“What I really love about gardens, is that you create something that keeps growing and developing.”

GRÜNES BLUT met with the former Hessian Garden Director, Dr Bernd Modrow, in his garden on the island of Usedom, which has become his home after his retirement a few years ago.

It was through Dr. Modrow that my heart turned green. I was already quite in love with gardens when he became my first contact in the garden world. At that time, as former garden director of the Verwaltung staatlicher Schlösser und Gärten Hessen, he presented courses on garden design at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main. He inspired me to pursue a qualification in horticulture, which I then did parallel to my other studies. This all happened ten years ago, so I was very excited that, after such a long time, he was still willing to participate in my “Grünes Blut” project.
Before we start the interview, we decide to make use of the lovely autumn weather and take a walk through his garden. I have been quite curious about what a garden director would plan and lay out in his own garden. The basic principle he followed was to create the look of a landscape garden and to use his plantings as a backdrop which extend the 130m long x 30m wide plot of land.
As we walk through the garden, it becomes evident that Dr. Modrow attaches a high emotional value to the shrubs in his garden. He once impulsively bought 100 small box tree plants and transplanted them in a bed at the bottom of his garden.  His four mulberry trees were a gift from Dr. Michael Seiler, the former garden director of the Stiftung Preußischer Schlösser und Gärten. The two pine trees next to his small, yet impressive, orangery, were rescued one winters day when he found them hanging by a few remaining roots from a Bansin cliff. In 2 different spots, alluding to the myth of Philemon and Baucis, he has planted an oak tree beside a linden tree. He expertly informs me on the growth progress of weeping willows, larch and pine trees and while he’s talking, I begin to realise I would love to still be marvelling at and appreciating such seemingly small things at his age.
We have our interview in the orangery, seated in front of the monumental wall, which Dr. Modrow jokingly refers to as “his memorial”. From here, he says, you have the best view of the garden.

GB: What has it been that has kept you fascinated in gardens – in theory and practice – through all your years in the field?

BM: (thinking it over) What I really love about gardens, is that you create something that keeps growing and developing. It’s not static, and I can influence or even predetermine the future development. Much of it does not, however, turn out exactly how I would have liked, but I always find it exciting, and often suspenseful, to wait and see how the garden, the plants and the plant community develop. It’s a very pleasing experience to follow this process, which I can do in my own garden now that I have the time. I’m constantly looking at my plants and checking whether they’re growing or not. Gardens are alive. They’re simply exciting.

GB: And do you also see a garden as an expression of a unique personality?

BM: Definitely! A garden and a gardener form a unit, a symbiosis. That’s why it was always important to me to see the gardener responsible for each garden staying involved with it for as long as possible to ensure a continuity over many years. If you only have a maintenance group rushing through the garden, mowing lawns and pruning hedges and so on, the garden will never develop its special personality or unique character.

I have learnt that one of the best ways and times to get to know a garden is by walking through it alone on a rainy winter morning …

GB: Do you mean by this that you need to have walked down a garden path five, ten or a hundred times before you could understand that area of the garden?

BM: Without a doubt. In order to understand a garden it’s important to know something about its history. But if you know absolutely nothing about it, you can hardly get a feel for the garden after one quick walk through it. You have to go down each path more often to experience the unique character. And, what’s more, your experience depends on the season and, of course, on the time of day. I have learnt that one of the best ways and times to get to know a garden is by walking through it alone on a rainy winter morning, with or without an umbrella. There are no leaves and you can see the structure of the whole garden. You don’t get distracted by noises or other people and you can look through everywhere. So: in the rain, in winter!

GB: Sounds inviting. Then now is the perfect time for a garden excursion.

BM: Yes, this is how I got to know Park Schönbusch in Aschaffenburg, for example. It was a day like this, when I was there on the first of May.

GB: When you started out as garden director in the early 1980s many of the facilities of the VSG (Verwaltung staatlicher Schlösser und Gärten Hessen – Hessian Palace and Garden Administration) were in a very rudimentary condition. What was the overall situation in the beginning?

