The New German Garden Style

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 13, 2010

Until recently, most gardeners in temperate zones in the U.S., in Canada, and throughout much of Europe have paid little attention to the strict ecological requirements of the perennials we plant in our gardens. (Note: This article does not display well in most versions of Internet Explorer. Please use Firefox. If you need to download it, you may do so free of charge at the end of this article.)

We've planted them according to color, to height, to bloom time, to other criteria that strike our fancy, or perhaps just willy-nilly. We've coddled them, fed them, watered them, weeded them, mulched them. If you long for a low-maintenance garden that still looks beautiful the whole season, German gardeners have a plan for you! The basic tenet of the new German planting style is to base your perennial garden strictly on ecological rather than primarily on aesthetic principles. In other words, try to imitate nature. The German gardener's "bible" for this approach is an amazing book published in 1981, called Die Stauden und ihre Lebensbereiche, by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl. The bad news, if you don't know German, is that it's in German. The good news for me is that I know the German language  well enough to translate.

                         Westpark

  Westpark
                                                                              © Anton Schedlbauer, München
  Sweeping view of garden and woods

Mollsee                                                                                                         © Wikimedia
Mollsee Pond with naturalized plantings along the shore line   and in the background 

Westpark
                                                                                                         © Wikimedia
Drifts of yellow and white daffodils in the spring meadow

Westpark
                                                                                           © James Hitchmough
Perennials enliven a seating area for visitors

                   Weihenstephan

Weihenstephan
                                              © Weihenstephan Research Centre for Horticulture
Mixed perennial border

 Weihenstephan
                                              © Weihenstephan Research Centre for Horticulture
 Rock garden

               Karl Foerster Garden

 Karl Foerster Garden                                                                                                  © Marija Calden 
Lush mixture of perennials, shrubs, and trees

Karl Foerster Garden
                                                                                                   © Marija Calden          A play of sun and shadow on a main garden walkway

 

Freundschaftsinsel
                                                                                                        © Wikimedia
Garden on the Freundschaftsinsel in Potsdam.  Note the use   of grasses throughout and the mixture of short and tall perennials.

2010-03-19/LarryR/941e5f             © Weihenstephan Res. Centre for Horticulture
Eremurus and Kniphofia grace a garden
path. Note the repetition of elements.

A

ctually, an English translation of the book was published in 1991, called Perennials and their Garden Habitats.  But there's more bad news. It's ou t of print, and a used copy sells anywhere from $168 to $543!

Since the book is not easily accessible in either German or English, I've relied, in part, on what other German writers and gardeners have said about it.  Within its 425 pages resides a list and comprehensive description of the entire field of ornamental perennials.  The emphasis is on each plant's ecological needs.  Every conceivable perennial available in the horticultural trade (at the time the book was published) is categorized according to the conditions the plant needs to survive in its natural habitat and its ability to deal with competition from other plants and weeds.

Here are the major principles set forth in the book, which guide German gardening today and are applied especially to larger gardens and parks:

  • Research the precise needs of each perennial planted in your garden.  (The Hansen and Stahl book, in large part, does this for you.)
  • Create the specific soil conditions required by the plant.  If you have fairly fertile soil, but want to grow plants that require lean soil, you will need to create lean soil by stripping off the top six inches or so and replacing it with a lean soil mixture.
  • Plant perennials with like soil, light, and moisture requirements together.
  • Plant in drifts or in repeating swatches that create a garden rhythm.
  • Chose plants with different bloom times so that something is always in bloom.  (The garden at Weihenstephan, about which I'll have more to say later, has taken this concept to a new level.  It's planted so precisely that it climaxes with a flush of bloom every three weeks.)
  • Use ornamental grasses liberally.
  • Mix perennials of different heights together or plant a bed with perennials of approximately the same height.  (Abandon the short-in-front, medium-in-the middle, tall-in-back planting style.)
  • Avoid invasive plants.
  • Avoid pesticides.

