Experimentalization of Gardening in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Experimentalization of Gardening in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Peter Joseph Lenné and the “Gärtner-Lehranstalt” at Wildpark/Potsdam

Björn Brüsch

The promotion of agriculture, the improvement of natural resources, and the cultivation of the land in early nineteenth century Prussia were closely connected to the garden. Not only did the garden provide for the necessary transfer of knowledge in terms of plant use, plant culture, and procedures connected to cultivation, but gardening also framed the natural basis of the state. To the extent that civic society was understood as a Pflanzschule of the active citizen, the garden became an institution for the production, transfer, dissemination, and mediation of a scientifically-based plant culture.

Gardens, with their long and diverse history, had always been places of knowledge that both collected the material upon which understanding depended and also put knowledge of natural history and botany on display. Gardens were a means to impart knowledge long before eighteenth century Enlightenment conventionalized the garden as a place for the collection of the natural resources that the economic “happiness” (Glückseligkeit) of states depended on. As the many botanical, economical, and natural historical gardens around Europe illustrate, in eighteenth-century coinage progress was thought ultimately to rest on the extensive cultivation of resources and their utility. Hence, the garden became one of the most prominent places of knowledge, and potentiated the mediation of an enlightened regime of nature and, generally, the resources of the land.

The establishment of an institution specifically aimed at a comprehensive education of gardeners in the early nineteenth century provided for the pedagogical means to implement land improvement in Prussia. It mirrored the official efforts to institute improvement in the garden while reflecting the governmental administration of natural resources.

Through official efforts to institute a culture of improvement in the garden, the gardener became an expert in plant cultivation thought to mediate useful knowledge in the provinces of the Prussian Empire. Hence, gardeners were no longer seen as humble workers in gardens of the wealthy but rather as experts of cultivation of natural resources—in accordance with what had been implemented in the beds of André Thouin’s Écoles cultures at the Parisian Jardin des plantes or Joseph Banks’ natural regime of resources instituted at Kew Gardens. As much as the botanical gardens in Paris and Richmond were centres of expert knowledge for the modern states of late Enlightenment, the Gardener’s Institute was to function as a prominent centre of Prussian Landeskultur.

Peter Joseph Lenné (1789–1866) became the first director of the Royal Gardener’s Institute founded in August 1823. He not only composed an elaborate first draft of how to organize such a practically oriented institution, but with his plan and the later organisation of the school, he put forward a program of “scientific gardening.” In his opinion, gardeners could never securely operate within their various spheres of work without the fundamentals, which they borrowed from botany, physics, chemistry, and physiology. Hence, the curriculum, though focusing more or less on empirical gardening, became, with the involvement of the members of the Society for the Advancement of Horticulture in the Royal Prussian States and the Royal Botanical Garden at Schöneberg/ Berlin, an almost logical implementation of the science of gardening and garden art.

The institute provided for an institutionalized space in which the contemporary knowledge of the garden could be mediated, on an increasingly scientific basis, in a three-year course. In this respect, the garden in early nineteenth century turned into a place in which the theoretical and experimental founding of gardening, horticulture, agriculture, and the general improvement of the land was conducted. The theory of the garden shifted from mere gardening practice to a garden science, which opened up an epistemological space of the garden conceived as a general "laboratory of the plant sciences," as Alexander Braun put it in 1852.

On one hand, the garden instituted civic action and instruction by means of visual display. It accounted for the material basis of progress by producing knowledge of natural resources. On the other, as the many experiments that took place in the garden around the turn of the century illustrate, the garden became a salient interface between nature (garden material), arts (aesthetics, spatial arrangement of the garden), sciences (characteristics of the material), pedagogy (mediation of the material), technology (handling of material), and economics (cost, benefit, and profit).

The garden area provided an accessible and popularising place for the observation of nature as much as it warranted for the many narratives of freedom, progress, cultivation, and beauty of the time. Within the garden national improvement facilitated by science, arts, economics, technology, and culture as a whole was visually disseminated and spelled out as a political activity following the years of the War of Independence.

The aim of this project was to locate the Gardener’s Institute (Gärtner-Lehranstalt) within the efforts to auspiciously advance Prussian agriculture, horticulture, and garden art in the early nineteenth century by means of scientific instruction, experimental interrogation, and observation of nature, and the progressive cultivation of the many natural resources. This not only included the epistemological and conceptual changes of gardening, horticulture, and garden art, but also a discussion of the narratives of an economic embellishment and aesthetic industrialization of the Prussian landscapes.

  • "The Garden as a Laboratory. Nineteenth-Century Scientific Gardening,” in: The Shape of Experiment, Preprint 318, Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2006, pp. 165-174.
  • Essay on Virtual Laboratory

Funding Institutions

Volkswagen-Stiftung