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An Exotic Garden in Frankfurt

Follow Rainer's progress in creating an exotic garden in central Germany.
Reiner Gesell-Schulte, Mercatorstr. 34, D-60316 Frankfurt
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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Bird's exe view of the exotic garden.

Since 1977, I have been living in a flat in central Frankfurt, Germany, which has a courtyard-garden. Soon after moving in I realized that this garden must have a special microclimate. A peach tree regularly flowered ten days earlier here than in a garden of mine on the outskirts of town and in years with extremely late spring frosts it always carried fruits even when they had been frosted elsewhere. When snow fell in other places, it tended not to remain in my garden and it happened quite often that snow covered the ground in front of the house on the street but not in the back in the garden. With frost, my experiences were similar. Today, after nine years of watching and measuring the weather here, I believe that my garden is one of the mildest places in Germany as it combines several important climatic advantages: Frankfurt am Main is already one of the mildest regions in Germany but additionally, the inner city 'heat island' can generate a temperature increase over the surrounding regions by 45 to 65C on clear nights and also, the garden is completely encircled by houses except for the southern side, which protect it against cold winds while trapping the heat of the sun. Frost never seems to come before November 20th, and after March 15th, the garden is frost-free, so, by German standards, the frost free period is quite long, over 300 days in some years. This, combined with our warm summers, gives my plants plenty of time to thoroughly harden off before the onset of winter. Temperatures have rarely fallen below -55C (235F) during the last few years. The absolute minimum since 1987, when I started measuring, was -105C (14F5) in February 1991.

In 1986, I decided to plan this climatic advantage into the new design of the garden. My love for palms, then only recently discovered, on a trip to the Italian Riviera, was going to be the basis of the new plan. A nice Chamaerops humilis, carried along as hand luggage, was the first one in the collection. Along with a large Phoenix and a Washingtonia, it was planted in a big container and placed on the patio. Somewhere I had read about a palm that would survive -165C (35F). This, Trachycarpus, was one I had to have to plant out in front of my window. In summer 1987, I found a good specimen and planted it immediately. Of course I had to have some background-plantings for my little palm collection. It had to be evergreen and able to flower even in the partial shade cast by the surrounding houses. By studying the literature and through visits to the famous Palmengarten in Frankfurt, where many subtropical plants are successfully tried outside, my knowledge and courage increased as did my plant collection. In the meantime, the sun exposed southern wall is completely covered with Passiflora caerulea and Campsis tagliabluma. Apart from Trachycarpus, my garden now is the home to many more exotic shrubs, amongst them Pittosporum tobira, Arbutus unedo, Olea europaea, Laurus nobilis, Eriobotrya, Choisya ternata, Albizia julibrissin and Musa basjoo. Last year, I have also tried a small Washingtonia which went through its first winter very well with some protection. Completing the picture are various evergreen shrubs which are absolutely hardy and a number of frost tender plants such as Bougainvillea, Citrus and small palms in containers which spend the coldest months inside the house. Unfortunately, I do not have enough room to realize all my ideas. Because of the garden's enclosed nature and all the evergreen plants, one feels immediately transferred to another part of the world when entering the garden. Especially in winter, and early spring when some of the plants are already in flower. I invest a lot of time in winter protection to keep everything in its best possible shape and to minimize the risk of cold damage. All subtropicals are nicely mulched, Laurus and Olea are wrapped in rush-mats in January and February, and Musa basjoo and Pass flora disappear under big piles of old leaves. Trachycarpus receives rain protection only and rewards my efforts every year with fabulous flowers, male unfortunately, so no seeds. Some of the winter protection is necessary as I mainly had to plant small specimens. This spring, I have planted other frost tolerant palms such as Chamaerops, which I had seen outside in Paris and Manaheim, and also Sabal minor, Nannorrhops ritchiana, Rhapidophyllum hystrix and Serenoa repens, all of which I did not know about previously. Of course these will all receive good winter protection in the first few years. Unfortunately I do not have enough room or money to try Jubaea chilensis outside but maybe it's an interesting project for later years. Meanwhile not only my family and I enjoy the luxuriant splendour in my little garden but the whole neighbourhood now appreciates this special setting, and the view out of my window, or breakfast under the palm trees compensates for all the work that makes my 'Frankfurt Riviera' a reality.

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