Michael Satke, born 1943 in Vienna, studied law, fashion and economics, in Vienna and London.
From 1967 to 1980 he was an executive in the worlds of advertising and business. He founded the New Gastronomy movement in Vienna, opening three bars and one restaurant with live music.
He has been a winemaker, bookmaker, co-founder of a magazine and has organised major events.
His work has received important awards.
Together with Ulrike Crespo he worked as a garden designer on Glenkeen Garden.
lmagine you have a large plot of land and suddenly find yourself overcome with the urge to do something with it. A garden like this simply happens to you. Naturally, you begin by pottering around outside the house, cultivating small pockets of land and separating them from the wilderness. You sow flower seeds, plant roses – all things pretty and ornamental – until a romantic atmosphere surrounds the house. And then comes the moment you start to think about those enormous meadows, the vast fields, the extensive grounds on the periphery.
lt occurs to you how you only ever take the same path down to the sea, while the rest of the estate lies idle. This was the moment I decided to seek out new paths to conquer the land. In my mission, what could be more natural than to follow the animal tracks, the footprints left by the foxes and badgers, for example? Why do they prefer certain paths over others? This search for tracks inspired my first mental map of pathways. Paths form the backbone of any garden, and they provided me with a rough structural plan. The idea was to divide the garden up into "stages" or locations, designed in a way that would encourage people to go there and visit them.
What defines a garden? The cultivation of nature is a tricky issue for me, for nature will inevitably gain the upper hand, whether in ten or in 50 years. The time will come when it strikes back, which is why from the very beginning I championed the idea of leaving half of the garden wild and uncultivated ("wild gardening"). The only access to those areas would be well-kept grassy trails. An exotic garden was likewise a no-go, as I wanted my garden to blend in with the lrish countryside as it matured. I did not want any extravagant features to attract attention, to catch people's eyes. Using endemic plants and fostering shrubs native to lreland was for me a core principle.
Ulrike Crespo and I had drawn up a rough plan, which we intended to realize step by step. The idea was to conquer the land together over the course of time. This process stretched over a period of five years, which meant that one thing led to another. The generous schedule we had set for ourselves had the advantage that we had ample opportunity to test whether our ideas would stand the test of time. Though we got most things right, we had the chance to correct the things that went wrong. lf you can afford to plan your garden at leisure, then you definitely should. Speed is not always a virtue when it comes to gardening. Of course there is something to be said for drawing up plans and implementing them on the spot, but the result will be far more successful if you allow yourself time and avoid mistakes. The downside is that time runs out.
Here's an example: we had firmly set our hearts on a walled garden. However, when it came to studying the actual topography we discovered that there was no need to make such a garden – the grounds already offered some beautiful, naturally protected spots. Other opportunities opened up by pure chance, which was wonderful. That is how we came to design the large pond. The original idea was to plant trees in this location, but when we started digging the holes for them we saw they filled with water over night. So we carried on digging to find that a few metres below the surface the water naturally collects on a dense layer of clay, flooding the entire zone. Opting to create the pond here was just a question of logic.
A garden teaches you to look closely, to observe what is around you. In the beginning you have less of a feel for this kind of thing. Ulrike Crespo and I always said we would do it without the help of a landscape architect, without a designer, without any external planning. That we ended up making pretty much all the mistakes there are to make goes without saying; that said, we picked up very quickly on the things you must not do. You learn to look very carefully, you study the composition of the soil, you develop a sense of the location, of the plants, of colours and relationships, you venture out in the rain to see where the water puddles on the surface, and where it drains away. Suddenly you discover things you have never seen before.
You will notice those plants that grow and those that do not; you will become familiar with the structure of a meadow, how it changes over the years. We did not fertilize the meadows for more than 20 years and many wild flowers returned as a result. Now these meadows are only mown once a year to encourage plant diversity. And careful observation teaches you something else – to be gentle. Gardens educate those who tend them.
The plants themselves will respect one another or engage in combat. That too is something you will have to learn: which plants will make a good match, with neither of them overpowering the other and annihilating it.
There is one major exception, however and a fantastic one at that – landscape architect Piet Oudolf. We wanted a typical lrish meadow, and Piet was the perfect man for the job. His decades of experience, his feel for aesthetics, the way he incorporated our wishes, his Dutch cheerfulness – all this planted the seed for a great friendship and a truly magnificent meadow.
I like to describe the projects we completed in this garden as "stages". I orchestrate precisely defined zones and associate them with particular themes: water means ponds, a new vista means a sunken path, sound goes with a bamboo garden, scent means "flower cows". For instance: we extended a jetty out into the sea, and what we took away from the sea we returned to it in the shape of a canal, which we dug back into the interior. lt culminates in a brackish water pond, where seawater and fresh water mix at high tide. The pond is exclusively surrounded by willow and cornus trees. Another example: when you gaze out to sea from the house the trees in front of it are of a similar colour to the water, with pale poplars that emulate the shimmering movement of the ocean. By contrast, the colours become stronger, taking on a more autumnal hue as you look inland.
One of the most important decisions we took, and took far too late, was to grow our own food. The greenhouse, the kitchen garden: those were very late additions, and we are still at the learning stage. All these things you need to experience and learn for yourself. The greenhouse was the last structure we built.
Essentially our garden has been completed. Today our main activities involve cutting back, pruning and maintaining, and if a tree dies suddenly and unexpectedly, trying out a new variety in its place. However, one thing remains to be done, and that is finding the right furniture for our garden. There is plenty of scope for this; you can play around with different places, seating areas, other things. In that sense a garden is never really finished. And that's a good thing.
(Source: Ireland Glenkeen Garden, Hirmer Verlag, 2014)