The garden under the two Spruces

There is a south-facing slope on the western outskirts of the Leitha-hill range (Leithagebirge), once on the border between Austria and Hungary, now firmly under the control of the Austrian state.

This hillside was once a forest, then probably used for grazing and afterward turned into a vineyard, just to be opened for settlement around 60-70years ago. At this time people build houses on that hillside, and two of those people, a man, and a woman planted two trees a European Spruce and an (American) Blue Spruce. These trees are either not found in the area (the European Spruce grows naturally only in a much higher altitude under moister conditions) or in the continent. They were chosen – unconsciously – to signal to their neighbors and the community that after decades of hardship, war and huger the man and the woman could „afford“ to plant trees whose usefulness to human beings was limited to a (debatable) aesthetic dimension. Tens of thousands of Austrian gardeners followed the trend.

The spruce trees fitted perfectly into the ideology of modernity. They were fast-growing, moved in a straight line towards the sky and attained a constant visual image all over the year (unlike most trees in the area, they did not lose their leaves).

Over the years the trees grew and their branches bowed down to the earth, covering a small area. The people who lived in the house nearby wanted their surroundings to be „clean“ and „orderly“. That’s why they – regularly – raked the ground to „get rid“ of the needles which the trees dropped to the ground. The needles were carefully collected and transported to a dumping place at the edge of the forest. However, with this, they took away all the nutrients that the trees transformed from the mineral matter on which they grew via photosynthesis into organic matter which they and other plants needed for growth in that place. This was especially important since our south-facing slope has only a shallow Humus layer and the bedrock is covered only with less than 40 centimeters of finer mineral soil. This situation makes the place vulnerable to drought and this struck especially the area under our two trees, which slowly dried out and eroded.

To create a garden in such a place, it was first of all important to look for similar places in a more natural environment in the area. In the forest the branches of the trees and their leaves fall to the ground, getting decomposed an, in turn, create a thick humus layer that holds water and nutrients, allowing grass and herbs to grow. This stratum does not only provide habitat for various animals, but it also covers the soil from direct exposure to the elements.

Given the erosion of the place it was important to lay the foundation for further development: giving back organic matter to the soil. For of our space below the two spruces, this meant hay from a nearby meadow which was scarified by the farmer. The entire area with the deprived soil was covered with hay, to protect it from drought and extreme temperatures and – with the slow process of composting – to return nutrients to the soil.

Then to give structure to the garden, and to protect the soil from wind-erosion, wooden branches (mostly from Robinia pseudoacacia, Black Locus, Gewöhnliche Robinie) were placed on the hay in a triangular grid. The branches were taken from a nearby forest, all from debris-wood and measure around 70cm, the length of my fingertips to my armpit. To create a variety of „Micro-Habitats“ some of the triangles were filled with compost, some with wood in various stages of decomposition, some were filled with leaves, some with bark, some with and some with chaff. The triangles which were filled with compost were then planted with plants that were taken from the surrounding area, especially from the nearby oak-hornbeam forest (Eichen-Hainbuchenwald). Here it was important, to only take one or two plants from a group (to keep the interference with the natural ecosystem to a minimum) and to dig them out, as part of a generous piece of soil, to not damage their roots. It was also crucial to do this process fast so that the shock for the wild plants was reduced to a minimum.

The plants chosen for the garden below the spruce-trees are all local to the area, they provide food and shelter for various animals (mostly insects), a number of them funcition as nectar source for bumblebees, wild bees and honeybees (for example Lamium album, the White Nettle, Weiße Taubnessel). However, it was also important to plant species which humans can use for either food or medicinal purposes like Wild Garlic, Onion Grass, White Nettle, Wild Strawberries, Herb-Robert, Cowslip, and Fumewort. The attitude towards the planting and the place, in general, was one of creating a framework and giving initial assistance only to step back afterward to give space and time for independent development. This means that in the coming years’ certain plants will spread within the wooden debris-framework, covering certain areas while having more trouble in taking hold of others. Animals will move in and spread seeds to the surroundings, but also they and the wind will carry seeds into the garden under the spruces. The Black-Locus wood takes relatively long to decompose, the structure it provides (along with the structure of the growing plants) will lead to the accumulation of Spruce-needles but also leaves, which in turn will decompose, slowly building up the Humus Layer. Fungi will feast on the wood, creating an aesthetic value that is not found in modernist gardens. Lichens and moss will grow on the deadwood, while larvae will grow inside. However eventually also the wood will decompose, losing its structure which was bound together for so long by the organic polymers to which we refer as Lignin, dissolving the human-created framework.

The thoughts behind the garden are to establish an aesthetic which is linked to both growth and decay, to create a framework which shows honestly that is was created by human beings and to try to increase the biodiversity of the place, giving space for all inhabitants of the area. It is also an appeal against the concept of „Tabula Rasa“, even if what we inherited (the two non-native spruces) was not perfectly fitting to the place. And since all material was taken from the surroundings, everything carried by hand from within a range of 200 meters it is also an appeal for Localism (the budget was 0 €). The garden under the two spruces tells us: „Work with the place and what it offers!“

And last but not least this also invites the spirit of the place to allow all inhabitants to thrive in a connection that we also human beings can only grasp, a connection which we only start to understand and which cannot be described sufficiently but felt intuitively.