Karl Foerster’s gardens in Potsdam

stipa arundinacea with rudbeckia fulgida

stipa arundinacea with rudbeckia fulgida

During our trip to Berlin, we managed to pay a visit to Karl Foerster’s gardens and nursery in Potsdam, a very nice historical place, just out of Berlin, where you can also visit the Sanssouci Palace and gardens, once house for Frederik the Great, King of Prussia (unless you find some posh concert scheduled, like I did, and there’s the Palace completely shut down and guarded, with all people in some Armani dress looking at your shorts and trainers, lifting their upper lip and showing a little of their rabbit-like incisors in dislike, but this is another story).

But let’s get back to Mr. Foerster, he was a nurseryman and a garden designer and a breeder, born towards the end of 1800, he’s been the forefather of the so-called ‘Dutch Wave’ or ‘New Perennial Wave’, now led by designers like Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart Smith and so on. In fact Karl Foerster, totally ‘out of time’, started planting and selecting tough perennials that looked sturdy planted in masses, he wanted something with a more natural feeling to the planting so he soon started using and selecting grasses too. If you consider that all this was happening more than a century ago I’d rather say he’s been a pioneer for modern gardening.

the back garden, you can see Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' on the middle right

the back garden, you can see Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ on the middle right

The place could be divided in 4 sectors: the nursery, still up and running, the back garden, the sunken garden (front garden) and the house with a part of private garden. The house is actually owned and inhabited by Karl Foerster’s daughter, if I got it right, although I did the math and I guess she ain’t a kid anymore. We found the garden very easily, you can find directions clicking here if needed, we parked the car and started our visit from the back garden. All the venue is surrounded by a thick hedge of large, botanic roses and scattered with rather old trees such as Cedars and other conifers as much as bushy evergreens. Although there are also a disappointing rock garden, the best part of the back garden is made of two large, rectangular beds planted with perennials and grasses and a bunch of lollipop shaped acer pseudoplatanus.

All is framed by a clipped hedge and another linear border that runs all along. I gladly found various kinds of asters, miscanthus, heleniums, anemone japonica, sedum and some clumps of the tall rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’.

Anemone japonica 'bressingham glow' and calamintha nepetoides

Anemone japonica ‘bressingham glow’ and calamintha nepetoides

Every plant had its tin label carved with the name of the variety, all was very tidy and well tended. I liked this cloud of calamintha nepetoides under anemone ‘Bressingham Glow’, I shall try some calamintha in my garden too, although this garden was planted in sandy soil, while I work with heavy clay here.

Some things let me kind of disappointed, like a bunch of badly pruned rosa ‘Maigold’ planted in a row, like soldiers deployed in front of the house but the garden is very nice. Then you can reach the sunken garden through some steps and a narrow passage behind the house. The sunken garden was a real revelation.

Here too everything’s very well tended, healthy, exuberant but not at all floppy. At the centre of the garden, at a lowered level there are a geometrical, almost rectangular pool with waterlilies and loads of frogs and gold fishes.

There are paths forming concentrical shapes all around the garden, starting from the pond but the thing I liked was that from most points of view you have the idea of a united big planting. Tall perennials and grasses such as eupatorium and molinia hide and show different perspectives, screen partially something that otherwise could seem obvious and create a sense of embrace.

What really impressed me was a sense that anybody could make a garden like that. I don’t say this as an offense to Mr. Foerster, he did all this a hundred years ago and I admire him for this but nowadays I can see a very accessible ‘design’ to this garden, something that inspires you and makes you believe you can do it too.

At the end we visited the nursery: all was tidy and clearly labelled and priced despite the sale season was in low peak. You could find a good selection of perennials and grasses at very reasonable rates but unfortunately we didn’t buy anything because I was afraid of loosing the poor plants during our trip back home and at the end of the day I have so neglected the garden in these past months that buying new plants before tidying up a little would be a shame.

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38 thoughts on “Karl Foerster’s gardens in Potsdam

  1. Good tour, I enjoyed seeing this beautiful garden and reading your gardener’s perspective. The mix of perennials and grasses was a radical concept when he began this garden. Now most look to this as an ideal.

    It seems simple, but getting it right is much less so. As you point out some plants flop unexpectedly and they grow too much into the grasses which makes the whole mix muddled. I’m still working on this concept and that’s why your tour is much appreciated.

    • Hi Shirley! I’ve been poking around this garden concept for a while now and the more I get into it, the more I understand all its recommended plants are thought for gardens in Northern Europe. They all work with very sandy soil, and regular rainfall during the year, that’s why they’re so drought resistant and healthy. They might have cold winters but the free draining soil preserve the plants from rotting, which is the main cause of loss in my garden in winter.
      I think the process is actually simple but people often puzzles over simple things. I’m still working on a reliable plant list…

  2. Thank you Alberto for sharing your trip to such a famous garden with us. Karl Foerster was certainly before his time, from your photos, it could be a garden designed in this century. I thought the planting in the sunken garden worked especially well.

    • I agree, the centre of the sunken garden was the best part to me too. Visiting this garden made me realise how little modern is our time. Something that looked so new is indeed a hundred year old concept. It is kind of disheartening if I see things with this perspective.

