|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.
© Anton Schedlbauer, München
Sweeping view of garden and woods
Mollsee Pond with naturalized plantings along the shore line and in the background
Drifts of yellow and white daffodils in the spring meadow
© James Hitchmough
Perennials enliven a seating area for visitors
© Weihenstephan Research Centre for Horticulture
Mixed perennial border
© Weihenstephan Research Centre for Horticulture
Karl Foerster Garden
© Marija Calden
Lush mixture of perennials, shrubs, and trees
© Marija Calden A play of sun and shadow on a main garden walkway
Garden on the Freundschaftsinsel in Potsdam. Note the use of grasses throughout and the mixture of short and tall perennials.
© Weihenstephan Res. Centre for Horticulture
Eremurus and Kniphofia grace a garden
path. Note the repetition of elements.
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.
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.
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.