Ecological gardening

William Robinson is often considered as an early applier of ecological ideas, especially in connection with his publication The Wild Garden (1870). This, however, deals with the naturalisation of hardy exotic plants in grassy swards and was no more than a revival and modernisation of an old gardening practice (Woudstra and Hitchmough 2000). Whilst also including a chapter on British plants, there is no evidence of phytogeographical or ecological principles being used, and the distribution of planting is based on pictorial or aesthetic criteria only. Similarly in Germany, Hermann Jager suggested naturalisation of perennials and bulbs in woodland or in grass swards, but again this does not seem to have been based on scientific principles. He noted that ‘the only rule was to copy nature’ by which he meant the general appearance of nature (Jager 1877:422).


Owing to a lack of space, the Berlin Royal Botanic Garden was moved to Dahlem in 1897. Adolf Engler, the then director, and Ignatz Urban, his deputy, oversaw this move (Figure 2.4). Engler was a keen proponent of plant geography, and there was an emphasis on this type of arrangement for large parts of the garden. Both the arrangement and intent of the underlying geography is clear, with an Italian garden on the far side of an Alpine garden (Lack 2001 :I, 132). The ambitious plant geographical section covered 23 ha and followed the latest scientific knowledge on vegetation, distinguishing the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Apennine and Balkan Peninsulas, the Caucasus, the Himalayas and the Appalachians.7 The greenhouses and conservatories were also arranged according to plant geographical principles and represented South Africa, Australia and the Mediteranean. Like his publications Naturlichen Pflanzenfamilien (1887-1915), Das Pflanzenreich (1900-1937) and Die Vegetation der Erde (1896-1923), the garden set new standards in the display according to phytogeographical principles (Hyams and MacQuitty 1969:80).

The German landscape designer and teacher Willy Lange started to teach at the Royal Horticultural College Berlin-Dahlem after its move from Wildpark-Potsdam in 1903, when the new Berlin-Dahlem botanic garden first (and unofficially) opened to the public. He therefore was fully aware of the Humboldtian heritage of phytogeography and physiognomy, and he used this as a basis for his theories. However, he was also firmly rooted in the German tradition of Prince Hermann von Ptickler Muskau and Hermann Jager, who had anticipated much of the later ecological science ‘intuitively’, and he noted that he had ‘inherited Gustav Meyer’, meaning the application of scientific techniques (Lange 1927:2). Before his teaching appointment, Lange had, after a busy period as a horticulturist, withdrawn from public life by living in a secluded woodland area for a seven-year period, which gave him time to reflect on society and the ability to study art, art history, nature and cultural history. At this time he also published numerous articles with racist overtones that were later adopted by National Socialists (Wolschke-Bulmahn and Groening 2001). His landscape theories were therefore complex and charged, but they were similarly extremely popular and influential. His main textbook, Gartengestaltung der Neuzeit (1907) was published in five editions with a total of 22,000 copies and was widely read, particularly in the Nordic countries (Wimmer 1989).

The principles as set out in his Gartengestaltung der Neuzeit adopted plant geographical principles and discussed the ‘composition of plant communities in the garden according to nature motifs’ (Lange 1919:175), discussing ‘nature gardens’ and ‘biological garden design’ (Lange 1919:27). Lange saw the purpose of a biologically designed garden not as imitating nature but as advancing the intent of nature. He noted that since the description of communities in the German nature tradition was an artificial task, one might as well take this one step further (Lange 1919:163). Thus, Lange returned to a reinterpretation of the old Humboldt theories. So, whilst he followed the latest developments in the various sciences, particularly ecology, he settled on the physiognomy of plants as the basis for their final selection. The expression of the plant’s external characteristics in habitat and living conditions was proposed as a determining factor in plant selection. With sufficient knowledge of the external characteristics, the designer would be able to determine the correct position in a design for each species. It is this aspect for which Lange was later most attacked by academic ecologists as this did not match recent advances in botanical-ecological knowledge.8 Physiognomy is a potentially useful contribution to assessing plant compatibility and fitness of specific environments, for example plants with small sparse leaves are often slow growing, sun­demanding species. To make this interpretation does, however, require extensive knowledge of plants, and in some cases the external appearance of a plant does not give an accurate picture of its requirements. Whilst claiming he based his planting schemes on scientific principles, Lange allowed aesthetic considerations to take precedent by supplementing native species for exotics where this was desired (Figure 2.5).

