Make a garden before you build a house

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Detail of the JvE garden Summer 2021 ©Nickie Sigurdsson


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Detail of the JvE garden autumn 2021 ©Nickie Sigurdsson

The garden is a site-specific work carried out in the intermediate space between the buildings in Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, Limburg. The latest version of the garden is unearthed by artist Nickie Sigurdsson and maintained in cooperation with participants, five Indian runner ducks, private seeds savers, and with generous support and guidance from farmer Wim Storken and horticulturist Yvonne Velthuis.

In autumn 2021 Covid had kicked in again and the Jan Van Eyck Academie, went into full lockdown. On a systemic level, the pandemic has rendered visible the dysfunctional ways in which our work influence our lives and allowed for some unsolicited reflection on these matters. Although I found myself privileged to attend my studio practice almost during the entire pandemic, I felt the global state of things aggravated my own thoughts around work and care significantly, and highlighted both a personal and planetary state of exhaustion. In this time we were also re-arranging the way we worked in my collective, which led us to question the means of artistic production in general. I started wondering how I could defy material accumulation, how my work could welcome transient circumstanes, and how a caring scaffolding would inform the way I work in general.

Following this reasoning I decided to initiate a garden on the academic’s ground. Gardening became such a common activity for many during the pandemic, because I think more than anything, the process of gardening is an exercise in observance and maintenance which connect us to a more cyclical way of existence perhaps especially sought for in times of crisis and isolation. I soon realised when I took on the gardening work, that it was like the entire place came to life. I observed that when you show attention to something that generosity will multiply, and almost immediately some participants came to rescue with carrying compost and digging the raised beds, and the whole project started to become more participatory.

The process was overwhelming and vulnerable too, because I felt I had engaged in such a big intervention exposed for everyone to watch. Questions like: ’how do you respect the heritage of the place?’, ’How much do you intervene?’ ‘Is disturbance ok?’, ‘is it ok to introduce ducks to the garden’ etc. was very present during the first part of the process. At some point I guess I realised that I was just continuing a work ascending from others and it made my role seem more like a facilitator co-authoring with a multitude of collaborators non-humans as well as humans present as well as former.

The questioning was important and served as an entry into different problematics, histories, questions and reflections that I am still unfolding, and some of these thoughts I find it hard to pass on, as they somehow need to be embodied and experienced for oneself. However a lot of knowledge were accumulated in this process and I made a wikipedia page and a website archive as an attempt to share this rumination along with practicalities and therewith encourage others to embody land based work and knowledge for themselves and a new generation of participants to carry on this work. Finally addressing anyone involved with land-related matters, I think this paragraph by Silvia Federici put it quite accurately:

“Can we think of gardens as more than a food source and instead as a center of sociality, knowledge production, and cultural exchange?”[1]

In addition: Can we think of gardens as a portal into understanding important histories? Can the think of gardens as sites of experimental ecological thought, sites of learning with our environment? And thus, can we then think of gardens as places of resistance, as places of commoning?

Early disclosure

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Before I did anything in the garden, I observed what was growing there in January 2021. I saw that the plot had been used as a dumping for past art projects, especially sand and limestone were omnipresent. Someone also told me that the metal workshop had “leaked” metal waste in the ground whenever people would work outside. I seemed impossible to deem a coherent soil analysis, so instead I found it more relevant for now to look at what was growing.

  • Nettle – likes nitrogen rich soils
  • Blood sorrel – acidic
  • Clover – likes poor soils, disturbed areas
  • Horseradish roots can grow in sandy soils
  • Bayleaf bush – looked really happy
  • Greater celandine – perennial, grows in rich moist soil with shadow, in forests or disturbed wastelands etc.
  • Marble tree shoot – there was a lot of marble shoots, and it is common that if you leave a place for long enough a forest emerge after while.
  • large sage roots – had taken a lot of the space in the front, which revealed perhaps a sandy composition in that area, and opportunity for sun the sage roots had not been pruned before the winter, and had suffered, although it was still growing some places.
  • different kinds of mints and lemon verbena – pioneers, creates a lot of biomass in the soil due to the extensive root system.
  • strawberries – rich soil, is ok with shadow, acidic
  • moss – likes moist ground covered by foliage.

I got that the soil was rich, but “disturbed” in the sense that several minerals had been added to it. It was moist, which explained the snail invasion. The blood sorrel revealed that the soil seemed to be relatively acid, while Greater celandine indicated that the ecosystem was similar to that of a forest perhaps mixed with a wasteland dumping site.

