Ulrike FeistelGarden rooms in Saxony

In 1995 my husband and I bought an old school house in the countryside not far from the German town of Dresden. The house came with a small piece of land adjacent to the house and both were in a sorrowful condition. The school garden became the second one we have jointly revived to our own taste, some time before Bernhard moved on to help other people with their gardens, some of which have already been subject of his GardenDrum blogs.

The German garden has not been designed or made according to any design, it rather grew naturally and somehow developed as a substitute for the rooms in the house we now owned but which were still unoccupied. Instead of having a bathroom we had a wonderful sandstone basin the size of a proper bathtub, instead of a bedroom there was a well-sheltered walled area where one could comfortably disappear for a nap and so on. For a long time there was no kitchen but a spacious area with a small, medium and large barbecue, just as pans in the kitchen.

So, when we eventually moved into the house, the garden around had turned into a multitude of small areas dedicated to various activities. And although the garden is still constantly changing the rooms have stayed more or less unchanged.

Having so many areas of a quite different character, I believe, has given us the feeling of living in a rather big garden although the garden is only one acre of size and by no means can it be called a large garden. No fences, and the creation of views, have added to this wonderful illusion.

A bit like later in the house, the first thing we re-instated after the removal of old garages and ugly sheds was the water supply which in former times came from a hand pump of a locally characteristic design. Luckily we found one small firm still making these pumps of hollow trunks of pine and so it was re-instated in full glory for those with enough muscles to operate it (the well is 15m deep).

The pump is located in a walled, sheltered area with relatively little space for plants other than on the walls and the edges. We planted a viburnum bush (Viburnum burkwoodii) which with its lovely scent in late spring makes sitting in this area an extra pleasure. Ivy (Hedera helix) and periwinkle (Vinca minor) were planted along the walls making it a green space even in winter together with wild vine (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), grape vines (Vitis vinifera, variety Mueller-Thurgau) and a wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) which grew out of hand within a couple of years.

A hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) was later moved from another area, where it had suffered for some time, to this more protected area and is now thriving, although it has changed its colour from bright blue to pink responding to the soil. This leaves just enough space for a bench, chairs and a table and our Oleander (Nerium oleander) pots once they have emerged from their winter sanctuary.

The next thing we did (and this really came first with the house) was repairing and extending the stone walls, as some protection from the cold winter storms blowing from the west appeared to be beneficial to our future plants, as one can well imagine from the picture below.

Knowing that there was a rather nice (but empty) old cellar in the house, we then set off to create a vineyard, or rather a miniature version of a vineyard, which we later partly had to abandon, as the soil in some parts of the garden was just too heavy (it is a loamy rich soil) and there was too much water logging. The remaining vines are coming along nicely although slowly. Perhaps the best thing about the vineyard is the view from the vintner’s bench where we often sit and contemplate about the wine we are going to produce one day, in the meantime drinking wine from more successful colleagues. There are various roses in the vineyard and surrounding it, supposed to indicate any diseases and protect the vines, but I think it is just a wonderful mixture, with the roses peeping out of the vine leaves and also adding a nice scent.

Below the vineyard there is the vegetable area, partly hedged-in with lavender which, despite all fears that the winters might be too harsh (temperatures regularly go down to -25°C) and that the soil might be too heavy, is doing very well. In spring when there aren’t many vegetables brave enough to withstand the reappearing frosts, the first green and some colour comes from scattered patches of pink tulips (Albert Heijn) which appear to be fairly robust.


To the eastern side of the house there is an area called the ‘fruit hill’ which really is an area with some 20 soft fruit bushes including gooseberries, black, white and red currents, josta berries (Ribes nidigrolaria) and Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius). In spring the area is covered with daffodils which have died down by the time the fruits are starting to tempt the passer-by and the jam maker. Screening off the area discreetly are two sour cherry trees (Prunus cerasus) which flower relatively early and produce delicious cherries for jams, cakes and also for fruit wine thereby bridging the time the vineyard might take until fully responding to our high expectations.

Linking the fruit hill and the vineyard is the party area which is dominated by three large pine trees which we did not like very much but did not have the heart to cut down. We became, however, rather fond of them, as for years they provided a home for a group of long eared owls which on their part had developed a keen interest in the activities going on below their lofty home. The trees provide a semi shady area just right for sitting there all day chatting, eating and drinking with your friends. The area is surrounded by periwinkle. A dense cover has developed over a large area just from one single plant which we once had nicked from a garden (a neglected one, to be fair) and which we are now giving away as presents (with the appropriate cautionary note) to people in need of ground cover. A large lilac hedge close to the fruit hill hides the compost and fills the area with its scent in May. This has been grown from tiny suckers, this time from our own lilac.

The southern area adjacent to the house is dedicated to flowers and herbs without clear distinction between the two. Although we started off with a roundel (or rather a spiral) for herbs and one for flowers, we have found a mixture more and more attractive, probably developing alongside the discovery of the suitability of some herbs, in particular thyme, as ground cover. With thyme one can hide bare soil in an amazingly short time (we found lemon thyme (Thymus x serpyllum) a very vigorous and robust variety which also figures well in the kitchen). And it is (nearly) evergreen, a big bonus in this continental climate. Oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum), germander (Teucrium x lucidrys) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) are equally useful to complement flowers and avoid bare soil. The big lavender and sage (Salvia officinalis) bushes go well with the roses, peonies (Paeonia lactiflora and Paeonia officinalis) and the irises (Iris germanica). There are many bushes of white phlox, all children of one single apparently neglected and consequently rather sorrowful looking plant we found under a fir tree when we first came. We have never found out what variety exactly it is but it turned out to be a sturdy plant, much more robust than its colourful relatives and easy to propagate; so easy that children of this plant can now be found in quite a number of German gardens and also in some British gardens where Bernhard has introduced them. The fragrance is lovely and, when on a cold winter day I dream of a hot summer day, it is the sweet fragrant whiffs from the white phlox which are most certainly part of the dream.