Ecological gardening


Planting principles on the observations of the composition of natural communities by Willy Lange in his Gartenplane (1927) described this ‘as the form of planting after the pattern of molehill tunnels’, whereby symbols for individual species were interconnected with lines (Lange 1927)

Ecological gardening


Willy Lange’s planting was according to physiognomic principles, which assessed the external characteristics of plants and not ecological principles. Thus, an illustration of an arrangement in Lange’s own garden included native junipers set over a carpet of Sedum spurium (Lange 1919: plate 14)

Lange highlighted his principles with the example of his own garden in Wannsee. Contemporary colour photos illustrate native plant associations with a naturalistic character, but where certain plants have been replaced with those with a similar physiognomy but which are exotic. One illustration shows native pine trees and junipers in a carpet of non-native Sedum spurium dotted with crocus (Lange 1919: plate 14) (Figure 2.6).

An early example of the application of ecology was the 1913 proposal for a 2 ha public square in Charlottenburg to the west of Berlin. It was conceived by Erwin Barth, who had been at the Wildpark-Potsdam Royal Horticultural College from 1900-1902 and had returned to Berlin-Dahlem to take his head gardener’s exam. He was therefore well aware of the possibilities of the application of plant geography and is likely to have been familiar with Lange’s writings. In 1913, as Director of Parks of Berlin-Charlottenburg, he took the opportunity to implement this for a people’s park (Volkspark) named

Sachsenplatz, a public square of approximately 2 ha. The site was a former gravel pit with a depth of 14 m and was to form a space for both children’s play and relaxation for adults, with attractive planting. It was to include a

Ecological gardening


The Sachsenplatz, Berlin, was laid out by Erwin Barth in 1913 on the site of an old gravel pit which contained the ‘natural vegetation types and geological formations’ of the Brandenburg area (Der Gartenkunst, XV; 14 (1913))

demonstration garden and the intention here was to represent the ‘natural vegetation types and geological formations’ of the Brandenburg area (Figure 2.7).

Planting was to take place ‘according to ecological principles’. The square was surrounded with field maple hedges aligned with birch trees, from which there are good views to the centre of the site. At the corners were seating and play areas and a ‘biological garden’ at the north side next to the main entrance. This was to serve as a school garden for the instruction of pupils and to show some well-known flowers and economic crops. A second path at a 2 to 3 m lower level than the first circular one wound around the site, and provided the opportunity for close contact with nature ‘to view the individual plants and vegetation exhibits in greater detail’ from numerous sitting areas. The focal point of the site was formed by three ponds in the centre of the site, around which various habitats were recreated; a Rtidersdorf limestone quarry next to the uppermost pond, with denser native waterside vegetation along the other ponds. Also represented were moist and dry meadows, different types of coniferous and broad-leaved woodland, and dunes and heathland. The plants used for the planting of

Ecological gardening


Sachsenplatz was renamed Brixplatz after the Second World War, but still retains much of the original layout

the square were collected for the purpose by Erwin Barth and his colleagues, who also introduced related fauna into the square, which by 1931 was highly regarded (Barth 1980) (Figure 2.8).

After 1933 the new National Socialist government with its ‘Blood and Soil’ ideology assumed a close relationship between the Nordic race and the land. This brought natural landscape design to the forefront of the political agenda, which flourished as a result. At its most extreme, this involved landscape architects, such as Heinrich Wiepking – Jtirgensmann, in devising policies for the new territories, the occupied lands (Poland and also the Soviet Union), which were to be Germanised once the existing population had been removed. Alwin Seifert was responsible for the landscape aspects relating to the new German motorways, the achievements of which were also part of the National Socialist propaganda.

Seifert’s motto was ‘the landscape is the eternal foundation of our being’, which meant that ‘we, the human beings are characterised by their constructions in the natural environment in which we live and grow up’ (Schneider 1935). From this emerged a coherent design theory with the concept of indigenous garden art (bodenstandiger Gartenkunst), bodenstandig being defined as: ‘In a garden every native plant which achieves the full extent of its beauty and which is in artistic and biological harmony with its immediate and wider environment is “bodenstandig”.’ This was closely connected with Landschaftsverbundenheit, landscape harmony or connected to the landscape, which were two of the catch phrases of the landscape profession during the Nazi era (Seifert 1939). Thus, the native landscape and its flora were to serve as the model for the landscape design of motorways. Exotic plants had to be avoided for the conservation of the German countryside (Heimatschutz) and the conservation of nature (Naturschutz). Movements with similar objectives were recognised in the US, where the Ministry of Agriculture published landscape guidelines. The English Roads Beautifying Association recommendation in favour of the planting of ornamental plants, such as Japanese cherries, was explained as a result of the English landscape already being more strongly intermingled with Auslander, ‘foreigners’ (i. e. foreign species), than the German landscape (Schneider 1935).

The attitude of avoiding exotics in the German landscape came to be likened with that of avoiding foreigners in German society, in order to retain the purity of the Nordic race, and which ultimately validated the deportation and extermination of Jews and gypsies. This connection between native and exotic plants, and between the indigenous and foreign population, came to be represented by Willy Lange, who over time had included more and more racist remarks in his garden writings. These were further developed by Hans Hasler, a student of Lange’s, which the latter referred to as a ‘graft’ of himself (Lange 1922:viii). Hasler extended Lange’s theories to embrace Nazi philosophy in his Deutsche Gartenkunst (1939).

