Early in the season, on one of the few rainy summer days, Grünes Blut met with the renowned landscape architect Petra Pelz in her planning studio in Sehnde, Hannover.
Petra Pelz is well-represented throughout Germany in garden displays, public greenery as well as private parks and installations. She is one of the most well-known representatives of the “new German style”, even though Ms Pelz herself scorns this terminology, which she describes as a “modern wave” that plays no role in her work.
After enjoying some of her home-made pumpkin soup – which was delicious – we talk about her use of perennials during the last few decades, how she gained her experience, her plans for the gardens of tomorrow and the workshops, where she shares her expertise and the vast experience she has acquired over the years.
Reading time: 25 minutes.
Interview: Petra Pelz, Anke Schmitz * Text editing: Anke Schmitz * Photos of her private garden: Petra Pelz * Cover photo: Anke Schmitz * Translation: Gisela Lindeque
GB: Ms Pelz, In your beautiful and very personally written book, “Fascination Weite” (Fascination Expanse) you state that in a garden “the principle of order within chaos is my ideal.” Are you able to implement this?
PP: I envisioned the wild natural borders you find in English gardens as well as sections with hedges and walls that create order to all of this. Order and Chaos. This is the contrast I always aim for in my work.
Order and Chaos. This is the contrast I always aim for in my work. And fascinating images can then be created.
GB:… so that there is something that can catch your eye?
PP: Exactly! To catch your eye. Another picture I always have in my mind is from France in the Jardin de Plume in Normandy. There they have plantations that are partially meadow-like, structured by imaginatively cut hedges. If it weren’t for the hedges, the meadow would look very wild. But hedges don’t necessarily need to form the structuring element. I like to use grasses as a leitmotiv. They lend structure to a garden while simultaneously bringing peace, order and clarity. Precisely this contrast between the wildness and that which brings order is what ultimately excites. Order and Chaos. This is the contrast I always aim for in my work. And fascinating images can then be created.
GB: Your basic idea stems from the original American designs of romantic prairie gardens, which then also led to a letter to Wolfgang Oehme…
PP: Yes, it was, in fact, the book “Die neuen romantischen Gärten” “(The New Romantic Gardens) by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, which contained a crucial point which led to my letter. I was simply fascinated by it. Oehme was a bit of a freak and endearingly odd. And he later became a very good friend of mine. I had never thought I would one day meet him personally. Wolfgang Oehme lived in America and then, one day he just stood on my doorstep. This moment – probably the craziest in my life – came about through his fascinating book and my subsequent enthusiastic letter. I was so impressed by his football-field sized landscapes and his lavish use of swaying grasses and flowers among the surrounding skyscrapers… such a magnificent sight – my heart welled up.
Until then I had always had my reservations about using perennials.
GB: Can you describe the gardening scene at the time you got hold of this book?
PP: There was nothing similar in Germany at that time because perennials were not at all popular and were also considered expensive. So, there were very few perennial plantings, aside from those in selected locations such as historic parks or important city locations. And 25 years ago, there were no mixed plantations as we know them today. We had mostly classic perennial beds with bedding plants and flowering shrubs. And now I held this book in my hands, and I was so fascinated by these mass plantings and by the simplicity and the almost carefree manner they were used. Until then I had always had my reservations about using perennials. It was, in fact, very complicated, because you needed to know your location and you had to consider heights, flowering times, characteristics and colours. But, at that point, I fell in love with this approach that suddenly seemed so simple and coherent. I thought: I want that too! This eventually led to a joint project in Magdeburg in 1994. The design was more difficult than I had anticipated. We formed a partnership with Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates and worked via faxes between Washington and our small office (no email back then). It wasn’t easy to obtain sufficient quantities of the then unusual wild perennials and grasses. Wohlt nursery undertook our research at that time, and sometimes we just had to organise replacements. But in the end, we had our assortment and planted everything. Both James van Sweden and Wolfgang grabbed the opportunity to come out and personally help with the planting. It was the start of a long friendship, which has played a significant role in shaping me.
GB: What do you think influenced Wolfgang Oehme’s style?
