Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making Space

Here is the garden at Federal Twist from space, much thanks to Google Earth. The terrain slopes rather sharply from left to right, carrying tremendous volumes of storm runoff down to the Lockatong Creek, a large, rocky tributary of the Delaware about 1000 feet below the house. As a consequence, my garden is very wet.

The house (the brown roof is visible on the left) overlooks the garden in progress. An irregular oval path, the "great circle," partly hidden by trees and shadows on the right, delineates the central garden area, and is connected by linking paths to both ends of the house. The lower linking path is through a woodland area and is almost invisible in the photo.

When we moved to Federal Twist Road three years ago, the house was surrounded by first growth forest, about 40 years old, mostly of cedar (Juniperus virginiana). One thing was clear. Many of the cedars had to be removed to create space and light. After we cut the trees I didn't know how to define the garden in proportion to the house and surrounding forest. Then I remembered a device John Brookes recommends, and used a grid taken from the dimensions of the house to define the space. The crude drawing at the right shows the initial, and final, layout of the garden pathway using a grid based on the modular structure of the house - squares about 30 feet on each side.

This technique helped me recognize the need to remove additional trees to create more breathing room in the garden area. By giving me a firmer grasp of the spatial constraints of my land, forest-bound as it is, it also helped me understand how the garden can grow. The lower woodland path in the drawing, for example, will become the armature of a new woodland garden already begun. The back side of the "great circle" will, in the future, break through into a "cove" of open space (just visible in the photo) that curves down and away from the main garden, giving an area of privacy (mystery?) from which the house can't be seen.

The Google Earth photo looks so bleak I offer two more photos to show a real garden is actually emerging. First, a landscape shot into the "great circle."

Next, details of the evolving "wet prairie."

In a later post I'll write about garden elements that will quietly allude to the culture and history of this area - light touches, I hope, that will be so integral to the garden design only those who want to see will see.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ashley's Garden

In previous generations, gardens in the rural American South were usually vegetable gardens. Alongside this tradition, a style of more ornamental gardening developed that, of necessity, reflected an economy of frugality, if not poverty. Consider the inside-out car or tractor tire, painted white, used as an ornamental planter, or the classic bottle tree. In a very real sense these were sustainable gardens, reusing materials close at hand, with plants given by neighbors and friends.

When my niece Ashley bought a new house a few years ago, she started her own garden. She adopted the Southern vernacular, and adapted it with humor and sophistication. She made her garden a playful exploration of the cliches of Southern gardening, with bottle trees, plumbing fixtures used as planters, bright colors from hand-me-down plants, all on a ground of gravel and bark mulch. This too is a garden of ideas.

The design carries visitors gently from the entrance to restful delights at the back. It has has clearly defined rooms. First is an entrance area with a tumble down reference to a Southern pergola (echoes of Tara), with fake fluted columns topped by a roof of twigs, a plastic urn (probably from Walmart or found on a roadside) with a planting of swirling copper tubing and colored bottles, a collection of upright sticks reminiscent of bean poles, and flowing lines of logs and tree rounds suggestive of the movement of water.

In front of her blue studio, where she works on her paintings and other art projects, the second room features a bed of mostly bright annuals - actually annuals to me who live in the north - but perennials in her Oxford, Mississippi climate, and serves as the entrance to her studio.

In the large, more restful room at the back Ashley built a screen house for sitting peacefully in rainstorms or partying on hot, buggy summer nights - a new take on the southern screened porch, with an unfinished wood structure and a classic rural corrugated metal roof.

On a small site a short distance off the highway outside Oxford, Ashley's garden acknowledges the sense of place among a grove of cedars, pecans, maples, pines and beeches, and gives a traditional formula a conceptual twist that is delightful.

Friday, March 14, 2008


'Girly Gardens and Kim Wilkie links', an intriguing posting on Noel Kingsbury's blog, recently led me to ThinkinGardens, a site 'for people who want more than gardening from gardens'.

One of the joys of the Internet is the ability it gives us to make connections, meet other people with interests we share, and gain exposure to new ideas. I've been searching garden blogs for three years looking for a community that views gardening as an aesthetic practice worthy of serious attention. I have found little like this in the US. If you believe a garden can be much more than a place to feed shrubbery to deer, lounge in the sun, or grow diseased roses, or if you just like thinking about gardens (fairly common, isn't it?), go to the ThinkinGardens site and explore the contributions of an international community who want to 'rethink' the very concept of garden.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What is a Garden?