BM: Rudimentary condition is probably not applicable. The public saw and used the historic gardens as “nice” green spaces. What this implies, I will explain later. Dr. Hoffman was the previous garden director, but the position had been vacant for several years while the work was temporarily taken over by a staff member. Dieter Hennebo and Alfred Hoffmann , the garden design experts, were a highly valuable team. So, together with my research colleague who started out in the VSG a month before me, I had big shoes to fill. Due to the long vacancy, a few things had changed and this made everything a bit of an adventure. There was no office, the plans were somewhere on some heap and the files, records and other documents were kept in a state of some disorder. When we looked for documents about gardens, we were repeatedly told there was nothing available. As a result, we tried to find out more about the gardens and when we started working with the regional offices, we found that we could usually find something in the archives, even though everything had supposedly been destroyed by fire during the war.
We tackled the work systematically by creating and developing park preservation programmes. A plan room was built, enabling us to purposefully collect archived documents.

The Pond

GB: In what kind of state was the monument preservation when you started out in that office?

BM: When I started in the 1980s, we were looking back at more creative and inventive methods of monument preservation. The monastery gardens at Seligenstadt and the Prinz-Georg-Garten in Darmstadt, for example, had been laid out in a baroque style, which wasn’t really close to the original gardens.  This, we found out when we started systematically researching the history of the facilities, which we also did when we implemented new park preservation programmes. The scientific preservation of historic gardens (Gartendenkmalpflege) entails using what is still available on the site while also leaning on the systematic research and analysis of old plans, documentation and descriptions.

GB: So, did they try and transfer a baroque ideal onto a garden area or garden at that time?

BM: As far as the use of plants is concerned, you could say so. They also tried to incorporate historic plantings, but eventually ended up adding begonias and plants from the DIY store, because “the visitors wanted something nice and colourful”. Building on the experiences of that time in Schwetzingen, with its baroque parterre, and in Berlin, with its culture and presentation of old plants, our Gartendenkmalpflege developed to a stage where plants, belonging to the relevant time-period, could be cultivated and suitably presented.

GB: Was Gartendenkmalpflege still in its infancy after World War Two and was it only in your time that it developed into what we know it as today?

BM: Yes, exactly. Gartendenkmalpflege based on historic sources was a relatively new concept and during the 1970s and 1980s was practiced mainly in West Berlin. After German reunification, we were very impressed by the Gartendenkmalpflege of the former GDR. Their garden preservation work had been institutionalised for many years. The thing that amazed me most, was the amount of knowledge available in every Gartendenkmalpflege institute and in the garden administrations of the large parks. Aside from practitioners, they had researchers who worked exclusively on processing the history of the respective gardens. It was also very significant, for example in Bad Muskau, that new trees were planted in the same positions as old ones that were felled. I saw it as part of my task in the palace administration to get to know the theoretical history of each garden as soon as possible. How had the garden been established?  In what kind of state was society at the time it was laid out? How did it develop over time and what should it portray in future? Whatever I discovered, I tried to convey to the gardeners responsible for the respective locations.

GB: I seem to remember that they keep shoots of the individual trees in the Charlottenburg Palace garden for when a tree might die at some point ….

BM: … so that they would already have their own clones. We often tried this in Bad Homburg with the Lebanon cedars, but it never really worked. But we didn’t pursue it very intensively. We used to purchase our plants from nurseries and had our own nurseries in Kassel. We also had quarters for shrubs and perennials in the smaller parks.

It was my intention to establish these gardens, that were protected as monuments, as independent works of art in the eyes of the public.

GB: What do you see as the product of Gartendenkmalpflege? Why is it important?

BM: At the start of my involvement, historic gardens were seen by the community mostly as green spaces that might possibly be available when a new street needed to be built or as a new construction area. Or they were popular as event locations. There used to be an annual riding tournament in Biebrich, a park laid out by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell. The organisers of this event assumed they could simply help themselves to this area. It was my intention to establish these gardens, that were protected as monuments, as independent works of art in the eyes of the public. And as such they were not just available for any arbitrary use.

GB: Today historic gardens are occasionally used as temporary exhibition spaces for sculptures. In your opinion, does this enhance or reduce the value of the garden as an artwork?