  3. I’ve always wanted to visit this garden, so a visit to Berlin and Potsdam is definitely needed. Thank you for your astute comments and all the great images.

    • I like the word ‘astute’, although it does not suit me, unless someone is mocking me… 🙂
      Yes a visit to Berlin and Potsdam is highly recommended and go there by car and keep Potsdam till last so you can buy something at the nursery, prices and plants were really good.

  4. Beautiful plantings– and very ‘Alberto’ it seems to me. I hope it did help you forgive your garden and your weather and to become energized for autumn gardening. You know recently I –even I– bought a couple kinds of grasses and planted them in a new bed. And of course I hold you entirely responsible for my grass happiness– well you and Scott at Rhone Street…

    • Responsible? Me? I’m not even responsible for my own choices!!! 🙂
      I’ve started a massive cleaning and tidying up program in my garden, I’m planning about showing the before/after pictures, I love those kind of things.
      What kind of grasses did you pick by the way? Did you write a post while I was ‘absent’?

      • Well the selection of grasses was small. I got two pots of a short sedge called Carex comans (“Frosted Curls”) and a feather grass, Stipa calamagrostis. Looking forward to your before and after photos. We still have hot weather coming so my fall remodels will wait a bit more.

        • Stipa clamagrostis sounds really good, I don’t have it but I surely want it. As for the cares, well it’s a rather right choice since it always look dead. You won’t look guilty if it really is dead. It’s still just a little above 30ish here too but at least at night temps drop down to a reasonable (and ‘sleepable’) rate.

  5. Alberto, your gorgeous images and smart observations make me want to learn more about Mr. Foerster. Happy to see Cleome used in this garden. Just pulled out bunches of spent plants. Susie

    • Cleome has been one of my beloved plants in the past too, then I left it apart for more ‘established’ perennial plantings but I’ve enjoyed ‘meeting’ this annual again and I guess I’m going to find her a place in my garden next year…

  6. Thanks for this great tour! Do you happen to know the grass (is it a carex?) in the forefront of the second photo with Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ labeled in middle of the Back garden?

    • Hi Michael, thanks for stopping by, so I have the link to your nice blog, I’m going to spend some time over it asap. The grass you liked in the picture might be sesleria autumnalis, I’m just trying to guess but I’m pretty confident.

      • Thanks, Alberto. I am looking for a low grass for my garden to plant against boxwood. I have used Sesleria autumnalis for the first time about a year ago and I am really liking it for dry shade. Thanks again for this informative post and nice photographs. I’d love to visit this garden some day.

    • Oh you should! I think this garden, although per se it is nothing really breath taking, it remains a very important icon for modern garden design in Europe, so it totally worths a visit. I didn’t make it to the Sanssouci Palace, instead, so I guess I’ll have to make this trip again too…

  7. What a beautiful garden. The things you said about this garden would make me want to visit it: 1) you were inspired, and felt that you could make a garden just as beautiful (instead of being an insult, I think that’s the biggest compliment to a garden designer). 2) Plants all clearly labeled. 3) Plants for sale at the end. Thanks for the tour. And I didn’t realize that there was a “no new plants” rule before tidying up the garden! It seems I’ve always broken that rule! 😉 Good luck with getting your garden in shape for autumn. I always forget how much work there is to be done during this time.

    • Well that rule actually is something that we are applying to our garden only. It’s been so neglected during the hottest part of summer that it would be a shame bringing home new stuff and not having room enough to plant because of weeds or not having the time to follow the new plantings with water. And then I feel I don’t deserve anything new until I put the garden back in shape again.

  8. We too love this type of planting and have a gravel garden to experiment trying out this type of planting. I had heard of Karl Foerster but didn’t realise he was born so long ago. We were reminded that it that a whole garden could be created using grasses and perennials as we walked around Knoll gardens in Dorset yesterday, it was fantastic. Have you ever visited Sussex prairie gardens?
    Sarah x

    • Unfortunately I’ve never been there, although it really is on my wish list! I miss England and often plan to go back but then everyday’s things come across and…

  9. Absolutely wonderful, Alberto…I’m so jealous you got to go there! I must make a point of traveling over to Germany again someday…I remember Potsdam being very charming. We really do owe so much to Herr Foerster, don’t we…he was a visionary…very ahead of his time.

    • Very ahead indeed. I think all modern garden designers owe him a lot, since they claim their designs and ideas to be theirs and brand new… well they are not, are they?

  10. A garden that inspires you, a garden that you can get ideas from. I like that best when visiting gardens. And thank you for introducing me to Karl Forester, I hadn’t heard of him before.

  11. Mi dispiace che non hai più molta voglia di seguire il tuo blog, spero che ti prendi un pò di pausa e che poi
    torni a farci vedere il giardino della Ca’ Rossa e altri bei viaggi che farai.
    Ciao ciao

  12. Alberto, Alberto,Alberto — thanks for sharing this Dutch Tidal Wave in such glorious detail. These are the kind of posts I treasure since I’ll never travel again after my paralysis. Sure would have gone to the High Line. It would have been more in my budget. Raise a glass with Campari in it for me, my friend. (Or is that considered part of a chick drink over there too?)

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