A Look at Ulf Nordfjell’s Gardens, Where Romanticism Meets Modern Swedish Design

On first sight, Ulf Nordfjell’s highly acclaimed gardens designed for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show look completely contemporary with impressively clean lines and simple, architectural forms. Nordfjell, who is a trained botanist and landscape architect, is known for his use of natural Swedish granite, steel, and timber to build the structures in his gardens. But these strong modern structures are just one aspect of his creative inspiration. The other key element is old-fashioned romance.

The son of a forester and a gardening mother, Nordfjell was raised in northern Sweden and is now based in Stockholm. He has a deep commitment to ecology and the environment, often using native Swedish grasses and flowers in his designs. “Gardens are to be celebrated as one of the most complex forms of culture,” says Nordfjell, “as they unify architecture, nature, and art.”  His artistic vision often combines old and new design elements.

Best-in-Show: The “Laurent-Perrier Garden”

Nordfjell’s award-winning “Laurent-Perrier Garden”, which debuted at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show, was inspired by the romance of the Loire Valley and gardens in the south of France, as well as by traditional English summer cottage gardens. The architecture and composition of this garden, its trees, and shrubs echo the French style of landscaping with simple, repeating forms and pruned, soft shapes, much like the terrain in the Champagne region.

The selection of perennial plants is based on Nordfjell’s desire to create a kind of “conversation piece.” He explains: “English gardens use a blend of varieties you can’t see anywhere else. They often use them to create something stunning and unique and I like to try those combinations.”

His color palette includes soft pinks and blues, as well as creamy oranges, yellows and whites. Perennials were planted in blocks with a layering effect. In full sun areas he chose five different Iris varieties, three different blue Viola, plus Dianthus, Stipa, and Verbascum. In shadier areas, Thalictrum, Gillenia, Aruncus and Anemones.

Trees and shrubs provide some of the structure and geometry of this and other Nordfjell gardens. Cypress Oak (Quercus fastigiata ‘Koster’) forms a backdrop in a traditional espalier style, as well as the pruned, pointed spires. Shrubs include geometrically shaped Yews (Taxus baccata), cloud-like Enkiathus perulatus, and lavender that is sometimes pruned and other times left unclipped. Soft, leafy Honey-locust trees (Gleditsia) punctuate the spaces and create contrast with other more solid forms.

Water rushes into a pool that once again feels like it belongs in southern France or another Mediterranean locale, but the cool materials surrounding it, including copper and travertine, are definitely Swedish and modern in their effect.

A gorgeous bronze statue of Orpheus, the musician in Greek Mythology, sculpted by the contemporary Swedish artist Carl Milles, takes the viewer back to an ancient Mediterranean symbol. The sculpture was borrowed for the exhibition from the Millesgården Museum in Stockholm.

Favorite Romantic Gardens

Not surprisingly, Nordfjell’s favorite “romantic gardens” from the past include Villa Gamberaia in Florence, which is a formal Renaissance garden, and the famous Sissinghurst and Hidcote gardens in England, both of which epitomize English gardens of romance, art, and intimacy.

Design elements borrowed from these English favorites are visible at Nordfjell’s 2010 Swedish garden on the shore of Trummen Lake in Växjö (southeast Sweden) where he has rebuilt his gold medal winning garden called “A Tribute to Linnaeus,” which was originally created for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2007.

A Tribute to Linnaeus

When the Linnaeus garden design was first displayed at Chelsea, Nordfjell was truly inspired by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented the binomial plant-naming system that we still use today. According to Nordfjell, the Linnaeus garden “celebrates both modern interpretation and traditional values.”

For example, on the more traditional side, the Linnaeus garden design includes tall, white foxgloves (Digitalis), bluish-purple iris, and ferns– like the English gardens– alongside stunning, pleached crab apple trees (Malus ‘Evereste’) that form a luxurious hedge and dividing line – a technique used in formal Renaissance and Medieval gardens.

Key elements of the garden design include several rounded blocks of granite that look a bit like old-fashioned millstones. Carved holes in the smooth granite blocks hold Linnaea borealis, a wild Swedish plant with a beautiful scent. (Linnaeus made the flower his personal symbol in 1757, when he became a Swedish noble.) The round shapes are echoed by repeated placements of round, pruned boxwoods, another very traditional English feature.

White and green are the predominate colors of the Linnaeus garden—colors that Linnaeus preferred– with just those few purple and blue iris. But a large, orangey-pink-colored wooden wall, built with materials from Linnaeus’ time, has been re-worked with very modern techniques. On one side, the horizontal beams are grey, suggesting it marks off an interior room of a Swedish home.

A water feature also references the Swedish countryside. A square pool full of dark water looks like a dark mountain tarn in Sweden, and another pool with water rushing over pebble stones also suggests Swedish country streams, reinforcing the idea of a Swedish woodland landscape.

No matter what country he is working in, one of Nordfjell’s guiding principles is: “the right plant for the right place.” His trend-setting gardens live up to this rule, and inspire the modern gardener far beyond.

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