Sunday, November 13, 2011

Karl Foerster Garden, Germany

The name Karl Foerster is enough to inspire awe in many gardeners, particularly those of us interested in perennial plantings and naturalistic design. Foerster first made a name for himself as a plantsman based on his innovative plant selections at his nursery in eastern Germany. Starting all the way back in 1903, Foerster looked at plants in a different way than most people. He wanted perennials that were sturdy and looked good massed, and was drawn to plants with elegant but strong flower spikes. His earliest work was with delphinium (a rather un-slender flower spike), but grasses soon became a favourite. Today, few gardens are without Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'.

The grass aisles at the Foerster nursery - uhhhhh.

In addition to plant selection, Foerster also dabbled in garden design. In the garden adjacent to his nursery, he experimented with a naturalistic planting style by combining grasses and massed perennials to achieve an overall meadow effect - an approach starting to sound almost too familiar today. His work is credited with greatly influencing the New German style of planting and the naturalistic planting movements that have since followed.

Clearly there is a lot of history at the Karl Foerster garden, so my expectations ran high. But as usually happens in these cases, the image built up in my mind did not exactly match the reality on the ground. The first surprise was the size. This is a small private garden created around the front and back of the family house. So expect a short visit to a tiny garden!

The second surprise was the content of the garden itself. I, unfairly, expected a very modern garden, one that would have been eons ahead of its time in the early 1900’s. But today the garden doesn’t look revolutionary to us, it just looks like something we’ve seen before. The plants are now familiar, and the style is hardly radical. It’s difficult to imagine how people viewed this garden during Foerster’s time, when annual bedding schemes and roses were the norm. It’s also hard to know how much the garden itself has changed over the years, as its maintenance has passed through several generations (currently Foerster's granddaughter).

Viewed with today’s eyes, this looks like a richly planted garden with an interesting mix of perennials, grasses and large trees, built around a fairly classical framework. In the back of the house is the rock garden, with mounded rocky beds and winding paths. There were many interesting examples of grasses here, such as the soft Carex alba planted between rocks. This garden is now quite shaded by large trees, conditions which seem less than ideal for some of the grasses.

Carex alba and bergenia softening rocks.

The front garden is definitely the highlight of the visit. It’s a symmetrical garden built around a rectangular, sunken pond. It reminded me a bit of the water garden at Castillon-Plantbessin, one of my absolute favourite places. This one is almost just as good, which means I’m now officially in love with sunken pond gardens. The plants were tightly packed, and included a lot of the perennials and grasses we are now used to seeing. Overall, it seemed like a nicely designed perennial garden, but I didn’t get the sense that the style was ‘naturalistic’. Many perennials fit the naturalistic palette, but there were relatively few grasses and massed plantings. Regardless, it’s a little jewel of a garden which makes for an inspiring visit if you don’t bring along too many preconceived ideas.