First impressions are an intriguing part of life, whether you are experiencing new places or meeting new people. My first impression upon moving to Edelsfeld, Germany was that the residents of our village were not only gardeners, but AVID gardeners who took great pride in their plots of land. Even though my arrival came in early November, when most trees, shrubs and flowers had ceased their growing and blooming, my walks around town and seeing all the neatly cleaned out garden plots assured me that we would be in for a feast for the eyes come spring and summer, and we were not disappointed.
Another first impression was to discover that the German people are genuinely kind and friendly. Being new to this country and to the German language and culture, my husband, Steve, and I were amazingly blessed to meet Emma, a neighbor who lives just a few blocks away. Emma invited us to her Christmas party, sight unseen, based on an email I sent her asking if she would be interested in tutoring us in German. (This connection came about through a “chance conversation” with a total stranger.) We have been in Germany less than a year now, but already Emma has become a dear friend. We have enjoyed dinners, tea, hikes, shopping, plays and concerts together. Steve and I are especially fond of playing with her dog, Ila. Walks with Emma and Ila are not only a pleasure, but a learning experience as she shares her knowledge of native plants, culture and history.
Shortly after arriving in Germany, I came across the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” by Elizabeth von Arnim, written in 1898. This book reaffirmed my first impression about Germans – they LOVE their gardens! More about Elizabeth later, but that’s where I got the inspiration for this particular blog. I really wanted to document Emma’s amazing garden. Emma was the daughter of farmers, born and raised here in Bavaria, in the little village of Holnstein, a few miles down the road. Her grandparents were also farmers, so hard work and a love for working the soil came naturally to her. Growing up she shared in the farm chores, helping with the cows, chickens and pigs, bailing hay and harvesting potatoes. Once she was finished in her family’s potato field, she would jump on her bike and ride off to her grandparents’ farm to help dig for potatoes in their fields.
Emma married and raised three sons here in Edelsfeld, where she and her husband built their home in 1978. Her father did all the woodwork inside the home, as well as building the framework for the roof. The home is surrounded by a garden, and yard complete with goldfish pond. So…here we go! Come along and have a tour of Emma’s German garden!
We begin by walking out the kitchen door and past the patio table and chairs. Germans, as I believe is true of most people, enjoy eating and relaxing outdoors. Emma picks a plum off one of her trees, carefully removes the pit, and feeds it to Ila, who is following us around. Amazingly, Ila loves plums so much that she literally jumps up and snatches the plums off the lower branches of the tree, eating pit and all.
Fruit is a staple in most German gardens, as well as vegetables; a carryover from the days not so long ago when people couldn’t afford to buy their produce. If you couldn’t raise your own, it meant going hungry. Besides plum, there is an apple and black bing cherry tree. I must add, every once in awhile our doorbell rings and we are presented with some warm apple fritters, or a slice of cherry or strawberry cake. Emma’s strawberries were some of the sweetest I’ve ever eaten! She grows blackberries, as well. Emma also harvests walnuts from her tree which she uses in baking Christmas cookies, and making caramelized nuts for salad dressing. Next to the trees is a large, open grassy area where her sons’ pony used to graze years ago.
Emma cooks and bakes with everything in her garden, which leads us to the vegetables…tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, green onions, spinach, beet roots, carrots, curry herb, rapunzel, rosemary, fennel, parsley, chives, thyme, and lemon grass.
And what German garden would be complete without flowers? Emma’s flowers are scattered around and in-between all the fruits and vegetables. I’m particularly drawn to the hollyhocks and she shares a humorous story from a friend of hers in Montana. The story goes that in the old days of “outhouses” it was customary to plant hollyhocks around them. That way when ladies came to visit, they could politely and discreetly ask where the bathroom was by asking, “Have you planted any hollyhocks?”
Wildflowers bloom in every corner, and Emma is quick to remind me that they are important for the bees; even the early spring dandelions are considered important for this reason. The dandelion leaves are used as salad greens, even in some of the nicer restaurants. Emma points out a yellow cone flower which is called a “sun hat” because of its shape. It is considered a healing plant. All the pharmacies have the drops from this flower available to help boost the immune system and it is used in ointments, as well. Another one of her flowers used in medications, creams and ointments is her calendula.
Other flowers around the garden include tiger lilies, chrysanthemum, anemone, daisies, iris, hydrangeas, sunflowers, morning glories and an interesting blue flower called “widow in the green.” A large patch of lavender is planted next to the roses to protect them from bugs. Tucked along a sidewall is a patch of thistle which is dried and used in flower arrangements. One other flower I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before is a lavender poppy. Emma reminds me that poppies are native to Afghanistan, and of course the pods contain opium which has had a thriving market in that country for years. However, the seeds from the poppy can also be used for a cooking oil, bread rolls and baking cakes. The more common orange colored poppy Emma refers to as the “Iceland Poppy” as it is one of the few flowers found in Iceland.
I should mention, that Emma collects rain water for her garden, which I have found is quite a common practice with German gardeners. And so ends our tour of Emma’s garden. As I make my way back into the house through the kitchen, I am offered some freshly baked plum cake. To begin with, I am amazed that Emma still finds the time (and energy) to bake, after all of her gardening chores. I find her to be an extraordinary person and a delight to be with. She is a busy mother and grandmother, with some new grandbabies to visit; she is a High School teacher who teaches German, English and Math, and tutors the likes of Americans like Steve and me; she is an avid hiker and walks her dog every day, as well as walking her invalid neighbor’s dog.
She is the author of a children’s book that she illustrated with her own watercolor paintings, and is getting ready to publish her second book; she makes an effort to get to the horse barn several times a week to spend time with her Arabian, Mitrano; she is also a member of a local book club. I have to wonder…where does she find the time to read?
Emma exemplifies to me the “true German spirit”… appreciative of her heritage, industrious, hard-working, organized, friendly and supportive, and a great lover of her garden and nature. Steve and I feel blessed to have her as a neighbor and friend.
And now this brings me back to my original inspiration for this blog, the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” This was a fun and relaxing book to read, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, unless you enjoy reading long passages and descriptions of flowers and the joys and trials of gardening. I did find parts of it rather humorous as the author has a sharp wit, but basically it is a plotless book. The beautiful, descriptive language though, makes it a delightful read, and you’re certainly left with an appreciation for the German’s love of gardening and nature. It is also an interesting commentary on society in the Victorian age. It’s a fun book to read if you’re sitting out in your garden patio with a cold ice tea, which come to think of it…is probably where you need to be if you’re reading this blog!
Following are a few more photos of Emma’s garden, and some quotes from “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.”
My days seemed to melt away in a dream of pink and purple peace.
The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has traveled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever seen me sew or cook.
If it were not for the garden, a German Sunday would be a terrible day.
The servants wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit. It seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself – but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only – they are dumb.
Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary to gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better.
If Eve had had a spade in paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.
It is so sweet to be sad when one has nothing to be sad about.
I felt so absolutely happy, and blessed, and thankful, and grateful, that I really cannot describe it.