An old Chinese proverb says: „If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, become a gardener. “ When in 1823 first Royal Gardening Academy was set up in Potsdam at Prussian King’s, Friedrich Wilhelm III’s behest, no fewer than eleven young men entered the lush green path towards eternal bliss. There were, however, no women among them: gardening and especially garden design were a “man thing”. Even abroad (for Prussia was many things but progressiveness was never really its forte) females who ventured into their territory were few and far between. And nearly all of them suffered scorn, ranging from the good old avuncular “there-there-girls” to outright loathing. But they risked losing more than just their fair, porcelain teint – often their good reputation was at stake, too, as soon as they dared more than pick the roses. Not much had changed until late into the nineteenth century (of course, with commendable exceptions) – still, even before that more and more ladies began to grab spades and garden forks and tell others what to do with theirs.
Elvira Castner was one of the first female dentists in Germany – unable to study medicine in Prussia, she gained her Zahnkünstlerin (literally, “tooth artist” as stomatologists were listed in Berlin directories at the time) diploma in Baltimore. She was also an avid gardener, having grown up with a mother who herself drew her happiness from caring for carrot beds and flowers. It was there, in the USA, that Castner saw a window of professional opportunity for women in Prussia: she took walks down to the Baltimore harbour where she watched tonnes of US apples being loaded onto ships to be dispatched over to Europe – to Germany. Why not grow more of your own apples there? Why not leave this job to women? Wasn’t gardening a perfect way of earning your own money for middle-class females who cannot or want not to rely on their family to support them? For women who did not wish to be forced to choose between “married” or “widowed”? Or for those who saw garden design as a way of combining the Aesthetic with the Practical.
Once back in Berlin, Castner – whose dental career took off at once – began to work out the details. In 1894 in Fregestraße, in what is now Berlin-Friedenau, she opened her private gardening academy for women. Soon the first seven students were joined by the ladies from Hedwig Heyl’s Housekeeping Academy in Charlottenburg, where they had taken a course in pot plants and bouquet-making. Elvira Castner’s academy offered them a chance to venture beyond the pots and ribbons. Perhaps in the future they could even start their own gardens? Or – should that future be kinder to females – find employment as head gardeners? It did not take long for the academy to become of interest to many of the Höhere Töchter (literally “higher daughters” or daughters of upper-middle and upper class families) and the student numbers to grow.
In order to expand the gardens as well as offer proper boarding to that growing number of students, Elvira Castner invested in 8.6 acres of land in Marienfelde in what is now Berlin-Tempelhof. Her new academy could offer theoretical and practical education to 70 students each year; forty of whom lived in the brand-new boarding house paid for, to a great extent, by the academy’s mother. After two years of diligent work and passing the exams, the ladies (aged 16 to 50) left the academy with a professional diploma.
But that did not prevent their male colleagues from treating them with hostility and/or disdain. In their eyes, opening the market to female gardeners would lead to a dangerous “surplus in production”, “further price-drops” and – something that is still being preached in certain circles – to an actual End of the World as we know it.
That end, by the way, did take place – between 1914 and 1918 it changed Prussia, Germany and, in fact, the whole world for ever – but not because women marked garden paths, put up trellises or grew zucchini. They ploughed on, metaphorically and literally speaking: somebody had to feed the famished nation.
In 1919 Elvira Castner’s Gardening Academy for Women registered its one-thousandth student. The school continued for another three years until the hyperinflation and crisis raging in Germany because of the war and the government’s blinkered financial politics during the Ruhr Crisis, forced Castner and her co-workers to sell the school grounds and gardens. Elvira Castner, who had been awarded the silver Cross of the Order of Merit (with a white ribbon) and became a member of the German Gardening Society, died on July 13, 1923.
A hundred years later, in April 2023, the Königliche Gartenakademie (Royal Gardening Academy) in Dahlem – an academy established on the grounds of Berlin’s Botanical Gardens by two women, Gabriella Pape and Isabelle Van Groeningen – celebrated its 15th birthday. Gabriella Pape is the only German gardener to have been awarded a medal at the gardening event worldwide, Chelsea Flower Show. A true Dame of Spades that Elvira Castner would be more than proud of.
The text was originally written in German and published in my weekly column “Aus der Zeit” in Berlin’s leading newspaper, the “Tagesspiegel”. The column appears weekly on Saturdays in the section “Berliner Wirtschaft” (Berlin Economy).