The Royal Academy of Antwerp Garden Patches

A Sympoiesis Garden

Let's start a community garden together. 


2 July 2023

In September 2022 we started to garden in the old and new gardens of the Royal Academy in Antwerp. In many ways this was a test year to discover the wider and smaller ecologies of the Royal Academy in Antwerp. For ten months we got to know the garden, meet the people who work and study here, kneel between tree roots and scan the sky to find our way into the gardens. Everything was new for us, and we were doing something new as well. Lead by curiosity this was an adventure in gardening. 

From the start this project is deeply embedded in the books of Donna Haraway, Anna L. Tsing, Jamaica Kincaid and Ursula Le Guin, among many others. The garden is the real and tangible contact zone of ideas and engagement for students in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. To garden with students in the historical garden meant that we could think together, humans and nonhumans, about this thick present we're in. We're facing some serious trouble and climate change is so big it can become overhelming.

To garden in a more traditional sense wouldn't make the difference we're looking for, instead we have to become an entangled kind of gardeners and question our actions and relations with our nonhuman kinship. When we touch the garden, the garden touches us. This mind shift is the result of "thinking-with" and "making-with", the very essense of our Sympoiesis Garden. This community garden is about more-than-human-community and we want to change the way we look at nature, using all our artistic skills to find meaningful connections in this nature-culture.

This was the Sympoesis Garden in 2022 - 2023

Find us in the Royal Academy of Antwerp, the community gardens in the patches of soil that have been generously opened up for this participative project. All students are welcome to join in gardening, there is no need for any gardening knowledge and we'll start with the basics. You can join us for as long as you like, from 5 minutes to many hours, as it fits in your schedule and as you feel like. Weekly updates and planning are shared via instagram @royalacademyantwerpgarden
10 June 2023
After a cold, dark and very rainy spring came four weeks of dry heat and it's still spring. The slow start of many plants (eaten within an milimeter of the soil by a herd of slugs) turned into a roasting of too young leaves and young roots in dry earth. It's a disaster in the garden. Thankfully the birds find the pond to drink and bathe, and the plants around the pond are part of the ecosystem. Lot of aphids sit on the artichokes (planted there as a temporary sollution after the rescue operation and still there) and are farmed by ants, preyed by wasps and snacked by birds. 

This week we lifted the metal frame that was to make the pond safer because the iron was leaking into the water and changing the pond ecosystem. Lucky the secret garden seems quite safe as it is.

The tiny leaves of lemna trisulca float in the water and give shade to keep the water cool. Frogbite floats like tiny waterlilies in the pond.

We're lucky to have so many aphids on our artichokes, beautiful big wasps are building a nest next to the pond and they are smart enough not to eat all of these at once.

If we hadn't been giving water two times per week all the plants would have dried up like the grasses in the other garden patches. The grass can survive, but the Garlic-mustard and Digitalis seedlings can't. The young plants dry up and with them the eggs of the butterflies, the caterpillars, and even the aphids all disappear as well. That's where gardens come in as containers of foods, we're looking after the lunchboxes of our fellow messmates. The swifts, house sparrows and little blue tits have to work hard to find something to eat. Hunger is spreading like oil on water, except it is invisible for lots of humans. I don't hear people talking about the missing butterflies. They don't see the empty garden. Two generations of caterpillars dried up in the heat, as many of last summer's generation didn't live on to be this year's parents. There should be clouds of colourfull dots in the air but I have seen only two butterflies this spring. And now the eggs of these butterflies are on plants that are drying up. We need to make a water plan, we must think of sollutions to contain moist within the soil to live through these dry spells. 
27 May 2023
Time passed by like a swift at dusk, the months of April and May flew too quickly. Whenever I photograph the garden I'm surprised how different it looks from how I know this garden. The photo can't grasp the multitude of details, the shape and landscape escapes the lense. It is said that dogs don't know their own size, they look at one another and wonder if they're bigger or smaller. In the garden I feel similar to such a dog, because everything seems relative. Am I even aware of how the others see me? My own little perspective is questioned as a dragonfly sees me while it zooms by. I find myself looking at the others and minutes slipped by while I was daydreaming.
We're adding oxygenating plants to keep the water healthy.

The pond is green, full of life with plants and little critters.

The yellow flag flowers, lots of bees drink their nectar.

By miracle Ecoflora Halle decided to bring back native -wild- waterplants into their collection, right now when we made the pond. On April 2 we visited the nursery and brought back to the Academy garden:

Butomus umbellatus
Menyanthes trifoliata
Mentha aquatica
Ranunculus aquatilis
Hippuris vulgaris
Alisma plantago-aquatica

We planted them in a big basket and placed it in the deeper end of the pond. Dragonflies and damselflies visit the pond. Several visitors asked if we have fish, but that wouldn't work well with the plants and other critters. The fish would disturb the ecosystem in this small biotope, and they would probably have a lot more freedom in a bigger pond. 
Freedom is such a big word, and it feels so strange in the mouth when we're in the garden. How to explain freedom, the big prize in the visual arts, to a plant floating in the pond. What is freedom to bees who are losing habitat? How do we explain ourselves to wild plants that are called 'weeds' by others? When a plant is growing uninvited in a traditional garden, like a dandelion, we don't recognise their freedom. A traditional garden has a design, paths, borders, colour schemes, concepts (like the walled garden or the white garden, a garden without colour) and what traditonal gardens have most of all is tradition. Every garden designer has to find something new in light of this tradition. The art world is not unlike a traditional garden, so many artists - who knew their talent by nature, often even without education - have been undesired through the ages while others were showered with praise for their frills and shine simply because of heritage, cultivation, recommendations, a name and lineage. The rose is a rose is a rose, and those are the rules. But what does freedom mean when we explain it to nature? Surely we lost something along this garden path?

