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How I learned to become a gardener, by Urlirch Zens

Family of Gardeners


I was about 5 years old, in the early sixties, when my family moved to a new four floor apartment building in my hometown Gelsenkirchen, in Germany.


It was a publicly financed social housing project for families with more than 2 children (-we were four-) and had some assets typical for that time: each family had a small storage room in the basement; there was also a laundry room on the base floor, to be used by all families, full of wooden swashing machines that hat to be heated by coal or wood and produced a lot of steam making the place appear like a sauna. And next to this was a drying room to hang up the wet clothes.



At good weather, of course, the laundry was taken outside to a small courtyard, adjacent to our sandpit, which used to be the meeting point of the children of the 8 families, living in the building.


But there was another asset: each family could also cultivate a piece of land, -about 20 m2- to grow vegetable, fruit or flowers.

My father, Hans, used that piece of land intensively, much more than any other family of the lot. Though growing vegetable for the family was not much of his concern; he rather preferred to have a flowering garden, where he could relax while doing gardening work in his little piece of miniature landscape. From our 4th floor balcony, it appeared like the idea of a public park reduced to the size of an ornamental plant carpet.

He used to work in our garden very carefully, mostly on Saturdays, and often selected one of his sons to give him a hand. As the second of four, my turn was quite often, as the younger ones where more around my mother Ursula at that time.

I didn’t like to be selected, -as playing with the neighbourhood children was much more fun. But when I joined my father, I was quite proud to be the gardener’s assistant; and the process was every time the same:

First we went to our basement storage room to get the tools for planting and maintenance and take it to the garden spot. A rake and a grubber where about the largest, -as the garden was small and well prepared, my father mostly used smaller hand tolls like the mini-cultivator, mini-rake, mini-shuffle and a pair of garden scissors for pruning: easy to handle tools with good contact to ground, soil and plants allowing for the fine and finish work and the maintenance of the garden.


My main tasks where cleaning the access path and irrigating the plants, and pulling weed, of course. And sometimes I was allowed to do the planting of the new plants that my father has bought the day before. A few times I had the chance to go with him buying new plants in the nursery nearby our house. He took much care to select suitable species and the colours of leaves or flowers before taking them to the cashier, who wrapped them rapidly in old sheets of newspaper for us to take home.


This is how I became accustomed to plants and the planting process, taking care and maintaining a piece of garden already at the end of kindergarten. Though I always tried to resist or escape looking for a chance for playing with the friends from our street, -and sometimes I succeeded.

The profession of my father was much different from landscaping.

In his youth he learned the techniques of a blacksmith in my grandfather’s workshop, shortly before Hitler’s army sent him as a teenager to World War II, to fight in South of France.

Badly injured, he survived a grenade attack. And lucky for him, he was captured as prisoner of war by the french army, treated well to recover his health and later worked in a family bakery in Carcassonne. He always talked well about his time there and the good contact with his French family; and we as children had the benefit of learning from his basic French even before we went to school. Returning from the war, he went back to work at my grandfather’s workshop and after some years became master locksmith in a big factory before he married Ursula in the mid 50th.


Summer job career in landscaping

It was much later in my youth -I had reached about the age of 15- when I got back in contact with gardening and landscaping. My father has given up asking for help, as his project was at a perfect stage of maintenance; and myself I was too much busy with my own ideas and needs that required attention and time.

Meanwhile my mother Ursula, who was tired of her life as a housewife, had decided to find herself a job. In her youth she was working as a secretary and thanks to this experience she soon got a secretary’s position; -with a landscape contractor firm in Gelsenkirchen, called Duesing & Son. And when the summer holidays came, she got me a student’s job with the firm’s landscape construction and maintenance team.


Looking more like a kid of 13 than a teenager of 17, I was put on some special jobs by the responsible landscape engineer, Mr. Wilde, -and I believe my mother had some influence on that as well. Anyhow, Mr. Wilde took me to some client visits to give him a hand and take notes, let me work in the company’s greenhouse and nursery and make simple soil-analysis as basis for his fertiliser recommendations for the various projects. I remember well the talks with him about the profession as a gardener and the many different tasks that are connected to it. And even the chances for professional careers, like his own: after his gardener education he went to an engineering faculty and became a landscape architect.


I spent a few weeks in the nursery, planted bushes and small trees to rows in the planters and later excavated them for clients to take them home, and always kept the nursery clean.


One day Mr. Wilde told me that there will be a special task for me from now on: I shall take care of the recently planted lawn of the new Gelsenkirchen Soccer Arena, at that time called “Park-Stadion”. It was constructed to be one of the stadiums for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, and was not inaugurated yet.


