If a garden in the East german Elbe lowlands deserves to be called a „green oasis“, then it is the Saxdorf parish garden. On narrow paths you walk between plants of all heights like in a jungle, everywhere it is green and blooming. Roses of all kinds and different origins, bamboo, honeysuckle, which climbs up the barn gable to the roof, a cactus grove, pine and old apple trees, a cedar … there is much to discover and is a delight for the eyes …
Culture and garden art for 50 years – in Saxdorf parish garden
Where is Saxdorf?
This question is all too justified. If I hadn’t heard about it through friends, I would never have thought of getting on my bike, taking the ferry across the Elbe river in Belgern and pedaling the few kilometers to southern Brandenburg to explore this small village with about 130 inhabitants. This already outlines the location of Saxdorf to some extent: Not in Saxony, as the name suggests, but in the east German Elbe-Elster district – a few kilometers east of the Elbe River in southern Brandenburg. The next bigger places are Falkenberg/ Elster, known as an important railroad junction and about 10km north of Saxdorf, as well as Mühlberg at the Elbe about 10km south, where Brandenburg touches and even „crosses“ the Elbe for a few meters. Because at Mühlberg/ Elbe there is a Brandenburg Elbe bridge, which connects a tiny uninhabited west elbian exclave with the rest of this country.
Saxdorf can also be reached in Brandenburg’s network of bike paths, though all of them are almost without exception along smaller roads rather than separate bike paths. In the town Bad Liebenwerda is a Brandenburg bike path node further east.
The first impression – church and cemetery
Small and idyllic one could call Saxdorf, but not very spectacular. On the railroad line, which now runs past Saxdorf without stopping, the first thing you notice when approaching from the west is an old large storehouse building, which has its best days behind it. Still, a piece of industrial architecture worth seeing, which has unfortunately often been torn down elsewhere.
In Saxdorf itself, the path along the main street inevitably leads to the village church, which stands in the middle of the cemetery. The main street winds in an arc around the cemetery, church and parish garden, which clearly form the center of Saxdorf. Curious, I directed my first steps around the small but handsome church building. It is a single-nave brick church with a roof tower in the west and apse in the east, which, just because it is so small, spreads coziness. The tower, tapered to an octagon above the ridge of the church and equipped with „lantern“, is wooden boarded. In its surroundings, pellets on the ground indicate a settlement by owls.
To the right of the entrance door, which provides access in the middle of the nave from south, a stone cross is hidden under shrubs. This already hints at the concept of the parish garden – there, too, lush shrubs and herbs hold many a surprise.
Next to the apse are two stone columns, still quite new, with the names Hanspeter Bethke and Karl Heinrich Zahn. The one artist, the other for decades village priest in Saxdorf, they were the founders and designers of the parish garden and the cultural summer in the village. Both died only in recent years.
South of the church, the rectory and the parish garden are hidden behind a hedge growing freely. The mysterious atmosphere seems to have already taken hold here. Curious, I make my way from the cemetery and the church to the Saxdorf parish garden.
The Saxdorf garden
An abundance in blossoms and forms
Once around the corner, I am now standing in front of the gate to the parish garden. All is quiet, I am obviously the only visitor. After all, it is the middle of the week. That there is more activity on weekends is indicated by the abundance of tables and chairs in the courtyard of the rectory – space for larger groups. I had been told that there sometimes whole coaches drive up and numerous weekend – excursionists visit the garden.
A sign indicates the entrance fee – 5€ into the „cash box of trust„, an old blue mailbox at the rectory. Then my exploration begins. Behind the rectory begin narrow paths, partly laid with irregular natural stones, partly just lawn. And already I am standing in the middle of the green. Roses grow everywhere, on some I find beautiful blossoms in various shapes and shades of color.
On other canes already hang rose hips, even if still somewhat unripe. And even these are not just rose hips like in the picture book, but colored from orange to deep red, sometimes thick and round, sometimes more elongated like a trumpet or a funnel… Tall trees provide shady places. The dominant sound in the Saxdorf parish garden this afternoon is the cooing of pigeons, which sit mainly in the conifers. In between wing beating, a short swing and already some have moved over to the barn roof.
Cacti like in Mexico
Behind the barn under a corrugated plastic roof I discover the cactus hill. Different sandstones form the borders for more or less large sandy soils, from which the spiny fruit bodies rise. Seen from close up, one could think to be somewhere in Mexico. A few of the cacti stretch up their long funnel-shaped flowers in red and yellow. Somewhere in between there is also a stone figure – is it really Indian?