11 May
Growing our own letuce.

Who would have thought letuce is so popular? When we put our tray with free vegetables from the organic planter it's empty within the hour. Fresh Rucola with a spicy flavour, crispy Mustard leaves and crunchy Mizuna, they're all gone. Our DIY style is carried in many ways, this is one of the favourites.

The greens from our potager have been given away at the entrance of the Academy in our carrier bag installation.

The name and recipe are also the packaging, practical design for our give away project.

The soil in our garden might have lots of different toxicities, not just PFAS but other toxins as well. That's why we made a very big planter with organic soil for our vegetable patch. It's a big succes and the vegetables are growing well, whenever they are ready we give them away and sow something new.

This poster announced our walk & talk in the garden by guest speaker and ecology specialist Joris Thoné. On May 4 we spent a sunny afternoon in the old garden and listened to Joris' explanation on how gardens evolved in the last centuries. The reason to ask Joris is because he is one of the informal teachers behind this awareness of ecology. 

About this event:
The Stinzen GardenOr the characteristics of the Academy garden explained in a guided walk by Joris Thoné.Who knows that wild orchids grow in Antwerp? Who has seen them? They have become very rare now, when so much nature is disappearing. It's incredible to hear that these wildflowers also grow in the garden Joris started over 20 years ago: Natuurtuin. Due to very specific mowing management he mimics the landscape from previous agriculture. To find out that these flowers are equally valued alongside "common" plantain is du jamais vu in most botanical circles. The Natuurtuin of Joris Thoné is such an extraordinary garden where native biotopes are laid out side by side and where special native plants - rare and common - grow together. This garden has been a treasure of ecological value as Joris Thoné works very intensively with volunteers to restore nature here. At the same time, it is a special place where botanical knowledge and native living heritage come together. Because a plant never grows alone, the connection between these species is so important, and exactly these connections are still developing in the Academy Garden. That is why we have invited Joris Thoné to give a guided walk discussing the specific geographical, historical and natural landmarks of the Academy garden.Joris Thoné is an artist and ecological activist who creates the Natuurtuin, a biotope with diversity for native species. This garden in Brasschaat is a living archive of special plants and has great educational value for ecological restoration.
Admiring our leaf mould during the garden tour.


The garden tour took place along our little woodland patch in the old garden.

30 March 2023
 Many artists care about species loss, global warming, the destruction of forests, the polution in the oceans and much more but what can we do about it? When we are still thinking of a nature/culture divide there is not much an individual can do. But when we start to think with nature, the tables turn and we are standing in a different field. This project is about climate change. Gardening is our entry into nature and a way to learn to think with nature, it's part of the art practice. My fellow artist researcher Inés Ballesteros calls this non formal learning, and this is at the very heart of the project. Discovering as we go along - there is no handbook for this project - we are setting up a multispecies community garden.

The new bee hotel, almost finished.
Spring is cold and wet this year, it hasn't been easy to work in the garden with seeds in one hand and an umbrella in the other. But people kept the community alive and we found ways to shelter. Somehow we even managed to get some serious construction works done. In the secret garden we made a wooden vegetable planter in a decent proportion. This garden used to be a vegetable plot before renovations claimed the grounds and tiled up about half of the garden. It's a strange sight because because nobody uses these tiles. To reclaim this part of the garden without breaking up the tiles we decided to use containers. Using all kinds of containers will give a more natural feel and reconnect with the rest of the garden. 
The vegetable planter in the secret garden.

We seeded: green pumpkins, mizuna, mitsuba, dille, spring onions, nasturtiums, brassica, mange tout and rucola. The soil is layered of tree bark in the bottom, organic peatfree soil on top and mixed in compost. Soon we will have to check if the birds are interested in the seeds and if we need to protect some of these.

The garden has a lot of old stones and masonry for insect habitat.

A tiny Sand Mining Bee visited us.

11 March 2023
Open House! All the studios, aulas, halls, librarie rooms and exhibition spaces were open to welcome curious visitors. In the garden we organised two tours about Donna Haraway's book Staying With The Trouble. During the tour quotes were read from the book and knotted into the garden's practices, history and location. We, the gardeners, gave the tour, which was less about walking around and discussing plants and more about expanding the perceptions of gardening. We, the gardeners, are critters, we are the centipedes, worms, snails, caterpillars, humans, wild plants, trees, stones, micro organisms, birds and so on. Our definitions are inclusive, our perspectives are multiple, our gardening is ongoing. Thank you to all the nice visitors who expanded the practice and shared their enthusiasm.

Two days before the Open House, the garden was covered in a thin layer of snow.

8 March 2023
International women's day can only work if it is also international non-binary, neutral, intersex and trans day about saving nature, opposing racism and ableism, and so on. It's a string figure with so many hands and strings we can never leave this complixity entirely behind us. It's 'trouble', and as long as we have trouble there is hope. On Wednesday we made a sign to honour the work by Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American artist who had a pioneering practice of working with ecology, her performances embody response-ability. The sign explains why we named our garden exercise in the shape of a moss mountain after her, and surprisingly the name fits with the shape of the mountain. 


