Steppe planting

The most successful Lebensbereich plantings, in terms of their public impact, have been those for dry habitats, the so-called ‘steppe’ plantings. Their inspiration is the highly distinctive, species-rich, and attractive flora of relatively low-nutrient soils that develop over limestone or sandstone in East-Central and Eastern Europe. Native species are combined with hardy taxa from Mediterranean maquis and garrigue-type environments, many of which have attractive evergreen grey foliage, as well as some from drier prairie habitats in North America. A spectacular early summer display of flowers is followed by further flushes of flower, with the latter part of the season dominated by the development of attractive grass-seed heads. The suitability of such a flora for urban areas with little quality soil and large quantities of calcareous rubble is obvious.

The steppe planting at the Westpark in Munich, originally laid out for the International Garden Show in 1983, has become particularly well known (Figures 3.7 and 3.8). Laid out by Rosmarie Weisse and Barbara Lange, a number of different habitats are created, yet it is the steppe area which has been the most successful in terms of public approval and in the long-term maintenance of a high number of species. Closely following the Hansen model of plant grouping through the application of the aesthetic quality of their ‘sociability’ (Hansen 1993:39-46), the planting aims at the loose intermingling of taxa, some as isolated specimens and others in groups (Weisse 1994; Kingsbury and Von Schoenaich 1995).

Steppe-type plantings continue to reappear at German garden shows (which then become permanent parks), and it seems to be a style whose practical and aesthetic possibilities continue to inspire designers. The 2001 Federal Garden Show at Potsdam, for example, featured a number of raised beds with plantings submitted by different landscape practices around the theme of grey foliage.

‘Silbersommer’, the first of what may well be several mixed perennial planting ‘formulas’ to be developed by German researchers, is clearly derived from the plant selection used in steppe plantings. It aims to provide a long season of colour and interest with a naturalistic aesthetic, relying on flowers, leaf shape, colour and texture, and overall plant form. The plant selection is broken down into four categories based on aesthetic and practical criteria:

– solitary perennials—grasses such as Festuca mairei and architectural perennials like

Verbascum bombyciferum (10% of selection)

– group perennials—species that form clumps, for example Knautia macedonica and Achillea filipendulina (40-50%)

– ground cover—low carpeters such as Thymuspulegioides (40-50%)

– scatter plants—i. e. bulbs for spring interest, crocus, muscari and tulipa species

(Schmidt 2000; Schonfeld 2001b).

Given the practicality of the steppe style for urban environments, where tolerance to drought and other stresses may be of considerable importance, and the undoubted appeal of many of the species from this kind of habitat, there is no doubt that there is still much potential work to be done on species selection. Plenk, for example, draws attention to the richness and diversity of the Central European Pannonian flora, whose ability to survive hot, dry, poor soils, makes it eminently suitable for urban situations (Plenk 1999).