A land of fairy-tale castles and wooded hillsides, Bavaria sits in the south-east corner of Germany, bordering the Czech Republic and Austria. It is famed for its traditional lederhosen (leather shorts), Weißwurst (white sausage) and the Romantic Road, a route stretching from Wurzburg in the north to Füssen in the south, taking in enough turrets, towers and narrow medieval streets along the way to last a lifetime. Stray just a few kilometres east, however, and you can discover a completely different dimension to Bavaria, with the peaceful elegance of Schloss Dennenlohe and its garden and landscape park.
The baroque mansion house at Dennenlohe was built in 1734, and sits in an extensive twenty-six hectares of landscaped garden. It was bought, along with the rest of the 400 hectare estate, by the current owner’s ancestor, Johann Gottlieb Freiherr von Süsskind in 1825 – he actually bought seven Schlosses, one for each of his seven children (he was a banker, enough said). Since that time some form of private garden has always existed at Dennenlohe, its character evolving from formal French parterre into more relaxed English-style country garden. But it wasn’t until 1978 that the current vision – part botanical garden, part landscape park and part family space – started to take shape.
Robert Freiherr von Süsskind, or the Green Baron, as he is known locally, took over the running of Schloss Dennenlohe after his father died. With the estate already in capable hands and a healthy distaste for office life, he and his wife Sabine looked to the garden. ‘I had to find something to start here as a profession,’ he explains. ‘Working in an office for the next forty years, that is not my world! So I said, “Ok, we’ll start this garden”.’
A sizeable lake had already been excavated by his father, with the spoil from the dig forming banks around the edge and a series of small islands. These Robert has connected with bridges, each one with its own character, from geometric Chinese to flowing Art Nouveau modelled on the bridge in Monet’s garden at Giverny.
The water garden was one of the first areas Robert and Sabine developed, and initially the ground was full of nettle and reeds. ‘It was horrible work to cut the reed, and then pull them out by hand,’ remembers Robert. ‘But we never use pesticides: you never know how they will affect the garden long-term. Globally we are losing so many plants and birds, and we don’t know why, so it must be something we are doing wrong.’
To combat the ever-encroaching reeds, Robert decided to plant densely with rhododendrons, which did surprisingly well in the predominantly clay-based soil, provided they were given some peat to add acidity. ‘It took me more than two months to prepare the planting holes,’ he explains. ‘The lake froze over during the winter and I was able to take the wheelbarrow over the ice to add the peat into the holes before planting in the spring.’
Today bold splashes of colour from these are complemented by the more peaceful greens of surrounding trees, expanses of clear water, and narrow pathways which snake and curl between the islands via bridges and boardwalks. This is a deliberate design construct: ‘We never make a straight path,’ says Robert. ‘Bad things go straight, good things are curving.’
As the garden has evolved and expanded, more diverse garden environments and styles have been introduced, including American prairie meadow, bamboo island, English rose garden, grassy amphitheatre, and even Germany’s largest artificial swamp. ‘It is a joint project with a botanic garden in Erlangen, near Nuremberg,’ explains Sabine. ‘It provides two hectares of extra space and habitat for bog plants which are on the endangered list.’
Alongside this very serious aim, Dennenlohe also projects a playfulness seldom seen in large gardens. Giant giraffe-like chair sculptures prance, classical Ionic columns reach skywards, and stone cairns stand precariously on summits of man-made mounds of earth and stone. This sense of innocent enjoyment may have its roots in Robert’s own childhood: ‘One of my first memories is passing through beds of feathery asparagus ferns in my grandmother’s garden and feeling them on my skin,’ he recalls. ‘It was like a magic tunnel for a small boy!’
The crowning glory of the landscape park is a scaled-down, but authentic, Bhutan Temple, its materials all imported from Bhutan itself. Bhutan is the only country to recognise Gross National Happiness, in the form of a governmental index which is used to measure the collective well-being of its population.
This underlines the philosophy here at Dennenlohe: not only to give nature a helping hand with the preservation of species, and to make a beautiful garden, but also to provide the opportunity for people to come and enjoy it. Sabine has been pleased and surprised by the garden’s popularity, and in particular by its broad appeal. ‘Last year we had a lot of families,’ she says, ‘and the children really liked it. A ten-year-old boy told me, “I never saw such a nice garden, so beautiful! We could run over the stepping stones and the bridges, and through the grasses. It was one of the nicest, happiest days of my life.” ’
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