September 27, 2007

The Garden Home

One day a few weeks back, after riding east along the Main about as far as I could go there and back in a day, I began exploring the river to the west of Würzburg. Much to my surprise (for I thought I had already uncovered all the region’s secrets), I stumbled upon an amazing little palace and garden complex tucked away in the hamlet of Veitshöchheim. Bavaria, it would seem, is just littered with Schlösser.

Apparently, the Prince-bishop of Würzburg, not content with the two palaces he already owned in the city, felt he needed a summer palace as well. And so, he built country chalet about 10km from town where he could escape the headaches of being both temporal and religious ruler of Frankonia. The palace itself is pretty modest, “just one up, one down,” and much more to my taste than either of the Würzburg palaces – if I had to choose one as my home, that is. (The thought of having to heat the 100-room Residenz sends a chill up my spine.) But my favorite part of Schloss Veitshöchheim is the magnificent Rokokogarten.

Like the great Baroque gardens of Versailles and San Souci, on which it was modeled, Veitshöchheim’s Rokokogarten is divided into dozens of smaller garden “rooms,” which always manage to seem very intimate. There are kitchen gardens, water gardens, ornamental cutting gardens, an espaliered rose garden, orchards, and a seemingly endless supply of privet-enclosed lawns, all opening onto one another like compartments in a jewelry box. There’s even an outlandish folly: a strange two-storey tree house perched improbably on top of a mountain of volcanic rock, and decorated with dozens of mosaic animals – mostly predators in the midst of the kill. On my first visit, I spent hours just wandering from room to room, losing myself in the garden’s many wonders. Although I have been back several times now, I still occasionally find myself in a room I’ve never visited before.

As I mentioned before, I’ve always loved gardens but I’ve never had one of my own, and I’m not really sure how to create one. Visiting the gardens at Veitshöchheim, has been a real crash course in gardening. Every week I ride over and window-shop for all the things I want to have in my own garden: artichokes and asparagus, red mangold and copious amounts of lavender. It’s full of all sorts of lessons you can’t learn from a book. Did you know, for instance, that if you don’t harvest your artichokes when they’re young, the heads develop into giant purple thistles?! And did you know, that if you let your asparagus go to seed, it will grow as tall as a stalk of corn and explode into a mountain of foliage the texture of a maidenhair fern?! I just never knew these things, because who in their right mind neglects to harvest precious commodities like artichokes and asparagus? But since Napoleon abolished the Prince-bishopric of Würzburg at the beginning of the 19th century there’s been no one to eat the produce of the summer palace, and so everything in the garden just follows its natural growth patterns for the education of novice gardeners like me.

The garden’s most important lesson, however, has been the necessity of creating these smaller self-contained gardened “rooms.” It was a concept central to the garden's of yore but which has fallen out of favor with contemporary gardeners, who want to more lawn and easier terrain for their massive riding lawnmowers. It’s also an idea that P. Allen Smith – my gardening idol and coincidently a neighbor of mine back in Little Rock – has been trying to revive with his emphasis on the "garden home.”

Although he only has a small downtown corner lot, P. Allen (as the downtown people call him) has managed to create no less than eight distinct outdoor “rooms”: a fountain room, a parterre room, a rondel, a cutting garden, a shade garden, a kitchen garden, a hallway garden, and a heel yard. He’s even made room for a few chickens out back. Needless to say, I am absolutely in love with his garden, and every time I’m home I walk my dog by his house and linger – maybe a little too long – to memorize the layout and scout out new combinations of flowers. Last time I was home, I loitered for so long that his assistant, who was doing some work in the yard, came over to find out what I was doing. We got to chatting, and I learned from her that he’s actually got a new project in the works, the "Garden Home Retreat"– a summer place in the country overlooking the Arkansas River. I checked its development online, and would you believe, it bears a striking resemblance to the gardens at Veitshöchheim – minus the folly. He’d probably say that his actual model was an Federal-style garden, like Mount Vernon, but I’d counter that Mount Vernon was a knock off of the Veitshöchheims of the Old World.

Anyway, I’m determined to see his new project next time I’m home, even if it means I have to walk my dog all the way to the Arkansas River and back. After all, I’ve got a garden of my very own I’ve got to plan, and I aim to create no less than four distinct garden rooms: a kitchen garden, a rondel/cutting garden, an ornamental garden in the front, and a service yard on the side of the house, for ugly vegetables like beans and squash and, if my landlord lets me, even a pair of chickens. And if the pictures from the landlord are any indication, my yard is going to need all the inspiration it can get.

No comments: