An all-too brief trip to Germany recently. A chance to get some summer sun during a singularly cool English summer, but to be honest, one does not go to Cologne to lie on the beach. The main reason for going was to interview Peter Janke about his garden (for House and Garden magazine), which is actually a bit further north, just outside Düsseldorf. I was staying in Cologne with Ina Sperl and her family – Ina is gardening correspondent for the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, the regional paper. Though technically a freelancer, Ina has a position in garden journalism that is now unknown in Britain, a two-day a week job with a desk in the office!
Peter practically has gardening in his genes, as his grandparents had a nursery, his grandmother having been a notable breeder of cyclamen (Germany has always much led in this field). He had to take over the family business as a young man, owing to his mother being ill, which meant that he never went through the long process of training (university or apprenticeship) which is normal in Germany. Note for the rest of us – you do not normally do anything in Germany without a long training, even supermarket shelf-stacking requires a long and arduous training (I am making this up, but you get my point). Peter designs gardens professionally, for him it comes completely naturally, “I had been growing plants and putting them together since I was five, making funny little combinations as a child”.
People who have a good design eye and are real plant collectors are rare. Peter is one of these - “I try to bring together a collector's garden and a designer's garden”. On his 14,000 m2 plot, he says he has over 4,000 varieties, and yet as Ina had said to me over breakfast that day “there is nothing out of place”. There is a very strong sense of structure, and rhythm, but it is in no way 'formal' planting. “I like the idea of formal elements and natural things” he says, and his planting is very much about getting this balance - “we like formal landscapes but the trouble is people go too far and have formal planting too, formality works best with more naturalistic planting”. “I am fascinated by the Beth Chatto style from the beginning but I have things she would hate, like clipped shrubs.” Peter worked for Beth on and off for two years, an essential training, and she was clearly a mentor, but I can imagine a good-humoured argument or two between them over things like this.
One of the key problems in planting design is keeping interest going through the year, but Peter says “this is the trickiest part of planting design...but I truly believe a garden should be for twelve months, and comparing with fine art you can have a Claude Monet in summer and a George Braque in winter if you do it right”. Peter is very keen on using space twice over, such as experimenting with layering, eg. late-developing plants which can allow for a ground layer of small spring bulbs or low perennials first, eg, many Zingiberaceae or having late emerging foliage from things like Darmera peltata, or somewhat smaller, the fern Gymnocarpium dryopteris. with bulbs or very early woodland perennials. Another thing he is doing is testing different ways of cutting perennials down, pruning them mid-season to get healthy new growth, e.g. Geum rivale “two or three weeks later they look super”. He is trying to create combinations that you can do this with, using astrantia, tellima, onoclea, matteucia. In addition he says how “it is possible to have a border which is full of bulbs and spring flowers then the picture changes completely almost tropical in appearance with Tetrapanax, Boehmeria and many others”. This 'tropical' look is something which I have noticed a bit recently in Germany – where the real exotic look possible in Britain is impossible (winters are a lot colder) but often using large-foliage plants from the Far East, like many Aralia, Boehmeria, Shefflera etc.
Walking through the woodland area of the garden Peter tells me that “variegation almost used to be a no-no, but now my attitude has changed completely, I can appreciate that it can be very useful, in very small quantities, it brings light into shaded places, and it can be used to create some striking combinations, particularly good for urban situations.”
It is interesting to hear how Peter describes himself as being very influenced by Karl Foerster (a writer, nurseryman and plant breeder who was immensely influential in the early part of the 20th century and who wrote extensively), “the antithesis of what I knew in the cut flower industry, the use of plants which are not necessarily flamboyant and colourful, he taught me to see plants in a completely different way”. But we agreed between us that actually Foerster's style today would be seen as relatively conventional. Things have moved on – partly because his last major book, on grasses and ferns, in 1957, has helped initiate a whole new more naturalistic planting style.
I remember a previous conversation with Peter, a few years ago, in which we were comparing British and German gardening cultures in the early part of the 20th century, and probably discussing which was more influential. Peter said that he thought that German garden culture had been almost irreperably damaged by the 1939-1945 war. Actually, there was a huge drop off in plant availability in Britain too, a loss which carried on through the 1950s. In Britain however gardening remained culturally important; in Germany, Peter thinks less so, “we lost our German identity completely after the war, in garden culture too, but now we are getting our garden culture back.... the garden lecturers like Cassian Schmidt have done a lot to change people's perceptions, and the fact that more and more private gardens are open that helps a lot, started with groups of plant collectors opening their gardens to show each other, now nearly every city has an open garden gate event, it makes people work at their gardens”.
A couple of years ago I did a blog post on pre-war German gardenculture – see here.
Since then, I have made contact with a member of the family of the artist, Escher Bartning, who did many of the illustrations for Karl Foerster (such as the phlox in that previous blog post – the delphiniums were by her father Ludwig) from the 1930s to the 1950s, by which time Foerster was living in the DDR (communist East Germany). Her niece lives in Leipzig and still has many of the original watercolours (I told this to a colleague in Berlin, whose response was “is that where they are, we have been looking for them for years”). Recently I was able to get hold of a whole set of Gartenschönheit, the magazine that Foerster edited before the war. More on this in a later blog post I hope, its a wonderful but also deeply poignant view into a liberal, broadminded, modernist Germany, at a time when the dominant political and cultural currents were going very much the other way, and a cataclysm beckoned. I'll end with some of Escher Bartning's covers for the magazine.
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