Now I explore one path after the other. Mostly I move over soft grass, which is very pleasant to walk. An abundance of shrubs limits the view and makes it exciting to continue – around every corner a new surprise might appear. Now in August, of course, the time of early bloom is over, but there are still many different flowers to discover. Greenery provides the backdrop for a diverse array of colors and shapes.
Everywhere, small seating areas invite you to linger and enjoy. Sometimes they are garden chairs, but often they are sandstone benches (all with warmer wooden supports). An arbor construction of robinia wood, lushly overgrown, also forms a seating area. In some places there are tables, once even a millstone on stone column as a garden table.
Bamboo as a plant and design material
Bamboo is another plant species, which comes into play. Both as bamboo – thicket as well as processed as a design element in the form of wattle walls, bamboo rods – gate or cladding for rainwater barrels. The bamboo spectabilis is here a giant of about 8m height. In some years the bamboo in Saxdorf has even given occasion for an event in August – as a „bamboo festival“.
Statisticians are said to have counted over 3000 different plant species in the Saxdorf parish garden. Among them are many exotics from all over the world. As numerous as the plants are, so diverse are the colors and shapes. It is worth taking a closer look. About 300 species of roses alone are hiding among the many other shrubs. Most of the roses are labeled with their names and origins. Some have traveled far – from the USA or Australia, for example. Some, however, are probably in Saxdorf at the place of their origin. The artist Hanspeter Bethke has passionately planted, cared for and also bred roses, and so there is some variety with the origin parish garden Saxdorf.
How did the Saxdorf parish garden come into being?
In the past, to each village belonged the church and the parish, so also in Saxdorf. Besides the pub, i.e. the village pub, the church was the cultural center and a meeting place for the inhabitants. The village priests lived in the parsonage next to the church and usually the parsonage property included a barn and garden. There, the parish priests could grow vegetables for their own use and thus be largely self-sufficient.
A new pastor and an artist
In 1967, the young pastor Karl Heinrich Zahn took up the pastorate in east german Saxdorf. Already in Halle (Saale) he had met the artist Hanspeter Bethke, who was only a few years older. The latter was enthusiastic about the Saxdorf complex with its church, rectory and large garden and from then on came regularly to visit. Throughout the summer, the two began to redesign the garden. For Bethke, the flowers in their diversity were always a stimulus for his painting – he began to shape the garden landscape in the warm season, and in the winter months he drew on the summer’s blaze of color in his artistic work.
The pastor Zahn developed quite incidentally to the collector of various artifacts on the dumps in the southern regions of the GDR – especially from discarded sandstone – components. From planting bowls, e.g. on the cactus hill, to bed edgings, benches and border columns, the many sandstone elements in the Saxdorf parish garden are collector’s items of Pastor Zahn.
Summer events in an Oasis in the GDR
In addition to the love of garden design, the church in Saxdorf as well as the parish garden became a concert venue at an early stage. Since 1974, pastors and artists invited musicians to summer plein air days in the rectory and offered a independent space for musical creativity in the communist GDR. At the end of the creative music week, there were concerts in the church, which soon attracted an ever-growing audience and became very popular. These concert offerings developed into the Saxdorf Music Summer, where to this day artists from the Saxon Philharmonic, Dresden vocalists, the Leipzig Chamber Choir and a number of prominent solo artists perform in Saxdorf fore a wide audience.
Stage for music and art up today
While Saxdorf was a green cultural oasis in the GDR and an insider’s tip for high-quality events, today the culture summer – program is part of the Brandenburg broadcast – concert summer, of concerts of the German radio broadcast or stage place of readings of popular and less known authors.
Already at the beginning of the 90s the Saxdorf parish garden with its offers was put on a broader basis. In the meantime, the Kunst- und Kultursommer Saxdorf e.V., a public assocciation, is the operator, so that a future of the Saxdorf parish garden as a special garden and cultural oasis seems to be secured.
This is also good, because the two founders and designers of the parish garden have since passed away – the artist Hanspeter Bethke in 2018 and the pastor Karl – Heinrich Zahn in 2021.
What else is there to see in the Saxdorf parish garden?
