Great biological diversity in a relatively small area: That's my idea of a garden. Of course, the surrounding area plays an important role. But there's little or nothing you can do about that. Many gardens are dull and dreary lawn deserts, interspersed with oases of mainly exotic, zealously trimmed shrubs and conifers. A crying shame. A garden teeming with life demands an utterly different approach. Not convinced? Then perhaps this site will win you over.
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Down to the ground

Towards the end of 1988, my future wife buys a terraced house in Ghent. In February 1989, I move in with her. We are very happy there. Our cycling tours and holidays in the North of France and the Flemish Ardennes, however, make us long for a green and peaceful environment. For a while, we think about moving to Picardy or Normandy. At the time, rural homes are going for a song there. Eventually, we decide to stay in Belgium after all. But our hunt for a suitable rural house we can afford is unsuccessful. The only place we find that looks somewhat promising is in need of a thorough renovation. According to our consulting architect, however, the property is what the Americans call a money pit. Renovating it would cost us more than tearing it down and erecting a new house. A crushing verdict. And so the search goes on. In the autumn of 1995, I call an estate agent to find out more about a property in the vicinity of Geraardsbergen. Too late, the house is already gone. On the phone, the estate agent tells me about a building plot that has just been put up for sale. Interested?

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Not holier than the pope

If all city dwellers that move to the country were to put up a house on an empty plot, we'd soon run out of countryside. That's what happened to the village where I grew up. Beernem still portrays itself as a green, rural municipality. Not entirely unwarranted, but today the fields and forests of my youth have gone. My old neighbourhood is spattered with soulless new housing estates. The streets are empty. No children playing. In the background, nothing but the unremitting drone and boom of traffic on the nearby motorway and the busy connecting roads, like there's a gigantic mosquito buzzing in your ear. In spite of our misgivings about building over the countryside, Marleen and I nevertheless decide to take a look at the plot at Heuvelstraat in Moerbeke, a rural part of the city of Geraardsbergen. Just out of curiosity. It is love at first sight. The plot is situated on a gentle slope, in between two existing properties. To the south, it looks out on a broad valley. It is fenced with concrete posts and PVC coated galvanised mesh. There are three ancient large-leaved linden trees, five tall silver birches, a cherry tree and a dozen or so hazel shrubs. Halfway up are a rickety wooden garden shed and a concrete stable. At the back are six terraced houses and a narrow, asphalted walk and cycle path. It's called Mijnwerkersstraat (Miners Street) and connects the site with the railway station and the village centre. A five-minute walk and you jump on a train to Geraardsbergen or Brussels. Perfect for Marleen, who works for a company right next to the Brussels-South station. The surface area of the plot, just under 28 ares, is exactly right for us. It's almost too good to be true. The open space between the numbers 35 and 39 will be built over anyway, perhaps with an ersatz farmhouse or a tawdry Spanish villa with a garden that has all the charm of a golf course. If we don't build here, someone else will. Back in Ghent, I promptly call the estate agent. Can he knock something off the price? Really? A few days later, we meet the owners of the plot and sign a provisional contract. We pay the deposit and ask our architect to design a house. He's listened very carefully and, except for some minor details, the first design he comes up with is spot on. We are sold.

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Smoother than anticipated

We contact some ten local contractors. At the very last moment, we also receive a bid from a company called Piramide. It's very detailed, in compliance with all specifications and within our budget. Building starts in the autumn of 1996 and by June 1997 our new home is ready. All in all a positive experience. We quickly feel at home. To Marleen, a born city slicker, it takes some getting used to. No sirens. No hooting. No noise at night. No exhaust fumes that make you gasp for air. But she soon adjusts. To me, it feels like coming home. After ten years of Brussels and eight years of Ghent, I once again live in a rural village with a small centre and vast forests, meadows and fields. I'm enchanted by the hills of the Flemish Ardennes. "You can live to be a hundred here", mother sighs each time my parents spend a day in Moerbeke. Which is exactly what we're planning to do.

