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.


  1. In expecting a more "modern" garden, what image did you have in mind? Something like Priona? Something more architectural with a limited plant matrix?

    Also, are there any historic photographs of the garden available? Maybe the garden was different directly under Foerster's time. It would be interesting especially if there were plant lists available to see how much crossover there is between what he was experimenting with and the new perennial movement.

  2. I am surprised to hear how small the garden is. It is always interesting to visit an iconic garden like this. I am sure it was very revolutionary at the time. I think this kind of garden was not fully appreciated even 20 years ago. Thanks for an informative post.

  3. Thank you for this post and the photos. Much as I've read about Karl Foerster and his garden, I've never seen a single photograph. You are making available views of some gardens we just can't see at all in North America. I wonder why there are no in-depth books on German and Dutch gardens. I don't know what I would have expected if I knew I was to visit this garden but, seeing your photos, I think it looks much as I would have expected. So I'm also wondering what kind of garden you thought you would find. Something more meadow like? That would be interesting to know. And what size is it exactly? It doesn't look particularly small, but that's difficult to judge from a few images. This is a much welcomed post. Thank you, thank you.

  4. Hi Susan - Yes, I guess I was expecting (again, probably unfairly) a less 'flowery' garden. I thought it would be predominantly green, and maybe with a greater emphasis on grasses. It would indeed be very interesting to see old photographs and plant lists, though I'm not sure if these are available. And if they are, probably only in a German book no longer available :).

  5. Michael - Thanks for stopping by. You're right, we're only now really appreciating his work, and there is probably much more out there in German that we are not aware of.

  6. James - In terms of size, it felt like a generous suburban yard. I would say each of the front and back were about 20m by 40m (or very roughly thereabout). I think it looks larger in photos because there are mature trees around the perimeter blurring the background. As for expectations, as I mentioned to Susan, I think I wasn't expecting as many flowers, many of which were quite showy. I didn't even quite realize I had certain expectations in mind until I saw the garden and felt a bit surprised. It can stand up to a lot of today's 'modern' gardens though, which I think says a lot about it. And maybe also about the fact that we haven't come too far since then? Happy that you enjoyed the photos - I will try to post more on Flickr soon, as it's hard to show all the views here.

  7. Thanks for this, Wanda (Wanderer)! Strangely, I had a random dream about Foerster and his garden a few days back and - also randomly - spent some minutes hovering over your good blog the day before this was posted, trying to decide if I should attempt to prod you into posting something new with an earnest comment of some sort. You've no idea how much I savour your wee garden reviews - you have a great, eerie knack for writing about the people and places that I'm especially keen and curious about.

    I, for one, would absolutely love to see more photos of the Foerster garden on flickr. And if you have any more images of the Mien Ruys gardens that you could share I'd be very very happy to see them...

  8. Hi Peter - Always nice to hear from you. The plan was that I would respond to your comment with a nice link to all the Foerster photos I've posted on flickr, but since I probably won't get around to that before the weekend, I thought I should post some response now (since I'm sure you're anxiously waiting!). And by the way, I'm very glad your own conscience has prodded you into posting new things on your blog. Your projects are looking really good!

  9. I fancy myself as the green fingered type, but in practice I'm just not!! Love the photos and I also have a nomination for you here: