Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Today I would like to share an interview with landscape architect Victoria Lintner and owner of “Naturnahe Zaubergärten” (translated: natural Magic-Gardens). Victoria planned the redesign of my little natural garden and was so kind as to give me a Skype interview on the topic of natural gardens on 20th March 2020. It took me a little while to prepare it for the blog... Have fun with our very interesting conversation! (There is also a german version available)
Alexandra: Hello Victoria, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you come to design natural gardens? Viktoria: I've always been fascinated by nature, even as a child, and we've always been outside a lot. My mum has also promoted this very much and I thought I definitely want to do a job in this direction.
After graduating from high school, I wanted to know what could be done in this direction. At the BEST (vocational and study information fair) I was recommended to study biology. I studied this for a year at the University of Vienna - but it wasn't quite what I had imagined. It was also very crowded. I was really unhappy. By chance, I came to the Open Day at BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences) and there a student introduced me to the study of landscape architecture and landscape planning. I liked that very much and my mum also said that this would be something I might like. In addition, in the Master's degree programme, I was able to set further priorities. And one of them was conservation. So it was clear to me: “Okay, that's it!".
I never regretted making the change and studying. Towards the end of my studies, I thought about how I could further integrate nature conservation with a job. I came up with the idea that a natural garden is most similar to nature and that's how I wanted my job to look like.
Victoria: In my last semester I started to work in a perennial nursery on the side because I wanted to gain practical experience. After graduation, Istayedforawholeyear. Before that, I asked what it would look like to be self-employed. You need a year's practice for the trade license-so I stayed there. Traditionally, gardens and therefore also garden planning companies are mostly concerned with aesthetics. But I've always missed the idea of nature and ecology. I asked myself, how can you change that or do it differently? In the end, the only way to do this was through self-employment-so you can do what you think is right.
Alexandra: What is the current demand for natural gardens? Do you get the feeling that it's getting more, that people are more interested in it?
Victoria: Well, I have to confess, in the beginning, it was difficult to get some publicity. But especially the younger generations, when they want to plan a garden, nature conservation is often the most important aspect. But just last year in the summer there was funnily a change at the customers. Older generations were also interested in nature conservation. I think it's increasing a bit overall. Fortunately, it is also being pushed more by the media - not right now, but before that (before Corona-Lockdown) (laughs). Especially the death of bees, which I noticed very much last year, was suddenly really the focus. And with bees, you can do a lot with beautiful perennials and woody plants a lot. Overall, there has already started a bit of a change in how people are thinking about this.
Alexandra: Yes, of course. People who are already looking for someone who is committed to nature conservation to planning their garden hopefully really want a near-natural garden. But it's also nice to hear you're picking up a trend here.
When you look through the landscape, in Austria, or in other countries, I always find it amazing how all the gardens look alike. Typical Thujen hedges and these terrible short-cut lawns. And I also lived in Switzerland for a while and there the rock gardens are in fashion right now. I have the feeling that a kind of counter-movement is forming here. On the one hand, there is this philosophy of clinically pure gardens and now, fortunately, on the other hand, more and more people want natural gardens.
Victoria: Unfortunately, the majority of people in Austria still want the typical English lawn and Thujen hedges. The climate is now playing into our hands - people are noticing that it is no longer working. This is probably one of the few positive aspects of climate change. The English lawn, Thujen, etc. - they are overwhelmed by the drought. But yes, most people try it this way and only when it doesn't work, you think about it. Stupidly, the opinion has become established that this is an easy-care garden! But it is not at all easy to maintain! On the contrary - a natural garden, once the beds have fully grown, is much easier to maintain! Unfortunately, however, this has become firmly anchored in society the other way around.
Alexandra: Personally, I have the impression that it is mostly about order. When it comes to natural gardens you hear people say a lot: “But what will the neighbours think? It looks unkempt!"; or “If I don't mow my lawn every two weeks, the neighbours will be talking!“
Victoria: Yes, unfortunately, this has been the beauty ideals in gardens for a very, very long time. You are planting very loosely and leave the earth bare and then you pluck a little bit of the weed. But the earth stays open, that's chic. This is the most terrible thing that can be done to the Earth! But this is, as you say: especially to the older generations, it is extremely important what the neighbours talk about. But as I said, there are others and the mindset starts to change. Nowadays, older generations have also come to terms with this and are doing what they like in their gardens, regardless of the neighbour's opinions.
