My first visit to Sibylle’s garden couldn’t have been at a worse time. I came on an unpleasantly cold and stormy day in early March when spring hadn’t quite started and winter had long lost its shine.
Sibylle’s garden is in a suburb of Düsseldorf, one that feels more like a village with its charming market square and quiet streets. Her garden lies hidden behind a row of handsome pre-war apartment buildings. About 12 metres wide, the plot stretches more than 40 metres to a converted former farm building at the back where Sibylle lives with her husband. Walls and hedges along the sides emphasise a courtyard-feel.
As I come through the entrance-archway in the cold drizzle I see Sibylle rush towards me. She is wrapped in a thick cardigan. Yes, the weather is terrible, but she wants to give me a tour. There is so much to show and explain. Slowly we move along the path that curves between the flowerbeds towards the house. I notice the precision with which the plants are placed – irregular, but orderly. And everything is tidy. There is not a weed in sight, not even a dry leaf.
Excitedly Sibylle bends down to show me an Epimedium that is just beginning to flower. It’s so tiny, I fumble for a while trying to photograph it and still end up with a partially blurry image. In ordinary circumstances this would not be particularly remarkable, but I am visiting a well known garden photographer. Sibylle creates wonderful calendars (website, Instagram), mostly with close-ups of flowers.
When the rain and the wind get worse, my tour is cut short and we rush inside. Still, even this quick glimpse revealed an impressive garden. I’m beginning to think my timing isn’t that bad after all. In this season, without the perennials’ summer foliage, it’s like a view behind the scenes. While the garden is taking a break before the next act, I can see, Sibylle has perfectly prepped it for its coming performance. There is a huge diversity of plants, their position finely attuned to the light and moisture levels in different parts of the plot, all showing the hand of an experienced gardener.
Just before entering the house I notice a Euphorbia, three tiny Cyclamen and a mass of mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii) have self-seeded inbetween paving in front of the solid metal frame of a floor-length window. It looks like a modern still life and couldn’t be better arranged in its harmonious randomness. So nature is allowed to roam freely here – as long as it does it with style!
We warm up in the airy open plan living area of the house. Two walls and the ceiling of this room are glass and give a view of the garden. Outside I had been focused on details on the ground, here I can take in the big picture. Adding to the enclosed character of the garden are two mature trees. A tall pine stands prominently at a distance from the house. Closer is a deciduous Gleditsia. The trees were here before Sibylle and her husband had the house converted. They just moved the Gleditsia by a few metres.
My first thought is, what a bold design choice to leave them in a garden that already gets a lot of shade from the perimeter walls and the apartment buildings. But Sibylle points out that the leafless Gleditsia takes away little of the precious winter light, yet cools the house and patio with pleasant shade in the summer. I see her point. The longer I look at Sibylle’s garden the more I realise that the trees complete the space. They form the visual roof for this large outdoor room. Particularly the conifer gives the garden height and privacy at this time of year.
There is another garden that I have to see, the green roof. Sibylle takes me upstairs. Alliums had self seeded here. There had been hundreds and hundreds of them in this relatively small space and no way to pull them all out. So Sibylle replanted the entire roof. I notice various sedums, thymes, grasses, irises – and a lot of bare soil. An ornamental white sphere and a lounger look a bit lost. Sibylle says this is where in summer she and her husband like to enjoy the sunset with a drink. Today, in the rainy gloom I find that hard to imagine.
The next time I visit Sibylle it is hot and sunny and the end of July. Through the archway I enter a lush, green oasis. The air is pleasantly cool. Foliage is accented by sparkles of golden afternoon sunshine and the flowerbeds burst with plants. The Gleditsia with its fine, lacy leaves forms a delicate, semi-transparent roof.
Sibylle’s garden could easily fill the cover of an upmarket style magazine. She has created the most luxurious, harmoniously balanced scene. There are a few flowers here and there, but green is the predominant colour. From the lower perennials to the climbers and not least the leaves of the Gleditsia, all foliage looks like it has been meticulously painted with a very fine brush.
The garden is modern with a liberal dose of romance. But this is not achieved through artful neglect. Every detail is attended to and polished. While this degree of control can render a garden lifeless, here it enhances the laissez-faire feel. The plants themselves, their selection and careful placement and maintenance, provide the comfortable touch of luxury.
Another defining factor of Sibylle’s garden is the sheer abundance of plants. There is no bare soil visible anywhere. Plants are crammed into the beds. We agree that this is something rarely seen in Germany but a prerequisite for good planting. As Christopher Lloyd wrote: ‘Every plant is disassociated from the next by bare soil.’
Self critically Sibylle tells me that she wishes she could have fewer varieties. She thinks it would make the design more striking. I’m not sure. Through constant editing Sibylle has shaped an infinitely complex array of different textures into a varied yet harmonious composition.
Yet Sibylle’s garden isn’t only style and ornamental beauty. Four raised beds in the middle of her large flowerbed are dedicated to fruit and vegetables. As Sibylle is picking a ripe tomato for me to taste, we notice that a pumpkin she has planted on the compost has grown so vigorously that it has extended into the neighbour’s garden. Elsewhere there are waterlilies growing in a zinc tub and in yet another part of the garden she has begun a collection of scented-leaf pelagoniums.
The sun is about to disappear behind the larger buildings. Sibylle quickly hands me a cold drink and I follow her up onto the roof. The bare patch that was here a few months ago is difficult to imagine now. The dry garden has developed into a wonderful little landscape. An array of plants now covers the roof completely. In addition to the ones I spotted in March, I now see dianthus, euphorbias and fennel, to name a few. While we talk and enjoy the sunset Sibylle climbs across the roof and pulls out little sedum plants. She doesn’t like the different coloured sedums mixing. This is her way of gardening, a balance between care and control based on extensive plant knowledge and an infallible sense of style.
Sibylle has always loved plants while her family has different interests. When the children were small and they would go on holiday together, she would view the great gardens by herself while her husband and children would patiently wait in the car. However, having this wonderful space at home to garden in is more than a consolation. Over the years Sibylle has been able to realise lots of her garden dreams here.
A few years ago when she changed part of the planting and ended up with a lot of spare plants, Sibylle’s garden enthusiasm spilled to the other side of the road. She asked the council if she could plant up a neglected strip of land outside the local school. Naturally they were thrilled. More recently she has created several flowerbeds around the church.
It’s lovely to see how Sibylle beautifies those unloved areas around communal buildings with her gardening knowledge and sense of style. Just like at home, she also never forgets the practicalities. If no-one is able to water the flowerbeds, she will go and do it herself. Before I leave, Sibylle recommends a book about guerrilla gardening. I wonder where her gardening enthusiasm will take Sibylle next.