9th March 1874 – 27th November 1970
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of plantsman, writer and designer Karl Foerster. As well as breeding hundreds of perennial plants, Foerster was instrumental in pioneering a planting style that was both naturalistic and sustainable using hardy plants suited to local soil conditions and climate. His iconic nursery and garden at Potsdam-Bornim near Berlin which he managed from 1910 until 1970 is open to the public as a monument to his life and work.
Thanks to the European Nursery Catalogue Collection which has digitised over forty of Foerster’s catalogues, we have a fascinating record of the range plants he offered for sale, and glimpses of his garden. His plant lists reveal a mixture of species plants and a range of perennials still very fashionable today, such as heleniums, day lilies, grasses and geraniums.
The Potsdam-Bornim garden (link at the end of this post) estimates that around a third of the plants Foerster developed are still in cultivation. One of his favourite flowers was Phlox paniculata and he once remarked that a garden without this plant was ‘a mistake’. He started breeding phlox in the 1930s and his nursery catalogues record pages of varieties, from palest pink to deep red tones. ‘Düsterlohe’ with its rich purple flowers is still a bestseller.
Some of the catalogues contain planting plans showing customers how they might arrange plants purchased from Foerster. The plans indicate how many plants of each variety should be used and suggests placing them together in blocks to enhance the effect of their contrasting forms and textures.
After training at the Schwerin Palace Gardens and the Royal Gardening School near Potsdam Foerster established his first nursery at Berlin-Westend in 1903 and re-located it to Potsdam-Bornin in 1910. The garden produced potatoes and vegetables during the second World War, but in 1945 the Soviet military administration gave permission to operate as a nursery once more. Foerster’s daughter Marianne oversaw the continuation of the garden from the 1990s until her death in 2010.
Foerster’s catalogues list plants developed by other famous nurserymen such as Georg Arendts in Germany and Bonne Ruys (father of the designer Mien Ruys) in the Netherlands. Their names reveal a network of influential horticulturalists and designers exchanging plants and ideas. Foerster’s influence can still be detected in the work of designers today – here in the UK Beth Chatto’s garden and plant catalogues seem to share the same spirit with their plant selections, as do the palettes of plants used by Dan Pearson and Sarah Price.
The grass Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ was named after Foerster as a tribute to his work. With its upright plumes turning a pale straw colour in winter, this plant is still a key component in contemporary planting schemes and it seems appropriate that the plant named for him remains so popular.
Foerster attached great importance to the garden as a haven for nature and his company logo, a stylised daisy-like flower surrounded by three butterflies, underlines this. Fifty years on, Foerster’s philosophy of planting is more relevant today than ever, with our current challenge to create gardens that are friendly to wildlife and the environment.