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According to plan

Two years on, we are well integrated. Marleen reveals herself as a consummate gardener and starts growing her own vegetables. But most of the garden is still a jungle. The neglected pasture at the back is grazed by some sheep belonging to our neighbours in number 39. The front is overgrown with nettles, thistles and camomile. We call in a landscape architect but the plan he submits is a letdown. He quite clearly did not listen. Apart from a rather nice set of ponds, we can't find anything that matches our wishes. The kitchen garden isn't situated right next to the house, but in a corner at the back of the garden. There's no chicken run and the garden is littered with trimmed conifers and clipped box hedges. The last thing we want is a formal, so-called French garden. We compensate the man for services rendered. What a shame.

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Great expectations

Of course, I consider designing the garden myself. But I lack knowledge and experience. Which plants to select? Where do you put them and which do well together? More than likely, many plants just won't grow on the heavy loamy soil of our plot. Moreover, I'm just not capable to visualize what the garden would look like in five years time. I gather loads of information from books and magazines, but the conclusion is obvious: this requires an expert. A client gives me the name and address of a landscape architect from Drongen, near Ghent. Johan Wullaert drops by and takes some photographs of the site and its surroundings. We talk for hours and seem to hit it off. A few days later, a surveyor comes round to accurately measure the property. The result is a topographical map with contour lines on which all existing trees and shrubs are indicated. Some soil samples are taken too. Meanwhile, we've bought Johan's book De Wilde Tuin (The Wild Garden). Reading it reassures us. Johan shares our preference for indigenous plants, mixed hedges, heritage fruit trees and a garden that attracts birds, insects, amphibians and other animals. He's all but a lawn fetishist or lover of immaculate borders and flowerbeds. In his book, he pleads for integrating the kitchen garden as a fully-fledged part of the garden. Marleen and I couldn't agree more. We eagerly await the plan. When, by the end of 1999, we finally get to see it, it exceeds expectations. We are over the moon.

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The art of garden design

Johan produces a series of extremely detailed garden plans. Everything's covered, including the botanical names of all the plants. But we also get a magnificent watercolour that gives us a good impression of what the garden eventually will look like. In the front garden, bordering the covered patio, is a semicircular pond. The kitchen garden is right at the back of the house, close to a garden shed with adjoining henhouse. A chicken run, a lawn, an orchard and a mixed hedge dominate the second part of the garden. A gravel path running between two rows of hazel shrubs connects the house with the Mijnwerkersstraat. All other paths, except for those between the several kitchen garden beds, are grass paths. It looks great and we can't wait to begin. But first we need to find a garden contractor to execute the plan. Shouldn't be a problem, should it?

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A long-winded affair

Johan recommends a couple of garden contractors. They drop by, ask for a copy of the plans and promise us a bid for the entire project, with the exception of planting the borders and flowerbeds, which we want to do ourselves. Subsequently, we don't hear anything from them. Not interested? On the phone they tell me they're working on it but that it'll take a little more time. Busy, busy, busy. One of them mumbles something that sounds like "at least a million" old Belgian franks, but one can hardly call that a serious bid. Just in case, we also call in a contractor who lives nearby. He seems enthusiastic, eager to get the job, and promises us a detailed tender within a month's time. We never hear from him again either. We're at our wits' end.

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The darkest hour is just before the clearest blunder

So here we are. A great plan, but no one willing or able to execute it. We suspect contractors prefer to lay out smaller gardens they subsequently also help to maintain. That's probably more lucrative. Meanwhile, the months fly by and our garden is still not much more than a wasteland littered with molehills. A colleague of Marleen gives her the address of a contractor in the vicinity of Halle. The man makes a good impression and submits something that looks like a solid estimate. The price is reasonable and we give him the green light. Work commences in the spring of 2002 and at first all goes well. But soon the guy starts mucking about. When he turns up at all, it's only for a few hours. Most of those he wastes on tinkering with his run-down machines or on picking up building materials he never seems to order or have delivered in sufficient quantities. He improvises, doesn't plan ahead and never finishes anything. To make matters worse, he doesn't seem to be able to read a blueprint and geometry is not his strong suit either. The only thing he's really good at, is submitting bewildering interim invoices and charging us for work never performed. Twice! It is, to put it briefly, a disaster. When, in the autumn of 2003, the owner of a small local garden centre tells us the guy still owns her money for materials he bought and we paid months ago, we are furious. Simply forgot, he claims. Fine. No problem. He can bloody well forget about the rest of the job too.