PP: Wolfgang emigrated at a time when planting in large areas was considered modern. Take, for example, the Stadtpark (city park) here in Hannover. In 1951, we also had the first Bundesgartenschau (National garden show) here. We planted large areas and focussed on colour during that period. Not the colour combinations we prefer today. For example, bright pink asters with yellow poppies – garishly colourful! But at that time this was what shaped Wolfgang Oehme, and it was the planting style he took with him when he emigrated to America. Once there, he couldn’t find the plants he was familiar with, so he started gathering his own plants and convinced nurseries to produce a few new ones. He transferred his large-scale planting principles, which he had known since his apprenticeship, onto plantations of grasses and wild shrubs. This style made him famous, and many well-known garden designers in the Netherlands, England and Germany were inspired by his liberal and spacious style because they had also been planting on a much smaller scale. Today, however, we’re very familiar with large-scale perennial plantings.
GB: What, do you think, is the difference between your style and that of Oehme?
PP: I also started planting on large scales. In the course of time, I have travelled a lot, tried out things myself and learnt many things. Although Wolfgang’s use of plants has influenced me, I have become a bit more fragmented in dealing with surfaces. I also use more structure and always attempt to find the correct scale for the plantation in its environment. And I often place higher groups in between to create a bit more spatial structure – only because I like it better that way.
I sometimes just feel like trying something new.
GB: When did you start moving away from Oehme’s style?
PP: Moving away is perhaps the wrong phrase. And the exact time is difficult to pinpoint. Things always keep evolving and I sometimes just feel like trying something new. This desire and my curiosity then lead me to botanical gardens, horticultural shows and especially nurseries. These are my sources of inspiration where I always find hidden treasures that need to come into the spotlight now and then. And that’s what I do! I find new plants for my work on horticultural shows. I like to use new plants as well as dependable old plants. This mixture works! So, over the years I merely started developing my unique style. Also, as I already said, I travelled frequently and saw many things which also shaped my style. But I still love this large-scale style, even though it was very controversial at first.
GB: Really? Why is that?
PP: it was labelled as monotonous masses and block planting because previously plantations were mostly smaller-scale ones that strictly adhered to nature. And my style was different than that of others, quite unusual, which led to some rejection. But I never hear that kind of criticism any more.
GB: Do you think their perception was heading towards monoculture?
PP: Yes, probably. But I started out in public green spaces where the conditions are still the same today. The use of perennials was not conventional, because the relevant expertise wasn’t available. Plantations needed to be robust and easy to maintain and manage or develop by untrained personnel. I tried to achieve this, and it worked well.
When I presented my first talk in Berlin at the Technical University, there was a lot of resistance against my planting style and methods.
GB: It’s hard to imagine this from today’s perspective.
PP: When I presented my first talk in Berlin at the Technical University, there was a lot of resistance against my planting style and methods. I didn’t intend to impress anyone. I merely wanted to share my experience. The criticism was, however, that if it didn’t work, it would cause large gaps.
GB: You just alluded to it. Could you expand a bit on your counter-arguments?
PP: There were two immediate aspects that I explained. The one was to represent the proportions of the city when planting, as I mentioned before. I always referred to the immediate vicinity when I thought about my design. If the buildings are high, the streets wide and the lifestyle transient, the plantation needs to be eye-catching to succeed. This I also found when I got hold of Wolfgang’s book. The beautiful thing about such a bold plantation is that it is low-maintenance and even untrained gardening personnel could manage it successfully. It was easy for the maintenance gardeners to distinguish between weeds and plants. Many such plantations were installed in Magdeburg. It’s essential that the plant combinations should create balance, although this admittedly static concept stands in stark contrast to the current dynamic mixed plantations. It’s also vital to cover the ground area with the plants. To do this, of course, you need the right plants – which limits the number of species you can use. That’s why I’m always looking for new plants. In the meantime, I have been able to move on a bit, because I work not only in public green spaces and parks but also for garden shows and private clients. So, I looked for a way to incorporate other plants and new methods to obtain more variety and dynamics and to accommodate the wishes of the property owners or garden show visitors.
GB: And did you find these new plants in nurseries, as you previously mentioned?
PP: Yes, the nursery owners could often not sell them, because they sometimes didn’t look so good in their pots, but they are nevertheless valuable when placed in the right context. And it was occasionally worth-wile to try out these plants and in the process, discover some new varieties. By doing this, the plant pictures keep developing. And new impressions are formed. It would be very boring if you kept using the same plants for 25 years.
GB: How do you then implement these new plants or the wishes of your clients into your plant beds?
PP: Basically, I would like to be able to depend on specific plants. These stable plants can be planted in larger groups. So, a matrix is formed into which you can uniformly insert plants. For example, I added some beautiful Oxtongue Anchusa in this way – merely because the lovely, sky blue blooms were so well-suited. But after their blooming period, they suddenly looked horrid. The foliage had turned black. And we had to prune them all back. Luckily, we had added them selectively and no resulting gaps had formed. I have used the same method since then. Species with a short life-span or annuals are integrated selectively. If you do it this way, you won’t have problems, and the property owners can also include their favourite plants.
