Jacques Wirtz’s garden, Schoten, Belgium

We are given a private view of the Wirtz's family garden, the inspiration and engine room behind some of the most arresting and influential 21st century gardens.

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

The Wirtz garden is nothing short of a marvel and one of the most captivating I have ever seen. The garden is all things: respectful of tradition and formality, yet modern; challenging of convention, yet comfortably familiar; fearlessly architectural, yet soft and billowing. Repetitious, yet idiosyncratic.

Jacques Wirtz’s garden lies hidden along a quiet residential road, behind a wall of giant hornbeam, in Antwerp, Belgium. Once part of a great 18th century estate, the four acre walled garden and gardener’s cottage, was bought by Wirtz in the 1970’s. Apart from some mature trees, the garden was pretty much derelict when the family moved in.

The layout is rectangular and surreptitiously simple, with the largest part of the garden split into four compartments using box hedging to line the main axes. When Wirtz took over the garden, the box hedges were severely neglected. They were full of holes and in parts severely overgrown. Instead of ripping the hedges out and starting afresh, the inspired Wirtz saw potential. He started pruning to revive the hedges, clipping them hard back to healthy wood where possible, following their contours and in so doing revealing their naturally bushy character. The result, is one of the iconic horticultural features of the 21st century; a simply delightful mass of mounds, nothing short of miraculous, resembling billowing waves of green running the whole length the garden.

Wirtz senior did not plan a design for his own garden. Rather, it evolved from the way it was used and from an understanding of the space. The garden was the nursery, the stock bed and horticultural laboratory, where plants were shaped and trialled. The nursery has now moved so that it is closer to the offices, but many of those original plants have taken root and are now permanent features of the garden. These magical plant congregations give the gardens its unique and idiosyncratic character.

The house overlooks the walled garden, which includes a working kitchen garden and herbaceous borders created and still tended by Mrs Wirtz. Even on the grimmest of November days, the borders still looked impressive, brimming with astrantia, campanula, euphorbia, hardy geraniums, but also the simplest of cottage plants such as calendula. The greenhouse, complete with industrial sized cold frames, is home to an incredible collection of orchids, immaculately tended by Wirtz.

According to Wirtz, if a garden is not beautiful in winter, it is not a beautiful garden.

There is no more true a test than to visit his garden on a ruthlessly cold, depressingly grey and rainy winter’s day. I was not disappointed. True to the Wirtz aesthetic vast quantities of shrubs and trees provide structure, colour and interest all year round. Though dominated by evergreens, the garden was alight with coppery autumnal hues, which made even the dreariest of days, lighter and vivid.

The garden, a true secret garden complete with imposing gates, is densely planted, by means of repetition and astute sequencing, using common garden staples, especially shrubs. The result is quite incredible, a magically theatrical garden, with mesmerising rhythm and fluidity.

Not to be missed

For me it was wandering the paths, lined with those iconic hedges and the views through the collections of stock plants that have now made it their home.

Quibble

The garden is not open to the public, as it is very much the family’s own private garden. Hence you’ll just have to take my word for its beauty and all round loveliness however, do not despair, because there are other Wirtz gardens nearby. The University of Antwerpen: Wilrijk Campus has a Wirtz garden that is open to the public. Other Wirtz projects that one can visit include; Cogels Park in Schoten or if you fancy enjoying a baguette sarnie in one of their famous public gardens, pop on the train to Paris to the Louvre to see the Wirtz’s Les Jardins du Carrousel.