Ecological gardening


The early layout plan of the Hermann Lons Park in Hanover was conceived in association with Reinhold Tuxen, who emphasised the meaning of plant sociology to landscape designers (Wernicke 1941)

Ecological gardening


The Hermann Lons Park consists of a large naturalistic area, but it also contains an athletics track, allotment and a swimming pool

An approach related to Lange’s was that of the nurseryman Karl Foerster. In 1930, he wrote about the garden of Berthold Korting, to provide evidence for the validity of his theories on planting design. Foerster noted how the starting point and the basis for new ideas in garden art is ‘always tremendous travel experiences’. He believed that Korting’s travels to Africa and Russia, and the experience of nature in these regions, had expanded the framework of customary German feelings for nature and gardens, and had forced him to search for new, innovative symbolic expressions (Foerster 1930). This is rather similar to remarks made by Humboldt a century earlier. During the Nazi period, Foerster and his circle would speak of ‘world gardens’ and even dedicated a book series to this.9

A more scientific approach towards ecological planting was developed by Reinhold Ttixen from Hanover, who wrote about ‘the meaning of plant sociology for landscape culture’, influenced by the methodology developed by the Swiss botanist Josias Braun – Blanquet who had surveyed vegetation by means of representative quadrats, in which each species was identified. Thus, tables of associations between species were created which were given names and which were classified in a similar manner as the species themselves. This approach was followed by Ttixen for northwest Germany, characterising each plant association of the region. This was thought to be of importance in ‘offering clear possibilities for application’, as long as the basics of plant sociology were known (Ttixen 1939). This work enabled landscape architects to compose naturalistic vegetation types adapted to soil and weather conditions of the region. This approach found immediate uptake and resulted in publications such as Louis Kniese’s Die Pflanzensociologie in der Landschafts – und Gartengestaltung (Plant sociology in landscape and garden design (1942)), which translated ecological data into more practical advice (Kniese 1942).

At the time of the publication of his article, Ttixen was already involved with a practical application at the Annateich/Hermann Lons Park in Hanover (Wernicke 1941). Based on a number of prize winning entries for a 1936 competition, a final scheme was devised by the Hanover Parks Department in association with H. Kltippenberg, the first – prize winner. The final scheme envisaged a meadow landscape as a contrast to surrounding woodlands, and contained an athletics track, allotments and a swimming pool along the northern and western edge respectively (Wernicke 1936). By the 1940s, the Head of Parks, Hermann Wernicke, was able to report on the progress of the establishment of the park, noting that it had been designed according to plant sociological principles. Professor Ttixen had surveyed the original vegetation and had advised on the design for the park (Klaffke 1985), which had then been re-named after Hermann Lons, one of the popular folkish authors who had romanticised about the native landscape, particularly the north German heath (Figures 2.9 and 2.10).

In post-war Germany, plant sociology and plant physiognomy continued to be discussed critically, without the political connotations it had had during the Nazi era, and during the 1960s it gradually disappeared from public consciousness (Schiller 1959; Roemer 1963). By the end of the 1970s, however, a new group of people generated the idea of the eco-garden, without knowledge of the achievements of the previous generations. Yet some of the main advances in planting design were made by others who did not work in a purely ecological manner but were inspired by it. This is part of a long pedigree, commencing with landscape designers associated with the nurseryman Foerster starting in the late 1920s at the so-called Bornim School, especially Herta Hammerbacher (Hottentrager 1992).

Like their contemporaries, the emphasis was on the use of perennials in naturalistic groupings. The middle-American prairie or the Eurasian steppe had been taken as an example by various gardeners,10 and after the Second World War by Professor Richard Hansen. Hansen, who in 1948 set up the Institut fur Stauden, Geholze un angewandte Pflanzensociologie (Institute for perennials, shrubs and applied plant sociology) in Weihenstephan, explored how different plants could be associated together in stylised vegetation types. The overall aim was to search for labour-efficient plant associations, particularly for use in public green space. Hansen, in association with Friedrich Stahl, ultimately summarised the results in Perennials and their Garden Habitats, first published in Germany in 1981 and translated into English in 1993. On the flyleaf it was noted that: ‘Until recently, gardeners have paid little attention to the ecological requirements of perennials when planting them in parks and gardens. This book describes a new way of using perennials in parks and gardens based on ecological rather the purely aesthetic principles…’. It is interesting to establish that even after almost two centuries of experimentation, ecological planting can still be described as new, which suggests that it had never been part of mainstream practice.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 1:46 am