I visited the Grugapark just outside Essen in south-west Germany based on Noel Kingsbury’s list of recommended gardens. As the list is very short and select, and includes Hermannshof and Westpark in Munich, I had high expectations. Unfortunately, this was the first garden that disappointed in Germany – it definitely doesn't deserve its place of honour alongside the other names.
The first difficulty with Grugapark was finding it – following Google directions, we first ended up at an impressive hospital in the middle of a forest with absolutely nothing else around it... surreal. A lot of broken German and driving in circles later, we finally found signs for the park, but it was still a while before we hit on a real entrance.
Grugapark is an extensive public park, mostly of the classical public park variety - old trees, neat lawn and asphalted walks. A nice enough place for city people to air out. Some sections of the park were originally built for some kind of garden show. Of these there are some model gardens left over, that suffer from all the classical ailments of model gardens –impersonal, out of place, predictable.
But never mind, because what I really wanted to see at Grugapark were the large naturalistic perennial planting areas. These were roughly in the middle of the park, somewhere between a very old fashioned rose garden (which, though not cutting edge gardening, did smell divine), and various sports fields.
The first perennial planting area was a sort of sand dune habitat, with a lot of sand, a few plants that didn't seem to want to be there, and a lot of weeds that did. A weedy sand beach... not the best look. Unfortunately, this highlighted the main problem with the rest of the perennial garden, namely the maintenance. There were large bare patches of ground throughout, and unhappy looking plants trying to battle it out with the weeds. I think Noel Kingsbury himself
remarked on the lack of upkeep of public plantings in Essen in a recent blog.
Garden maintenance is an interesting issue, and has been the subject of a few blogs lately. I think it’s great that many people are considering lighter approaches to maintenance, and working with the natural balance and spontaneity of the garden. However, the very definition of a garden is a place created by humans, and some human presence is necessary to maintain the intent of the work. Sometimes very little is needed to do that, but somebody should still be on hand to guide the natural balance from time to time, and edit appropriately if that balance is not found. Otherwise, a garden can end up just looking disheveled and sad.
The good news is that some sections at the Grugapark perennial garden managed to achieve balance on their own, which was interesting to see and learn from. For example, the aster plant family really thrived in the local conditions. Many varieties flourished together, and nicely covered the ground while outcompeting invaders. Unfortunately, my visit during the first week of September was a bit too early to see most of them in flower. And grasses, the usual tough subjects, were also doing well, but I didn’t find their use particularly inspiring. They were planted relatively sparingly and often seemed lost in the large open space.
Lastly, as often happens in life, the things we really look forward to can sometimes disappoint, but the unexpected can often provide a pleasant surprise. In the case of Grugapark, I most enjoyed a marsh and pond area on the far side of the garden. This section was mostly naturalized vegetation, hence circumventing the maintenance challenge altogether (the easiest solution – if you don’t have funding for maintenance, don’t make a garden that needs it). The lake was framed by a few very simple decks with chairs to sit on. A geometrical network of boardwalks sitting right on the surface of the water provided a way to walk across the small pond. Most interesting were a number of swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum) planted directly in the water. Not all of them were doing well, but some planted on slightly shallower ground were thriving. All in all, a very simple human made framework that highlighted the natural beauty of the setting and helped people enjoy it.