We continued on Thursday in snow and rain during one of the greyest days we ever had in the garden. It is hard to imagine now that the Fritillaria raddeana will flower in our garden, but if the bulbs accept this location they will become a living monument that connects the old garden in Antwerp with the wild flowers of Iran. Especially for this flower a ceramic sculpture was made to function as a label, telling the visitors about the plants that flowers here and in Iran.

Donna Haraway's SF, the String Figure, is a working tool in this garden, and the other way around the garden helps to make a practice out of theory. The trouble we read about becomes a real part of the Royal Academy's grounds, extending the subject-object making art practice to the outside of the building.

4 March 2023
 "Community garden Silsburg must be empty as soon as possible." On the first of February I read this message on my phone. It didn't mention a contact person, there was only an address. There is a similarity with Agatha Christie's novels and the little detective in me got curious. On a Friday morning I took the tram to the outskirts of Antwerp and visited the garden. The door was open, the shed was locked and there were heaps of wood, stones and compost left and right. Between bare trees were downtrodden plantbeds with brown stalks pointing to where the dormant plants were. A man was helping another man to load a grapevine into a trailer. We talked and it turns out the whole garden will become an apartment block. This meant a crime was about to take place: the murder of all the innocent plants and critters living in this garden. There should be a law that gives people the right to save life and habitat of building areas, lucky this garden sent out an alarm and we could enter without tresspassing. 
The community garden in Silsburg (Samentuin)

The Royal Academy provided a van for the day. Gwyn who runs the wood workshop helped out with the organisation and hands on practicalities. On a cold grey morning we assembled - students, alumni, researcher and colleagues - and went to Silsburg. Within an hour the van was full of old wood, taken to the academy to return empty and be filled again. We had onigiri, a vegan glutenfree and lactosefree lunch with amazing brownies for dessert. We continued to dig up the plants that we could more or less recognise:


Acquilegia vulgaris (akelei) 

Anchusa sempervirens (groene ossentong)

Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard, look zonder look)

Allium schoenoprasum (chives, bieslook) 

Arum maculatum (lords and ladies, gevlekte aronskelk) 

Crataegus (hawthorn, meidoorn) -not exactly sure-

Crocus (several, unknown)

Ficaria verna (speenkruid) 

Foeniculum (fennel, venkel) 

Geranium (unknown variety)

Glechoma hederacea (catsfoot, hondsdraf) 

Hypericum perforatum (St. John's wort, Sint-janskruid) 

Lamium purpureum (paarse dovenetel)

Narcissus (daffodil, narcis) 

Plantago lanceolata (smalle weegbree)

Symphytum officinale (common comfrey, smeerwortel)

Viola odorata (English violet, maarts viooltje) 


Anchusa sempervirens (groene ossentong)

Crocus (Jeanne d'Arc?)

Plantago lanceolata

Lamium purpureum

Lords & ladies and some very small lesser Celandine leaves.

While we walked trough the garden we looked for what we could move to the Academy's garden, what would work in a different setting and soil? So many leaves looked interesting, with strange shapes and patterns, but at this time of the year it was really hard to tell what was growing in this plot. At first glance it looked as if there was nothing but trees and grasses. We needed to look differently in order to find the plants that were hidden in the soil. Instead of recognizing plants we looked at the conditions: what might like to grow here, and what would be left in a visible trace at this time of the year? Plantblindness has many forms and this excursion was an exercise in thinking differently. We weren't looking for plants, we were trying to see an ecology and who might be part of it?

We all have at least some plantblindness, some of us have barely any (not me) but even the most educated botanist can learn about a new plant. In Silsburg I have seen more plants I didn't recognize than plants that I could remember the name of. To know that I don't see these unknown plants make a difference because at least now I can try to discover them and remember that very old question: "What is the name for this?".


Old logs in our new garden.

At the end of the day the logs have found a place in the garden, and the plants are dug into a strip of soil to create a makeshift nursery. The wood is still full of life, from ants and earwigs to slugs and more. It didn't rain and a narrow strip of bright blue sky appeared between the steel coloured clouds. Birds swooped into the garden to investigate the wood while we left.

15 February 2023
In the Arboretum in Kalmthout we met the Dutch snowdrop specialist Joséphine Dekker and from her we bought the botanical snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. This little white flower is a plant that most probably was part of the old garden in the Academy when it was designed in 1905. While the snowdrops don't ask for much - they will spread slowly into drifts of flowers - they got lost somehow along the twentieth century. Probably mowing their leaves together with the grass didn't help, we'll plant these clumps in the forest patch and hopefully they can stay for a hundred years and more.

Joséphine Dekker brought the snowdrops out of her garden, big clumps were packed in wooden trays.

The botanical snowdrop Galanthus nivalis is a small and gentle flower, it is the wild plant from the forests of France introduced in the Netherlands.

The snowdrop Galanthus S. Arnott is a cultivated snowdrop, sterile and selected for it's beautiful features.


Resisting the snowdropmania we're buying only wild plants because they make sense. The small flowers work with the senses of early insects and are vital for survival. That's why we're not going to buy the cultivar, a beautiful plant but no longer connected to a cycle of ecology. 

A clump of these snowdrops consists of 20+ single plants, we count the bulbs (not the flowers).