Alexandra: I really hope that once we redesigned our garden, that we can convince others about the beauty and the benefits of a natural. And maybe we can also create a natural garden on a larger scale.
Victoria: Exactly. If you pay attention to how you design your garden and invest time in planning, then a natural garden can be very beautiful. It doesn't have to look like “herb and turnips" not at all! Unfortunately, that is also a misconception.
Alexandra: Yes, unfortunately. How exactly does a natural garden differ from a conventional garden? What aspects are being considered in detail?
Victoria: The typical garden, which has been or is still being pushed in Austria or in many parts of Europe, has a large, open lawn, then a hedge all around as a privacy screen. Mostly designed as a monoculture and mostly Thujen or bogus cypresses. Every now and then there may be a small “flower bed" somewhere, but mainly something like roses or peonies are used. This is not bad in principle, but the varieties, which are mostly used, are particularly multi-flowered, i. e. with many petals; they are double-filled and thus have no ecological value at all. The stamens are transformed to get so many petals. That means there's no food left for bees. The pollen is gone and the bee needs it. So even if you have flowers in the garden, this species is worthless to nature.
And so, unfortunately, many gardens look like here. This also means that there is a lack of biodiversity. And this is, of course, the big advantage of a natural garden. There you have an incredibly high biological diversity. This means that care is taken to ensure that many different flowering plants occur. They are simply filled flowers, which insects can use. Care is also taken to attract a bird spectrum through bushes. In addition, very, very important are the many small soil organisms, which are usually ignored. But with them, everything stands and falls in the ground. This close-to-natural circular economy, which is the result of this, also usually gives you a healthy soil. A natural garden offers this circular economy. But it is missing in the typical, “normal"; gardens.
Alexandra: Interesting (laughs). And that's where all the work comes from. One has to compensate these missing processes somehow…
Victoria: Exactly! A good example is e. g. For example, the mole. Many gardeners regard him as a mortal enemy, although he is actually - and I really want to emphasise this here -very beneficial! A mole doesn't eat roots! It eats earthworms and other harmful insects in the soil, e. g. For example, the mole cricket, or grubs. In these cleared gardens, there are only very few earthworms in a large area. That's why the mole has to rummage through everything and, of course, makes his piles everywhere. We have a mole in our natural garden for many years now, which does not cause us any problems. He stays under the beds, where he gets his earthworms and every now and then he makes a pile inside the bed, where you can't see it. And this is just one example of how a natural cycle works in a natural garden.
Alexandra: I have a question about mice. I have a mouse in the garden. She doesn't bother me very much unless she comes to the apartment where she was twice already - that was less funny then (laughs). But do they also have a useful function in the garden?
Victoria: Mice are the typical omnivores. They eat all sorts of things, including dead things. If an insect dies somewhere, or if there's an excess of berries, they'll eat it all away. Moreover, as mean as that may sound, they are also food for many other living beings, which in turn hold this whole cycle together. So mice are not pests! They are more or less the waste recyclers if you like to call it that. So they're good in the garden (laughs).
Alexandra: I also don't have the impression that the mouse has a great interest in my vegetable bed, and that's not a raised bed.
Victoria: Exactly. If she eats the vegetables, it's more like dodging. Before there's nothing, she'll eat it. But if you leave for example a bit of foliage, where there are many insects underneath, or if she finds grains, then she prefers to takes them than the vegetables.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. Next question: What is your approach to planning a natural garden?
Victoria: What is important, of course, is what the customer wants. Are there any wishes and concerns? The second is the conditions oft he location? Is the garden shady or sunny? Where is it shady, where is it sunny? What are the soil conditions like? If it is near a river, is it more humid there, or is it very rocky?