Newly built a gallery café – the music pavilion, a low building with pergola and two largely glazed window sides. As far as I could see, also with green roof. The pergola, over which climbing plants entwine, and the shrubs in the surrounding area make this building blend unobtrusively and harmoniously into its surroundings. The gallery café serves on the one hand to entertain larger groups of visitors and on the other hand as a rain-proof venue for cultural events. In front of it is the courtyard of the rectory with the already mentioned outdoor seating.
Since Easter 2022 the Saxdorf parish garden has also a new permanent exhibition „Peter’s Garden“. This exhibition was set up in the rectory, where you can learn about the development of the parish garden and the summer of culture, pay tribute to the founders and show works of art by Hanspeter Bethke in changing arrangements. This exhibition area is only open on weekends from 10 am to 5 pm. Incidentally, the title Peter’s Garden not only refers to the name of the garden designer Hanspeter Bethke, but is also a song cycle by the Dutch composer Burkhardt Söll and was performed again at the opening in Saxdorf.
The Saxdorf Summer of Art and Culture organizes a monthly cultural event in the parish garden or in the church during the summer season from about March to October. In addition, there is a yearly program in each case. These are far more than just classical concerts, but also, for example, 2022 a jazz-pop – concert, a puppet theater – performance (on 24 September 22, 15:00) as part of the international puppet theater festival or a reading with music. Variety is therefore guaranteed not only in terms of plants, but also culture in the garden.
Small but worth seeing is the church Saxdorf next to the parish garden, a late Romanesque hall building from the 13th century. Unfortunately, I have not yet found an access mode to it (except perhaps in the context of the garden tours, which take place on request). In the church, medieval frescoes and remains of ornamental painting in the apse were already discovered during restoration work initiated by Pastor Zahn in the 1970s.
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Visiting tips for the Saxdorf parish garden
How to get there:
By bike or by train and bike
You can get to Saxdorf for example by train* and bike with arrival at the train station Falkenberg/ Elster, from there it is about 10km by bike or as a hike. If you want to get a little closer, you can also take the train to Bad Liebenwerda.
If you are on the Elbe cycle path between Meißen and Wittenberg, you can make a detour from Mühlberg/ Elbe to Saxdorf (also about 10km) and then from Saxdorf via Koßdorf back to the Elbe at Stehla and Belgern (Elbe ferry). Or the other way around, if you are traveling from north to south on the Elbe cycle path.
Even those who take a short vacation in the Dahlener Heide in the west of the Elbe can cross the Elbe by bike at Belgern with the ferry and reach Saxdorf after 10 km. An alternative to crossing the Elbe in Belgern is the Elbe bridge near Mühlberg. If you are on vacation in the Elbe-Elster district in southern Brandenburg or are in Bad Liebenwerda, a spa town, for a cure, you can also take a short trip to the Saxdorf parish garden as an excursion destination.
If you are traveling by car, rented car* or motor home* it is best to orientate yourself towards Bad Liebenwerda (B 101 or B 183). Saxdorf is located a little west of Bad Liebenwerda or about 5km south of the B183, turn off at Bönitz. Please do not park directly in front of the entrance to the parish garden. Parking is available without charge in Langenriether Straße, from there it is only a few meters to the Saxdorf parish garden.
The garden weather for your visit in Saxdorf
How the weather will be today and in the next three days in the Saxdorf parish garden can be seen in the overview on top.
Opening hours, entrance fees, events in Saxdorf
The Saxdorf Parish Garden is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm. However, the new exhibition „Peter’s Garden“ in the rectory is only accessible on weekends (admission 10-17 h). Thus, a visit on weekdays is limited to the outdoor areas – but it is idyllic, lonely and quiet, except for the work of the gardener.
An entrance fee of 5€ is requested, currently by dropping it in a blue mailbox at the rectory as a „cash box of trust“.
Dogs are not allowed in the Saxdorf parish garden.
Visitor groups should register in advance. Then guided tours of the garden may be possible. Guided tours can be requested from Mr. Rainer Stabroth (email@example.com).
The events within the Saxdorf Music Summer can be found on the website saxdorf.de. Of course, other ticket prices apply for events than just for visiting the garden.
The Kunst- und Kultursommer Saxdorf e.V. finances its gardener by crowdfunding. If you would like to contribute to the gardener’s salary, you can do so via the website saxdorf.de . There you will find the action button for your donation in the sidebar.