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The gardens of my childhood

Bernhard Feistel

Bernhard Feistel

August 9, 2012

The gardens of my childhood, Karl Foerster and a belated homage – when I think of myself as a keen gardener now I wonder why my path to this has not been a direct but a rather winded one, since I could have learned it virtually from the cradle from my almost fanatically gardening parents. From hindsight I would even dare to suggest they were at their best in the garden, each with a certain speciality area but knowing where to co-operate and when to leave the other’s department well alone. (As history and photographic evidence tells, propagation was one of their strengths.)

The children strolling along my mother’s relatively new rock garden in the allotment

In the garden (if not elsewhere) my mother was the felt boss. She planned the whole and reigned supreme in her flower borders, which were, according to an unwritten law, no go areas for the uninitiated two-legged worker bees of all sizes. My father, on the other hand, was the king in the kitchen garden who also painstakingly recorded and compared the yields from year to year, which is, of course, important for choosing reliable seed varieties and of practical concern when feeding a huge family on a healthy diet. This penchant for garden statistics was, however, probably in his blood: Just lately I found in the bequest of his father, who was a teacher, letters from the World War I trenches to his wife (I am the youngest son of a youngest son) where he discussed and compared the apple and plum harvest in their garden in 1915, together with instructions how to deal with their fruit, not only from the garden. And a World War later, in autumn 1942, my grandmother herself was writing to her just enlisted youngest son, my father, about a terrible plum harvest with only one jar bottled and a bleak winter to come, not only with regard to fruits from the garden…

Part of my mother’s empire

The more I recollect the gardens of my childhood, the more I admire both their clever arrangements and beautiful, yet useful designs. There was a proper seasonal fruit and vegetable cycle, weather permitting, when we ate the last apples just about the time when the first early summer fruits arrived, or the last carrots, beetroots and first chicory shoots when the first radishes fattened and the asparagus appeared. The fruit trees and soft fruits themselves were so carefully selected to provide for as long a fresh season as possible.

When we children were allowed into the flower beds, then as contrast features for the flower arrangements, as here my oldest sister

Strange that childhood’s fruits always appear so sweet, but this is perhaps due to the circumstance that they were taken for granted, luckily in my boyhood, at least. Or at last? Yes, I took for granted what immediately moves me to tears now when I am browsing through old photographs.

I didn’t particularly admire my parents’ gardens then and to help there was rather a by-product of play, if not sport. Picking fruits or (supervised) pruning was more about climbing trees, and sieving compost more about how quickly one could fill a wheelbarrow.


Myself as a young gardener

Watering was about to find out whether one butt would refill quicker than I could regularly empty another, from which I carried the cans to the several thirsty plants according to a playful pattern which was meant to support my statistics. That was easy when filling the bottomless buckets which had been dug in around our rhubarb plants but needless to say that careful watering around plants came second under those experimental circumstances. There were three butts at several places and one large dug-in multi purpose bath, ergo much room for experimental equations.

Receiving a hose pipe instruction from my eldest brother

When collecting leaves from the nearby woods (we did not only recycle our own greenery but that from the woods, too, since the soil was extremely light and sandy) it was more about piling up huge heaps to jump into before wheeling them in than about composting theory. And since the soil around our house was different (not the least because of the ash parts from the winter heating periods, which we also composted) to that of our extended allotment we even wheeled barrow loads of soil 2 miles backwards and forwards to mix its components. (The allotment, or Schrebergarten as the Germans call it, was in a near woodland area and only 200 metres led through, though calm, public traffic roads. The rest was woodland.)

My mother watering the vegetable patch in the late 1960s

The same playful approach applied when we skied into the garden in winter to collect Brussels sprouts or lit a bonfire in cold September nights between the vegetable beds when the forecast told of first ground frosts in order to protect tomato and other tender plants. Any gardener in these middle European regions knows that one single frosty night in summer can ruin the harvest of many vegetables for otherwise mild weeks to come, not to speak of certain tender flowers. The same applied to late spring frosts. But what did we children know or care? We thought our parents single-minded if not crazy but more or less obliged, seeing the sportive or adventurous aspects in those tasks to which also belonged the bottling of fruits, beans or cucumbers, making jam or jelly, syrup or juice and even sour kraut. All in all, I certainly worked a lot in the garden, but I don’t think I learned much. At least I was not aware of it since my heart was not in it, yet.

With hindsight I would have loved to have received more insight into the theory of gardening. Our parents certainly had no (or thought they hadn’t) time to explain to their children the secrets of botany or about the life cycle of (edible) plants. We had to observe by doing it, and remembered or forgot according to our later careers or predilections. It was rather like the first steps of an old fashioned apprenticeship with basic repetitive tasks, I went through as a “child gardener”. Yet, in my adult life I had to re-learn many techniques or tricks we once did rather naturally. Often enough I have also encountered them ages later in new-fangled self-sufficiency or organic gardening books. My parents didn’t tell us about the life cycle of books, either. Was that a wise, economic or pessimistic judgement? Perhaps one needs to find out things for oneself to appreciate them best but a guiding hand might help to save energy and time. Sometimes.

More than a generation later I started to read the books of my mother’s great hero, Karl Foerster, who was not only a legendary gardener but also a prolific writer and principally an astonishing personality.

He was writing and gardening almost until his death at the age of 96 in 1970. Naturally enough he helped her (and I suppose thousands of others) through many critical and doubtful periods with his books and articles, plants, seeds, and probably even more, as a model. Without explicitly evangelizing, he simply demonstrated the beauties and therapeutic, heart-warming aspects of gardening, which could be so important or soothing, particularly in over politicized times. But presumably in all times. (For more information about Karl Foerster and also see Karl Foerster’s garden in Potsdam-Bornim)

Delphinium – still my favourite

One episode of Foerster’s childhood, however, my parents must have forgotten or chosen to neglect. He wrote that as small children he and his siblings each received an own garden bed where they were allowed to garden or experiment as they pleased without much (felt) parental interference. The story continues as follows, and mind you, we are in the 70s and 80s of 19th century Germany: One brother couldn’t wait for the seeds to appear and dug them out to inquire what was happening: He later became a scientist. Another sowed “care-free” annual scented flowers and sat beside them to read. He became a famous philosopher (Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster). And little Karl tried to breed already colourful perennials and became, of course, Karl Foerster, now also remembered in named plant varieties bred by others.

I know, this sounds like a fairytale story. To make it even more poignant: Last year I planted the Karl Foerster rose, my own cutting from an English mother plant, which I also adore for its beautiful autumn foliage, to the house my parents had built in the early 1950s. And my most beloved flower is probably still the Delphinium, the herbaceous perennial Karl Foerster made so popular. I wonder why that is.

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James Beattie
James Beattie
11 years ago

Loved the photos, Bernhard! True or otherwise, the story of what became of Karl and his siblings based on their childhood flower beds is wonderful…

Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

And what a huge vegetable garden your parents managed. You are lucky to have been able to observe that. My parents never grew a vegetable of any description in our garden that I can recall. I suspect they, like many of their generation, swore they’d never bother planting seeds and pulling carrots ever again, when they could now buy them from a green grocer. That said, my mother knew the botanical names of most of her plants and I can still, in my mind’s eye, walk around that garden and remember those plants too. So I guess something rubbed off…….

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago

An evocative post that resonates with me on so many levels. Thank you, Bernhard.