During the garden sessions frequently clusters of plants were mistaken for 'one plant' and planted out in a single hole in the soil. We had to dig them up and look closer, because what seemd to be one entity was actually a group of small bulbs, seedlings or root systems. This fenomena of not identifying a structure is part of plantblindness, a condition we all suffer from when we don't know what we see, don't recognise what we don't know and don't see what is not recognised. Instead of individual plants we see an abstraction. These snowdrops are a family portrait, not a single plant, and they will be separated bulb per bulb to be replanted in the old garden's forest patch.

The forest patch with the single snowdrop plants.


09 February 2023

Big and little works, this week you could find us mostly in the secret garden. A herb mountain and a forrest patch are in the making, we added Hypericum, Asarum europaeum and Geum urbanum tot he forrest patch, the herb garden got a nice old sage Salvia officinalis and garlic. We also added seeds of Lunaria rediviva, Ruta graveolens, Silybum, Malva alcea, Dianthus superbus, Myrrhis odorata, Dystenia takeshimana, Smyrnium perfoliatum and Oenothera. 

On Thursday we gave a tour to the deptartment of In Situ, we talked about gardening to restore ecology as a non-human centred practice.  Artists can use this practice to reflect, to find a different kind of input and inspiration. We talked about Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Renaat Braem, Napoleon Bonaparte, Plato, Ana Mendieta and the fritalaria from Iran as a living monument. Time went fast and we're very grateful for connecting with such a nice audience.


The walk and talk kicked off in the secret garden where we discussed 21th century gardening. Photo by Timothy Laskaratos

02 February 2023

We are in the old garden, the 15th - 18th century Franciscan monastery's cemetery that became an Academy garden in 1810. The moss garden is already a moss garden, by itself and of itself, because the grass won't grow and the moss is forming a gentle carpet. Little ferns pop up between the green patches, rainwater pools to sink into the sandy soil. There isn't much top soil, hardly any at all. Digging gives us bricks, glass and bits and pieces. We went with an intuitive gardening method, following the natural course of the water we extended the path into a little river, and then it split into two rivers with an island in the middle. The excess soil from digging was piled up in the middle, we were surprised to see how much height our mountain gained from only those two rivers. We placed the moss on top of the mountain and planted two old ferns on the river banks. 


The landscape looked like a dinosaur, or a camel back, or twins (both twin mountain tops, twin ferns and twin rivers) and it reminded us of the land art by Ana Mendieta. Her close relationship with land, soil, water and local plants is inspiring, her innovative performances and interactions show the land as belonging within an ecology of human and non-human stories knotted together in her art practice. Ana Mendieta is an iconic artist within this emergent art and garden contact zone. In this moment a materiality manifested with a semiology that works. It makes sense. We must remember. We must think. "Think we must" wrote Virginia Woolf at the break of the Great War. Donna Haraway writes about Virginia Woolf's thinking and in a string figure of thought Haraway adds Hannah Arendt's and Isabelle Stengers' ideas on how we think and what stories we are thinking with. This string figure emphasises that it matters which words word words and which world world worlds. This string figure appeared and we could recognise it.

We decided to call this place Ana, and the mountain really looks like Ana.


Sketch of the moss patch named Ana.

26 january 2023

It's freezing and the usual preparations (potting overspill of wild plants out of the Gesamthof into the Academy) isn't going to work. The ground is frozen and the plants are in deep sleep. What are we going to do on two afternoons when it's so cold? It's very quiet in the Academy, there are exams and jury days and only a few students walk in the halls. I brought books (from Aldo Leopold and Donna Haraway) and planned on updating the message boards with oil drenched paper to prevent the composting of our communication. Instead we compared soil colours and discussed the similarities between plants and people, like a double name.

Our brave snowdrops.


Finding interesting plants.

In the old garden we've planted a few thoroughly frosted cyclamen coum and snowdrops. They were lingering in the Gesamthof and are probably better of in the warmer full soil than in frozen plastic containers. I'm hoping for a carpet of snowdrops, perhaps in thirthy years time? We planted 12 bulbs. And then I started on something I have been nervous about. The moss garden. In my mind I see a landscape unfolding with old ferns and a shallow creek with rainwater, mosses hanging from dead wood and name tags talking about ancient plants. In reality this patch of soil is probably the hardest part of the grounds to grow anything at all. Even the mosses are in doubt, facing north in a corner shaded by shrubs on both ends. At the end of the day we found several baby ferns growing between the false strawberries. 


On the second day we worked in the secret garden. When I posted the photo of the new garden on social media, inviting students to join us, I felt it wasn't good advertising. Who would like to work in this dark and empty patch of soil? And this has been often my experience, people like to garden in a garden that looks already good. They don't like to work in a sad and empty bit of shade. When we need the students the most, they won't come, and when the work is done they will volunteer for more. What I can't show in a photo is the satisfaction at the end of the day when after all this digging we have something resembling a natural landscape. And even then you have to be able to see the potential in the mud. Pioneering isn't visible until after it is done.

18 January 2023

This is the first week of our new schedule, the garden sessions are on Wednesday and Thursday. We met in the secret garden next to the printmaking studio. One patch of the garden has a pond and a herb mountain, new plants are pushing trough the soil and it looks promising. In the other patch we cleaned up, made new paths, planted a butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and have sown Pachyphragma macrophyllum and Smyrnium perfoliatum.

A strange inbetween space.

After an afternoon's work the garden looks very promising.


