Friday, September 30, 2011

Review on thinkinGardens

Hurray - my first review for thinkinGardens has been posted! I'm very excited that Anne Wareham found it worthy, and curious to see any comments. The post is a bit of a rant on the problems with show gardens, based on my visit to Appeltern in the Netherlands, a massive permanent exhibition ground for model gardens. It's a place I was excited to visit, but it completely turned me off show gardens. Perhaps others will have some thoughts on why show gardens don't often satisfy, or maybe why they think they do?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Grugapark, Germany

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.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hermannshof, Germany - Part III

I promise this is my last post on Hermannshof in Germany. This is definitely the most cyber space I have used for a single garden, but there was just too much to digest in one blog. This last post is about the woodland garden, the small pond, and a long perennial bed of more classical composition which borders the central lawn.

One of the goals of Hermannshof is to experiment with plant groupings inspired by different natural habitats, and that includes woodland. The park is fortunate to have many mature trees to provide a believable woodland backdrop, including massive specimens of dawn redwood, larch and tulip tree. The open, sunny gardens gradually transition into woodland with some smaller woodland edge trees, such as magnolias and dogwoods, before being plunged into the deep shade of giants.

The woodland sections are just as richly planted as the prairie gardens, and the fascination with North American natives continues. Various types of epimediums, ferns, sedges, hellebores and hardy geranium form a dense and complex tapestry on the woodland floor. One of the most striking plants I saw, and which I didn't know before, was Paeonia mlokozewitschii. It was an eye catcher in a sea of green – prominent blue seeds in bright red pods, strong leaf shape and even some leaf colour at the beginning of August. And that's just the after-show, since it flowers in the spring.

Paeonia mlokozewitschii

One aspect of the woodland garden at Hermannshof which I found distinctive was the great number of grasses used, particularly in the edge areas. I noted Luzula sylvatica or Greater Wood Rush looking good (not pictured). There were also some showier perennials in the edge areas, such as Lillium martagon and Lobelia cardinales.

The pond deserves only a very short mention, as it was placed in a rather awkward spot on the side of the great central lawn. It was bordered by lawn on one side, and wetland plants on the others. Although I didn't find it anything special, it was interesting to note that it was still a magnet for visitors, as water always seems to be.

The last section I got around to was the perennial border on the woodland side of the great lawn. This is not accessible from the woodland garden, so you have to decide to walk all the way back across the central lawn see it. Part of this border used huge specimens of Hakonechloa macra to set up a strong rhythm, very dramatic even from far away. Further down, the plantings were more reminiscent of a classical mixed perennial border, but with some nice colour combinations which I think the pictures show off best.

Well, that's it for Hermannshof. The romp through Germany continues next time with a garden which was, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment... didn't think that was possible in Germany, did you?