My job was not that special at all, -but it was quite exotic: I had to take care of the lawn of the main play field and observe the functioning of the irrigation system. The technology was fully automatic and worked well, but due to wind impact and water pressure difference, some areas did get less or hardly any water by the sprinkler. And it was my task to watch out these spots and do a manual irrigation by water hose. It was summer, and it was hot. And I had to pull 50 m heavy-duty water hose over wet lawn, with sprinkler systems operating.

The only way to make it somehow comfortable was to take off boots and working cloth and change them for my Bermuda’s; -I had a barefoot beach job for the rest of the summer and many of my gardener colleagues at Duesing & Son congratulated me for my job.


Not difficult to believe that I liked that part so much that I decided to stay in the profession. I came back to work with the gardeners and landscapers every possible holiday. I liked the work and it allowed me to finance my wishes as a teenager. Obviously, with four sons in the household to be raised, my parents could only allow to spend the income on basic items.


A new pair of jeans, new shirts, going out with friends and finally a small motorbike, -I always had some wishes to spent money on. My mom, meanwhile the personal secretary of the company’s boss, always made it possible that I could find a job during school holidays: in spring and summer I was working outside with the landscapers and gardeners, and in fall I had a position to work within the company’s garden centre and retail market.

It was a good time of learning about life and responsibilities, outside of the school curriculum, and even my mom could benefit practically from it. When I finally got my motorbike, I could help her to safe time. Instead of using the bus for more than one hour, I could take her with me to work early in the mornings or back to home later in the afternoon, depending on how she organised her own schedule, -one fair was always a ride together.


Faculty of Landscape Architecture in Essen

After all that experience and contact with the green profession my decision was clear for the selection of a faculty at the end of high school:


I wanted to study at the Faculty of Landscape Engineering and Architecture, at the University of Essen. Meanwhile, our family had moved to Dorsten, a small town some 25 km north of Essen, where my parents could fulfil their dream of own property, a semi-detached house in a new suburban residential area.

My father, besides equipped with a good salary, now gained a much larger space for his garden activities. And still I was making use of the holidays to work at Duesing; with more responsibilities again, now leading small teams at site-works and operating trucks and machines.

I changed my motorbike for a Volkswagen Beetle and still was able to give rides to my mom, as the way to the faculty only required a small detour to the company.


Go out and find yourself!

I spent three years at the faculty learning a lot about architecture, garden history, biology, geology, hydrology, geo- and soil science, botany, climatology and design. But somehow I was feeling that this was not sufficient, that all that knowledge could not tell me what life and profession is about, unless I was working in the field during the holidays. This became clear to me after the presentation of a fellow student who went to England for an exchange program and talked about her profound experiences abroad.


Wow, that’s what was missing! Before I will finish my graduation here and go into a business routine, at whatever place may appear, I want to have at least such an adventure outside my protected and comfortable environment. Studying abroad obviously was the chance, -but it ought to be really very far away to make a difference.


Green light to Canada

It was because of my professor Klaus Eick, to whom I told about my idea and who had a good friend teaching in Montreal, that I decided for Canada: a lot of nature, wilderness and full of adventures would be waiting for me, as I thought.

Of the various places contacted, the University of Toronto was the one who finally sent green light. That’s how I ended up studying landscape architecture in 1982/83 at the UofT, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the best time of my life, -up until then.

The faculty’s approach to the landscape and garden subjects was very different from what I was used to in Germany: much more related to design, art, creativity and non-linear thinking. It was an exciting challenge in a completely new and strange environment, with hard work on the projects and a lot of fun with the new friends and customs.


Hosting Roberto Burle Marx

One day we had a guest lecturer from Brazil, supposed to be a famous landscape architect, but whose name I never heard before, -his name was Roberto Burle Marx. The day before his lecture, Dean Bill Rock suggested me to take him around the city, together with another professor. I was encouraged to speak some German with Roberto, as it was thought he might like it. (Burle Marx spent some time of his youth in Germany at the end of the 20th of last century.)

It was a very relaxed afternoon and I really didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, -I was spending some good time with probably the world’s most famous landscape architect of modern times.

This, however, became more obvious to me the next day, when Roberto made his slide presentation on his projects and gardens he had implemented in Brazil and other places around the world. The first time I considered that Brazil might be another interesting place, full of nature and adventure.


At the farewell he suggested that I should visit Brazil, -there is a lot of green areas and many things to be done for the environment.


Gardening in Riyadh / Saudi Arabia (Riyadh means “garden”)

I kept Roberto’s advice in my mind when I went back to Germany and finished my last exams. With my diploma at hand I thought of going to Brazil, but I also had the wish to finally do some real architectural and engineering work.


My old company (and my mother) offered me a stand-by position until I would finally decide what I would do. At the first look into the vacancies of a landscape magazine I discovered a position for projects in Saudi Arabia, offered by an architectural office in Neanderthal, near Duesseldorf: Boedeker, Wagenfeld and Partners, -today BPLA Boedeker Partners Landscape Architects.