BM: You’re probably thinking of exhibitions such as those in the Bad Homburg spa gardens, where the park was designed by Lenné. The sculptures are placed in viewing angles as designed by Lenné. The design principle behind Lenné’s visual axes is to use a very specific terrain model to create a view or pictures which you can experience as you walk through the park. This is achieved through the choice of plants, sculptures and structures which act as components of the pictures. When a temporary exhibition is installed in these viewing axes, you need to be aware that it influences the form of the garden design. I see this as an intervention in the garden design.
I’d like to mention a provoking example. Nobody would tolerate it if a painter – no matter how accomplished – used a vivid, bright paint to temporarily change or add something on a valuable painting, e.g. a Rembrandt, because he feels it represents the current artistic taste. This just goes to show that, in the eyes of the public, garden art or design has not yet gained full status as true art. I believe people are welcome to temporarily exhibit art objects if the locations are purposefully selected after carefully considering the staging concepts of the garden design.

Dr. Modrow, during our walk in his garden, in front of “Philemon and Baucis”. Those who have visited a garden with him, will know him exactly like this!

GB: You have been responsible for establishing Parkpflegewerk (park preservation) as a guideline for the preservation of historic parks in Hesse. After analysing historic horizons, there is a lot that becomes partially clearer. How do you know – in coordination with nature conservation, finance and local politics – which specific time should be reconstructed. It sounds tricky …

BM: We didn’t develop the instrument for Parkpfegewerk. It was already available in the GDR in the form of park preservation concepts and monument preservation objectives.
One of the first of these concepts, written by Hennebo and Wörner, was for Nordkirchen. Our first plan was the preservation of the Biebrich park, for which we developed a Parkpflegewerk. We started a detailed analysis of the object. Then we had to work out the history of the site to further improve the immediate condition and to provide a picture of the future development of the park.  Changes in design are not made arbitrarily, they are subject to specific, reasonable goals. Our Parkpflegewerk has stood the test of time in terms of goal setting as well as research. During each administration period, we always tried to have the relevant Minister write the foreword to these Parkpflegewerke. This politically safeguarded our Parkpflegewerk as an instrument and it also made it easier to secure funding for implementation. The conservation goal itself is derived from history. For example, you might have to judge whether a wedding at the park was the last blossoming of the development. Determining the specific time frame depends, in turn, on the current Zeitgeist. It becomes a process of weighing up the preservation contexts. Of course, there also needs to be dialogue with the public, who mostly don’t want changes. Public initiatives can be an added challenge, making it necessary to engage in educational work.

For young people to become something in life, those that are older need to start stepping aside.

GB: Do you have a concrete example of this from your professional life?

BM: I am reminded of, for example, the chestnut trees in front of the Bad Homburg castle. They used to be heavily pruned and the cut surfaces were filled with concrete and held metal bins. Then the tops started rotting, threatening to break off large parts of the trees. The time came in the 1990s when we had to decide whether it was sensible to continue patching up or whether a new planting would be better. After consultation with the nature conservation and monument preservation bodies, we decided on a new planting. Members of the public who then started protesting, were included in the decision process. I emphasized that it was important, and it was our responsibility to the future generations, that we plant new trees. The same principle applies to people. For young people to become something in life, those that are older need to start stepping aside.

One of the seats in the garden, inviting you to linger.

GB: Which park you took care of do you identify with the most? Where does your heart lie?

BM: All the parks are important. Every garden has a unique and special character. The monastery garden at Seligenstadt, which is in an excellent condition, is quite unique as a formal park. Even up to today the very different Fürstenlager displays a largely unaffected early English landscape garden. Weilburg is irreplaceable as a baroque park, with its wonderful selection of plants on the terraces, the orangeries and the Gebück zur Lahn. Bad Homburg with its Lenné-inspired landscape park, the baroque upper garden of its orangery and the tub plants, representing the time of the Prussian kings. Its ruins make the Wilhelmsbad landscape Park truly unique. Karlsaue, Wilhelmsthal and Lorsch, Biebrich ….. Every park has its own character and has certain elements that make it appealing.
Wilhelmshöhe has been classified as a world heritage site, because of its magnificent garden design. I am proud that I had been involved for many years in the preparation and goal-setting.

GB: When I attended some of your lectures as a student, I used to get the impression that you had a special love for the Enlightenment period.

