Travellers' Tales Part 2 - Inclusive Gardens in Scandinavia

31 December 2019
Travellers' Tales Part 2 - Inclusive Gardens in Scandinavia

The three recipients of OGV’s latest travel bursary have returned home from their travels, eager to share their stories. 

For the second year running, OGV distributed the $10,000 bursary amongst three students studying horticulture at the University of Melbourne. The bursary funds national or international travel to develop skills and knowledge in garden design and related fields.

In this instalment, we hear from Nina Breidahl, who graduated from Burnley Campus with the Associate Degree in Urban Horticulture at the end of 2018. Since her return, Nina has been managing the farm and gardens at Brae Restaurant in Birregurra. 

Nina says her OGV-sponsored tour taught her there is no garden that doesn't benefit from inclusive design. She believes her time spent in Scandinavia will give a perspective to her approach to every garden she encounters for the rest of her career. Nina sends her thanks to OGV for the amazing opportunity to see some of the best inclusive gardens of Scandinavia first hand.

Over to Nina.

Starting in mid-May, and courtesy of a travel bursary from OGV,  I spent a month travelling through Scandinavia with one question in mind: what makes design inclusive for everyone? I wanted to tackle the question of how gardens specifically designed to cater for particular demographics function aesthetically. I visited 28 gardens over the course of a month, some designed for children, some for the elderly, some for people with disabilities. Yes, these gardens cater to practical considerations such as limited mobility, but how do they deliver aesthetically within these parameters? 

My trip started in Oslo. Spring was just starting to take off; scarlet petals peeping through cracks in velvety green poppy buds as Oslo’s residents cautiously ventured out into lengthening days and a warming sun. The entire city smelled of lilac blossom. Once I’d got over the cognitive dissonance of seeing silver birches planted as street trees, I headed out to the Oslo Botanical Gardens, home to several sites of interest for me.

1. Great Granny's Garden, Oslo (1)
Great Granny's Garden, Oslo Botanical Gardens

Cardamom bun in hand, my first stop was Great Granny’s Garden, a space described as ‘a living archive for the horticultural heritage of Norway’. Selecting cultivars at least fifty years old, collected from around the country’s south east, the garden serves a secondary purpose as a memory garden for dementia patients. This relatively simple design of a square garden with a circular mounded bed in the centre and a perimeter of small trees features a nostalgic planting palette of old world favourites in a diversity of cultivars: peony, delphinium, dianthus, hosta. The design manages to breathe life into old clichés like begonias and geraniums. There is a large group of residents from a nearby retirement village assembled under a rose-covered rotunda. Those I spoke to enjoyed the garden for its nostalgia value rather than as an actual memory aid. The garden is very popular with visitors of all ages, prams and walking frames vying for space on the path. Only part of the garden is physically accessible to everyone - the mounded hill in the centre has wheelchair-unfriendly skinny mulch paths twisting through phlox and primula. However, every inch of the garden is visible from every angle. The intimate scale and open plan mean the whole landscape can be engaged with from any vantage point. The garden is enclosed by a paling fence and beyond that, a lawn dotted with fruit trees contributes to the nostalgic country cottage atmosphere. 

2. Braille Garden, Oslo Botanic Gardens (1)The Braille Garden, Oslo Botanical Gardens

The Oslo Botanical Gardens also feature a dedicated Braille garden. The success of this garden design is largely due to its structure: a tight archway entrance squeezes you into a circular space, enclosed by tall cypress hedges. Once inside, the only thing to do is follow the path, hedged in on one side, waist-height beds densely planted with herbs and flowers on the other. The visual design, for once, does not take precedence; the auditory landscape is muted by the tall hedges. The very simple design focuses attention on touch and smell. As you circulate, small metal signs announce the species in Norwegian and Latin on one side, and Braille on the other. The raised beds overflow with dozens of types of mint, sage, anise, hyssop, and lemon balm, encircled by a border of lilac, honey-scented cherry laurel and  cypress hedge. Every single visitor I observe in this garden touches every plant and brings a hand to their face to sniff. 

On the other side of the garden, a children’s playground made entirely of willow is crawling with 6-year-olds. Living fences demarcate the warren of tunnels and huts, accessed by log stepping stones. The walls of this playground are bursting bright with mid-spring flushes of green leaf. The children are literally surrounded by nature.