Then I choose my plants. I have a certain assortment of plants that I know always fit well. I have tried it on my own, or know it from other experience, for example in the perennial nursery, It is important to me that the plants fit into the respective location, because only then can they really show what they can do.
All in all, you have to make sure that everything fits together. You have to take all the wishes into account and still enhance the ecological value of the garden.
Alexandra: And when you know what conditions prevail, how do you select the plants in particular?
Victoria: I generally see that a mini-ecosystem is emerging. There are, like with vegetables, species that supports other species. This is how the described circular economy must come together. This is very important to me. In addition, it is important to me to promote soil life. Most people like to forget the soil, but if it doesn't work, the plants simply don't grow. That's why I like to plant individual species, especially the perennials, in larger groups, which support each other, and then become a large organism. The roots can grow together and a large, social community emerges. The soil is protected until it is overgrown, with bark mulch, that also keeps it nice and moist. It also promotes the spread of soil fungi, e. g. B. Mycorrhiza mushrooms. They are also often forgotten, but they enter into symbioses with plant roots. The fungus reaches nutrients and water that the plant roots cannot tap, because the roots are too thick. In return, the fungus obtains nutrients from the plant because photosynthesis produces what the fungus itself cannot, for example, glucose. It's a nice, classic symbiosis. And the mushrooms also have the great property that they do not adhere to a plant species, but then dock with the one next to it. This means that the plants are also networked through the fungi. The network is created by taking plants that are suitable for the location.
In addition, you should not cut old perennials in autumn and remove the cut. You cut it in the spring and leave it. This creates a layer of humus and thus a real small ecosystem in the garden, where the circular economy works.
Alexandra: That sounds really exciting. I can't wait to see how this will work in my little garden!
What advice do you have for people who want to make the garden ecological by themselves, but have little to no previous experience? I've been trying this experiment for the last two years. I was interested, but my parents never had their own garden, so I didn't learn it as a child. I designed my garden according to “Trial-and-Error" and that wasn't very successful (laughs). What could have been done better?
Victoria: It really takes many years to get previous knowledge. The garden is an area that you don't just dice together from plants. You have to consider the soil, the climate, the wildlife, the plants and the location conditions. Then, of course, the ecology of the animals is added.
So there's a lot to consider. And I would honestly say that when it comes to planning, it really makes sense to get help. Scouring it yourself is very extensive. There's an incredible variety of books, good tips, garden magazines. Over the years, however, I have also found out by trying that there is often more emphasis on aesthetics. There you see a lot of colourful flower beds. This often doesn't work in reality. Either the site conditions do not fit, or the plants would not fit next to each other. Some are tolerant of drought, others want a damp location. And they're often packed up in books. Of course, the layman has no idea when he sees something like that in a magazine. That's actually very mean.
I also noticed that plant nurseries or plant shops do not always label the specie of the plant signs 100% correctly.
To see through that as a layman is very difficult. We must not forget that we are talking about sentient beings. In other words, “let's try it out"; is always difficult. You put a lot of living things together and see what holds out and the rest dies. This is also due to the fact that plants, unfortunately, do not have a very high priority in our society. When planning a garden, my recommendation would be to consult with people who are familiar with natural gardens to help with the planning.
You can do the implementation yourself! There's not much you can do wrong. You can then grow with your garden! It's really interesting to see how everything grows and thrives. This is then a successful experience!
But if you really don't want to involve anyone, it's difficult. Apart from the fact that you have to read conscientiously and a lot, you should then check the plants again if they really fit the location.
Alexandra: Yes, I can imagine and that's how I felt in the end. One thing that surprised me a lot as a garden newcomer is how expensive a garden is. Especially when you have to plant new things all the time. That was a crucial point, why I thought to myself, I now invest once and meaningfully in a garden planning and for that hopefully, I no longer have to constantly replace plants. How long do the plants that you have planned for my garden last?
Victoria: Yes, definitely! That's why I like to use primarily shrubs and perennials. These are trees, bushes and many climbing plants. They can definitely get many years old. Unfortunately, it can happen that a species does not thrive in a garden, although the conditions would actually fit. It is often due to the microclimate that you simply can't see.
