Interview: Ulf Nordfjell
The Swedish designer tells Jackie Bennett he is focused on sustainability
It is a little more than a decade since Swedish landscape designer Ulf Nordfjell first appeared on the UK’s design radar with his tribute to Linnaeus at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2007. His first garden at Chelsea marked the beginning of his international profile, yet even then, he was actually a designer very much mid-career.
Nordfjell first studied biology at the University of Umeå, specialising in ecology and botany – a discipline that underlies all his work in landscape architecture, in which he qualified in 1979. “I have actually been working since 1980,” he says.
Speaking at the SGD Spring Conference 2018 on the topic ‘A light touch’, Nordfjell is clear that he believes a well-designed garden is one that is inherently sustainable – there are no compromises. “To create truly sustainable landscapes is a complex task. In public life, there is a lack of resources and knowledge. You need a background in ecology – you need to know about how soil and plants behave to be able to create these gardens. “In Sweden,” he continues, “we don’t have [the UK’s] history of garden making and planting. Historically, landscape architects have drawn on a limited range of plants.”
He thinks that UK designers are more knowledgeable about plants and have access to a wider range of cultivars. Although he uses Swedish-grown plants where possible, he unashamedly draws on the depth of knowledge and variety provided by British nurseries – particularly for projects that need a lot of perennials. “You will see from my designs that I am a plant eater… my schemes use a lot of plants!”
One of the things Nordfjell is passionate about is the ongoing maintenance of his projects. He rarely plants a garden, never to return, and has worked hard to build up an aftercare team. Clients understand that maintenance is the key to the ongoing success of these complex sites; and Nordfjell’s gardens only work, he says, because of the great team of people he has around him.
“We are constantly refining what we do, to make sure that ‘sustainable’ isn’t just a word.” For Nordfjell, a sustainable garden is not just about re-using rainwater, which is a given, but a more subtle assessment of how the plants are reacting to new conditions. Sweden, like everywhere else, is experiencing climatic change. Spring normally begins in mid-April with most bulbs and wildflowers coming out in May. Swedish summers are becoming warmer, and although droughts are frequent, they can sometimes be very warm and wet, encouraging the growth of fungi and plant diseases.
“What really interests me is seeing how things work, as we deal with changing weather conditions over time,” Nordfjell explains. “Seasons are going to mean less and less, and all our ideas about what grows in what season will change. This is something we have to address as garden designers, to design for the future.”
He sees huge contrasts between the gardens he designs in the south of Sweden and his own garden in the north, where, by autumn, 40cm of snow has already arrived. “It’s a tough climate, but it is where I practice garden therapy. I try everything out in my own garden, and I learn so much. I am lucky to be able to work on both public and private spaces. The private spaces – my own and other people’s – allow me to experiment with plant combinations that are not possible on larger projects.”
Nordfjell is a practitioner who believes in the long term. Recently, he has been campaigning for longer education for landscape designers. “We are not attracting skilled people – practices in Sweden are crying out for experienced people. But our training is only two years. That is nowhere near long enough. Also, because we can’t work in the gardens for three months of the year, it is not an attractive profession for young people. We need to address this lack of skills.”
His latest ongoing projects are in Antibes and St Tropez in the south of France – opportunities, he says, that only came about through designing the Laurent Perrier garden for RHS Chelsea 2013. He also has a new book in the pipeline, which will test out his changing approach to design, and chronicle projects over several years. Nordfjell is giving the book time to evolve before rushing to publish, however, with his typically considered and understated modus operandi. It will certainly be worth the wait.