth, the width, the plenitude of things. Rob believed strongly in the goodness of the world, behind everything that was bad he was always seeing something good. He approached the world with an open mind, and in that respect he taught me a lot.

His way of looking at things was also different. For example, when we visited his friend Dick at Buitenpost, we were walking along the front of Dick’s house. Suddenly Rob exclaimed ‘Stop, stop! You’re standing almost on top of the …!’, I think it was sundew. It seemed he was almost offended by the fact that I had not seen it. All the time trying hard to follow Rob’s drift, I had not noticed where I put my feet. That made me think, and it started me looking at things from a different angle, I began to understand the beauty of these things and I understood that you need to be careful with them. It also caused me to appreciate the aesthetics of natural vegetations more – like alpines: all those troughs planted with tiny plants, all those rock gardens, I did not like them at all until I was in the Alps once, then I suddenly understood. It does not mean that now I like them in a garden, I still don’t.

The organic way in which Rob and Dick worked and let things come into being spontaneously also taught me a different way of looking. It struck me as very important, finding a different perspective, learning to appreciate the fullness of reality. I think Rob looked at the vast range of annuals he saw sown on planting beds and in trial fields. He strove to bring it all together. But combining annuals with perennials was not easy at all; as long as a planting is young it may work, but of course this changes later on. For me it meant I had to choose to work using a different process, one that led to more stability in plantings, although I was very keen on the refinement of pioneer plantings. In your own garden and on a small scale you can keep using annuals, just by removing part of the planting that has become mature and starting the process all over again, every year.

The way I’m working now is not like that, there are certain limitations, my palette becomes smaller. I can still use annuals as a complement in plantings, but you have to be careful: some annuals may hinder the development of perennials. Take for instance Verbena hastata, once it starts self-sowing it does so in the middle of all other plants, or Verbascum, covering large surfaces with its giant rosettes in the first year. So I have become cautious, but still trying to take an experimental approach. Usually I keep working on a scheme until I have the feeling that it is right, that I can go ahead in that direction. Rob understood that at a certain point I have had to adopt my own approach, and when you explained to him what it entailed he could be very enthusiastic.

       
                        v.r.n.l.: Rob Leopold, Ernst Pagels, onbekend

Rob was important to us in that period in that he encouraged my own personal development. He gave us both practical support as well, for example by helping Anja with the organization of the publicity for the nursery. He did that sort of thing for so many people, and he was always connecting people with one another with tremendous energy. It was only during the last few years that his drive seemed to fade a little, but nevertheless he remained interested in what was going on. He no longer was in the spotlights all that much, he had been giving so much already, and besides, the spirit seemed to be gone somewhat from the horticultural world. But I suppose that h appens to a lot of people, that you start restricting your activities in general and concentrate on your own work. I find that in my own life: I am directing all my energy towards my designing, the nursery requires less attention. For myself, I do no longer feel the need to have at my disposal 15 types of Hemerocallis or 20 of Hosta. But of course there has been a vast shift in the plant assortment. Mien Ruys used to say that you had to limit yourself to using the material that was good, but that also changes. And another thing is that you like to let all those different materials go through your hands, you want to be able to make your own choices. Everything is h appening in the context of your time, and you cannot hold on to the range you developed in a certain period: the world keeps turning. On the other hand, being part of the vanguard in these developments makes things a little easier. At the same time you keep an eye on the things that the new generation get its energy from. I tend to think: in ten years time I will be doing what I have been doing, a few steps ahead, and others will be doing it in a different way. Every era has its own peculiarities, and you have to keep an open mind for those.

It is quite significant how the approach to horticulture has come to include the ecological aspects to such an extent: habitat demands, the influence of the surroundings, of nature. Traditional gardening is going completely out of fashion, in ten years time it will be gone, extinct. It is a theme we often discussed with Rob, traditional gardening consisting solely of dogmas, like the colour circle, deadheading, staking, making standard combinations, quickly replacing plants that do not fit the ideal, using pots instead, that type of gardening. Actually these were only plant displays, some times combined into beautiful borders, but always with a degree of artificiality, of which you can only say that in comparison to the previous century it had at least become less prominent.

Our philosophy was: getting rid of the dogmas, of the dictatorship of traditional horticulture. We were constantly discussing this theme, as one of the central subjects in our conversations. This did not mean we didn’t see the importance of craftsmanship: of course we realized that before changing things you have to know how it is actually done. Finding out all the details was quite a job. How for instance could you find plants that would fit the new images you had in mind. And we did find ways; one of them was dropping recurring elements into your planting schemes, and using annuals to create a certain spontaneity and looseness.

It was the phase of breaking the bonds. We were always talking about the process of change, a different way of looking at gardens. Before you did not really look, you just did what you were supposed to. It has radically changed, now it is all about looking: if an element of the planting is looking bad, that is when you cut it back; when a plant has turned brown, you first ask yourself: does this look bad, is it a problem? These days, every time I walk through my own garden I am asking myself: is the balance right? You are actually giving the plants a degree of liberty, but at the same time you are restricting that liberty by constantly watching carefully and taking action when necessary. I remember Rob putting it very aptly: ‘But you have to be careful to choose the plants that are able to cope with that liberty!’

That was how the process developed: grasses appeared in border planting schemes, you noticed that some types of plants did not fit in; we turned to small-flowered plants such as Sanguisorba and all kinds of plants that previously weren’t deemed garden-worthy – the same was valid for grasses, ‘architect plants’ was what they were called. You can still hear that type of opinions, but then there still are so many people still stuck in gardening dogmas, they just refuse to start looking for themselves!
Because we have discussed plantings so exhaustively, we have become aware of all the layers they contain, and of it not just being what you are seeing. Our discussions always revolved around that process, they were themselves part of the process, in which you evaluated and re- evaluated what you were doing, causing it to develop into something new. Rob’s ultimate strength in this process layin his ability to play the role of catalyst, of encouraging people to discuss and think about their activities, and to find new opportunities.

Piet Oudolf