For most of the commuters and inhabitants of Frankfurt, the first view of the perennial gardens near the downtown exhibition center is probably from a passing car. On one side of the road,concrete sidewalks and byways border the hardscape, steel and glass buildings one expects to see in a large city. However, opposite that resides an oasis of green emblazoned with living color provided by the foliage and flowers of Christine Orel’s gardens in Friedrich Ebert Park. Travelers arriving at Frankfurt’s exhibition center exiting the subway encounter a vibrant, multi-hued landscape similar to what they might expect to find in southern Europe. Passengers on public transportation gaze down on the gardens through the large, panoramic windows of the streetcar. Traveling at a slower speed and without the distraction of traffic, riders can take in the full beauty of the changing landscape before them. Commuters anticipate their daily rides as they experience the development of the gardens throughout the growing season—this must be a special pleasure for those without a garden of their own.
The impetus for the establishment of these gardens came from the parks department of the city of Frankfurt financed by contributions from various private donors. Landscape architect, Christine Orel was chosen based on her reputation as an accomplished and gifted designer with extensive knowledge of herbaceous plants. Her primary goal was to create attractive perennial borders filled with adaptive plants requiring minimal maintenance. Planted in the fall of 2002 and in spring 2003, the gardens remain intact and flourishing, a testament to the talent of their designer.
In the early stages of development, members of the designer’s staff walked through the gardens with the park’s maintenance crew to ensure they understood the plants’ requirements. Gravel mulch throughout the gardens effectively control weeds and many of the plantings are on automatic irrigation. These labor saving measures are good for the plants and free up park staff time for other maintenance tasks such as cutting back spent flower heads to encourage new growth and repeat bloom.
Looking to establish a connection or rapport with the location, Christine Orel’s design process begins with an extended site visit. Once she understands the “spirit” of the site that becomes her inspiration for the theme of the garden. What makes Orel’s style unique? In her mind, the plants in her garden must be similar in character with harmonious “personalities,” which is how Orel refers to the plant’s more subtle physical traits. She cites lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) and lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) as an example. Both plants are suited to the same growing conditions, yet Orel characterizes Stachys as a heavy, coarse-textured plant, while Santolina is lighter and more delicate.
While striving for harmony, Orel believes in maintaining just enough tension to keep the design interesting. In fact, her color combinations can initially be quite shocking, but one is soon won over by the designer’s exciting approach that relies on structure and texture over color so that if one photographed one of her projects in black and white, it would still be interesting and successful.
Beds in full sun and surrounded by paving at subway station entrances on Hemmerichs Avenue are planted with bulbs and Mediterranean plants. These plantings, including the fine-textured grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens, the stately Asphodeline lutea, and aromatic Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, tolerate the harsh conditions, withstand heat and drought, and complement the bluish color of the huge glass cones marking the station’s entrances. The plants also work well with the designer’s classical blue, yellow, and white color scheme, dominated by Salvia nemorosa ‘Blaukönigin’, Achillea filipendulina ‘Coronation Gold’, Phlomis russeliana, and tall ornamental onions, Allium nigrum and Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’. Perfectly suited to this dry environment, the silver-gray foliage of Stachys byzantina is a beautiful partner, setting off the blue foliage and bright flowers of the other perennials.
Nearby, in an older section of the park near two cylinder-like advertising pillars, Ms. Orel selected perennials more in character with a traditional park setting, including classical border plants like deep pink and red peonies and roses. Always aware of the need to incorporate low-maintenance plants, she chose the compact, disease-resistant rose cultivar ‘The Fairy’. Repeating groups of plants, such as Salvia, Stachys, and Bergenia, she ties the gardens together, providing a rhythm that invites the eye to follow along the length of the planting. Glossy Bergenia foliage with blue-flowering Salvia and rose-pink Geranium ‘Sirak’ flowing into and around them, set off by the contrasting purple foliage of Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’, offer an intriguing summer scene. Towering, late-flowering maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) provides texture in the background, as well as autumn and winter interest along with evergreen boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) interspersed throughout the planting.
In Christine Orel’s designs, color, growth form, and flower size are closely connected to the garden’s character. For example, the color yellow is more forceful when presented on taller plants and large flowers. In her view, the color pink creates a romantic atmosphere and perennials such as geraniums, phlox and baby’s breath (Gypsophila) evoke sentimentality. This is why the large groups of Geranium ‘Sirak’ work so well in the older section of the park, imparting a nostalgic feeling to the gardens.
Continuing along the park’s walkways, one enters a landscape dominated by mature trees and large expanses of lawn. Plantings here are of a distinctly different nature and perennials must be able to tolerate shade and flourish in moist soil conditions. Along the path’s borders, bergenia and hardy geranium are joined by the regal Aruncus ‘Zweiweltenkind’, Astilbe chinensis cultivars, and fall-flowering Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’. Like in the gardens near the advertising pillars, violet and pink flowers dominate with white-flowering plants used in quantity to light up shady areas.
The designer’s first consideration when combining plants is foliage color, shape and form, as leaves are present throughout the growing season, while flowers appear for a relatively short time. Large- or coarsely-leaved plants become accents, while fine-textured, delicate-foliaged plants offer the opportunity for interplay with their neighbors. Orel purposefully and skillfully combines plants with both vertical and horizontal growth habits. According to the designer, upright plants impart a feeling of fleeting airiness, while plants with a horizontal form bestow calmness. She considers combining and contrasting the many shades of green to be an important part of her design process. “In spite of my love for shrill color combinations, green is still my favorite color—the green in leaves and flowers,” comments the designer in her recent book, Der Neue Blumen- und Staudengarten (The New Annual and Perennial Garden, not yet available in English).
Further on in the garden, a double line of pollarded plane trees (Platanus), reminiscent of what one sees in Provence, covers a walkway. Borders are filled with yellow-flowering perennials, primarily Phlomis russeliana and Euphorbia polychroma. The coarse, felt-like texture of the Phlomis foliage is impressive throughout the growing season and in autumn the leaves of the spring-flowering Euphorbia change to a brilliant orange, adding another seasonal highlight.
Across the street, open sunny beds surrounding a large fountain are filled with rounded mounds of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and upright Jerusalem sage (Phlomis), both with yellow flowers in summer, interspersed with soft-textured, purplish blue-flowered Geranium renardii ‘Philippe Vapelle’, with clumps of tall maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) providing central points of interest in late summer and autumn.
Any extensive perennial garden should contain spring-flowering bulbs to begin the season and Ms. Orel included thousands of striking bulb species and cultivars throughout the Frankfurt plantings to celebrate the end of winter. Integrating flowering bulbs into the design extends the flowering season, and thanks to Orel’s careful planning, the emerging perennials envelope the unsightly, dying foliage of the bulbs. A large, raised, rectangular bed near the exhibition center bus stop bursts into color in early spring with over 1000 crocuses and tulips. One can easily imagine this bed in summer, aglow in yellow and orange, when 200 Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro’, 185 Oenothera missouriensis, 150 Oenothera tetragona ‘Hohes Licht’, and 150 Phlomis russeliana, punctuated by red and yellow torch-like flowers of Kniphofia ‘Royal Standard’ burst into bloom.
Although Christine Orel has developed a reputation for working with bulbs and annuals, she excels at perennial garden design. Extensive beds and borders from German state, federal, and international garden shows— and now public parks—are examples of her superior talent and skills.