12 January 2023

Our new circle around the sun started with a cold, wet and stormy day and we decided to stay indoors. In order to restore the garden we have to include people. People are a part of the local ecology and we haven't really heard their voice yet. What do the people in this environment think of the future of the Academy garden? We set up a poll station at the entrance of the cafetaria to ask everyone's opinion. While we baked pancakes and made tea we discussed different aspects of the garden and room for improvements. The answers were gathered on notes and pinned on the board between inspiring topics. The result is a grand tour of speculative fabulations of possible futures for the Academy garden.

Our poll station at the end of the day.

We will translate the notes into a document with the gathered information, a tool to share the view of the people who are close to the garden. This document will give a good input towards decision makers in charge of the garden's future.

We gardened with words to extend nature indoors, the paper notes with Speculative Fabulations, SF, a science fiction of the garden, made many of the passersby into gardeners for a moment. By inviting people's thoughts into the garden making we involved people in the garden for a moment.

21 December 2022

Tomorrow is the last community garden day of this year in the patches of the Royal Academy. We're a small group of enthusiasts who continued gardening during the cold last week in minus 3 degrees arranging wood chip in a path and breaking ice for birds. The patch has transformed from three trees in nearly bare soil to a living land although with not much plants at the moment. When I see the patch I wonder what we could add that would want to live there. Conditions aren't easy: very dry in summer, shaded under the trees, not a lot of nutritions, possibly wet in spring and yet quite exposed. There are flowers growing in the desert, but not much is growing here. We planted and seeded lots of wild plants from the Gesamthof.

The woodland patch
Acquilegia vulgaris (akelei)
Alchemilla mollis (garden lady's-mantle, vrouwenmantel)
Allium triquetrum (driekantige look)
Anemone nemorosa (bosanemoon)
Ceratophylum demersum (gedoornd hoornblad)
Comarum Palustre (wateraardbei)
Cyclamen hederafolium
Cygnoglossum officinale (veldhondstong)
Dianthus armeria (ruige anjer)
Digitalis purpurea (foxglove, vingerhoedskruid)
Echium vulgare (viper's bugloss, slangenkruid)
Epimedium rubrum
Eranthis cilicia
Galium odoratum (sweetscented bedstraw, lievevrouwebedstro)
Glechoma hederacea (catsfoot, hondsdraf)
Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore, nieskruid)
Hesperis matronalis (dame's gilliflower, damastbloem)
Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Iris pseudocarus (gele lis)
Lemna Trisculca (puntkroos)
Lunaria annua (honesty, judaspenning)
Myosotis (forget-me-not, vergeet-me- nietje)
Oenothera (evening primrose, teunisbloem)
Plantago coronopus (buck's horn plantain, hertshoornweegbree)
Pulmonaria saccharata
Rosa canina (hondsroos)
Salvia sclarea (clary sage, klareisalie)
Scirpoides holoschoenus (bullrush)
scrophularia nodosa (figwort, knopig helmkruid)
Verbascum (mullein, koningskaars)
Viola odorata (English violet, maarts viooltje)

The secret garden:
Alchemilla mollis (garden lady's-mantle, vrouwenmantel)
Allium schoenoprasum (chives, bieslook)
Allium Triquetrum (three-cornered leek, driekantige look)
Aster (Michaelmas daisy) - unknown variety found in the Gesamthof as a remnant of the monastery garden
Buddleja (orange eye, vlinderstruiken)
Calendula (marigold, goudsbloemen)
Dianthus armeria (ruige anjer)
Eupatorium (snakeroots, leverkruid )
Fragaria vesca (bosaardbei)
Hesperis matronalis (dame's gilliflower, damastbloem)
Iris pseudocarus (gele lis)
Laurus nobilis (bayleaf, keukenlaurier)
Lunaria annua (honesty, judaspenning)
Malva alcea (hollyhock mallow, vijfdelig kaasjeskruid)
Muscari botryoides (grape hyacinth, druif hyacint)
Myosotis (forget-me-not, vergeetmenietje)
Rosa canina (hondsroos) 
Scrophularia nodosa (figwort, knopig helmkruid)
Stachys (lambsear, ezelsoor)
Typha latifolia (bulrush, lisdodde)
Verbascum (mullein, koningskaars)

 With the leftover seeds we made small packages and printed the names of the plants with this incredible print technique: Inés Ballesteros & Michela Dal Brollo gelatin printer. The print plates used to be transparant but all the ink of years of printing coloured them deep blue-violet. The copy works up to ten times before fading.


1 December 2022

The making of a pond. We finished our pond in a couple of hours on a cold and sunny winter day. The soil was almost frozen, and we had to move about a lot to keep warm. The pond doesn't look as nice we'd like it to be, there is a rusty grit laying on top as a safety measure. Of course it's not a 100 percent safe, still a lot can go wrong. But comparing culutures I noticed -while abroad- that Belgians aren't really used to accessible open water. Even the city park has a fence around the pond. And just so, to be on the safe side with children running very fast, it seemed like a good plan to cover at least deepest parts. We added pots with bullrushes and yellow flag (the pots are to keep them from spreading too fast), but lots of plants are still missing. We'll add them next time.

The pond was made with the help of many students, they are not in the photos because it feels weird to make photos of people who are gardening and it feels equally weird to ask people if I can take a photo of their face. Instead I promise not to photograph their face and it allows me document the making of these garden patches without accidently taking someone's picture. It also adds a bit of secret, some kind of privacy, if you want to know who's part of our garden group you have to be there and show your face as well.