3. Children's Willow Garden, Oslo Botanic Gardens (1)Children’s Willow Garden, Oslo Botanical Gardens

In Stockholm a week later, nestled down a quiet city street between the two buildings of a nursing home is Sinnenas Trådgard, a sensory garden that serves as an area of rest and recreation for the residents. Mature elms and horse chestnuts are dotted around this small urban square. A mid-storey of abundantly flowering lilacs, apples, cherries, rhododendron and peonies are clumped strategically throughout, creating private pockets and the sense of a much larger space to explore. Again, the planting palette for this garden for the elderly is nostalgic, favouring cottage garden flowers and bulbs, bright and mass-planted. On a freezing cold Monday morning I shared the garden with two mothers with prams, an elderly couple resting under a rose arbour, and a grandfather with his visiting grandson. The children were enthralled by the central pond, a naturalistic rockery complete with small waterfall, home to a community of koi and planted with ferns and irises. Adding to the restful soundscape of water tinkling into water is the ample birdlife, encouraged by large trees, bird baths and feeders dotted throughout. Differential mowing allows for both a recreational lawn and a longer, wildflower-strewn mini meadow (no fear of snakes here!). A perimeter of raised beds overflows with summer vegetables, herbs and flowers, plus in a glasshouse residents have been propagating everything from brassicas to begonias. The best thing about this garden, to my eye, is the way it is positioned between the two wings of the nursing home, meaning that a large proportion of residents have a view of this tranquil green space, even if they are unable to walk through it.

4. Sinnenas Trådgard, Stockholm (1)
Sinnenas Trådgard, Stockholm

In Copenhagen I found several children’s gardens of remarkable designs. Nature play is front and centre at Valby Park in the city’s southwest. This is hands down the best playground I’ve ever seen. The huge area comprises an ephemeral lake and river (dry at the time of my visit), unkempt meadows and neatly clipped lawns, a sandpit the size of a swimming pool, and wending throughout, a twisting boardwalk. The boardwalk passes over the river, sandpit and lawns with log bridges; tunnels take you through hills and ladders lead to tree houses. Occasional metal sculptures contrast with the overwhelmingly natural building materials; a miniature, climbable apartment building with windows and slides, standing out against the trees and grass – a touch of the urban in this otherwise wild space. Enclosing the park on one side is a series of 15 foot mounds covered in long grass and exploding with wildflowers. These steep hills have simple notched logs and ropes to help children conquer the small, floral mountains. The species palette is primarily what we would classify as weeds, allowed to grow tall and wild, maintained seemingly only through occasional differential mowing. There is no mid-storey, allowing full visibility between parents and children, but a low canopy of small trees enclose the space from the soccer fields of the wider park beyond. The trees also provide the soundtrack; the whole park is suffused with birdsong. The unfussy, unmanicured planting makes you feel like you’re lost in the woods – and happy to be so. At 7pm on a weeknight, with still at least 3 hours of daylight left, there are plenty of families shooting down slides, rolling down hills, picking flowers and building sandcastles. It is a perfect marriage of structure and wilderness, immersing children in the natural world and encouraging engagement and exploration. At the same time, it is a beautiful, restful space, taking full advantage of what the natural world has to offer without heavy handed human interference.

5. Children's Nature Playground, Valby Park, Copenhagen (1)Children's Nature Playground, Valby Park, Copenhagen

A ferry across the Baltic and a train ride through the forests and fjords of rural Finland brought me to the Kaisaniemi Botanic Gardens in Helsinki. These are home to a large, dedicated sensory garden, explicitly designed to foster sensory engagement. The space is divided into large raised beds, each one dedicated to a different sense. The species palette is diverse and each selection contributes something in colour, texture, scent. Some plants are manipulated to heighten their sensory interest, like the bed with stiff dried grasses cut short like a brush, contrasting with the long, soft green grasses waving breezily behind. The smell section has many of the usual suspects; kitchen garden herbs and, unsurprisingly, features many plants with the specific epithet odorata: violet (Viola odorata), sweet grass (Hierchloe odorata), and sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), among others. Most species, such as the pungent and stunningly deep purple Persian Onion, stimulate more than one sense at a time, giving the lie to the very concept of separating plants by sense. The sight garden is a mass of colours and textures, and is arrived at via a heavily perfumed stroll under a long arbour covered with mass flowering vines such as Dragmore Scarlet honeysuckle, sweetpea, and multiple climbing roses.  While this garden isn’t designed with a specific demographic in mind, I found it a useful study, since sensory engagement was the dominant feature in all the successful gardens I had seen on my trip. 

6. Sensory Garden, Kaisaniemi Botanic Gardens, Helsinki (1)Sensory Garden, Kaisaniemi Botanic Gardens, Helsinki

No matter whether gardens were designed to cater for the very young, the very old, or the disabled community, sensory play is a fantastic focusing mechanism. Whether it is an old man letting go of his carer’s arm to bend down and stroke a lamb’s ear leaf at Great Granny’s Garden, a vision-impaired woman exploring the alien contours of an ice plant at the Braille Garden, or children rolling down wildflower-covered hills at Valby Park, the desire to explore the scents, textures, colours, and sounds (even tastes, for the brave) of the natural world is the greatest equalising force. 


Wow Nina - it felt like we were in Scandinavia there for a second, despite the Antipodean summer. A truly evocative tale of how good garden design can stimulate the senses for all ages and abilities. Thank you, and best wishes from all of us at OGV for a promising future in horticulture!

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