On an Overgrown Path

Interview with landscape architect and garden historian Gábor Alföldy about Hungarian historic gardens

Gábor Alföldy spent his school holidays at the writers’ retreats in Szigliget and Zsennye and was captivated by the world of mansions and gardens. At school he focused on biology and music composition. Since the natural sciences and the arts equally attracted him, he applied to study at the Landscape Architecture Faculty of the University of Horticulture and later began working for the State Inspectorate of Protected Monuments, first as chief gardener then a member of the scientific staff. With other colleagues he launched the systematic organisation of park maintenance in the early 2000s. Thanks to his initiatives and lobbying, between 2010 and 2015 Hungary was able to spend nearly 5 billion forints on the authentic rehabilitation of historic gardens.

If the sources are not known it is sometimes difficult to imagine what a garden could have precisely been, yet some structural and compositional elements can be observed, and thus conclusions can be drawn. Landscape gardens were designed as a series of spectacles composed like paintings. Their effect was provided by a sophisticated system of groups of trees and clearings, i.e. a carefully planned but essentially hidden structure. With a landscape garden that is the first and most important aspect which can be researched and easily rehabilitated. Even the most experienced expert cannot sense the former structure of space in its entirety when visiting an overgrown garden. Therefore it is essential to survey the topography of the garden and its stock of plants; however, historical research must come first. Each era of landscape gardening had its typical forms and use of plants. In landscape gardens trees were often arranged in groups and exotic species were planted. The latter showed a large variety, whatever could be obtained from foreign travel, or as gifts, exchanged saplings or seeds. Besides the always individual terrain and size, a mixture of approaches taken from pattern books and individual, sometimes eccentric applications provided the unique character of each garden, which also reflected the designer’s style and the owner’s taste. It is fortunate albeit rare for a garden design to survive, though hardly any garden was completed precisely on the basis of plans. Constant change provides the chronological dimension of gardens, which have to be ‘managed’ professionally. It requires skilled and well-organised maintenance, as well as environmentally conscious and cheap methods which, for example, used to make the care of large palace gardens inexpensive and can today perfectly comply with the criteria of sustainability. It all depends on professional training whereby there must be new, committed gardeners and landscape architects who, with research, rehabilitation and maintenance, tend a garden, feeling it their own and caring for it with proprietary solicitude. Every historic garden needs that.