When old and new go together in Malmö, Sweden

As part of the We love plants! conference, our group of speakers was treated to a tour of the city of Malmö. For my 1st visit to Northern Europe, it was a fascinating day of discoveries.

It started with a trip to Pildammsparken (the aptly named “Willowpond Park”), the largest park in the city with 45 hectares of lawns, ponds, wetland and landscaped gardens. The ponds were created in the 17th century as water reservoirs for the city, but the plantings and buildings are much younger, dating back to the 1914 ‘Baltic Exhibition’. The park is popular with runners, families, and is also home to concerts and other performances.

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As the conference took place in March, vegetation was still asleep, but this often offers a different perspective on the garden structure. The park is formally laid out with a single species (beech), around 4,500 trees that are pruned as high hedges designed around a central open grassed circle. The hedge on the right, pruned at waist level, is popular with children who enjoy playing hide and seek behind the trunks. Very impressive.

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Our next stop was the extensive Slottsträdgården, or castle garden, a 1.2 hectare site created in 1997 as an ecological experiment on the grounds of the old municipal tree nursery.  The site is divided into several elements, designed to offer a wide range of experiences to urban visitors – a kitchen garden, an orchard, a rose garden, a Japanese garden, perennial beds, greenhouse…At that time of the year, there are a few patches of colours with shrubs such as viburnums and daffodils. The beds mulched with straw have been planted with thousands of tulips.

I have always thought of Scandinavian winters as cold and wet, yet there is here in Malmö a dry garden with alpine plants, yuccas, succulent euphorbias and even some cactus (Opuntia). How is this achieved? By growing plants on grit and sand, allowing for good drainage in winter, while still retaining moisture in summer. One of the pioneers of this technique is Peter Korn, a Swedish horticulturist who grows his plants in 40cm of sand (see here). While this may sound cruel, it actually encourages the plant to grow a better root system. And it offers other advantages, like wind resistance (the roots go much deeper), and a reduced need for weeding.

The municipal nursery is located behind the garden, and we were given a little tour of their facilities. The city uses large containers for street colour, and in March, the spring planters were just being prepared. Old and new :

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As winters can be harsh, gardeners rely on bulbs to bring early colour, such as crocuses which form large carpets in the city parks. Showy tender plants such as agaves, agapanthus and mimosas are kept inside until the first frosts have passed. The city gardeners also prepare tall towers of pansies to provide additional spring colour, and start young plants for summer beds.

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In the afternoon, fueled by a gorgeous winter sun, we went for a tour of the Västra Hamnen neighbourhood. Built on around 175 hectares of former shipyards in the early 2000s, this neighbourhood was designed to be highly sustainable, combining houses, workspaces, schools and leisure activities in one place. Energy needs are fulfilled by solar panels and use of biogas. Water is omnipresent, and houses are surrounded by open spaces.

Among the new buildings, a spectacular high-rise was also built in 2005, and it has since become a landmark in the landscape of Malmö. Called the Turning Torso, it is 190m tall, and really quite mindblowing!

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The parks in the neighbourhood are dotted with interesting features, such as these bug-like decks which are popular with children, or observation platforms on water streams :

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Rather than trying to break down and move tons of concrete, it was decided to transform the old shipyard slipway into a skatepark, Stapelbäddsparken. Filled with pine trees, lavenders, and decorated with changing artwork and sculptures, this is miles away from the ready-made parks we often see in cities.

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Our tour of Malmö finished on the seaside, with its pleasing but rather mineral promenade.

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We came across the Glass Bubble, a private glasshouse located between two apartment buildings and filled with exotic plants.

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And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Malmö from above…Such an interesting city, with a mix of old and new, contemporary and traditional, which is visible not only in its architecture, but also in other art forms such as cuisine or music.

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