The Potsdam Plant Breeder
March 9, 1874
Today is the birthday of the revered German plant breeder, writer, and garden designer Karl Foerster.
Now Karl was born into an intellectual and accomplished family. His father was an astronomer, and his mother was a famous painter.
Many gardeners are surprised to learn that Karl began gardening at the tender age of seven after obtaining an apprenticeship. A year later, Karl entered a professional gardening program and studied there for 11 years.
When Karl turned 18, he took over his family’s Berlin nursery, which was a bit of a mess. But Karl had a knack for running a nursery. He streamlined the business by simplifying his plant inventory. Although Karl loved all plants, he was especially drawn to tough, low-maintenance, hardy perennials. Karl used three factors to determine whether a plant would be sold in his nursery: beauty, resilience, and endurance.
And Karl's high standards ended up bringing great success to his nursery.
When he turned 24, Karl moved his nursery to Potsdam. There, Karl married a singer and pianist named Eva, and together they had one daughter.
Knowing Karl’s high standards of plants, imagine how exacting Karl was as a plant breeder. Yet, Karl never pollinated flowers by hand. He wanted nature to reign supreme. Today, Karl Foerster grass is a recognized staple in many gardens and landscapes.
The story goes that Karl was on a train when he spied the grass along the tracks. To seize the chance to collect the specimen, Karl pulled the emergency brake, stopped the train, and then quickly collected the specimen that now bears his name. While gardeners have heard of Karl Foerster Grass or Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis), many fail to realize the grass was successful because it first met Karl’s high standards for perennials. Karl Foerster grass was the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. And,
Overdam is a variegated version of Karl Foerster grass.
Karl’s plant performance expectations and his appreciation for low maintenance spaces with year-long seasonal interest helped shape the New German Garden Style of garden design.
A Karl Foerster garden had some signature plants: grasses, delphinium, and phlox. Naturally, all of these plants were favorites in Karl’s breeding work.
Karl once wrote,
“A garden without phlox is not only a sheer mistake but a sin against summer."
And he also wrote,
“Grasses are the hair of mother earth.”
Karl lived to the ripe old age of 96.
And looking back, it's staggering to think that Karl spent nearly nine decades gardening, and it was Karl Foerster who said,
“In my next life, I’d like to be a gardener once again.
The job was too big for just one lifetime.”