If the plot wants to become a forest why not let it? Would a forest be an ideal green space to the designated space in-between the buildings? What is the potential of a plot of land? And is it ok to intervene with what seems to be the natural agenda of the plant populaiton?


©Nickie Sigurdsson, image by Charlotte Lagro
Putting compost ©Nickie Sigurdsson, image by Isabel Seifert
Raised beds ©Nickie Sigurdsson

I decided to use a system of ‘raised beds’, a soil layout designated to cultivate a dense population of plants and accumulate organic matter. The system is e.g used in urban farms in Cuba known as Organopónicos. One simply digs out pathways in-between growing beds, and naturally the soil bed will ‘rise’ as more soil is added. The bed has a fixed width of 75 cm – a good working width for a gardener/farmer. The benefits of the raised bed infrastructure is that it enables a better drainage and a fixed indication for where the cultivation is happening, which means that the soil on the beds will not be compacted as persons will use the pathways for walking, so there will be a good build-up of topsoil year after year. I like the functionality of the raised beds, but I also find their composition really nice because they make the garden more accessible and open up the layout of the garden.

I had intended not to use machines ones the soil had been aerated and tilled once before establishment. The idea behind the method adapted from no-till farming methods and permaculture is that you leave the soil as unworked as possible but keep adding compost year after year in spring time, and thus letting the soil life do the work. The important thing is to ensure that the soil is covered with plants all year round which will retain nutrients from leeking off.

The compost I used from Bio-kultura ( was very good, but also fairly expensive. I reckon cheaper options can be found near-by. I wanted the first batch to be really good quality weed-free compost. I used the compost bins in the garden momentarily but they had not been maintained properly and there wasn’t enough for the whole garden.


I learned from working with Wim that due to the "EU’s common catalogue of varieties of vegetable species" he cannot grow certain kinds of heirloom seeds and with the farmers protest happening across India early 2021 and the struggles for seed sovereignty across Africa and so many other places, made me think that caretakers of heirloom seeds are entangled with real acts of resistance, and that even tiny gardens hold a potential for safeguarding our seed cultures and knowledges of sovereignty that is carried from palm to soil to mouth.

I wanted to use ancient varieties also known as heirloom seeds, so I received some from private seed savers in Denmark, I also bought some from various places listed below. The thing with ancient seeds is that their germination rate is much lower than hybrid seeds, which means that sometimes only a few emerged. It was still very exciting when those green sprouts came up.

List of heirloom seed companies:

Nurseries near-by Limburg:

  • Wim Storken – is selling plants late spring and over the summer, you can ask for his special heirloom tomato varieties.
  • Yvonne Velthuis – Wilde Planten Kwekerij has a lot of special heirloom varieties specific and regional for Limburg

Plants that adapted very well to the conditions of the garden:

  • Leafy greens
  • Aromatic, medicinal and edible herbs (in the most sunny parts of the garden) although Mint grew everywhere
  • Brassicaceae family (Siberian kale did really well)
  • Wild marigold seemed to love it
  • Many edible flower did not do well, but Tropaeolum flowers did very well.
  • I was really happy with the perilla and Agastache bed
  • Burdock grew really big

The ducks

Indian Runners are a breed of Anas Platyrhynchos domesticus, the domestic duck. They stand erect like penguins and, rather than waddling, they run or “quickstep”. The Indian Runner ducks are domesticated waterfowls found on the Indonesian wetland islands of Lombok, Java and Bali where they were ‘walked’ to market and sold as egg-layers or for meat. Like many other breeds of waterfowl imported into Europe and America, the term ‘Indian’ is misleading and refers mainly to the loading port or the transport by sailing ships of the East India Company. Other misnamed geese and ducks include the African goose, the black East Indian duck and the Muscovy duck. The ducks were brought (or displaced) by imperial powers to Europe, where they were bred for eggs and feathers.  
It seemed like a big intervention to re-locate the ducks in the JvE, and it made me a bit nervous at first, because the ducks felt nervous around us, and would instantly quickstep away from any human reaching proximity. They were fascinating to watch as they were all incredibly synchronised and they would perform these peculiar neck–bowing  gestures in tandem as a way to communicate or digest — the reason still remains unknown to me. 

