Seoul Botanic Park holds marathon of gardening contests
As part of a unique planting contest organized by the park and the Seoul city government, five teams of designers whose backgrounds range from horticulture to landscape design recreated the space in front of the Forest Learning School of the park, located just across the grass field from Exit No. 3 of Magongnaru Station.
Each team has been tasked with the mission to create a garden that carries a message on crossing boundaries – be it between light and darkness, life and death, and urban and natural – through the mixed use of full-sun, part-shade and full-shade plants. Part-shade plants are able to grow and thrive with just four to six hours of direct sunlight every day, and full-shade plants with even less sunlight.
“The overarching theme of the contest is co-existence,” said Jeong Woo-geon, project manager of the contest organized by the park and the Seoul city government. “The participants in the contest will be scored on how well they have designed the gardens so that the species planted thrive together through different seasons and live in harmony with each other, whilst at the same time are able to create beauty.”
The gardens, each about 50-square meter (538 square feet) in size, will be judged in November, based on how well they have been maintained through the four seasons, especially on how well the full-sun and part-shade plants selected have thrived together.
Following the contest, the gardens will be managed by the city government for another two and a half years.
“By the end of the third year, we would have collected enough information about the plants in the garden that were able to thrive even in some of these most urban conditions,” said Jeong Soo-min, an official of the city government bureau operating the Seoul Botanic Park. “And these species will then be added to a list of those already certified by the city as reliable for planting in public spaces. Ultimately, it will help us diversify the types of plants and flowers one can see throughout the city.”
The contest is entering its second year this year. Seven gardens were created in last year’s contest and are being maintained by the city through 2022, also for the purpose of collecting information on different species of plants adequate for use in public parks, apartment complexes and other urban areas.
The city intends to run this area in the park as the experimental space for local garden designers to try out different ideas on planting in the coming years.
The Korea JoongAng Daily visited the gardens over the weekend and met with the designers to share some tips on what to look out for in each garden. The gardens are introduced in counter-clockwise order, starting from the garden closest to the Forest Learning School, as seen by visitors when they are facing the school’s entrance.
The sunlit leaves
A row of small trees including the Panicle hydrangeas are one of the first to greet a visitor to the garden, giving them a feeling of entering a small forest. Notice the Carex boottiana placed on either side of the entrance to welcome the visitors.
The garden is meant to be an experiment, said Na Jeong-mee, who designed it with Jeong Hye-jin and Park Jung-a.
“If this was a usual gardening contest, where the garden is exhibited for 10 days or so, we would have selected flowers that are tall, large and colorful, that make a statement right away,” Na said. “But this is an experiment that lasts six months under our care, and then two and a half years after that under the Seoul Botanic Park’s care. So we selected younger plants and flowers that will grow with each other through the six months and create something else.”
The Na-Jeong-Park trio have been designing gardens together for the past six years, meeting every week to volunteer at the Gardener’s Garden, or the Oso Garden, of Seoul Forest.
Their six years of maintaining plants and flowers in the public park gave them some ideas of which species might be most appropriate to be planted in public spaces in the city.
“Carex morrowii 'Ice dance' and Carex ‘Silver sceptre’ are the ones that we have seen year after year that have truly thrived through even the coldest of winters in Korea,” Na said.
Colorful heucheras of dark red, burgundy and deep purple light up the garden about mid-way down the path and are joyful to look at.
Near the exit, crouch down near the foot of the elm trees to find Sibirian veronicastrum. Don’t be fooled by their dainty look: they survive even the coldest winters.
To see you off, ninebarks are sitting side by side at the exit.
Rule in the shade
Though it may not be evident to the untrained eyes, there are clear rules and boundaries that plants follow in wildlife, said Kim Gyu-soung, who designed the garden with Jin So-hyung.
“We studied our plot of land for a few days to see where the light falls and where the shadows are cast,” Kim said. “The plants have been planted in accordance with the depth of shades cast across this space.”
Studying shade in nature is actually something that Kim is quite used to, as he wrote his thesis on part-shade and full-shade plants.
“Jindallae, which we see abloom across mountains in Korea in April, thrives in part-shade to full-shade,” Kim said, using the Koran name for Rhododendron mucronulatum, also known as Korean rosebay. “More than 10 of those have been planted here, as well a variety of types of Hosta.”
Kim and Jin also wanted to experiment with how fast the full-sun species can catch up with the part-shade species in their garden across the time span of six months, and planted on purpose larger and more fully grown part-shade plants, with smaller and younger full-sun plants.
"I think it's encouraging to see the city government experiment with part-shade and full-shade plants for use in public spaces, because it means the city is getting ready to have more matured forests and parks that will require a good mix of full-sun and part-shade plants," Kim said.
Bark strips, nuggets and chippings cover the garden grounds, giving a visitor a feeling of entering a dense forest.
Grey for green
The garden is divided into three different sections, beginning with full-sun grasses and flowers, before moving only to partly-shade plants and ending with those able to grow in shaded areas and have lasting strength to bring their roots down even between crevices of rocks and cliffs.
“We joined the contest because my colleagues and I have actually just been researching about plants that can grow well in part-shade areas,” said Lee Du-ri, a researcher at Korea National Arboretum, who joined the contest with her colleagues Lee Moon-kyu and Hyun Jong-young.
The trio are all first-timers in gardening contests, but they’ve brought their horticultural and research experience from the arboretum.
“I suggest spending some time to study the texture of the leaves in the middle to last sections of the garden,” said Lee Moon-kyu. “They will be exhibiting different textures compared to the full-sun plants.”
These include Epimedium “Pink champagne” that can survive in full-shade, or less than four hours of direct sunlight, and Asarum splendens, also called the Chinese Wild Ginger.
The heights of the plants indicate how much sunlight they require. The Viburnum plicatum lanarth with its signature horizontal branches and white flowers, stands slightly lower than the sweet pepperbush in the garden, both of which thrive in full-sun to partly shaded areas. Standing a bit shorter than these two are bugbanes, which are just fine in part shade and full shade.
Plants have also been chosen meticulously to ensure parts of the garden are blooming through the end of the year. Notice the Saxifraga fortunei on the rocks near the end of the garden, which will flower from August through December, and can grow in even the most shaded areas. The plant was named after Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist and traveler, who is said to have brought the species from China to Europe in the mid-19th century.
Some of the plants at this garden are not sold in flower markets but found in the wild.
“We couldn’t find Anthriscus sylvestris anywhere in the market,” said Hyun of a plant also known as cow parsley. “Yet this is one of the most common plants we see on our hike trails in mountains in Korea. This one at the garden we brought it straight from our backyard at home.”
The name of the garden speaks for itself, said Shin Young-jae, designer of the garden.
“That’s the latitude-longitude coordinate of this garden,” said Shin, a landscape designer, who designed the garden with Choe Ji-eun. “We wished to create a space that seems untouched by humans.”
Notice the wood trunks and wood branches that appear fallen here and there throughout the garden.
“Trees die of old age or disease in the forest, and when they do, they make way for the new budding ones around them to receive more sunlight and grow,” Choe said. “By re-using these dead trees from the park, we wished to show that cycle. This kind of gardening style is also known around the world as stumpery garden.”
Garden-building and designing, as much as they’re about bringing nature closer to our daily space, can also lead to more carbon emissions, especially in transporting trees and plants, or in producing structures to go with the design.
Shin said his team tried to be more climate-aware, by re-using the dead trees from the park instead of getting stumps from elsewhere.
As the grasses near the entrance grow taller, much of what is in the garden, including a puddle near the exit, will be invisible until one enters it, giving a visitor a feeling of discovering a piece of nature.
Look out for the white flowers of Asian lily of the valley, Convallaria keiskei, planted near the puddle, if visiting before June, and the pale purple flowers of Thalictrum rochebrunianum, an indigenous species in Korea, if visiting from July to August.
The key to enjoying this garden is to sit yourself down on one of the wooden benches.
“Then the whole panorama before you will change, as you start to notice the smaller plants and flowers by your feet,” said Hong Jin-a, the designer of the garden, pointing at a type of Thymus quinquecostatus with its pale lilac flowers and Phlox divaricate, also known as the “Clouds of perfume.”
It’s also just the prefect spot to day dream, come around May or June, said Hong, when the “Karl Foerster” feather reed grasses and the Mexican feather grass, or Stipa Pony Tails, will be swaying in the wind, and the garden will be alight in purple, violet, burgundy as the deep wine-colored flowers of Panicum virgatum “Prairie fire” and egg-shaped burgundy flowers of Allium sphaerocephalon, or Drumstick alliums, will be abloom.
The garden has been designed to give one a feeling of blurred lines and boundaries, Hong said.
“In natural landscapes, plants are not arranged in certain formats, they grow here and there, without pre-planned intentions,” said Hong. “That kind of natural feeling was what I was going for. I think a little blurring of lines is just what we need today, as the coronavirus pandemic has created too many boundaries in our lives.”
Given Hong’s garden patch receives the most sunlight of all the gardens in the area, most of her flowers and plants are those that thrive in full-sun and part-shade.
Hong, a landscape designer-turned-gardener, said anyone can create their own garden, if they have just a small patch of land near home.
“I started gardening like that, from home, and I think the key is to see it through for at least a year,” she said. “When you see a flower or a plant go through the four seasons, and you’re still into gardening, then you know you have it in you.”