This has to be taken into account when planning with living beings. But in principle, they are designed to come back every year. If you do not cut off the perennials in autumn, but leave them standing over the winter, the leaves are on the one hand a winter protection, in which Ladybugs and many other beneficial insects can hide and hibernate there. On the other hand, the plants can also seed a bit. That doesn't mean they're scattering like wild things. Many plant seeds often only fall directly, or nearby, and thus the bed rejuvenates again. This means that when the elderly begin to weaken at some point, the soil there becomes freer and then the seeds can germinate there again. It's a cycle that should really last for many years.
After 20 to 30 years, a plant species, especially the perennials, can light up somewhere and you have to put new plants in between.
The woody plants, however, should survive us all. Unless it strikes them from some weather extreme. Of course, it is assumed that you take care of them - extreme drought, etc. must of course also be compensated in a natural garden. But otherwise, the bushes we have planned should last a lifetime.
Alexandra: That sounds very nice!
I very often have a discussion with other garden owners about the impact on the environment of their small area: “What does my small area matter? Gardens are only so small, it doesn't matter what I do there, there's so much nature all around anyway!"; What's your answer to a statement like that?
Victoria: So in principle, it is the case that people on the one hand always say: “As an individual, I can't do anything! What am I supposed to be able to do?"; And what they really can do, they don't. If everyone were to design their garden close to nature, this would be an area on which nature would have the potential to partially recover.
Statements such as “There is enough nature all around"; must also be considered. We have a great many wooded areas, that is true, at least for Austria. But we also have a lot of agricultural lands, which is not bad in principle, but unfortunately, the agriculture that we operate is only an ecological one to a lesser extent. This means for example Herbicides are used on the fields. Indirectly, the so-called field corridors, i. e. the paths to the field, are also caught and freed from this so-called “weed", which is actually arable wild herbs and thus food for bees and birds. That is to say, the biodiversity there has been very much reduced in recent decades. You can tell. In some species of birds, for example, the field sparrow, there were total burglaries in the populations. They are not yet endangered, but it has been noticed that the populations are becoming smaller and smaller. We've seen it in our garden, too. At some point, I started to promote sparrows by starting to design the garden ecologically and offering all-year-round feeding, as there is often not enough food left in nature. This has become problematic especially in the time of the upbringing of the young ones. Because I fed them regularly, I also gave them perennial beds, where they can get insects for the baby food and we also provide them with a watering hole, we now have 20 to 30 sparrows here. Now they migrate more to the fields! So you can do something as an individual! The same applies to bees. Since we have such an incredible variety of perennials, we have many different bee species. And all this from early spring to autumn. I had a customer last year who wanted to promote bees. We planned her bed in spring and she implemented it immediately. Although the plants were still relatively small and young, I met her again in autumn and she said: “That was awesome, we have had bees this year at once and species that we have never seen before!". And that with freshly planted, small beds! So you can also promote local populations through small gardens and see that they can also establish themselves for a long time. I think it's worth using every garden (laughs).
Alexandra: Yes, that's also my motivation for the garden redesign. Even in spite of the whole Corona situation I wanted to start with the conversion because in the warm weather you can already notice how eager bees and bumblebees are looking for food. And I live in Vienna! And it's sad that they often find more food in the city because there are more flowering plants than in the country! That's kind of absurd!
Victoria: Yes, that's why it's said that the city honey is healthier than the country honey. There are insecticides that have a systematic effect on the plant. This means that the herbicides go into the plant and when the bee drinks from the nectar, it absorbs the poison, although it was actually not intended for the bee. These are so-called neonicotinoids. They have now been forbidden, thank God. But there are, of course, many such means. That is why it is often the case that the bees are sometimes sicker on the land than in the city. There are then small gardens, allotments, or balconies where people put many kinds of flowering plants that they do not spray. Of course, natural gardens do not use insect repellent. But should you really have a problem with aphids, for example, there are also biological insect repellents.
