The Lebensbereich style

Of all the ecological planting styles, the work that has been done in Germany by Professor Richard Hansen and his followers represents perhaps the most sophisticated balancing point between nature and art, and one that carries very little ideological baggage or preconceived ideas about what is natural (Ktihn 1999). It also has an immense amount of research work behind it, mostly carried out over several decades at the University of Weihenstephan in Freising in Bavaria and which is summarised in an invaluable reference book (Hansen and Stahl). Lebensbereich means ‘living space’ and refers to the close matching between the ecological conditions of the site and the ecological preferences of the species used, which is crucial to the success of the planting schemes carried out. The results are undoubtedly spectacular in visual terms, with sweeping masses of perennials flowering in flushes from spring through to autumn. Walking around public spaces planted up in this style leaves no doubt as to the public appreciation of, and enthusiasm for, its exuberance and vitality.

However, the visitor to Germany soon notices a paradox—there are few examples of Lebensbereich planting to be seen. Almost all the extensive areas are to be seen in parks which were originally laid out as garden shows, either for a state (Landesgartenschau) or for the country as a whole (Bundesgartenschau), with the best examples nearly all being in southern Germany. Occasionally, areas planted with perennials, and obviously inspired by Hansen, are seen in public spaces that have no Gartenschau history, and even more occasionally in projects carried out by landscape architects for commercial clients. In a country where public green space is highly valued and new developments are well – resourced, there are obviously factors that have militated against a more widespread adoption of this style. There follows an evaluation of the current status of Lebensbereich planting, a look at the direction into which it is heading, and an examination of the work of one of its most skilled practitioners. Practitioners in other countries will then be considered.

The sheer scope and detail of Hansen’s body of work may be one factor that militates against its wider use. Cassian Schmidt, current Director of the Hermanshof garden (see below), was one of several practitioners interviewed who suggested that landscape architects are reluctant to implement Lebensbereich-style plantings because their training has not given them enough knowledge and confidence to design what are relatively complex planting styles (Schmidt 2001). Urs Walser, former Director of the Hermanshof garden, stresses that design is not a one-off event—‘designing of a planting is ideally a process…the best situation is when one can continue to develop a planting, making changes, developing nuances, making additions, taking some plants away and always making further corrections. This happens when one can look after plantings over many years’. He notes that ‘plantings are frequently made and their further development can hardly be influenced—this is a difficult situation’ (Walser 1998).

Much of the research into plantings for public space now being carried out is aimed at developing plant communities that can be easily installed and maintained by less – knowledgeable personnel. These may be simpler, less flexible, and less creative than those of Hansen or Walser, but they offer the possibility of a more widely accessible working method. The level of publicly funded research effort going into this work is certainly unique. Additional to these issues concerning the willingness of practitioners to develop complex perennial-based plantings is a financial issue. Landscape architects are paid on the basis of a fee of 10-15% of the total construction cost, which militates against projects with a time-consuming design input (Schonfeld 2001a).

Inspired by Hansen, a small number of dedicated and skilled landscape architects and others have carried on his work. Of these, Urs Walser has achieved fame as the Director (1983-1998) of Sichtungsgarten Hermanshof, in Weinheim in the Rhine valley, before moving on to become Professor of Planting Design and Urban Vegetation at the Technical University of Dresden. He has designed several major perennial plantings for Federal Garden Shows, one of which is now a major feature in the Killesberg Park in Stuttgart. The Hermanshof garden is a showcase of the best of the modern German planting style, aimed at displaying possibilities for both professionals and amateurs. Its plantings can be seen to form a gradient, from those that are strongly naturalistic, using almost entirely European natives, to several which are still strongly habitat-based but more eclectic and with a higher aesthetic/design element, to very colourful and artistic summer plantings.

Walser was a student of Hansen, whose field trips into Alpine and other wild habitats were his inspiration (Walser 1998). His aim has been to build on Hansen’s work, giving a greater role to aesthetic criteria (Walser 1994). Indeed, he has said that ‘it would be false if there was the impression that the ecological influence dominated my plantings. Of prime importance are the aesthetic influences of texture, structure and flower colour in the plant selection’ (Walser 1998). The room for manoeuvre in gardens and parks is surely greater than in nature’ he says. ‘The attempt to realise the garden as arcadia determines an important part of the cultural history of gardens and clearly makes a distinction with ecological planting. The artificiality of planting is a central idea and can be creatively developed in different directions: artistic with a more or less strong ecological connection’ (Walser 1998).