BM: Yes, I have always been moved by the 18th century and its landscape gardens. But I do still encounter some strange statements. Recently I spoke to a couple – it was the other day in Potsdam. I asked them how they liked Sanssouci. They said the terraces were nice, but that nothing was happening in the other part – it wasn’t being maintained there at all! That was all they said and I realised many people are still under the impression that landscape gardens develop on their own, that there’s not that much to do in them. The plants grow by themselves, you occasionally need to mow the lawn then all will be done. I often explain that everything in a landscape garden is, in fact, artificially designed. Yet, the gardener’s touch should be invisible. And a tree is not just planted anywhere but, in fact, in a precisely defined spot. I’m often astounded at the level of ignorance concerning garden design. Among my musician friends on this island and in Berlin it’s different, though. People here have a special affinity toward gardens. We often visit historic gardens and parks together. Just recently, we were in Wilhelmshöhe. Art, music and gardens can create a wonderful harmony, especially in landscape gardens, where feelings have meaning.

GB: Do you think that in other countries, e.g. England or Holland they have a greater awareness of gardens?

BM: It is said that people in England have different feelings toward gardens. Perhaps this is because of the National Trust. The previously private gardens and parks have been excellently maintained and restored as garden monuments. The climate surely also plays a role. I am not familiar with Holland. In France and Italy, it is usually the more educated and affluent class that are interested in garden design. Two years ago, I was in France and I was invited to a gathering hosted by a private person who owned a renaissance castle and terraced garden. I was surprised at how many private persons in France, Italy and Spain owned castles and gardens which are not accessible to the public. I believe this is one reason why there is such a lack of interest in gardens among less privileged people in those countries. When I started my work in Bad Homburg, I thought the garden design and Gartendenkmalpflege in Germany was facing strong challenges. But now it has again become evident that monument preservation generally is not highly valued.  Today it is often regarded as an obstacle for many things. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern now only has a part-time position for the Gartendenkmalpflege of the entire state. (The same person then also works as a professor at the Neubrandenburg University). This despite the host of landscape gardens, especially old Gutsparks, many of them dating back to Lenné and the Lenné-Meyer school.

GB: Do you know how the Gartendenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is now organised?  Do they, for example, appoint landscape architects on a project basis?

BM: After the German reunification, they also established a Schlösser and Garten Verwaltung in this state. It is still being developed, with some employees who are qualified in garden design and monuments. Each person is responsible for his own objects, though. Planning contracts are awarded to independent landscape architects and garden landscaping companies. Ludwigslust, Schwerin, Bothmer and,  in a very impressive way, Wiligrad have all been restored in the last few years. The Renaissance garden in Güstrow was restored as a monument of GDR history 10 years ago. Hohenzieritz, one of the finest preserved English landscape gardens outside of England, created quite an “aha” effect, when it was restored in recent years after receiving a large financial input.
At Neubrandenburg University a half-professorship for garden art is currently occupied. This state now has more landscape architects qualifying in the field of Gartendenkmalpflege and they do excellent work. The DGGL and the Stralsunder Akademie für Garten-und Landschaftskultur organise conferences and training. Given the wealth of garden art, particularly the hundreds of Manor parks in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, there are still many gardens that need to be preserved – a large task.

I have realised more and more that to hold the office of garden director, you first need many years of experience as a gardener.

GB: How did you approach your own private garden as a project? Were you inspired by historic sources such as those by Sckell, Meyer or Pückler?

BM: First I made sketches of the future garden, while I was still in Bad Homburg. I drew it roughly as I imagined it – with curved paths, nothing straight, a pond – it had to include water. At that time, there was still a blueprint institution in Luisenstraße where I had this plan traced. And then I coloured it in and proudly drove to Usedom where I gradually started implementing it.
To say my plans were inspired by Sckell and Pückler or Lenné is probably too pompous. I wanted the garden to develop into a landscape display with a specific terrain modelling, an observation hill from which you would look through a type of picture frame directing your gaze to the Gothen lake and, of course, I wanted water features in the form of two ponds and a short stream. I placed the Carpinus columnaris across this space to form a visual axis – not drawing objects in, but connecting the top part of the long, stretched-out garden to the bottom. I have learned a lot in my garden – when I was laying it out, planting new plants and as I have been caring for the plants. Even though I did study landscape gardening, this was quite a few years ago. I have realised more and more that to hold the office of garden director, you first need many years of experience as a gardener. Although in my time theory and practice had started interweaving in the palace administration. I can recall when we were working on Seligenstadt and found out it used to be a vegetable garden.  Nobody could really visualize this correctly, not even the master gardener Herr Krienke. Then, during that time, we drove to Villandry, where the owner took us on a tour. We stayed there for three days, speaking to their master gardener and suddenly Herr Krienke realised what a great opportunity this was. The Seligenstadt gardeners then started making company outings on their own initiative. The same applied to Herr Jagenteufel in the Prinz-Georg garden or the Fürstenlager. Here we also restored or reinstated incomparable gardens. All of this was only possible because of our brilliant staff members who were open to change.