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A cure for all sorrows

The path running along the back of the garden is too narrow for an excavator or a tractor. Motor traffic is prohibited anyway. That's why the laying out of our garden has to start at the back. In November 2003, when we terminate the contract with our garden contractor, most of the heavy work is done. Well, more or less and not as it should be, but still. We decide to do everything else ourselves. The only problem is the pond. While excavating it, 'that twerp' – that's how Marleen and I refer to our ex-contractor ever since – removed the soil almost right up to the foundations of the house. Not a healthy situation. At the beginning of 2005, we look for an expert in garden pond construction. By now, even in Belgium the Internet is well past its infancy, which greatly facilitates our search. We approach five contractors, one of which, Devoet bvba from Kluisbergen, comes round and submits a tender. It is adequately detailed and the price is good. We make clear arrangements about the timing of the work and sign a contract.
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We hope for the best and prepare for the worst. But work gets under way on the agreed date and there are no delays. What a relief after 'that twerp'! In less than no time the pond is ready. Devoet bvba also builds a short driveway with concrete grass pavers and by the end of June 2005 the company delivers the pond plants. At first, the banks look somewhat bare, but less than two years on they are lush and lovely. The edges of the pond seamlessly merge with the rest of the garden. Just like a natural pond and exactly what we had in mind. As soon as the weather permits, we spend a large part of our days on the patio that borders the pond. Whether it's raining, storming or sunny and calm: the pond makes the view even more spectacular. We're on top of the world.

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Work in progress

Since 2004, every year we try to complete at least one part of the garden. Still missing today are a cold greenhouse, a rather large border halfway up, some kitchen garden beds and a few smaller elements. In the spring of 2011, to the west of the orchard, we plant a relatively large herb and flower patch that is not on the original garden plan.

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Heuvelstraat gets a facelift

In June 1997, when we move to Moerbeke, we are told that Heuvelstraat will soon be completely rebuilt. Nine years later, the long overdue renovation of the road finally begins. It doesn't take one but almost two years to complete. The road surface of 1936, apparently already made of wartime concrete for bomb shelters and bunkers, is replaced by asphalt. The roadway is narrowed. On both sides are a raised red brick cycle lane and – except for the undeveloped strip in front of our home – a grey tiled pavement. Predictably enough, the cycle lane is barely used. Most cyclist in the region are leisure and amateur racing cyclists that prefer to ride on asphalt. It's faster and more comfortable. A gas pipe and separate sewerage system are installed. Unfortunately, there's no money left to replace the antiquated street lamps or to install underground electric cables.

Out of thin air

At the end of May 2009, an exceptionally heavy storm causes havoc across the region. In our garden, the supercell thunderstorm snaps a young pear tree and the three ancient large-leaved linden trees are severely damaged. They need to be cut back drastically. We have it done in the spring of 2010. The trees are saved, but it may take years before their beautiful, broad crowns are restored. They'll never grow as tall as they used to be. Consequently, on an aerial photo taken at the end of August 2010, a large part of the garden that would previously have been hidden is visible. We count our blessings.

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The sweat of our brow

Whether waste and environmentally aware or not: gardening always takes a lot of time and work, especially when you have a kitchen garden. But I love doing it and it keeps me reasonably fit. Gardening is de-stressing. The only chore I dislike is lawn mowing. What a racket! Fortunately, year after year, the lawn shrinks. This site is not about gardening, however, but about biodiversity in our garden. That's why I end this section with a list of all the plants in the garden, with the exception of the dozens of wild species that established themselves spontaneously. Today, the list already comprises over 200 species and varieties, most of which we've planted ourselves. In the following years, many other species will be added, so I'll regularly update the current PDF file. In the long run, every species will have its very own illustrated page in the section
Plants. Every year our rural garden looks better and
attracts more life. But it'll take some time before all of the 2,794 square metres are completed. Then we'll start to redress all the blunders 'that twerp' made. Some golden advice: ask your garden contractor for a detailed bid and never sign a contract that does not stipulate a clear timing and a penalty clause. It's also a good idea to ask for certificates, diplomas and references. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the profession is not regulated. Anyone can call himself a garden contractor. Including a twerp that doesn't even know how to lay out a lawn or plant a fruit tree. Don't be fooled!

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Geraardsbergen, 7 December 2010.
Latest revision: 9 July 2014.