But this garden project wouldn't be possibel without the help of many, there are the weekly gardeners who joined the group and share their enthusiasm. There are the visitors who are curious and like to ask questions. There are the staff of the Academy, the people who work daily to make the whole ecology run smoothly and who let us use their materials like spades, wire cutters, hammers, saws, etc. And then there are the people who give us precious materials, like this dead wood full of life: the fungus filled branches that were given to us to add to the garden. Thank you so much for this gift, it adds life to the soil and is a feast for beetles, worms and birds. They really added a lot of character.

The garden is ready for planting and sowing, it will need ferns and herbs and shrubs and ground cover...

23 November 2022

 The making of a pond, we're halfway. We're digging in a new patch of soil, there was a hole after the demolition of a house, and the landscape was refilled with unknown earth from elsewhere. But the history of a place seems to remember, like a ghost from the past this place sticks to its nature of being a hole.

The secret garden meant working towards ecology from an almost empty patch. The first step is to add water, and here unlike in the old (cemetary) garden we can dig. The academy didn't have water bodies on their grounds, and that's why we added the baby lake in the form of  big bucket in the old garden. In this new patch we can dig a small pond for wildlife without disturbing too many skeletons. With a bit of effort we can make this place a welcoming home for insects, birds and who knows who else. 

We're sculpting the edges, like a big inverted chocolate cake, layer after layer for plant support.

It was cold and wet and after a few hours the 'cake' was ready.

With some preparation we could ad the protactice pond sheet, or shroud it looked like a burial.

Next week we'll add the lining, water and gravel to finish the natural pond. We'll do the planting as well, and if you hesitate to help: know that you can dip a toe and feel if this is your kind of place to be. We are still looking for students to join our garden group and join us on Thursdays from 12 till 18h, when the weather is nice. On rainy days you find us in the cafetaria with tea and dry seed packages.

17 November 2022

 Instead of gardening together we had a Soup Session, the Royal Academy's choice for sharing research practices within the Academy. Every researcher gets the possibility to share their interests, questions, worries and plans while drinking soup together. For this session we had two soups: a big pot of tomato soup made in the Academy's kitchen and a small pot of celeriac soup with miso made by me because I have an allergy for tomato, I'm gluten intolerant and dairy intolerant and it is safer when I cook my own food. The double soup option for participants, the big pot of 'main' soup and small pot of queer soup, was a nice introduction to today's topic: soil. 

Soup session: cooking celeriac soup in the Royal Academy's garden.

Soil and miso have in common that they are not exactly dead material, the fermentation is a living multitude and so is soil. We didn't bring the soup to boiling after the miso was added to keep the fermentation working otherwise the healthy benefit of this soup would be lost. The fermented miso paste is a living action and a direct support for our digestive system which is also full of living actions. Humans - like soil- are also multitudes. We can't function on our own, our ecology is not all that different from a garden. To make a garden healthy is to make soil healthy, it is all about the living symbiosis of a wider ecology. We're working with life in earth, a vast multitudinous togetherness like seas, moving and changing - far removed from the solidity we think of. To touch the infinite grains of sand, the decomposing organic matter, the many critters living inbetween these, the threads of fungus bodies, the seeds, spores, roots, stones, the worm slipping away is to touch the life other life is built on. If we want to look after the garden we have to look at the soil.

With soup bowl in hand we walked trough the garden, discovering different soil types in the forrest patch.

'Academy' comes from Hekademia, the gardens outside of Athens where Plato was teaching his students in the olive grove. The Academy has her roots in the gardens of Athens, of Athena full of wisdom. Before Athena stepped out onto the stage after being born from a man's head she was not a man's idea of the perfect woman, she was a plank falling from the sky. This older story interests me more than the men in the garden, the plank was a divine piece of a tree without human features. This tree, probably an olive tree, was more than a symbol, Greece used to be covered with forests until people started to harvest the trees for precious wood. At some point they realised that without the trees there would be no olives, no oil, nothing to start a fire, no boats, no chariots, no cooking and so on. They knew trees alive and to be respected, a plank was not a symbol but a real piece of wood from real trees. This story is about making sense.


Sorry for the inadvertently advertising, I made only 3 photos during the event and this was the best one.

I didn't take a photo of the miso, but I did take a photo of measuring ut the seaweed in wooden bowls, drinking soup from a wooden cup is being involved with 'plank', with the trees around us. The seaweed is a good nutritonous value for people and soil. When harvested with permission it can be used as a fertiliser to improve the soil conditions. While drinking this soup, a nice winter vegetable recipe that blends Flemish tradition with ingredients from Japan, we talked about the research as practice of artistic curiosity. This project is about starting a practice that includes the wider ecology of the Academy: from worms to students, including the lifelong inhabitants like Trees and Robins. During the talk I swithced from I to we according to the content, when I sai I it means me, my pronouns are 'she' and 'her', but when we speak as a garden, as a whole including humans and nonhumans, we say we with the pronouns 'they' and 'them'. This is not gender based: instead of a binary system we use a multitude including all kinds of gender and non-gender. My interpration of woman is inclusive with an open definition, woman can be as masculin, feminin or any kind of 'in' and still be fully woman. Inclusive open definitions are necessary in this research, because they allow for a different kind of story telling. The garden as a whole is a real inclusion of everyone that belongs with the garden.