GB: In other words, you had a good hand at recruiting personnel.

BM: I believe it is very important to recognize and acknowledge a person’s skills. Then you can achieve a lot. For example, I urgently needed a technical draughtsperson, but officially there was no position for one. At some point, I got a message from the personnel department about a technical draughtsman who was soon due to retire. He was a 63-year-old Romanian who had up to then drawn only lorries. I thought, well that’s better than nothing. He came to us and we sat him down in front of one of our garden plans that had to be redrawn. He stayed on with us for a few years, was enthusiastic and always worked meticulously. His plans are all in the garden division. We didn’t talk much, because he could hardly speak German. But we were satisfied and he was content. I also remember a very different example: A children’s birthday party. There was a boy who kept on griping and interrupting the other children who were playing. I went over and started spending some time talking to him.  As soon as he felt noticed, he changed and became well-behaved.
You just need to feel noticed and appreciated.

Dr. Modrow´s favourite view.

GB: Your favourite spot in the garden?

BM: I am especially proud of the cobblestone wall I completed this year and of my “orangery”.  When they lifted the street in front of my house I acquired 8 tons of stones that I then stored for five years in my front garden. I found garden landscapers nearby who were proficient at the type of work I had in mind. The glass house, which serves as a winter hothouse, leans onto this wall. My “orangery”, where my citrus and other sensitive plants are housed during winter, is also a wonderful place to spend time in. From here you have the best view of the garden. If I were forced to move around in a wheelchair one day, I would love to sit here and I wouldn’t really need much else. There is also another spot with a very nice view over the meadows, but here your eyes are drawn outwards.

GB: Dr. Modrow. Let’s get down to business. Who is your favourite gardener?

BM: (Thinks for quite a while). I’m always swaying between Sckell and Lenné…

GB: Which book has been important to you as a designer? And which book as a conservationist?

BM: Andeutungen über die Landschaftsgärtnerei (Hints on landscape gardening) by Pückler is very significant. He describes what paths should contain, how to lay out plantings and ponds, how to make waterfalls and path processions. Of course, I have also studied books by Dezallier d’Argenville, Sckell, Meyer and many others. But I am fascinated by Pückler. If you go to Bad Muskau and walk through the park with these Pückler-inspired ideas in your head, there is a lot you can recognize.
My son recently gave me a book by Andrew Wilson about the timeless modern gardens of Luciano Giubbilei. The gardens are very labour-intensive and you should take care that they don’t look too sterile. Basically, I like not only the clear forms, but also the “New German Style” with perennials and grasses… wonderful!

GB: So, are you also interested in contemporary garden design?

BM: I am only superficially involved with this. And I occasionally page through garden design magazines. Although I am puzzled as to why they call it garden design and not landscape architecture.

A quite time next to three young mulberry trees.


GB: Last question: What is your current favourite tool?

BM: Definitely my shears …. an axe should probably also feature…. but it’s quite difficult to get rid of something you planted.

GB: Really? I don’t find it difficult at all…

BM: This probably comes with age. When I was young, I very enthusiastically chopped down trees. When he grew older, Sckell said: “Watch over me, oh worthy old trees!” For example, these two pine trees in front of the wall. I found them eight years ago on the beach in Bansin when they were hanging from the cliff by a single root. I took them down that February and put them on the compost heap to replant them in the spring. I have many images in my mind of these trees growing here over the years.

GB: Dear Dr. Modrow. It was lovely being here with you. Thank you so much for talking to me and for allowing me to spend a wonderful day with you on Usedom.


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