Walser continues to make use of the clear distinction that Hansen made between ‘wild’ and ‘border’ perennials; the former being species or wild-origin cultivars that could be used in lower maintenance, more naturalistic plantings, the latter, species, cultivars or hybrids that need more intensive cultivation in conventional borders (Hansen and Stahl 1993). Public spaces have clear zones, ranging from very decorative through to naturalistic, and the plant combinations he has worked on clearly reflect this, and yet even the most ‘decorative’ at Hermanshof, which feature annuals and bedded-out half­hardy species, have the repetition and intermingling characteristic of natural plant communities, which gives them a strikingly contemporary aesthetic.

Walser states: ‘For me it is important to take the knowledge of plant community systems and place them in a horticultural form. I have a strong picture in my mind of outstanding plant communities. I study the descriptions of natural plant communities, and have gained much basic knowledge from the scientific literature’. Yet he stresses how ‘the transferring of plants from a natural habitat to a cultural one in a completely different context is not a copy, rather an abstraction’ (Walser 1998). There is validity to using plants that combine together in nature, but he stresses that ‘I do not claim that plant communities must be placed together in a narrow geographical sense, but they should originate from a similar biosphere (Lebensraum). It is senseless to say that here I plant short-grass prairie plants in a dry zone and there east European steppe plants, and never mix the two together…my experience does not support the idea that plantings entirely from close geographical origins thrive better. Plants from similar habitats with similar ecological conditions can obviously be combined without taking consideration of their geographical origins. we always notice that plants are more tolerant and adaptable than we expect’ (Walser 1998). As well as using the knowledge of a plant’s natural habitat in designing planting combinations, Walser stresses the need to be aware of its cultural habitat (Kulturstandort), i. e. its placing within the garden as an aesthetic construct.

In selecting plants, Walser is particularly interested in looking at species that are the dominant ones within natural communities, which he then tries out to see how adaptable and gardenworthy they are. When designing plantings though, he emphasises that it is important to have taxa that look good over a long season, the theme plants (Leitpflanzen) of Hansen, for example Salvia nemorosa, whose colourful flowers are succeeded by seed heads with good structure (Walser 1998). Walser describes how he is ‘very interested in the gradient of vitality of plants in different environments’, however he recognises that the immense number of plants in cultivation creates its own problems. Exploiting ecological tolerances allows the designer of plantings to bring many different species together but, at the same time, there is a temptation to play safe and ‘to limit the selection to those that one knows will thrive, be long-lasting and are simple to maintain’, which will vary from region to region (Walser 1998). But there are also dangers in going in the other direction, ‘yucca and astilbe may offer interesting contrasts of form and texture, but I could never place them next to one another’ because, although their ecological amplitudes might overlap in cultivation, knowledge of their greatly different origins creates a feeling of inauthenticity (Walser quoted in King (1997)).

Heiner Luz is another practioner, who, like Walser, has created highly decorative plantings for garden shows and public spaces (e. g. IGA 1993, Stuttgart and LGA 2000 Memmingen). He stresses that design must be given ‘equal rights’ with ecological/phytosociological principles. Too much diversity can lead to ‘visual chaos’, harmony demands an application of the ‘less is more’ principle. In any case, he stresses that we know from phytosociology that habitats are dominated by only a limited number of species, which gives them a quality of visual ‘impressiveness’ (Luz 2002:16-21).

Lebensbereich practitioners recognise that the development of the planting over time involves a limited succession, with short-lived, essentially ruderal ornamental species, eventually being displaced by longer-lived ones. Hans Simon describes the importance of having some rapidly developing species to prevent unwanted weedy vegetation establishing a foothold (Simon 1990:10). He also describes how the growth habits of perennials can be utilised by the designer in the ongoing development of a planting, for example species with long stolons can fill in the spaces between tuft-forming species. He also stresses the importance of keeping the ground covered as much as possible with perennial growth (Simon 1990). The implication is that this reduces the infiltration of weed seedlings.