Tuesday, 14 June 2016

This and that: final thoughts from Sweden

Finally for the challenging task of recapping the happenings from my time in Sweden...

It was very busy and went by quickly. So if this blog entry seems hectic or scattered, it's because I'm trying to touch on a little of everything without writing a book. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay longer this time, but hopefully I'll be back one day to see the garden really come alive in summer.

View of the house from the rock garden 

Although Peter has been gardening for longer, he started creating his masterpiece in Eskilsby, just east of Gothenburg (the second largest city in Sweden) in 2002. This once densely wooded and mostly Ericaceous property, is tucked just out of sight and sound of the everyday buzz of an otherwise busy area. Aside from the occasional plane crossing the western sky, departing the nearby airport, I felt as though I was gardening out in some alpine and steppe wilderness- it was an experience unlike any I've had. I lived at Peter's house, on the property, with Peter and his only full-time gardener, Sipke, from Holland. It was really nice to get to know them and learn from their deep knowledge of gardening and plants. 

One of the major ongoing tasks while I was there was helping to get the nursery ready for opening the first of April. The nursery has been and still is considered a specialty nursery, once dedicated to true species and mostly alpine and rock garden plants. Peter, however, has begun to offer more and more garden-worthy perennials (cultivars included) over the years in order to better learn a wider range of plants himself, while providing more selection to customers. Plus, by growing more of these cultivars and varieties, he has a larger inventory to pull from for some of his landscape jobs he does on the side. All this being said, Peter only grows plants he likes or wants to try to like, and isn't too bothered growing plants because "he should."

The nursery

Saxifrages flowering in sales area

They make their own 3 part soil mix (grit, peat and sand), which all new plants and those left over from the previous season are potted into. It's a really nice balanced, free-draining mix, much better than the rubbish you find in most garden center pots. The plants don't dry out too fast as they do in super peaty mixes, nor do they rot as in overly composted mixes. This is a lot of work, especially for just a couple people, but we did what we could (including late night sessions in the potting shed after dinner), while alternating with garden clean up and cut-backs, the other main task while I was there. As long as the nursery and plants are ready and the most intensive areas in the garden are cleaned up, then the rest of the clean up can continue to be done as the season progresses. Again, as it's mostly just Peter and Sipke during the year, it takes quite some time to get all this work done. Plus there are always new plantings and improvement projects going on around the garden. 

Fresh soil mix

Beautifully designed potting shed looks into the garden

Lots of potting up! 

Cut-backs begin 

I would say my main interest in going to visit and work with Peter, besides being interested in seeing his garden and studying his vast plant collection, was his unique work with sand. When I heard him talk about planting in sand last autumn at a lecture in New York, I was immediately intrigued, as I've never heard of anyone else doing exactly what he's doing. In a nutshell, he's planting everything in at least 10" of sand. This isn't your average sandbox sand, but a coarser builder's sand.  After laying out the beds, he bareroots all the plants before planting, which enables the roots to immediately adapt to the sand. If you were to plant a rootball with soil and peat into the sand, the root growth would be altered as the roots would most likely stay in a tight zone around the soil, but equally detrimental would be the water leaching away from the soil, and therefore the roots, down into and through the free-draining sand. But if you plant bareroot plants into the sand and thoroughly soak after planting so that all the air pockets are gone and there is good contact between the roots and the sand, then you will experience less future watering needs and strong root growth early on, which is essential for plant health and longevity. This is due to there being a cool moist zone lower down in the sand, similar to what you might find digging at the beach, which the roots will grow down towards, again encouraging stronger root growth and less frequent watering. 

Most people would look at these early plantings and think they're not looking too good as there isn't much growth above the surface.  Peter showed me examples of plants they planted last fall, by lifting a couple plants out of the ground, and they looked really small on the surface, but the root growth was twice as much as the surface growth! That's just it, and Peter emphasizes this point, "it's the roots you should grow" (as it says inside the first page of his book). The other big reason Peter uses sand is because it does make for lower maintenance, and less weeding. As the desirable plants grow downwards toward the moisture, most of the weed seed can't germinate and grow, because the surface of the sand is too hot and dried out. This is necessary around his garden with a small staff, but it also has major benefits for his landscape jobs where he's also using sand, and where there isn't much time or money allotted for maintenance.  

Hospital roof garden Peter designed and installed last fall

Peter's limestone Rock Garden at the Lund Botanic Garden

It was really special for me to get to see a handful of the projects that Peter is working on throughout Sweden. He has a wide range of diverse jobs he's designing and installing. He is using alot of plants that nobody else is using in commercial jobs, which is refreshing and exciting. Peter's incredible attention to plant needs and natural growth habits guides him in his plantings. By studying and knowing the needs of each plant, Peter is ensuring a high rate of success, while creating more sustainable and efficient spaces.  Not only does he have a great eye and intuition for planting design, but Peter also has a keen sense for space and garden scaping with stone and earth formation. The practice ground for all this, his home garden, really is a manifestation of Peter's attention to nature, his vision and determination.

    Hard to believe this Rock Garden was made by hand

At the end of my stay I was honored to have the privilege to speak at his "Kunskapsdag", or "Knowledge Day" symposium. I talked about my journey in horticulture and how fortunate I've been to have had some incredible opportunities and experiences, and the special people, plants and places that have helped me along the way. I ended my talk by encouraging everyone to never stop learning. There is always more to learn, which is exciting to me, but equally exciting is the opportunity to teach what we've learned to the next person. Like I said, this trip was very quick, but I stilled learned a lot and came away invigorated and excited to explore some of this information deeper on my own, but also to talk about it with others. I don't know about you all, but I feel very blessed to get to do what I do, and eager to keep studying and learning as I keep pursuing my passion! 

I know this is a rough summary, but if you want to know more I do highly recommend his book, available on his website (http://peterkornstradgard.se/boken/), or better yet go visit his garden or go to one of his symposiums and buy a copy while you're there!

         (Photo by: Sipke Terpstra)


  1. Fascinating summary, Ben. Thanks for documenting your experience and sharing it.

  2. Hi James, happy to share, I feel strongly about that. Hope this helps, even in a small way, get more word out about the incredible work Peter is doing. I wish i had written more while I was there, but writing takes a while for me and hard to find time!