First there were rocks…

I am a botanist. I studied taxonomy, I learned all about plant ecology, I spent days looking at pollen grains under a microscope, I became a master of identification keys. Life made me deviate into horticulture, or shall I say, the art of understanding how to keep plants alive in cultivation.

There is however one field where I have to confess my ignorance, and that is garden design. Last year, I was invited to talk at a conference in Sweden entitled “We love plants“, with a range of celebrity landscape architects and garden designers such as Great Dixter‘s Fergus Garrett, or Hermannshof‘s Cassian Schmidt. Scary.

The conference in itself was fascinating, with examples from the USA, Ireland or Germany on how to use lessons learned from ecology to achieve intelligent garden design. The following day, we were invited for a rather unexpected trip to an old limestone quarry in Limhamn, a few kilometers away from Malmö city center. You do wonder what garden designers and plantspeople may learn from a visit to a quarry? Don’t think. Look.

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The quarry is a giant hole of 1300 by 800 meters, and more than 60 meters deep. Activity there began in 1866, and ended in 1994. In 2010 the site became a nature reserve. The old factory building, marked by visitors, seems to be as one with the mineral landscape.

Perhaps in an even more surprising turn, the quarry is home to a work of contemporary art, “Imperfect geometry for concrete carry”. British artist Mike Nelson exhibited at Malmö town hall a work made of 480 tonnes of concrete blocks, and had the idea of reusing the blocks for an installation at the quarry, which is now visible from the hills above.

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Amongst this intensely mineral environment, life thrives, if one can see it. Here, willow catkins floating in the wind…

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There, a patch of coulour with a coltsfoot flower (Tussilago), the long haired leaves of mouse-ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), or the dainty rosettes of Draba verna.

The reserve hosts a wide diversity of animals, including mammals (roe deers, badgers, polecats, hares…) and bird species which are threatened in Europe – eagle-owls (Bubo bubo) or peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus).

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This is not a garden, of course. This is a man-made landscape that has been reclaimed by nature. A year later, it does remind me of the controversial show garden made by  James Basson at Chelsea Flower Show 2017, a recreation of a Maltese quarry. Of his garden, the famous designer said that it is “not supposed to be pretty”, that it is about “man and nature reacting together over the course of time” and about how important it is “to preserve the fragile balance and celebrate the wonder”.

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Few people would want such a garden in their backyard, but to me it carries an important message. Too often one sees gardens which are visually-pleasing gathering of plants, only surviving that way with intensive care, pesticides and watering. Plant choices should take in consideration the landscape, the soil, the ecology of the plants and the local climate. And they will have to do so in the future, with urban pressure, climate change and increasing pests and diseases problems. Without saying we should convert all gardens to naturalistic prairie plantings (which still require maintenance!), I think it is time for gardeners to start thinking about the logic and the impacts of their plant choices. You wouldn’t plant an oak tree a meter away from a house wall. Why then try to keep a lawn country-green in a south-facing garden in the middle of London?

A quarry is no backgarden, but it does offer a unique perspective on the link between man and nature. Here in Limhamn, almost 25 years after the quarry closed, life is reborn from rocks and concrete, inviting the visitor to a form of contemplation. Could these hybrid places help our cities, made of concrete, to re-build their link with nature?

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