Entrance Garden at Newswalk in Brooklyn - an Urban Garden at a Former Newspaper Printing Plant

Sitting in a conference room at work yesterday, I was taken by surprise. I had been discussing upcoming proposals with three engineers. In a moment of whimsy, I said I'd rather be gardening. One of the engineers knows about my interest, and asked me what kind of gardening I do - vegetable gardening or flower gardening?

I had no answer. I don't think about my gardening in these categories. True, what I do might be called ornamental gardening, but I'm not particularly interested in flowers - color, yes; form, yes; texture, yes; plants in meaningful, stimulating groupings, yes. In my reading and thinking about my garden, I've moved far from what others view as "gardening." I hadn't realized that until I bumped up against another person's preconceptions.

I need to have a ready answer to "What kind of gardening do you do"? It's time for me to define this for myself. What drives this passion?

I'll try this.

I want to create a beautiful garden, but "beautiful" can mean many different things; it isn't a useful word.

A natural garden? That's a contradiction. A totally natural garden "in the state of nature" requires only natural processes. Human intervention, even to set things going, isn't possible.

So, a naturalistic garden? Yes, but what exactly is that? A naturalistic look or naturalistic practice? Piet Oudolf, for example, usually designs naturalistic looking plantings, but he gives careful attention to soil preparation and intends for the plantings to be maintained so plants remain where they are designed to be. His gardens require a formal process of maintenance, and consequently more regular labor. Others design gardens intended to let the plants find their most appropriate positions over time through natural processes of growth and succession, gardens that require only intermittent attention when plantings start to diverge too far from the garden's or the owner's vision.

I certainly want a visually appealing garden, one I can sit in and enjoy looking at, in different seasons, in different lighting conditions, at different times of the day. A garden with variety, yet an aesthetically coherent variety with perceptible order, rhythm, a kind of visual or kinaesthetic music. And underlying it all, a garden of plant communities in tune with place, almost perfectly suited to my soil, ecological, and site conditions and, on another level, with the history and culture of this place.

One of my guiding principles is to design the plantings, then intervene minimally. My conditions are difficult - heavy, wet clay - but I'm committed to planting without any soil "improvement" and to no use of fertilizers beyond occasional application of compost and recycled organic matter. (I will use an herbicide like Roundup for weed control, but only when necessary, and very carefully.) The existing conditions dictate what plants I can grow; I will not try to improve drainage to grow roses in what is essentially a wetland.

Which is more important to me: beauty or principle? Probably principle - it gives me enough "beauty" for satisfaction.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Rudbeckia maxima: a Plant for Wet Clay and Sun

Extraordinarily large leaves of glaucous blue, towering spires sturdy enough to outlast a winter of ice, each topped by a floppy daisy flower in mid-summer and protuberant seed cones all the way to spring: these are the chief aesthetic attributes of Rudbeckia maxima. I had read that this was a difficult plant, so I was surprised to find it flourishes in my wet clay soil in full sun.

Now I have learned that the plant originates in the piney woods and plains of Arkansas, extending through Louisiana, into Texas, and prefers plenty of moisture, sun, and heat. I may garden a thousand miles to the northeast, but I can offer this strange plant conditions similar to its native habitat. Though the rudbeckia dies completely to the ground each winter, it returns with great vigor as soon as the temperature rises. It even endures saturated clay through several months of winter.

Rudbeckia maxima's vertical form works well with many tussock grasses such as panicums and miscanthus, and its blue-grey foliage is complemented by the burnished red of Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker'.

In my garden space, surrounded by dark woods, the plant's structure and bright flowers present a stiff, colorful figure against the background of the woods.

For more details on this outstanding plant, check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Vista Lecture Series Podcasts from Gardens Illustrated: William Martin

Gardens Illustrated has published the second podcast in the Vista lecture series. This kind of thinking about gardening isn't happening anywhere I know of in the US. (If I'm wrong, please let me know.) For any of you with an interest in gardening that goes beyond the "how to" or Japanese beetle control, please listen to this lecture series - and read the book of essays edited by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens. It's available for a shamefully low price on I quote from the GI website:

"Considered something of an agent provocateur in the horticultural world, William Martin describes himself as 'an artist whose ideas find their best expression in the garden'. In his talk he considers the complex relationships between landscape, environment, culture and society as revealed in his own garden Wigandia in southern Australia. Find out more details of William Martin’s work at"

GI's description has tamed Mr. Martin, I'm afraid. He's an iconoclastic, provocative, sometimes insulting, personality, with much to say. To listen to the podcast, click this link.

To download it, go directly to the GI website.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Garden Diary: After Snow

Light snow last night, followed by light rain. Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' through an ancient weeping cherry.


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