The Schatzalp makes you happy

The Schatzalp makes you happy - Nature

Klaus Oetjen doesn't talk to his plants. But he listens closely. The perennial gardener is head of the Alpinum Schatzalp, the botanical garden in the grounds of the former sanatorium high above Davos. And he's a really good listener.

Herb garden, mountain meadow, wedding garden, insect garden, Thomas Mann Square, Guggebachtal alpine garden– and flowers everywhere: edelweiss, gentian, lupins, poppies, giant rhubarb from China, native lady's slipper orchids and, hidden away, trillium from the USA. A visit to the Alpinum is like entering a parallel universe. Klaus Oetjen has been running the garden for eleven years now. With great success: "Around 40 per cent of visitors in summer come here because of the garden." It has even been known for guests to postpone their holiday on the Schatzalp for a few weeks because the delphinium is not yet in bloom.

The historic part of the garden around today's Hotel Schatzalp was created in 1907, the two hectares above the art nouveau-style building date back to the 1970s, when an avalanche destroyed the woods. Klaus Oetjen first came to the Schatzalp in 1984. "At the time, I thought: 'I could live here' – but the garden was a disaster," says the German. The sanatorium eventually went bankrupt and the Friends of the Botanic Garden association took over the care of the garden, which then became wild and overgrown – a stroke of luck in terms of biodiversity. When Oetjen gave up his business in Germany, he received an offer from Davos. The sanatorium, which had long since been turned into a hotel, was under new ownership – and they wanted Klaus Oetjen. At first, Switzerland had no chance. But initial talks with the new owners soon made it clear that both parties were on the same wavelength.

The art of gardening is not the same as garden art
Today, the Alpinum is more than just a garden. It is also an expression of the philosophy shared by Klaus Oetjen and the Schatzalp: "The aim is to create a connection between hotel and garden." And so visitors can now enjoy a five-course meal after going on a guided tour of the herb garden. Oetjen is convinced that everyone who comes up the mountain is looking for a combination of nature, plants and good food. "Our visitors want to slow down, relax and dig deep." However, Klaus Oetjen is fully aware that his garden does not represent nature in its purest form: "A garden means culture: this fundamental truth is evident wherever you look here." This contrast seems to appeal to the gardener. He says things like: "The art of gardening is a closed, functioning cover of vegetation. Anything else is garden art." Klaus Oetjen is an advocate of species-appropriate garden design and plant propagation – and he would like both the hotel guests and visitors who attend his guided tours on Wednesdays to understand his philosophy. If need be, he's not afraid to use provocation now and again to achieve the desired learning effect. For example, when visitors complain about neophytes, plant species that are not native to the area and that sometimes crowd out the native flora: "Ok, so now we'll have to banish edelweiss from the Alps." Because it originally comes from India.

On the subject of edelweiss: the Schatzalp has a number of different focal points. The mountain flower is just one of these. According to Oetjen, around 80 species, varieties and types of edelweiss grow here, making it one of the world's largest collections. Visitors will find around 5,000 different plant species and varieties in total on the Schatzalp. Unlike most botanical gardens, they are generally not grouped together by origin. "We can't afford to do that here," is all Klaus Oetjen has to say as he points out that he currently tends the five hectares alone with the help of just one other employee and two part-time workers. Instead, the master gardener concentrates on plants from all around the world – so long as they grow at alpine or montane level. "The greatest diversity is to be found at montane level as the plants grow under very similar conditions worldwide." Elevation above sea level is only one factor that determines how the levels are classified: "A plant that grows at 2,000 metres in Nepal is by no means winter-hardy. Nepal lies on the same line of latitude as Florida. Therefore, plants in Nepal are only hardy if the grow at 3,500 metres or higher."

Three questions for each little plant
That's exactly what Klaus Oetjen means by "species-appropriate garden design". He doesn't show what is (theoretically) possible. He shows reality, as it is found at 1,800 metres above sea level. To find out as much as he can about the reality of a plant, he begins by asking it three questions: What are you called? Where do you grow? What does your habitat look like? Then he listens carefully. So that he knows exactly where in the Alpinum the plant will feel most at home. Only then does a plant end up, for example, in a bed whose soil has a neutral pH value that is sheltered from the wind by the hotel and enjoys a little of the warmth that is reflected back off the hotel walls. Or a South African thistle that he has picked himself is placed very close to a poisonous wolf's bane, which grows widely throughout South and Central America. On the subject of poisonous plants: here too, Klaus Oetjen can be emotional and pointed. If guests rant about poisonous plants, he loses no time in reminding them that most of these plants are also medicinal. They are only dangerous if you don't know about them: "There's a right time for everything as we grow up," he explains. "If I tell four year olds that this plant is poisonous, they remember what I've said and pass on this knowledge. If I talk to young adults about the same plant, someone makes a stupid remark and they all forget about it again."

Klaus Oetjen makes us aware of what we seem to have forgotten a long time ago. He uses simple examples to demonstrate that in nature – as in life – it is always a question of balance. Of the fight for survival that plants are engaged in too. Only so slowly that we barely even notice. He takes plants seriously, and both nature and culture along with them: "I want to make myself heard. Be an advocate for plants." For Klaus Oetjen, every day spent on the Schatzalp is a kind of adventure. When the seeds of the giant rhubarb he gathered in Tibet finally start to sprout and the hybrid he has crossbred himself blooms in two colours. "That's my definition of happiness," he says before hanging up a sign marked 'Private' and disappearing into his garden where the forest strawberries are waiting.