Michael White reports on a gardeners' paradise

I wasn't the obvious candidate for a weekend at Buga, otherwise known as the Bundesgartenschau: the German National Garden Festival in Munich. I'm no son of the soil; I don't like the unpleasant things you find wriggling under flowerpots; and there are good reasons why my neighbours call me the "Doctor Death" of horticulture.

I wasn't the obvious candidate for a weekend at Buga, otherwise known as the Bundesgartenschau: the German National Garden Festival in Munich. I'm no son of the soil; I don't like the unpleasant things you find wriggling under flowerpots; and there are good reasons why my neighbours call me the "Doctor Death" of horticulture.

But I do like gardens, preferably other people's. I'm devoted to the Chelsea Flower Show. And the attraction of Buga was that it could be combined with trips to other gardens around Munich. So I went. And the first thing to report is that Buga isn't a German Chelsea. No cream teas, hats, or half-forgotten quiz-show hosts posing by rhododendrons. More like Alton Towers without the thrills.

It occupies the site of Munich's former airport, which welcomed its last Lufthansa Airbus back in 1992. Accordingly, it's some way from the city centre (though accessible by U-bahn) and enormous: so huge that they lay on 3kms of cable-cars and fleets of rickshaws to get you around it.

What you see, essentially, are gardens - though they're not the showpieces of pampered perfection that Chelsea has just managed to maintain. Buga runs for five months until 9 October and has to endure three seasons and an estimated nine million visitors. There are designer gardens, but with rough edges. And they bleed off into meadows, lakes and a variety of pavilions where you can eat, listen to music and, if you're lucky, lose your children for an hour or so. But being Germany it's also educational. And somewhat earnest. Everything at Buga comes tagged with a message about understanding nature: here we have ecology, you will enjoy it, pay attention at the back there!

Much of it is given over to "cell gardens", designed to look from the air (the cable-cars) like plant-tissue, and each a self-contained learning experience. The best involve shifts in scale and perception so that, for example, you're made to feel as small as an ant scurrying between the cracks in (giant) paving-stones, or a worm in a (similarly giant) bird's nest. And if you can't work out what you're supposed to be, there's always a little hut, helpfully labelled "House of Knowledge", close by to tell you. So long as you read German.

For the cranky there's the Whispering Garden where you are encouraged to get intimate with the antirrhinums, speak to them and be surprised when they speak back. And, if you take your skateboard, you can whiz around some water-features. No one could deny it: Buga tries hard.

But it tries, alas, in much the way the Millennium Dome did in its brief life. It made me feel like I was back at school, when all I wanted was to look at pretty things and be entranced.

Entrancement came more easily the next day when we went to Nymphenburg: the public gardens in a part of Munich that is one of the most civilised suburban environments I know. Villas flank a long tree-lined canal that eventually opens out into vast, circular terrain that was the Wittelsbach family's response to Versailles when they ruled Bavaria. An immaculate formality of statues, waterworks and lawns, it's flanked at the far edges by the mansions of the Wittelsbach advisers/courtiers/ministers; and straight ahead is the Nymphenburg Palace - a delicate confection of baroque grace, perfectly proportioned, and a joy. If heaven lived up to the promise of this grand but not intimidating space (the Germans never quite relinquish the ideal of cosiness: Gemütlichkeit) you couldn't fault it.

And here's the wonderful secret of Nymphenburg: you simply walk through a tunnel under the palace, and you're in the gardens. Free in every sense. They're just as big and broad and open as the space behind you. And as before, the formal layout of the waterworks and statues is somehow softened into serenity by the calm, unemphatic design of it all.

We got there fairly early on a sunny Saturday before the tourist buses arrived, sharing the gravel paths with the haute-bourgeoisie of Munich walking their dogs to the sound of distant bells, practising for Sunday. We wandered off-gravel into what the Germans call the English Gardens. English here means charmingly disorganised, wie Natur; which is to say, like Hampstead Heath. But Hampstead isn't dotted with exquisite baroque pleasure-dromes like the Wittelsbach's fantasy hunting-lodge, the Amalienburg, or the equally fantastic baroque bath-house where family members used to disport themselves like mermaids. You can see why so many of them went mad. Ludwig II - who built the castles, fell in love with Wagner, and ended up floating face-down in Lake Starnberg - was born at Nymphenburg. And so, I think, was his aunt who believed herself to have swallowed a grand piano and ended her days in secure accommodation.

You can walk straight through from Nymphenburg to Munich's prized Botanic Gardens, where we were shown around by Bert: a plantsman with horny hands and a walrus moustache who liked doing English-language tours because he trained at Kew and had a South African wife he didn't see too often. She worked in a satellite department of the Gardens at the top of a mountain in the Bavarian alps. It is open to the public, but to get there involves a train ride followed by a three-hour walk. Some people stay overnight. Bert's wife stays for weeks at a time.

The Alpine Garden is a must, said Bert, for anyone who likes exotica. But frankly there's enough exotica in the Botanic Gardens proper: not least, according to Bert, at their night-openings when people come to see nocturnal plants but also for less horticultural pursuits. "It can be very romantic here under the stars," said Bert, "and things sometimes get out of hand. I have to go round with a torch."

The Germans of course like fresh air. But one of the big horticultural differences between them and us is that not so many of them have private spaces to cultivate. In towns they tend to live in flats; in villages they tend not to fence off plots; the result is allotment gardens which, in Germany, go further than the British model of a patch of cabbages and a decrepit shed. They organise them like a park, with winding paths and landscaping, elaborate chalet-houses and (oh dear, the stereotype again) an awful lot of rules.

We went to one of Munich's best allotment parks on Nestroy Strasse - open to the public - where a genial but firm man spent an hour explaining the rules, in determined, loving detail. I decided I'd be happy with the cabbages and the shed.

Give Me The Facts

How to get there British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) offers flights from Heathrow to Munich from around £100 return.

Where to stay Brightwater Holidays (01334 657155; www.brightwaterholidays.com) runs a three-nighttour of Munich's gardens leaving on 18 August for £375 a person, based on two sharing. Flights, transfers, b&b and entrance fees are included.

Further information Buga ( www.buga05.de) and German Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.co.uk)

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