Category Archives: Perennial Planting

Celebrating Karl Foerster

1952 catalogue

Karl Foerster 
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.

Karl Foerster pictured in his 1964 catalogue.

Peony from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plans from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plan for shade, showing the canopy of two trees and stepping stones through the planting

Foerster’s logo – a daisy surrounded by butterflies

1972 catalogue

1957 catalogue

Brightly coloured phlox from the 1957 catalogue

Front Cover of the 1972 catalogue showing Phlox paniculata ‘Eva Foerster’ in the foreground with ‘Aida’, ‘Flammenkuppel’ and ‘Fullhorn’.

Doesn’t this planting remind you of Beth Chatto’s garden?

I like the German word for water lily – Seerose.

Perennial grasses from Foerster’s 1972 catalogue: Miscanthus sacchariflorus ‘Robustus’, Cortaderia selloana, Pennisetum compressum, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Stricta’

Chrysanthemum x hortorum ‘Schwytz’, Ligularia hybrid, Helenium ‘Feuersiegel’ and Erigeron ‘Wuppertal’ from the 1967 catalogue

An order form from the 1967 catalogue

The garden at Potsdam Bornim

Molinia altissima from the 1967 catalogue

Further reading:

European Nursery Catalogue Collection

Karl Foerster (Wikipedia)

Potsdam-Bornim (Garden Visit)

Potsdam-Bornim website

Tall Bearded Irises from Cooley’s Gardens

Cover of Cooley’s Gardens catalogue of irises 1935.

When Cooley’s Gardens closed its gates in 2011 after trading for over 80 years, this nursery had, in its heyday, been one of America’s leading suppliers of bearded irises.  Their catalogues show dozens of iris varieties for sale that were exported as far afield as Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as their home market in the US.  Based in Oregon the nursery was the project of Rholin and Pauline Cooley and, as with many nurseries, was a hobby that in time became a business.  Selling herbaceous perennials with a special focus on tall bearded irises, some of their beautiful catalogues are preserved online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Like many plants, tall bearded irises go in and out of fashion.  The bearded iris is probably considered by many to be too showy for today’s on trend naturalistic planting, especially as most recent cultivars have frilly edges to their petals, which combined with multicoloured flowers, makes them difficult to associate with simpler flower forms.

In 2007 gardener Sarah Cook was instrumental in reviving interest in the Benton irises, bred by the artist Cedric Morris.  Developed between the 1930s and 1960s  his irises display an elegance of form which modern varieties have lost, but can also be seen in the flowers from some of the Cooley’s early catalogues.  The Benton varieties are grown by Beth Chatto, and seem to integrate well in her garden, amongst the grasses and other sun-loving perennials.

Looking at the Cooley’s catalogues, it’s interesting to observe how tastes in these flowers developed through the 20th century.  The earlier hybrids from the 1930s have the languid look of silk gowns from that period, while by the 1950s the form of the iris flower has become more frilled, and stiffer, like prom dresses.  In the process, the flowers somehow seem to lose the elegance of the earlier hybrids.

Cooley’s catalogues from the 1930s show some very elegant flowers indeed. The large black and white photographs show the spacing of the flowers on the stem, which contributes to their poise, while the colour plates show their astonishing colours from browns and purples, to pinks and pure white.

Pictured in colour Mountain Sunset and Eloise Lapham. Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

Kalinga from Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

President Pilkington, lavender blue and pale buff from 1935 catalogue.

Venus de Milo (all white) and Grace Sturtevant from 1935 catalogue

Legend with rich deep claret falls and standards of deep blue 1935 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar, strikingly pink, according to the 1935 catalogue.

For their stock, the Cooleys teamed up with iris breeders, both professional and amateur, who supplied a constant stream of new varieties.  New introductions were expensive (some priced at as much as $20) and aimed at the serious collector, but this was balanced by ‘Bargains for Beginners’ and ‘Class for the thrifty’ where 12 plants of established varieties could be purchased for two dollars.

Ormohr from 1939 catalogue.

Copper Lustre from 1939 catalogue.

Far West from 1939 catalogue.

Dogrose, Legend and Rameses from the 1939 catalogue.

Itasca from the 1939 catalogue.

Treasure Island from the 1939 catalogue.

Kalinga from the 1939 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar (pink) with Red Dominion, 1939 catalogue.

Rebellion, 1939 catalogue.

1930s evening gown (Wikimedia Commons)

Irises from 1964 showing a more upright form with frilly petals

Irises from 1965

I’ve grown the deep purple flowered iris ‘Matinata’ for many years and love to see the dark, almost black, buds at this time of year, followed by the spectacular flowers.  This iris was bred by Schreiner’s in the 1960s, another Oregon based iris specialist.  Given the renaissance of interest in the Benton irises, perhaps it’s time to re-discover some more heritage iris varieties for our gardens.

Cooley’s Catalogue 1935

Cooley’s Catalogue 1939

The quest for the Benton Irises (The Telegraph)