Alexandra: Yes, because of aphids I am also curious when our natural garden is finished. At the moment, as almost every spring, our little maple in the corner has many aphids, but fortunately, he copes pretty well. I only want to use as much insect repellent as is absolutely necessary. If anything, we use with biological ones. Highly cultivated plants such as roses, which we still have from the previous owners, have much greater problems with aphids. I am curious to see whether this might change in a positive way now that more beneficial insects can be lured into the garden. I'd like to see that happen. The great tit pair that often visits our garden likes to sit in the maple quite often and they obviously also eat the aphids.
Victoria: I was just about to say that, in addition to the sparrows, the great tit population has also increased very much around my garden. The tits are insectivores and the sparrows are more of grain-eaters. The tits get the aphids when they have the chance. Our Holler and the common snowball get aphids every year. The lice are only specialized in these species, so they don't go at any other species. In the spring, the ladybugs and the tits finally come and then they're gone. Here, too, you can see the functioning cycle.
Alexandra: That's very fascinating and I hope I can watch this in my little garden as well! You also always add care tips to your plan folder. There I read, insect hotels with different types of holes and niches are not so well accepted. I have a typical model from a garden supply store and I'm not sure if there is anything living inside. Should I replace it with a model that specializes only in one insect species, Wild bees for example?
Victoria: Yes, that would make sense. In the course of time, I found out that many insect hotels are not ideal. For example, the red part would be for earworms. But the slots would have to be at least 30cm long so that they even notice, that could be interesting! Even then - if you have a pile of leaves in the garden, they prefer to use it than these boxes. The same applies to butterflies. They don’t really accept the butterfly boxes. They prefer piles of leaves or branches or other natural structures. The garden usually offers more than a box. Then there are the fir cones: they definitely have no ecological value, unless you want to promote any spiders.
But what is well accepted by bees are bamboo tubes or holes in a piece of wood. But you have to make sure that no wood shavings stand away otherwise, it would tear the bees wings apart. Wild bees are not state-forming like our honey bees, but solitary bees. A female takes care of the brood. If this one female dies, she has no offspring. That means she won't nest anywhere where she's afraid something's going to happen to her. It also makes sense to put in a grid approximately 5cm in front of the holes, because birds like the great tits also like to plunder the bee nests. This year a gang of great tits plundered my bee nests in winter. This was very infuriating. For wild bees nesting aids generally work well when you set them up in early spring or winter. Then the wall bees, these are spring bees, are very likely to accept them. You also have to know that wild bees are not there all year round. The females die after 3 to 4 weeks and then the larvae develop, which hatch in the spring. Wild bee species are therefore only active for a certain period of the year. There are many different species throughout the year. If you set up a second nesting aid in early summer or summer, then the bees have time to settle in the other hotel. Then we're back to the cycle!
Alexandra: I'll take that to heart and adapt my hotel a little bit! Now I have one more question about foliage. I have a lot of foliage in the garden because luckily I have a lot of trees in the courtyard. Should one simply leave the foliage in the near-natural beds or should one remove it at a certain point in time?
Victoria: It depends on how high the layer is. If there is a layer of 20 cm of foliage in the beds, then it is too much. Over the winter you can leave it lying, which is then a nice heat buffer and also keeps the earth nicely moist. But in spring, I would remove it by about half. Foliage is a good compost material. So if you have a compost heap, you can add the foliage here. If the layer is only around 5 to 10 cm, to begin with, then I would just leave it. The perennials grow through it and have a good protective layer. Snails, for example, don’t like to drill into this moist foliage. They prefer it when the ground is bare and they can eat the growing plants right away. In addition, the plants gather strength under the foliage in winter and then grow very quickly as soon as it gets warmer. The foliage also forms humus and gives off nutrients.
Alexandra: Yes, thank you so much for all the valuable information and for your time”
Victoria: Of course!
I hope you are as inspired and motivated to change things in your garden as I was after taking this interview. If you want to learn more about "Naturnahe Zaubergärten" and Victoria Lintner just click on this link to go to her website (unpaid advertisement).