The structures will be stable and reliable.
GB: So, you create a structure that anchors the plantation?
PP: Exactly! The structure will be stable and reliable.
GB: You often have paths leading through your plantations. How do you build up an increasing sense of anticipation for visitors or how do you stage this experience through your gardens?
PP: I experience a certain amount of anticipation when I adjust my gaze. Sometimes through tall grass or a bush around which the path snakes. The viewers then experience the path in gradual steps and are drawn into it. New spaces keep forming. But, unfortunately, many gardens don’t have this sense of anticipation. You can sum them up with a brief look out of your window. You don’t need to discover much and would have seen the most already. I love finding something new. As a visitor, you would have to unlock the garden and walk through it to discover it. You wouldn’t be able to see everything at once.
GB: Does your planning start in your head or your heart?
PP: Actually, both need to work together – which happens automatically in my life. I don’t necessarily analyse what I need to do. Usually, I immediately see a picture. And then I think, “Yes! That could work very well.”
That’s why the gardens of plant-lovers often look very unstructured and colourful.
GB: When you talk in your book about experimenting and trying out new plants you’re curious about, do you do this in your projects such as garden shows or do you have an actual testing area somewhere?
PP: Both. I used to experiment a lot in my own garden. I had one bed with humus soil, and it lay in the sun. I tried out plants in a focused process to create a garden that wasn’t too cluttered or messy. Because every person who loves plants also collects. I am just the same. That’s why the gardens of plant-lovers often look very unstructured and colourful. We always used to call this bed our “Noah’s Ark Bed”. But now and then I also refer to catalogues and the excellent descriptions that are available. And sometimes I would just include a plant in a garden show. But even with that, I’ve experienced some ‘bankruptcies’. One of the plants I used to have, was a Yarrow, Achillea ‘Loveparade’. But it lasted only briefly, and after a year, it wasn’t there anymore. It’s better for something like this to happen on a small scale and not in a vast expanse.
GB: You seem very relaxed when you talk about these failed experiments…
PP: I think these experiments, as well as the failures and setbacks, are crucial. We can learn a lot out of this. I apply this knowledge in the subsequent attempts, and from that point, I never see it as a significant disadvantage. That’s why I’m thankful for these all these experiences. They take us forward, don’t you agree?
GB: And now even the public can benefit from your wealth of experience through your workshops.
PP: Yes, I now offer workshops several times a year. The participants receive a guide in advance on how to survey their garden. And they have to bring this plan with them to the workshop. Firstly, there are lectures about the areas of life so that everyone becomes aware of their specific location type and lighting conditions. And then the participants, armed with folders and index cards, start planning their gardens. These 550 plants on the index cards allow them to narrow down more and to place plants side by side.
We still see too many lawns and evergreen gardens.
GB: It’s great that you share your knowledge! But what’s your next step as a designer? Earlier on you mentioned your steps of progression. Can you look ahead somewhat and see the direction you might take?
PP: Yes. Our company has developed various concepts around lawn-less gardens. We still see too many lawns and evergreen gardens. We believe people should have more flowering plants in their gardens. It’s not just about the threat of gravel gardens, but also the many parks and installations with evergreen plants and lawns that have no dynamic character. This theme is also highly relevant because of all the bees and insects that are dying out. If we immerse ourselves into floral landscapes, it would benefit the insects as well as provide us with a source of recreation.
GB: Do you think this is also a current trend in our society?
PP: Absolutely. I believe it’s a great need in our society. People are flooded with technology and exposed to too much stimulation. With concepts such as these, we can consciously relax and immerse ourselves in nature. That’s why we offer these concepts to companies, as well. It is, after all, not new. People are looking at it on their cell phones. Viewing nature on your cell phone! Crazy, don’t you think? And direct contact with nature is lost. We have an office garden in Magdeburg, where 1200 people sit in open-plan offices. The director says, “We have built our garden so that the staff can move out and recover during their breaks.” The employees are then energised and able to perform when they return to their desks. A wonderful example. We all enjoy pursuing the surprise that lies ahead.
GB: That sounds very invigorating. I wish you fantastic success with this concept.
PP: Thank you!
GB: May many more Islands be formed through you! Thank you so much for this conversation, Ms Pelz.
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