The German gardener


“My home is my castle” – it might be surprising, but this English term can be found on the wall of many German households, often in handmade stitching. It fits all too well with the German attitude of “schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue” (hustle, hustle, build a house). Getting out of rented accommodation and into your own house might not be as common in Germany as it is in England, but it is high on the list if you strive to be a successful citizen.

But that is not our topic today. We talk about what comes with the house: The garden!

If you buy (or build) a house, a garden is a must-have. It is also, ironically, the reason for many people NOT to buy a house. “I don’t like lawn mowing”, they say – and stay in a neat city centre flat. Not a surprise, as a garden that’s not cared for is seen as a proper disgrace in tidy German suburbs. Keep your grass short. Care for your hedges. Don’t get in trouble with the neighbours.

This kind of garden, surrounding a nice one-family home, always felt like petty borgeousie to me, like much of my upbringing in German suburbs. In times of Covid19 lockdown, I feel pretty silly having ever held this opinion. My family in Germany is hanging out in the garden, having barbecues and enjoying the sun. So do many of my English friends, even if their outside space might just be a yard behind a terraced house. Gardens are a great thing to have.

For Germans, that is true not only in their own home. Parks are seen as gardens as well, and inner city green areas are often maintained to a high degree. The governments of the 16 states and the federal government support this with huge garden shows – the “Landesgartenschau” run by the states, and the “Bundesgartenschau” run by the national government. On your next Germany trip, look out for Gartenschau locations, often regenerated landscapes from industrial areas, ports or former military bases. This transformation creates beautiful parks that last for decades to come and make landscape gardening a highly valued profession.

The Gartenschau sites are not the only public gardens worth visiting in Germany. I wouldn’t be able to make a comprehensive list even if I wanted – but here are some favourites collected by myself and from fellow Germans:

Schwerin’s Castle: The beautiful capital of the Northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern features this architectural gem. It is the home of the state parliament, situated on an island in the middle of lakes and swimming gardens. Worth a visit and a walk – and don’t miss out on the non-gardened natural countryside around the city.

Park der Gärten, Bad Zwischenahn:

In Bad Zwischenahn, close to the North Sea Coast in West Germany, the “Park of Gardens” features a huge area showing off 90 different garden styles, including English, Chinese and Japanese architecture. Worth visiting for enthusiasts – or for people who really want a break from real life.

Sanssouci:

The summer palace of Emperor Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) in Potsdam, close to Berlin, is built after the example of Versailles – and its gardens are magnificent if you like these French style landscapes.

Landschaftspark Duisburg:

This is bang in the middle of the former industrial area alongside the river Ruhr in Northwest Germany. The Ruhr area resembles the British NorthWest, a massive industrial place with sprawling cities that were not built to be pretty, but functional. Old mines, old mills and huge factories dominated the landscape before the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen and the cities of the Ruhr Area made a massive effort to transform their area into beautiful green scenery. The contrast of old industrial buildings and carefully landscaped wilderness is astonishing.

English Garden, Munich:

An amazing park that stretches from the city centre to the northeastern city limits of the Bavarian capital. The English Garden is meant to look the way Germans expect English parks to be – informal landscaping with huge trees, small hills and lawn in between. German tabloids love the English Garden for its summer scenery of young people wearing little clothing.

Insel Mainau:

Back in the South of Germany, this island is an oasis of greenery in the middle of Lake Constance. Worth a visit, although a touristy destination that can be quite overcrowded at times.

Der Schrebergarten and the history of gardening

So what to do if you want to own a private little garden, but your house is too small or you live in a flat? The German answer is well known to English people as well. Allotments are known by the sweet name of “Schrebergarten”, indirectly named after the 19th century doctor Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber. A public square in Leipzig was named after him and the surrounding allotments adopted the name, which then stuck for any allotment. There are plenty of other terms for the same thing, though, regionally different throughout Germany – but whatever people call it, the concept remains the same. Small gardens, next to each other, in a dedicated piece of land, and not connected to a house… although some of the more sophisticated gardens have arbours that are built up in a way that one could also call it a home. This, however, is usually illegal in Germany, where residential properties have to follow strict rules.

Allotments of this kind can be found all over Europe, a remnant of medieval urbanisation, where people living in growing cities still wanted to rely on food from their own production. This is the root of modern gardening: Long before green areas were seen as a place to relax and unwind, the garden was a source of fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry, sometimes even meat. There were parks in ancient times as well – some of them wonders of the world like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – but especially in medieval Europe the need for food trumped beauty and aesthetics. In castles, monasteries and other religious buildings, gardens were turned into secluded places of rest and prayer.

One of the founders of central European garden culture is Charlemagne, who already in the 9th century created a “garden book” advising his subjects to grow fruit and vegetables themselves. The word “advice” is to be taken with a grain of salt: Charles the Great had to deal with a massive change in the landscape of his Empire. Warm decades had created successful agriculture – during this time woodlands were reduced to merely 20 per cent of their former size. Spreading knowledge how to use the newly gained cultivated area was essential.

Historians seem to agree that this handbook of gardening was more influential than all the posh garden culture introduced by the nobility of the 17th and 18th century – beautifully scaped parks and gardens that hardly ever reached the eye of the average citizen.

The core of German gardening, however, is to be found with the infamous Spießbürger: The philistine, the square, the person who would put up a sign stating: “My home is my castle”. This brings us back to the beginning of this article: My home. My garden. My pets. A safe space for me and my family.

And here lives the one thing we can’t miss in this article: Der Gartenzwerg. Yes, English people know garden gnomes as well. Nevertheless there is nothing more German than the Gartenzwerg in the front garden, surrounded by a proper Jägerzaun (a trellis-work fence) or a decently groomed hedge. Welcome to Germany!

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