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Press release - Thursday, December 18, 2014

Doctoral thesis of Valerie Dewaelheyns - Private gardens are the building blocks of a resilient society and environment

Title: 'The garden complex in strategic perspective – the case of Flanders'
Gardens have a diversity of functions: they are never only a lawn, a playing field for children, a flower border or a vegetable patch. They can also provide valuable ecosystem services such as food production, pollination and experience of nature. Every Flemish garden can contribute to tackling global problems, such as climate change and loss of biodiversity. Attention for the collective functions of our private gardens can make them mean more for our collective, according to the doctoral research of Valerie Dewaelheyns. This research was performed at KU Leuven and the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO).

About 8% of Flanders is someone’s garden

More than 80% of the Flemish households live in a one-family dwelling with a private garden or patio, and about 70% of young people dream of living in a house with their own garden. This desire for one’s own home and garden are deeply rooted in Flemish culture. Housing policy from the 19th century saw the private garden as a place where families could relax in a healthy way and also produce their own food. For this reason, the policy stimulated the construction of private dwellings with an attached garden. It worked; according to Valerie Dewaelheyn’s doctoral research, 8% of the Flemish surface area is covered by private gardens, a percentage nearly comparable to the area covered by forests (11%).

Time to re-examine the garden?

Despite the substantial surface area and historical and cultural importance of gardens, they are seldom taken up in research and policymaking related to land use and the environment. Dewaelheyns examined all of these small gardens and called them a “garden complex” to map them and explore what ecosystem and social services they can offer.
This research revealed that Flemish gardeners use more fertiliser than is actually necessary, which has a negative environmental impact. On the other hand, lawn soils show potential for carbon sequestration, which has a positive environmental impact. Even if the garden is only planted with grass at the moment, it could be transformed into a vegetable garden for food provision in times of need.

Private gardening for the common good

To realise the multiple benefits of the garden complex, we will all need to look at our own garden in a different way. Dewaelheyns suggests that management changes in our little gardens can have a big impact on the collective good. She discovered several stumbling blocks to improving the services from the garden complex, such as the private legal nature of the garden and lack of information available for gardeners.

This doctoral research was done at KU Leuven and ILVO with the support of the Flemish Environmental Agency and the Support Centre for Space and Living with two short-term, policy-supportive research projects.

Contact persons

Valerie Dewaelheyns,, +32 486/05 88 67
Greet Riebbels, communicatie ILVO,, +32 486/26 00 14
Promotor KU Leuven Hubert Gulinck, 
Promotor ILVO, Elke Rogge,