Looking down from the house with the flower and herb roundels to the right and left along a brick path, through the terraced area with two hibiscus bushes (Hibiscus syriacus) at the end, one looks at a medium sized shapely apple tree which we had rescued from suffocation in a hedge taller than the tree. Most of the hedge (Ligustrum vulgare) was removed but we have left a small part that together with some of its own seedlings was converted into a secluded area where my father loves to sit watching birds. There aren’t any other plants here, as the hedge has been shaped in topiary style and therefore provides enough interest for the eye, together with the short grass and the little stone table and chair on it. And anyhow, birds should be the eye catcher here.

The area next to the beautiful sandstone basin mentioned at the beginning is dominated by a large hazel bush providing protection from the hot summer sun and also screens the bathing place from curious onlookers. It is a lovely cool area, and in summer the basin is also used to cool drinks, saving the lazy ones from a trip to the fridge or the cellar. Later in the year, when the basin is surrounded by Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) in their glowing orange colour, the basin is also used to wash apples before they are made into apple juice or cider.

The area under the hazel has been left wild, which really means there are loads of once wild flowers which are now managed through the prohibition of weeding, thereby helping the self-sowing snow drops (Galanthus), spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum), cowslips (Primula veris), Christmas roses (Helleborus niger), Solomon seal (polygonatum biflorum), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) to build a natural carpet.

Various herbaceous borders mixed with vegetables complement the dedicated rooms. We generally started them by using the plants we found in the garden, such as the white phlox described earlier, Japanese anemone, Acanthus (Acanthus mollis) or plants given by our neighbours from their gardens, and to which we only later added new varieties or more exotic plants. Colour schemes have therefore gradually developed and most plants only found their current home later in life, after a couple trials and errors.

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Ulrike Feistel

About Ulrike Feistel

I am a hydrologist, working in countries all over the world, & observing their different cultures, histories, politics etc. As I have a keen interest in gardening I have been watching with fascination the many ways people deal with their gardens, how they make use of their gardens, how important the gardens are to them and not to forget all the fascinating plants. Inspirations from many different places have found their way in our own gardens, sometimes unknowingly creeping in.

5 thoughts on “Garden rooms in Saxony

  1. I look at that gorgeous stone tub filled with crisp, shiny apples, and it makes me just want to be there to pick them too! Or maybe to see those first spring pink tulips….or to sit and watch the birds through the summer…..
    How many weeks each year do you spend in the garden there? It looks ‘low’ maintenance, but we all know that’s not ‘no’ maintenance.

  2. I have just returned from a trip to our German garden. May I answer on Ulrike’s behalf who could, unfortunately, not come with me:

    How many weeks work? How many daylight hours has a week? I can always rely on loosing substantial weight when there despite being well fed. There are two fixed times: early spring to put out the tender pot plants and late spring to bring them in. (Many of them were cuttings or small presents and seeing them grow it is so difficult to part with them.) The rest we plan around other schedules like family birthdays, apple harvest and so on. When we leave, the garden looks reasonable enough, which is also due to Ulrike’s parents (163 years of combined age) who keep the structure as well as they can, but despair under my plant collection craze. But isn’t planting better than weeding? There are also friends helping now and then in exchange for fruits or their end products or just for being friends.

  3. Bernhard and Ulrike: your garden is inspirational. Like you, I am trying to garden “at a distance” – though a rather smaller distance than you are dealing with. I find my biggest battle is against weeds: at every visit, like Sisyphus, I tackle the task, and then by the next visit I have to start all over again. Do you have a solution?

  4. Dear Alison

    Sometimes I feel (or fear) the most important thing for „distance gardeners“ is the ability to be philosophical. Yet, Sisyphus appears to have become my role model, too.

    On the other hand, ground cover could (partly) be a solution. Let your friends suppress your enemies. When I am weeding I at least try to get rid of nasty weed roots and then immediately cover the soil with what I think are robust plants. Perhaps covering the gaps between new plants with thick mulch, flat stones or even plastic or old carpets etc might help, too. Careful (too) dense planting provides propagation material.

    I could think of Hellebores foetidus, some varieties of euphorbia, periwinkle (or even ivy), woodruff, geraniums, wild strawberries, alchemilla, knapweed (which I particularly begin to like since it is able to flower three to four times a year when regularly cut down –I am planning to write about it in a future blog post), or even phlox paniculata and helianthus. Also some Michealmas daisies have a good spreading habit, as have achilleas.

    Another possibility (if feasible) might be to divide precious areas (flower or vegetable) by grass paths which are regularly mown. Whereas grass thrives (or doesn’t mind) when regularly cut down other plants hate it to be decapitated now and then.

    But presumably nothing really replaces being in situ…

    • Thank you Bernhard. I will try a variety of different solutions in different areas: a thick mulch on some garden beds, and ground cover in other areas (euphorbias, geraniums, periwinkle and alchemilla should all do the trick – thanks for the suggestions). I am already experimenting with grass as a weed-suppressant in my sloping garden, with some success I think. I will report on progress!

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