The Wirtz Garden: “A Free-Spirited Landscape Experiment”

The famed Wirtz Garden in Schoten, Belgium, was neglected for more than 30 years before landscape architect Jaques Wirtz took it over in 1969, writes Metropolis magazine. Since then, the garden has grown into one of the most beautiful in Europe and the subject of a recent (and expensive) coffee table book. While not open to the public, this “secret” garden with its “Lewis Carroll” landscape probably wouldn’t attract hordes of tourists if was open anyway — it’s not “inviting” in any conventional sense.

Metropolis writes: “The plants, at first glance, appear to be pagan creatures immobilized under some sort of spell. In the foreground, the wavy rows of unevenly clipped boxwood, as intricate as cloud formations on Tibetan scrolls, cast strange scalloped shadows on the silky-smooth surface of the dry, sandy walkways. Behind, huddled together in silent expectation, their hooded silhouettes sticking out of the shrubbery like sentries on the lookout, groups of topiaries form small compact battalions. Still standing at the edge of the garden, you hesitate before taking a first step into this well-guarded domain.”

In spots, the garden offers a post-modern mashup of styles. “It integrates 200-year-old moss-covered fruit trees (apple, pear, and mulberry), the last remnants of a dense orchard, as well as ornamental weeping cherry trees, left to blend in with the thick undergrowth. The minute you think you perceive an overall design, you turn a corner and all you see is a patchwork of abstract forms and pixelated foliage.”

Additionally, while the shrubs are well-pruned, the many varieties of plants are encouraged to cross-polinate. During this process of cross-pollination, the natural cycle of decomposition is also allowed to progress. “They’ve let patches of thorny weeds grow under the coral-red canopy of prunus trees, watched approvingly as funky clumps of water ferns nestled between soggy reed stems, and applauded as a thick carpet of fall foliage turned alleys into slippery lava flows. They didn’t bring out the leaf blower when, with winter approaching, the place was strewed with deciduous confetti of all shapes and colors. They were pleased when the pruned evergreens in the back of the garden looked positively giddy covered with red, purple, and yellow serpentine streamers—the windswept content of some giant autumnal piñata.”

Jaques Wirtz now owns a landscape architecture firm with his two sons and works on both private and public projects across Europe. French President Mitterand asked him to re-do the grounds of the Elysee Palace. He also recently completed the Jardins du Carrousel in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris as well as the gardens of Alnwick Castle.  According to Wikipedia, Wirtz was involved in the renovation of the garden of the 1,000-year old temple complex at Khajuraho in India, a World Heritage Site containing over 80 Hindu temples.

However, Metropolis says Wirtz’s high-regarded style all started in his own garden, where he spent 15 of his early years perfecting his landscape architecture techniques. “It served as a back lot where he stored his botanical props—topiaries, hedges, and ornamental trees—and conducted gardening experiments, perfecting his fertilizing, pruning, and clipping techniques.”

Read the article and a lengthy 2004 review of Wirtz’s work in The New York Times Magazine.

Image credit: Véronique Vienne / Metropolis

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