I thought I should give it a try, and it sounded like even adventures than Brazil. So I prepared my resumé and soon I had an interview, -and my first real job. The position should introduce me to a challenging professional playground as gardener and landscape architect: making the desert greener. That was in 1984. Since then, I have worked on projects in Arabia over the last 35 years.

During that time, I have worked a lot with the firm’s principles Horst Wagenfeld and Richard Boedeker, -first as a young engineer and architect, later as senior with high responsibilities a as one of the partners of BPLA.


Wagenfeld is a sensitive landscape designer, using his creativity and heart to work out the best possible solution.

Boedeker is a practical landscape gardener, using his feelings and stomach to let the best possible solution appear in the process. Working in separate office now, both are extremely successful in their profession, with important private and public projects and many prizes in architectural competitions.


Still thinking of meeting Burle Marx in Brazil one day, my work with those two Masters was an excellent school for my professional development. I am very grateful for this time as I benefitted from both a lot. And that connection should last throughout my entire career, until today.


Office Manager

It was at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the first Gulf crisis, that BPLA had to shut down for some years; -and I was forced to rethink about my career. Meanwhile, I had married and to take care of a family, so I was not interested in too many adventurous ideas anymore. For the sake of good contacts with Horst Wagenfeld, I got offered the office manager’s position for a new design and supervision team to be established for the provincial garden festival, MUEGA, in Muelheim an der Ruhr 1992.

It was a complex task including design and administration, working for more than 4 years on all kinds of aspects for gardening, landscaping, technical and environmental planning. It was my second professional playground and the best practical training to become an experienced landscape architect.

The result can be visited today in the city of Muelheim: a linear public park area called “MUEGA” of some 30 hectares extending over more than 7 kilometres throughout the city and along the river Ruhr. The design included gardens, playgrounds, pedestrian bridges, rehabilitation of degraded areas and protection and development of wetland areas.


Zens Freiraumplanung

When the garden festival was over in 1992 Horst Wagenfeld offered me a freelancer project: the new campus concept for the University of Dresden, city in the former East Germany region and now under urban re-development after the German reunification. That was the beginning of my own office “Zens Freiraumplanung” (first in Muelheim, later in Bottrop) which, over the next years, worked on numerous projects, from small gardens until complex urban development initiatives; -my third professional playground.

A key project was the new residential area “Saarner Kuppe II” (design and implementation from 1995 to 2008) with ecological approach on sustainable urban drainage integrated into landscape design.

There were so many projects, most of them implemented in the City of Muelheim, and most of them related to special vegetation considerations that help resolving environmental issues, such as rainwater management and the improvement of air quality and urban climate.


As an outcome of all the different tasks and projects of that time, I could see that the need for and benefit of a multifunctional landscape development is based on efficient vegetation systems; it offers simple answers for technical, engineering and environmental issues on the basis of landscaping and planting supported solutions.

That did not grow all on my own experience but also on the support and advice of others; -and most especially because of a very good personal relation with a great gardener.


Finding my mentor: Siegfried Ziepke, a Gardener and Philosopher

I was lucky to have a great mentor at that time, Siegfried Ziepke. A gardener, plant cultivator, environmental activist and philosopher, with whom I spent hours and hours on the telephone talking about vegetation, gardening and solutions for environmental problems of the earth. O many projects, he consulted me with his profound knowledge on wetland vegetation.


His own mentor was Dr. Kaethe Seidel (1907–1990), a German Botanist and specialist in wetland vegetation. She was the first to study the capacity of plants for the process of water treatment, pioneer scientist to provide basic knowledge. All constructed wetlands that are being built until to date refer to her findings.

Not only gardener, but also philosopher, Siegfried’s mind was open for what was moving the world and put it into clear words and/or beautiful poetry. And for many situations of life, he could recite one of his Aphorisms, such as: “A problem that can be solved by pure capacity of calculation, isn’t really one, — rather it’s a construction.” It was around 2000, when serious alerts on climate change came up, especially by WWI (World Watch Institute), and we discussed in depth the active and multifunctional role of vegetation, yet at that time still a missing link in the public and scientific debates; a subject I am working on since that time.


A window to Brazil

It was in 1993, when information came to me that a Brazilian professor for architecture and urbanism, Marlene Gurgel from USP, was on a visit to Muehlheim and looking for someone showing her around the different places of the Muega Area and explain the project to her. Sure that I took the opportunity to take the task, well remembering my encounter with Roberto Burle Marx, that happened some 10 years ago, back in Canada.


The tour with Marlene was like a review of my work in the City. She was very interested in all projects and took quite a time at each location. Thus the tour was extended to a second day to see everything I had put on the agenda. Before continuing her travel she suggested I should visit Brazil and indicated the opportunity for an invitation to a conference at USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and to give a lecture about my projects.