The use of clumping grasses is a hallmark of the German style.  They're scattered throughout the garden, each in its own natural habitat, and act as foils for other flowering perennials.  They impart a naturalistic, meadow-like look to the garden as a whole.

My first take on this garden style--and perhaps yours as well--was that it requires a lot of work up front.  You have to do lots of research on individual plants and then set about creating their natural habitats.  After accomplishing all that, though, your garden will pretty much look after itself.  One of the bonuses of this gardening method is that once the plants are established, they begin to act as if they're growing in the wild.  That means practically no care on your part.

Westpark

Often cited as a classic example of German gardening style is Westpark, a park in Munich designed by Rosemarie Weisse and planted in 1983.  Since that time, no plants have required staking or feeding, and only on rare occasions have a few required watering.  There has been very little need to lift and divide plants.  Direct intervention is necessary only if you wish to deadhead, pull the few weeds (if any) that manage to crop up in the dense plantings, or cut back dead stalks.

Weihenstephan

Located in the town of Freising, near Munich, Weihenstephan is a horticultural garden maintained by the Weihenstephan Fachhochschule, a technical college.  Founded in 1948, the garden is located on the grounds of a 19th century villa and serves to educate and train students of horticulture and landscape architecture in the German style.

Karl Foerster Garden

Karl Foerster (1874-1970) is considered by many as the father of the new German garden style.  Today his home in Potsdam is a mecca for those who appreciate the new style as well as for those who simply like beautiful gardens.  My next article will be devoted to Foerster and his impact on gardeners who love perennials.

The New German Garden Style in the U.S.

Elements of German style have found their way to our shores, too.  Horticulturists and landscape architects are beginning to embrace a more natural garden look.  Chief among them is the team of James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, whose offices are located in Washington, D.C.  They have pioneered a landscape style combining drifts of grasses and perennials that are underpinned by ecological principles.

Here is how the Oehme, van Sweden, and Associates website describes their gardening philosophy:

Do gardens have to be so tame, so harnessed, so unfree?  What's new about our New American Garden is what's new about America itself:  It is vigorous and audacious, and it vividly blends the natural and the cultivated.--James Van Sweden

The  New American Garden is a metaphor for the American meadow.  It reflects the year-round beauty of the natural landscape.  It frees plants from forced and artificial forms and allows them to seek a natural course as they weave a tapestry across the entire garden plane.  It results in layered masses of foliage that boldly celebrate the ephemeral through mystery, intrigue and discovery.

In sum, it is a basic alternative to the typical American garden scene--more relaxed, less like a formula, and more sympathetic to the environment.  Plants chosen for the New American Garden, especially perennials and ornamental grasses, require less maintenance, no deadheading or pesticides, and only limited water and fertilizer.

Look for more German-style gardens in the U.S. in the future.  They dovetail very nicely with the green movement and its emphasis on sound ecological practices.

Endnote

This article was not only a joy to write, but an adventure in the German language.  I was able to secure permission from the German photographers using their own language. In return, several photographers practiced their English in their responses.

My grateful thanks goes to:

  • Anton Schedlbauer of Munich, whose beautiful photography appears on his own website.
  • Gerhard Radlmayr for his photo permission on behalf of the Staatliche Forschungsanstalt für Gartenbau Weihenstephan, Freising, whose website you can access here.  For additional garden photos, click here.
  • Marija Calden, a free-lance photographer based in northern Italy, whose beautiful photos of the Karl Foerster garden appear here.  Look for more of her photos in my next article, devoted exclusively to Karl Foerster.  
  • Dr. James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology, University of Sheffield, UK.

2010-04-12/LarryR/f08ab0                                                               © Wikimedia
 Karl Foerster Memorial at the Berlin Zoo
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Related articles:
famous German gardens, gardening, German garden style, grasses, green movement, Karl Foerster, perennials, Weihenstephan, Westpark

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Beautiful... Sharon Apr 19, 2010 4:28 PM 20

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