Gardening on the Planet

Insights from Germany

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture sponsored by the New York Botanical Garden, and it was eye-opening. The speaker was Cassian Schmidt, who since 1998 has been director of Hermannshof, a combination botanical and trial garden situated on six acres of in the hill-town of Weinheim north of Heidelberg.   This garden has been redefining the European concept of naturalistic design – Piet Oudolf is one of its disciples – yet it isn’t on the radar for most American gardeners.  That should change.

I’m a member of a generation of gardeners that was raised to venerate the English horticultural tradition. The impact of this has been useful aesthetically – British gardeners such as Christopher Lloyd had much to teach us about the use of color and the construction of artistically sophisticated perennial and mixed borders. But meanwhile the Germans, whom American gardeners have largely ignored, were exploring the intersection of aesthetics with ecology, developing a very distinctive style that we could well afford to study.

As described by Cassian Schmidt, the Hermannshof style involves the study of natural habitats and then echoing them in garden design.  This style is quite distinct from our American naturalistic planting in that it does not emphasize an exclusive use of native plants. Instead, as I understood it, the German tradition, at least as expressed at Hermannshof, will combine plants from similar habitats all around the world. Thus, a steppe-inspired planting would be likely to include not only plants from Central Asian grasslands but also from the South African veld and North American prairies.

For this reason the German naturalistic planting is not an ecological restoration but rather a derivative. As such it doesn’t offer the same value to wildlife, but it can offer more aesthetically than a straightforward restoration. Examples of this distinction can be found in Piet Oudolf’s designs in the gardens of the High Line in New York or at Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago.

It’s significant that both these examples are set in urban locations where reconstructing a native planting would have been Quixotic at best. But if the German-style “New Perennial” gardens do not offer ecological authenticity, they can provide sustainability. If the habitat-model selected is well suited to the site, then the plants drawn from habitats of this sort will all be adapted, and, experience at Hermannshof has found, tend to co-exist comfortably. Indeed, years of studies there have found that such ecologically-inspired plantings flourish with just a fraction of the inputs of material and labor required by similar-sized conventional perennial plantings.

This is a compromise worth considering.

All photos courtesy of Cassian Schmidt

Posted by on December 4, 2017 at 8:13 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.
9 Comments

9 responses to “Insights from Germany”

  1. Ruth Rogers Clausen says:

    Glad you wrote about this Tom. This style certainly should become better known in the US, beyond Lurie and The High Line. I think a visit to Hermannshof is in order!

  2. Victoria Bergesen says:

    Planting in a Post-wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (Timber Press 2015) is a great inspiration and guide to this style of gardening. It includes many wonderful photos, some of which are of Hermannshoff.

  3. Excellent post, Thomas Christopher! This approach to planting has been quite popular here in the PNW for some time now. Perhaps it’s because we can grow such a wide range of plants. I’m not sure, but I have lived here since 1990 and have made it a goal to keep as many of the good native plants in my garden that were here when we moved here. I’ve added more, but certainly I have mingled many more that are good ornamental plants, too. It makes the garden feel like it belongs here (except for my banana tree). The new garden I am creating in our ravine is another challenge. So much of this wild area has been invaded by English ivy (our kudzu), English laurel and English holly, that introducing natives back into this environment as the invasives are removed is a primary goal. Thank you for spreading this all-important message!

  4. Nell says:

    Because Hermannshof is a habitat garden overlaid on a 200-year-old landscape garden, many magnificent mature trees give it drama and year-round scale that complements the intriguing ground-level planting.

    I’d dearly love to move to Weinheim for a year to take in the seasonal changes and perennial combinations. Instead, I pore over Cassian Schmidt’s book Hermannshof and its outstanding photos by Philippe Perdereau. (I have the English/French edition, but copies of the German edition might be more available.)

  5. Nell says:

    From the p.o.v. of public gardens and parks, the crucial takeaway from Hermannshof is the ability to sustain well-adapted plantings with much less labor and external resources.

    For home gardeners who want to foster local fauna, the same principles can be used to site and design with plants native to the area without attempting an ecological restoration. Suitable non-native garden plants don’t interfere with the usefulness of native companions; it’s a question of proportions.

  6. Robyn Kilty says:

    From my experience of visiting both Hermanshoff and Hummelo, I feel Hermanshoff comes from a more scientific aesthetic while Piet comes from a heart/soul aesthetic both towards sustainable ends.

  7. Nice post. And timely for me. I have recently completed building a new house in north Idaho. Due to timing, we are unable to get ANY start to the landscaping this fall. But in the spring, I am planning a meadow installation. There will be spots of trees and shrubs and some areas more intensive with perennials. The plants will be a blend of native and ornamental. There are 2 low areas that will act as wet meadows (rain gardens) which I will plant not only with grass and/or carex, but camassia quamash. I have always wanted a camas meadow, so I’m going for it. But needless to say, I appreciate posts like this that add to my inspiration.

  8. Steve says:

    Any recommendations on German garden books? I find it a challenge to evaluate non-English language books online, but recommendations go a long way.

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