Open Spaces

by Michael N. Hofman

What a wonderful opportunity Janet and I have to get the chance to see different parts of the world.  It’s even more special when we can view our travels through the lens of our years of working in landscaping.  When we see a new place, or even view one we’ve been to before, it’s often through our experiences in designing, installing and maintaining beautiful gardens and in around San Francisco for all these years.


This past summer we had the opportunity to visit friends in Switzerland and southern France. What was most remarkable to us was the amount of green, open spaces. When we spend most of our time in a city, going to a location where there was so much open space was a surprise. What’s interesting about Switzerland is the synergy between agriculture and industry. Sure there are locations where industry is prevalent, but even in the area near to Basel (big pharma land), there is agriculture all over, even surrounding some of the factories.


What’s more surprising is the number of hiking trails all over, even in the towns. If you see these signs or even a yellow arrow, you’re on a known trail. Many towns have community forests: some harvest the wood to make it available for townspeople to buy and we also saw “demonstration” forest areas with illustrative plant ID tags!


For us, though the open spaces were remarkable. From the beautiful canal in Basel (who’s only purpose was as a park, to the mountain field (home to cows with large bells in the summer), the views were a smorgasbord for the eyes and ears (especially the cow bells)! What’s interesting is that except for the city parks, all the open spaces (with trails going through them) were private: contrary to our “no trespassing signs”, hikers were invited along. (Our friend Armin in the picture at the right is on a trail through a farmer’s field with the cows up the hill!)


As we know there’s plenty of industry in Switzerland, but people often tend to drive to go home outside of the city. We were fortunate to visit relatives of our friends, who all commute to their jobs or schools (some by car, some by bus, train and bicycle). With a home in this location, who wouldn’t want to commute far to see this view? It’s interesting also because farmers don’t hesitate to socialize with the officer workers, especially over a cold beer (which seems like it is a necessity around 5 pm). Oh, and some locally made sausages and cheese!!

Just so you don’t think we weren’t concerned about horticulture, we did recognize many of the plants used in gardens and public spaces. It was interesting to see many of our favorites and then some special ones (like the white buddleia in the photo). The butterflies were also quite active, especially in the high Alps!


Our visit to France was similar, but edged more in history. Water has always been a concern for the locals, even as far back as the Romans, who developed the incredible aqueduct system to bring water to the cities (here’s one of the last remaining structures, built around 2000 years ago to provide water to Avignon). It’s remarkable for the engineering and also that it remains standing to this year (even if it has had a facelift or two).


One of our trips was to a rebuilt Roman garden, with sections for medicinal, herbal, food production, wine production and ornamental plants (all separated by hedges). It was quite warm that day, so tasting the ripe grapes that hung down from the arbors was all but impossible to resist (the covered section in the far left of the photo was over the archaeological remains of the original garden water pool, which was used to collect water for the garden.


Of course France is known for its agriculture, so we saw vast fields of stone fruit, wine, cows grazing and other agricultural pursuits. What was also surprising to me was the feeling of open space even in the middle of the cities. Some of this open feeling was the result of parks, but much of it came from the profusion of large trees throughout city centers. If you wonder why we have so many sycamores, just look at their impact along this canal in Avignon and in the “centre ville” park in a town nearby! Incredible sidewalk damage by the canal forced the city to reroute the street; in the open space park the city there relaid the paving stones with plenty of space for the tree roots to move.

Plenty of other views provided insight into plants, trees and space but once again our viewing this interesting part of the world reminded us how fortunate we are to interact with our own horticultural materials and spaces in the Bay Area. Plenty of diversity, creativity, sun (and a bit of rain we hope) means we can enjoy so much and see so much. Take advantage of it!