I was positively surprised to see that everyone in the academy loved them and took upon the guardian ship of the ducks, letting them inside the glass house in the night and out in the morning. Artist routines combined well with the caretaking of the ducks, since there would always be someone in the academy late in the night and early in the morning. Mickey would even collect snails in the night and feed them to the ducks in the morning. Several participants and staff members told me they had missed the presence of animals and that it was a healing contribution to the JvE especially during lockdown. In that sense the ducks were important for the institutional ecosystem as well.

The ducks are excellent foragers, and after a while they had eaten most of the snails and soon started overgrazing on my plants. The overgrazing was not anticipated, so I moved them to another garden. In the new garden they had no shelter, and I decided to keep them in this garden, while ordering a high frequency device that would scare away predators, a tip from Boudewijn. The device came too late because the marten, a four-legged agile predator, had killed tree of the five ducks one night. One of the ducks had even fallen heart ripped open on top of a snail, squeezed into the soil. It was a hard sight, and I felt very guilty. I called Wim and he seemed calm as a rock with his typical “jah jah that happens”. The contrast between our reactions were remarkable, and I realised later how much more “natural” Wim’s reactions was. Later I talked to Felix and he had this theory that perhaps it was a sort of self-regulation of the ecosystem, because five ducks were in the end too many for the size of grazing area. 

Boudewijn, the financial director, offered a space in his orchard for the burial of the ducks, and I could see that it had touched him as well as others, the passing of the three brothers.


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  • The garden took a long time to grow into a lush green place, this is particularly as effect of the lack of long sunny hours. Beans and plants from the nightshade didn't do well. Also pumpkins and squash didn't give so much, but plants seemed to be happy.
  • Tomatoes died early because of the wet summer. I would recommend also trimming the wine a bit during summer if tomatoes are grown outside.
  • The area in front of the metal workshop might have some toxicidisies, it would be good to have it checked perhaps or grow plants that remove toxicities. All the crops I planted dwindled and died in some way. It could also be nematodes.
  • Spaces for pre-culture: The green house works from April for pre-culture which is quite late. I suggest direct sowing most of the seeds when the soil is warmer than 5 degrees, it will be easier like this or to buy seedlings/plants directly from a nursery, see previous chapter.

Maintenance and succession

These are actions that would be good to do before the winter:

Cuttings: Perilla (found in section 3, see map): is a Korean plant used for medicinal purposes and for seasoning. It has beautiful purple leaves. It will not survive the winter cold, so it is a good idea to take a few cuttings and put them in water on a windowsill. They will produce roots in six weeks, after which you can plant them in small pots before moving them outdoors in spring.


  • Thai Basil (section 1): You can uproot some of the Thai basil plants and plant them indoors, and maybe prune the rest down until the plant gets woody. It might survive the winter.
  • Lavas
  • Bayleaf
  • All the woody herbs like rosemary, sage etc. (mostly found in section 1, the stone bed, see map) like to be pruned before the winter. It is also a good idea to add a bit of hay around them if possible.

Trimming: New Zealand Spinach (section 3 front, see map): is perennial, and it is a good idea to trim the beds a little aka remove the weeds and cut them down a bit. NZ spinach will possibly die out during winter and come back next spring.

Procedures next spring (in the making)


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The map indicates some of the plants you can find late October, it does not indicate all the plants I grew, but perhaps some of the most successful ones.

Notes to sections:

  • 1 In the stone bed I planted sun loving herbs and medicinal plants, because it is the area where there is the most sunny hours. The stones makes a nice effect, but they are also useful for making the bed a bit higher avoiding erosion and warming up the ground. I planted Thai basil or Káu-chàn-thah which grew super well. Next to this there is a mix of bergamot, chervil, lemon herb, sage, rosemary, banana mint, sea fennel, artemisia.
  • 2 In the section closest to the terrace I planted a lot of coriander and parsley in the spring, which grew very well. This part is also fairly sunny especially May/June. You also find the perennial 'Good King Henry' an old kitchen herb, leafy plant really nice in salads. Three spinach was really hard to propagate but late May it came in plenty.
  • 5 In this section I decided to grow perennial plants from the region, some endangered like the madder which is also good for red dye. The comfrey came all by itself and I decided to keeep it. It is really good for compost tea. The bayleaf bush was there from the beginning and it did very well also.
  • 6 In this section I grew a lot of radish in spring, summer and a lot of edible flowers that never did so well unfortunately.

Image gallery


  1. Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh. “Re-enchanting the World”