That was the second time someone suggested I should come to Brazil, -and it was about half a year later when I received an official invitation by the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Design to come to São Paulo in April 1994.

It was also the beginning of a beautiful love story, -but that will be written on another paper.


Professional ./. Personal

In the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, new projects came up in Saudi Arabia and my old partners of BPLA asked me to join them frequently to take over special tasks. As project work had reduced in Germany because of an economical crisis I took the opportunity and signed up for long term visits to Arabia, taking over the position of the supervising engineer for a project that I had managed some time before, -the Addirriyyah Historical Village, -a very special playgrounds for my landscape practice — and today a UNESCO world heritage site.


This period also brought a big change into my personal life. Being away every time from my family -now with two children to take care of- the visits abroad created a much deeper separation than expected, -I was living in two parallel worlds and that caused personal and family problems that I did not expect to such an impact. It was making me very unhappy and I learned the hard way that interesting work and good payment couldn’t compensate the requirements for a balanced and happy family life.


Finally Brazil

Looking for a way out I remembered again my Brazilian contacts and thought that might be a way to find a new start, maybe even a new life. Taking all courage and interest I made my second visit to São Paulo in 2008. The visit opened so many new perspectives and ideas, professional and private, that I spontaneously decided to change my live and move to Brazil. And it was also the continuation of an old love story.


It belongs to another subject to tell about the approach and requirements to make that move, but finally I arrived in 2011 to stay in Brazil and to find a new professional playground.


I was very grateful to work for an architectural office at the beginning (Todescan & Siciliano / São Paulo) that opened their door for me to introduce sustainable landscape concepts to their project portfolio. Later I went into partnership with young architect and urbanist Joao-Pedro Cilli David and his office Incriatório. Our projects were always based on sustainability concepts. In light of climate change and water crisis in São Paulo we dedicated much effort to water relevant solutions, such as rainwater management, urban drainage and the city as water producer.


Almost 10 years of work as a landscape architect in Brazil have kept me busy, with interesting projects designed, sustainability concepts developed, -but only a few of them implemented. Different from other countries, the Brazilian architect is rarely involved in the practical implementation of a project; -the client leaves it in the hands of a civil engineer or directly with the contractor. And that’s where ideas, concepts and quality solutions can get lost. Unexpectedly, entire projects can get modified or cancelled, or simply end up in the drawer due to the lack of finances or political reasons.


My new playground: the planet as a garden

But of those projects in Brazil where I have actively participated and that came to implementation as intended in the design, I am really proud of. Working with local gardeners, NGO’s and motivated community people at least some projects were realised, often with small budgets and always a lot of enthusiasm.

And I am very happy and grateful to see that they do contribute to more sustainability within their impact area, as was intended.


Since the early times of working with Siegfried Ziepke, I am still involved in the climate discussion and convinced that vegetation -especially the big forests- is the most important natural provider of environmental benefits and climate safety, and it also has the most practical potential for active contribution in sustainability -on all scales- making the planet more resilient to the problems we are facing.


We can see so much talking and plans, observation, measuring and new reports and conferences about stopping climate change and preserving our planet, -at the end the situation is still getting worse, exactly as was already indicated back at the beginning of the millennium.


I had hoped that after so many climate discussions and obvious scientific findings the global community would react in a responsible way. But- apart from individual and good initiatives- the general course of climatic impact is not changing.


As long as CO2 emission will not be stopped and cutting of natural forests continues, we need to start planting on all scales and prepare gardens, lots, facades and rooftops, neighbourhood streets and highway corridors, degraded farmlands and deserts to carry efficient vegetation cover and actively support natural carbon sequestration.


The practical response to Climate Change will not be resolved by politics, rather by people on local level and action on the ground. I believe it requires infact a Human Change to confront the issues that we are facing. And the moment is now: Greta Thunberg and her followers show that this change is possible.

Thus, I decided for to dedicate my remaining professional years to initiatives and projects that are small, simple and allow for a working like gardeners do; collaborating with people and initiatives that actively want to achieve a change.


What counts is implementing relevant projects, using vegetation-based solution as model or reference for active climate contribution. It might be -initially- a small-scale approach, but it is making a difference as it can be scaled up. And it can help to spread and develop the knowledge for new generations of gardeners.


No time and need anymore to wait for more observations, studies and discussions until large-scale initiatives might eventually being implemented by governments and local administration. It will not happen this way.


Rather, start acting and planting, involving other people and implementing green projects; giving an example what gardening, what vegetation and care of land can contribute to the whole of our environment and especially for the resilience of our cities and landscapes; that is what I am looking for now, and I feel that I am not alone on that mission.


So now here I am, at the beginning of 2019, seeing myself as a gardener and starting to prepare a new field of activities, one that can allow many joint activities and will serve as a basis for new gardeners to play and grow.