The hills are alive… or having our Black Forest Gateau and eating it

As well as documenting our own garden and other plants and gardens that inspire me, this blog is about trying to get our children outdoors more, and we couldn’t have found a better place to do this than the Black Forest in southern Germany. We have just come back from a week in the Schwarzwäld where this was the view from our farmstay apartment (http://www.mooshof-mark.de).

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We were very impressed by how well this part of Germany is set up for children and families. On the recommendation of the Lonely Planet guide we visited the Spielscheune in the sleepy little village of Unterkirnach and found an incredibly well thought out all-weather playpark which allowed children to take managed risks. On a calm soft-play floor for younger children there was a mini bob-sled ride where kids could haul up their own wooden boxes to trundle down the track. Outside was a more exciting version for older children. In the large outdoor area there was a small lake which could be crossed by a zip wire or rafts. Our oldest Little Weed aged 8 and a half was a bit put out when she stepped in water and got one Converse trainer muddy, but she soon saw the funny side.

As a gardener, I am always keen to see what grows in the places I visit. Up in the peaks of the Black Forest there were still morning frosts in early April and the main plants seemed to be wildflowers and low-lying alpines. The urban planting I saw was jolly and slightly twee, with brightly coloured plastic Easter eggs hanging from small shrubs in public spaces in the chocolate box town of Gengenbach (chosen by director Tim Burton as the home of Augustus Gloop in his film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

At the Black Forest Open Air Museum we gained an insight into how gardening has evolved in this region. Several of the historic houses were accompanied by small, enclosed gardens, which would have been used to grow a mixture of flowers, vegetables and herbs, much like English cottage gardens. Information panels in the herb garden explained that farmhouse gardens would have drawn on many different influences including floral displays in the posh gardens of the urban bourgeoisie as well as baroque gardens. But the greatest influence were the monasteries in this intensely Catholic region, whose monks had knowledge of medicinal herbs and brought previously unknown varieties of plants and vegetables from the south. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down the popular names for plants, showing that their healing power was well-known in the Middle Ages, even amongst illiterate parts of the population. I was fascinated to learn that the popular German name for comfrey, which I wrote about in a recent blog, is ‘Beinwell’ which translates as something like ‘healthy bone’, referring to its use in treating broken bones (one of its common names in English is ‘Knitbone’). Country people in times gone by would have relied on ‘God’s pharmacy’ for their very survival.

We were also very lucky to visit the Black Forest at cherry blossom time, although sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the orchards we passed by the side of the road as we were trying to keep up with the Germans who drive very fast! Instead here is a picture of cherries in the form of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – which in its place of origin is far from the 1970s dinner party associations of Black Forest Gateau – and is highly recommended!

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