10 November 2022

 The Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp is a patchwork of walls, with some of the oldest church walls extending into neoclassic and contemporary architecture. Little patches of green can be found in various places, and one of those patches is the secret garden in front of the print making studios. A garden is never an empty space, a white page, but this flat square was almost empty apart from a great fig tree.

The fig tree is growing from the corner, and its roots are probably established in the old wall.

This secret garden is a place that can reflect the students in the Academy, where the historical garden is full of history and we shouldn't dig in it, this new patch is open for play. Restoring ecology is not about separating humans from nature, we are a part of the ecology. The lack of wild boars, moose and dears is a good excuse to dig and root in this rather flat patch of land.

We already planted about a hundred small forest strawberry plants.

  The secret garden, or student garden, is planted with the plants spilling over from the Gesamthof, and especially the herbs are welcome addition. Healthy and gratis these herbs can help students in tea and cooking, while a herb garden is a very nice place to take break. The location wasn't entirely full of sun, and to create a better condition for the herbs we decided to make a mountain. The drainage of the soil as well as added height would give better options. 


Drawing with flower on a windy day, it has a Helen Frankenthaler feel.

The new pavement is so clean, we added a dam to keep the soil from spilling over.

Making a mountain meant digging a hole, and with the herb garden we also made a pond, it's not ready yet. There still needs to come in sand and a lining, with lots of nice pebbles, some old wood and possibly a little field of marsh plants. In the right corner you can see the bayleaf we planted, and underneath are arum italicum seedlings. Next to them we added the white asters from the monastery garden at Morpho, the printmakers are in for a nice surprise next autumn.

The most important question now is: how to make this pond childproof? The sides are to be filled with plants, so the real water area is about 1 m² wide but quite deep. Should we add a fence around the garden? Or can we make a metal mesh under the water surface? Tricks and tips are welcome.

3 November 2022

Stones are often overlooked in a garden design, they are used as a building structure or put down as decorative; but this garden patch doesn't work with a design gently sketched and thought through. When looking closely a garden isn't a white page and garden designs are often human centred. Thinking of the Plantationocene, to design nature has an imperialistic taste. Instead we work from within a situated existing ecology and the stones matter a lot. Stone has a dense nature, one side of the stone reflects sunlight and creates a tiny micro climate with a warmer temperature on this side, the stone itself holds the warmth (butterflies love to catch a bit of heat) and it radiates after the air temprature has cooled off. The shade side of a stone is cooler, and will provide shelter in exteme heat, creating a pocket where different biotopes attracts different species. The soil underneath the stone is less prone to evaporation on hot days (all kinds of small animals like to live under a stone), and the stone itself casts a dry shadow on one side. Small pebbles and gravel can improve the drainage and small gaps between stones are prefered beds for ferns and other specilialised plants. To include humans in this garden there is another important quality of stones: when you are looking for a safe space to put your foot, a stepping stone makes a nice garden path working along with plants, insects and people. Coolest of all the qualities of stones is probably their habitat for lichen and mosses as well as the bacteria that break down the nutrition of the rock and started a complex symbiogenesis on this planet, we are many and interdependent as the symbiogenesis theory of Lynn Margulis explains. On this cloudy Thursday we added different kinds of stone to the garden further diversiy the micro-micro climate in our forest patch.


It gets dark early and many of us garden after dusk sometimes; it's quite romantic and also terribly impractical. To adjust to winter, we stop gardening in the soil when it gets dark and we continue gardening in text instead. The book 'Staying with the Trouble' by Donna Haraway is not all that far from a garden patch, and reading together might shed light on how we can get better skills in becoming more nonanthropomorphic sensible. When it rains you can find us under the cover of the 'temple' entrance in the historical garden, it's next to the forest patch. Please feel welcome and if you have a copy of this book it would be nice to bring it.


2 November 2022

On Wednesdays the preparations are done for gardening on Thursday, usually it means we bring big bags full of plants to the historical garden. But this time it was autumn holidays and most students were away, what worse is that the school was closed. There was nobody to answer the calls, there was no one at the door, nobody would let us in, no bell, no name, no phone nr anywhere. Standing in the rain with plants too heavy to carry, it was a moment to take in. Is this how it feels on non-holiday days for people who can't enter the Academy? Is it related to what Sarah Ahmed writes about in 'Living a Feminist Life'? The invisible walls, now turned visible and quite real. This garden project started with a refusal, the application for the research (this garden work is a research project into art & ecology) was not accepted because of my identity as a lesbian artist. The reading committee considered me as 'polarising', not the project - it's not a lesbian project - it was me, the researcher, who was refused. You might have noticed the shift from 'we' to 'me', I see this garden project as working in a community that I am part of, together with students, staff, trees, bugs, birds, soil and many more. The garden was there before I arrived and will be there after I leave, and I am a part of this wider ecology. The application was refused by the reading committee, and it was the faculty of the Academy who decided their decision was wrong. I am very grateful for the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp to refuse the refusal and press on in making change. Thank you to everyone who went against the decision and helped to realise this garden project.


27 October 2022

Another big change is the paths we are creating. Gardening is a way to give people a place in nature, and a path - or in this case a series of stepping stones - is a safe(r) way to let people enter this garden patch. In a small place the soil gets crowded and we don't want to step on plants too often. That's not the full story. Where do we belong in this small ecology, what are we to the others? How will a tree become aware of our presence and how do we feel about belonging in this garden patch. We are not residents like the worms, beetles, snails, trees and birds; we're visitors and a walking path is a visitor's home, it welcomes people in.

