The secret gardener

Solmaz Khorsand about Markus Weidmann-Krieger

This place fills you with humility. When you stand on the meadow with bare feet, looking at the trees and bushes that have taken years, even decades of time, energy and care to grow, to exist at all. The Sonnenpark on Spratzerner Kirchenweg in St. Pölten reveals itself like an enchanted garden. As if a piece of wild nature had secretly reclaimed its place, despite all human ignorance, here in the middle of the residential area in the south-west of the city, between cooperative housing and single-family homes. It takes a while before you meet other people. A woman walks by, a little girl holding her hand, with a dog on a leash. A complicit nod, as if sharing a secret, the secret of having discovered this place.

And indeed, the Sonnenpark is somewhat of a secret. Only 20 percent of all people in St. Pölten know about it, Markus Weidmann-Krieger says. Yet the 50-year-old has been doing everything he can for almost two decades to make his fellow citizens realise what an oasis hides in this city. 50,000 square metres of green space, a retreat not only for people but also for animals and plants. It is the breathing, living and growing proof that everything can exist side by side, carefully cultivated to the rhythm of nature, not styled as in conventional parks.

Markus Weidmann-Krieger © Katie-Aileen Dempsey

Weidmann-Krieger has been looking after this place since
1999, most of the time on a voluntary basis, for the last four
years he has been employed as a “cultural gardener”. Officially
for 23.5 hours a week, unofficially for several more unpaid
hours. It is not for nothing that some visitors call him “the
backbone” of the park. He knows every single tree, which ones
have been felled, which ones have been planted, which
ones are in danger of being gnawed on by the two ambitious
beaver families that have been haunting the park for a few
weeks. They have already toppled 40 trees. Just last night they
struck again, he points to a fallen apple tree. It stood right
next to one of the two clubhouses at the entrance at Spratzerner
Kirchenweg 81–83.

It all started here 24 years ago with two run-down houses – and a group of young artists. After their old premises near the railway station were demolished in 1999, the city made the abandoned site on
Spratzerner Kirchenweg available to them, a large area, far away from the action. Once it was the site of an old mill, later a hardware factory, whose buildings were temporarily used to house refugees when the wars in the former Yugoslavia broke out. Weidmann-Krieger still remembers the
small, nested rooms in the two houses, where beds and bedside tables were crammed together. Up to 200 people are said to have found refuge here. 

Here, on the outskirts of the city, in a blind spot of St. Pölten, these young musicians, artists and free spirits were to pitch their tents. “It was quite difficult to find volunteers to build something out of the ruins here,” says Weidmann-Krieger. But they succeeded in creating a small utopia with learning by doing – with studios, music rooms, symposia, legendary parties and later the multiday festival “Parque del Sol”. Avant-garde and punk had suddenly found a home in St. Pölten, with hundreds of visitors from all over the world – from Denmark to Russia. And a park that the rest of the city was only too happy to abuse as a dumping ground for old bicycles, even roofs. In the beginning, it was overgrown with roses and vines, Weidmann-Krieger recalls. Piece by piece, he, who originally thought of himself as a drummer and video artist, cleared it out. He created a real park with a three kilometres long network of paths. And he did it all in his spare time.

The trees, a delicate chapter

Weidmann-Krieger has put half his life into this place. Anyone who
walks through the park with him understands why others call him
the backbone of the park. There is something fatherly about the
way he talks about the soil, the plants and especially the trees. As
if he were talking about his children, whom he has accompanied
from birth. How he planted them and freed them from all kinds of
invasive plants. How he protects them until they can survive on their
own – be it with wire to guard them from beavers, plastic sheeting
to keep them safe from deer chafing on their bark, or little homemade
no-smoking signs to keep people from carelessly throwing
away their cigarette butts, which could lead to a forest fire. He
bends down and picks up one of these butts. He holds it up contemptuously: “500 litres of groundwater contaminated. That’s a poison bomb that lasts so long, it’s crazy!” he says and suddenly
disappears into the thicket. He wants to show off his favourite spot. On the east side of the park, hidden in the undergrowth,
he stops in front of two tree stumps, the remains of two ash trees that had to be cut down because they otherwise would have fallen over by themselves. He sits down on one of the stumps and looks at the sea of leaves spreading out before him. His beloved hawthorn with its red fruits,
this “extreme medicinal plant”, the leaves of the wild service tree he planted in 2020, which has already grown tall. “From this height I have already won, then it goes into the crown area and I don’t have to worry
about it pulling through,” he says.

