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Interior West: German Lessons

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BY LAUREN SPRINGER / Masonville, Colorado, Zone 5

In England, gardening has been raised to an art form. It is a cultural expression, a national identity. Love, technique, and plantsmanship come together; gardens burst forth like jewels spangling the island. Much of my gardening knowledge came from an expatriate, Kewtrained Brit. Much of my plant knowledge came from gardens in the British Isles.

But something is missing. I couldn't put my finger on it until I visited a couple of modern German gardens. These are not great gardens, but they have elements that resonate deeply with me, and those same elements are what I find lacking in England.

There is a looseness in the German gardens, quite ironic given the stereotype of the Teutonic temperament. They're not weedy, but they are far from perfectly maintained. Plants have edited the design by spreading, seeding, leaning, dying. Spent flowerheads are left on. The plant choices feel wild, natural. Airy species such as Perovskia ‘Hybrida’, Verbena bonariensis, Gaura lindheimeri, and Eryngium xtripartitum weave in and out, creating a lively, veil-like haze over the more sedentary forms. This is also seen in the Dutchman Piet Oudolf's designs; maybe that's why the English find him so original and irresistible.

Grasses are pervasive in the German gardens; they are used unselfconsciously in rhythmic dots and graceful sweeps. Flowers are strongly present, but the design is not organized by their color or bloom time. Plant form and texture play a more important role.

With flowers downplayed, the freedom and spontaneity of color made me sigh in relief. No RHS color chart here. Not that I can't appreciate the luscious, delicately crafted harmonies and contrasts of color so characteristic of British gardens, but there's also a stifling contrivedness that I couldn't explain until I saw the opposite. In the absence of preconceived color design, one might expect garish results, but because a restricted group of plants is used and repeated, the results are not violently cacophonic. In England, garden color is usually a perfectly rehearsed 300-voice chorale, lovely but not something I want on a daily basis. Yet when secondary to form and texture, color becomes a joyful, casual song, sometimes soft, sometimes very strong, just as it is in nature.

It may already be clear that I hear gardens as music. The German gardens I saw are decidedly musical. The limited plant species are the notes, the tones in a key: it is in their infinite recombination and patterning that the whole emerges. They create crescendos with sweeps, melodies with swirls, staccatos with surprising textural counterpoints. And in a breeze, many of the plants dance. Perhaps this musicality is no accident, for when it comes to national identities, just as the British have their gardens, the French their food, and the Italians their art, so the Germans have their music. H

To do in the garden

  • Plant bulbs, well-rooted perennials, and deciduous woodies that are established in one-gallon containers or larger; do not plant evergreens, roses, or grasses now.
  • If there's no rain or snow, water new plants weekly in September, bi-monthly in October, and the entire garden once a month before winter.
  • Pull cool-season weeds that have started to germinate.
  • Sow seeds of hardy annuals and biennials such as poppies, violas, larkspur, sea holly, mullein, blue flax, and verbenas directly into the garden.
  • Watch for frost warnings, harvest all tender fruits and veggies and bring in container plants if the temperature is to go into the 20s; otherwise just cover them with blankets.

Worth growing

Giant sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii)

This stunning western native grass gives all those fancy-pants exotics a run for their money. Clump-forming, drought-tolerant, and hardy into USDA Zone 4, giant sacaton sends up dramatic yet airy fish-bone-shaped inflorescences in late summer and fall. The gray-green foliage is rather low-growing, allowing front and center placement in the garden. Water deeply once or twice a month during the hottest months, and cut back or burn the old duff in early spring.