Three types of 'soil': sandy soil without organic matter, sandy soil with some nutritions and compost: not actually a soil but the local compost made from the green waste collected in Antwerp.


To diversify the ecology is to work with different types of soil. There is a strange human connotation with the difference in soil, we call black soil 'rich' and light soil 'poor', and often gardening is about getting your soil more 'rich' to have strong plants and nice produce. Some plants prefer a lighter soil, a low nutrition and less organic matter. Those are not poor plants, and we can change the story of thinking in terms of rich and poor when an ecology is about specialised organisms. In the garden patch we're creating a part with extra compost and a part with lighter soil, letting the seeds of wild plants choose where they want to grow. If you ever visit Belgium you will find the end of the train platform is often not weeded, and between the gravel and stones all kinds of wild flowers grow on a very light soil. These ends of the platform are often the home of stunningly interesting plant combinations and far more intense than an evenly cared for nutritious border.

We planted Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), Clary (Salvia sclarea), Dame's rocket (Hesperis Matronalis), Dog-rose (Rosa canina) and Daffodils (Narcissus) on a very warm late autumn day. There is still a lot of soil uncovered though it's not the goal to finish the garden as soon as possible. I'm not trying to create my garden and there is no end goal to this project. Instead it's about change and ongoingness, and we're creating it together (I'll introduce the fellow gardeners later) with a multitude of possible outcomes. To leave a patch of open soil for butterflies to land and for seeds to fall is not all too different from creating an unfinished garden for gardeners to enter.

Garden view with the 'study' for the museum of fine arts in the back.

The Royal Academy of Antwerp has a garden that doubles as an open-air museum of old entrances, these gates - portals- porches - entrances...  are from the time when the Spanish ruled Flandres. It's a weird feeling to see students entering the garden full of unreal passages. The gates lead to nowhere and the doors remain closed. The past is tangible in a thick, ongoing presence, the word used by Donna Haraway is   kainos; she writes about in "Staying with the Trouble". This place becomes more and more interesting, the wall with the gates and the pediment is part of a 'small' study for the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp or KMSKA in short(er). While the museum was intentioned to be built in the city park, the plans changed. The location of the citadel in the south of the city was chosen instead, effectively burying the Duke of Alva's fort under the new building that opened in 1890. The KMSKA holds a colonial past, the location was used for the international exposition of 1885. This was the year the Congo Free State was created, and the world exhibition showed a Congolese village to promote the colonial spirit. While the Royal Academy and the museum are both older than Belgium ( we are digging in a garden instructed by Napaleon B.), there is no place untouched by our colonial past. The past is present in this thick presence. 


20 October 2022

The patch with permission to garden on the historical grounds of the Royal Academy in Antwerp.

This research project on art and ecology had the work title "The Sympoiesis Garden", inspired by Donna Haraway's book Staying With the Trouble. This and many other books will be our gardening companions amongst other tools. I think of this project as 'making sense', that is a material and figurative description of what artists and gardeners do in this garden patch. Making sense has a history in the visual arts, it's full of curiosity. Making sense is about the senses, it is like the rope fencing off the patch signifying a change in landscape instead of locking nature in. The rope fence is a string figure, as a fence it holds nothing in or out. The garden is full of string figures, from string bean supports and a soil full of fungus strings, to the ropes guiding people around precarious patches of soil. These SF figures work as Speculative Fabulations, Supportive Feminism and Science Fiction in a thick present. The garden group will be submerged in the Donna Haraway concepts, but it is not a requirement to have read her books; her concepts become material-semiotic realities that you can touch, its about making sense. This garden project is not only about Donna Haraway, we will look at many interesting writers, like Anna L. Tsing, Jamaica Kincaid, Robin Wall Kimerer and others. We're also going to have a closer look at the trouble we're in, and find a path trough the mess of queer kinship, situated knowledge, climate change, artist's support, peer connections and how to think together as artists in a garden patch.


P.S. The patches in the name The Royal Academy of Antwerp Garden Patches comes from Anna L. Tsing's book 'Mushroom At The End Of The World. Tsing describes a patch and patchiness in a way that comes very close to the part of the garden we are allowed to work in (more about that later).  The patches matter because they are in the historical garden. This old garden in the grounds of the Academy is a protected area, we're not allowed to touch anything because of the Royal Decree from 1974. However, for this project we have a special permission to work in two patches in this garden to restore ecology. I would like to thank everyone involved who helped to open up this densely closed of administration and find a possibility to garden in this garden. 


We added small containers for strong plants like Bullrushes (Scirpoides holoschoenus), Yellow flag iris (Iris pseudocarus), Marsh cinquefoil (Comarum Palustre), Coontail (Ceratophylum demersum) and Lemna Trisulca.

The first step towards restoring ecology is 'water', when there is no available water in the garden we will make a place for water. This is a recycled cement bucket that we could reuse as a pond. We can't dig a pond because the garden used to be a monastery cemetery in eighteenth century, and anywhere below the ground level we might find surprises. The pond stands on top the soil and to give access to small creatures we built a path alongside the bucket with stones leaves and soil. There isn't enough water for frogs, but one never knows what might arrive. 

The pond looks a wilder than it is, but once the sand sinks to the bottom it will be a nice addition of water.

No comments:

Post a Comment