Markus Weidmann-Krieger © Katie-Aileen Dempsey

There is something fatherly about the way he talks about the soil, the plants and especially the trees. As if he were talking about his children, whom he has accompanied from birth.

The trees are a sensitive chapter in the history of the
Sonnenpark, since they served to prove who was in
charge on the site to Weidmann-Krieger and his fellow
campaigners in 2008. Two years earlier, the mayor had told the artists that they were only tolerated in the Sonnenpark,
that the area was zoned
for building and had long since been offered
for sale to a housing cooperative.
The punks had been wreaking havoc
there for long enough. In 2008, there was
a show of force. 150 fruit trees were
felled in one day. The rest were to follow
the next day. Weidmann-Krieger and
his colleagues managed to prevent this,
with campaigns, parts of the local population
and a media frenzy that went
beyond the region. It was to take another
ten years until the park could be operated
and used as such by the Sonnen-
park association in 2018. But there is
a catch: the contract between the city
and the association runs for ten years,
with the clause that the city can access
the park at any time if space is needed.
“Around two thirds of the park are still
zoned for building,” explains Weidmann-
Krieger. In order to permanently protect
the park from development, there would
have to be a rezoning. There are no signs
that this will happen in the near future. 

So it’s all just a temporary solution
again? Weidmann-Krieger smiles. The
walk is over, he rolls a cigarette on
one of the benches in front of the two
houses. “Time is on the side of the
park,” he says, “I couldn’t do this either
if I wouldn’t think it will stay.” The ecological
crisis, he says, has become too
much of an issue in society. Even the
most clueless have realised how important
green space is in the city, even
if the political leaders are reluctant to
promote the place as a green oasis –
with its own climate research
lab for children,
festivals and community veg-
etable beds as a sign of active citizen
engagement. Nor would it occur to
anyone to invest more money in signage
for the park and protection against
vandals and ignorants, of which there
are still too many. 


Also on this day, Weidmann-Krieger, who
used to work as a counsellor in a Montessori
school, again tried to appeal to
the conscience of a slightly tipsy group
of visitors. In a pedagogical manner, he
told them to throw their beer cans into
the waste bins provided. “That’s alright,”
they grunted back. It annoys him how
many people continue to litter in the
park. As if they still haven’t understood
how precious and rare such a space is.
Sometimes he worries about what will
happen to this place “after him”; whether
he can win them over for this work, this
new generation that is not used to sticking
to one thing for long if it is not for
money, prestige or at least a few likes on
social media. 


At such moments, he remembers the
story of a boy. He had dragged the then
14-year-old to the police station after
he and his friends had made a hut on the
grounds their secret camp and then
it; they had also occasionally
thrown fire extinguishers into the fresh-
glazed windows of the club buildings.
That was really dangerous. Years later,
this boy came back to the park as an
adult. He wanted to apologise. At the time,
he did not understand what was actually
being done here. Now, as an adult, he
understood. And he wanted to help.
He worked as a volunteer for two years.
Today he is studying forestry at the
Universität für Bodenkultur (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences) in Vienna. He, who had no interest in trees, now devotes himself to them full-time. Markus Weidmann-Krieger beams when
he tells the anecdote. Apparently, more than just a bit of greenery has grown in St. Pölten on Spratzerner Kirchenweg over the past decades: something like an awareness.