Hidden in the bustling city center of Antwerp, there is a secret garden tucked away next to the neo-gothic church of St. George (Sint Joris). The garden is part of the presbytery and for long only the playground for the local clergy. That changed when the church asked their neighbor, landscape designer/artist, Ronald van de Hilst to take care of the garden. For Ronald this could only happen on one condition : carte blanche to redesign the garden.

The inspiration of the design comes from the Hortus Conclusus (Closed garden), which in many religions stands for the Paradise garden. Having roots in the Song of Songs in the Hebrew scriptures, the term hortus conclusus has been applied as an emblematic attribute and a title of the Virgin Mary. In Song of Songs 4:12 we read “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus” (“A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.”) Ronald added plants that are further described in the biblical text. The olive tree (peace) stands central in the garden, the cypresses (contact between heaven and earth) stand in a row at the church. These are part of the living columns of the walkabout, a nice hint to the cloister that often encircled old monastery gardens. And the last plant mentioned is the rose without torns (love of Mary)

But contrary to the original, more formal enclosed gardens, Ronald van der Hilst brought in an abundance of colors and textures and a variety of plant species. The first time I had the chance to visit the garden was in late October and the garden was still filled with flowers. From Dahlias, Salvias, over Lilies and Roses. What I really love is the dense planting and the huge variety. You can walk along the flower beds time after time and keep discovering new flowers and grasses. We were also lucky that Marcel guided us around, he plays with words and makes the garden even more poetic than it already is. We also got the chance to taste the garden, in the form of a lovely cup of herbal infusion. Gardens are truely a pleasure for all the senses

Second time we visited the garden was in December and, although grey and wet, the garden still stood beautiful thanks to the structure and probably also because of the micro-climate within these enclosed walls. Salvia ‘Amistad’ was still blooming in full glory and even some roses were still not giving up. The garden was open for an art walk in the city and Ronald added a new feature, making the paradise garden theme complete : a water feature. A gentle bubbling spring that drips down in a narrow rill made of tram tracks. Minimal and pure, but definitely transforming the garden in an even more tranquil place. It’s funny to think of the contrast with the trams screeching loudly in those same kind of tracks just a short distance away.

Now we are the beginning of May and we had our third visit and this is probably the most abundant season in Hortus Conclusus : the Tulip season. And that means hundreds of different varieties in different colors and shapes, a celebration of spring and an ode to this wonderful flower.

If you like tulips, like I do, you might have heard of Ronald van der Hilst before. It’s funny in a way, a Dutch-born artist/landscape designer that got fascinated by the tulip only after he moved out of the Netherlands to Antwerp. The tulip became a permanent theme throughout his work. He designed some incredibly beautiful tulip vases and every autumn he gives people the opportunity to buy a well curated selection of rare and extraordinary tulip bulbs. He even asked Laura De Coninck to create a parfum based on the smell of a a tulip. Laura found the perfect base in Tulipa Sylvestris, a delicate yellow tulip that grows in the South of France, and she added some extra layers to recreate the other scents of the garden. This process took more than 2 years, but now it is there … a bottle of Hortus Conclusus.

And so this short introduction to the Hortus Conclusus comes to an end. I can only hope you have the chance to visit this gem in Antwerp one day, it is only one of his gardens that belong to the ‘Great Gardens of the World‘. And if you are really lucky, I wish you can meet Ronald in his Hortus Conclusus and have a little chat with him. To find out more : https://www.ronaldvanderhilst.com/ or follow on Instagram @hortusconclususantwerp.