Thursday, January 29, 2009

Garden Diary: Two Views

Looking west across what's left of the winter garden near the end of January. The first view near sunset, the second in the morning. The house is on the raised area to the right.

Changing light is one of the delights of winter. Sunset light certainly adds a lot of drama to the scene, a depth and complexity like aged wine. I can almost hear the crackling fire and the murmuring voices of imaginary storytellers as dark comes on.

It looks ragged, doesn't it? I think I need to cut it all down before I let time get away from me. I'll probably burn some too, and certainly want to do that while the ground is still frozen. Don't want to harm any emergent seedlings.

I broadcast 1.5 ounces of Lobelia siphilitica (Great Blue Lobelia) seed last weekend. I know from past experience few of those seeds - several hundred thousand I would guess - will result in viable plants in my conditions. I won't see those plants until the summer of 2010 but, added to the colonies already in place, I'll have substantial groundcover in a couple of years. The photos below show some of the lobelia seeded three years ago. (This plant volunteered after we cut down the cedars to make the garden; it appears to be native to this area.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Landscape and The Prallsville Mills

In 1720 Daniel Howell built what became the Prallsville Mills in Stockton at the confluence of the Delaware River and Wickecheoke Creek. It was one of the many water powered mills that introduced the early industrial revolution to western New Jersey. Rebuilt in the 1870s after a fire, it remained in operation until the 1950s. The superhighway of the early 19th century, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, was completed in the 1830s. It passed between the mills and the Delaware, providing transportation using barges and mule teams to move goods across the state to New York City. This was one of America's busiest navigation canals from its opening until the building of the railroad alongside it made it obsolete.

The tow path along which the mule teams, and later the railroad, traveled is visible in the lower right of the photo above.

The Delaware and Raritan Canal (foreground) and Delaware River (background)

Hamamelis virginiana (late January view) outside the mill

Knowing this is a part of understanding the landscape of this area. And how ironic it is to consider that this emblem of the early industrial revolution has come to be seen as a pastoral landscape.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rosemont Valley Winter

Our part of New Jersey has been called a piece of New England along the Delaware. Much of the farmland has been preserved and, up to now, the massive forces of suburban development have not penetrated to our rather remote part of the state.

I take great joy in driving out from the City each week, knowing about six miles from home I will cross the last remaining public covered bridge in the state, the Green Sergeant's Covered Bridge, as I enter the very small, very beautiful Rosemont Valley.

Is this what you envision when you think of New Jersey?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Garden Diary: Reading the Landscape

Faced with a blank slate (in my case a ragged woodland), how do you make a garden?

I didn't know I was doing this when I started the garden at Federal Twist, but my first task was to observe the landscape - in Dan Pearson's words (listen to his Vista podcast), to learn to read the landscape - the feelings evoked by the site, the physical characteristics of the site, and the culture and history of the landscape.

This is a humble landscape: woods on a slope, no distant views, no big sky, a pocket of cedars within an older forest of beeches, hickory, maple, ash, ironwood and tulip poplars - a small, quiet place with no notable distinction other than long rows of stone running throughout the woods, physical reminders of past lives here.

The house, encircled by woods on all sides, was elevated about 10 feet above the surrounding land on a man-made mound. The emotional tone of the landscape was one, not so much of peace as isolation. The surrounding woodland, mainly cedar (Juniperus virginiana), came right up to the house. Though the space was open to the woods all around, there was a sense of enclosure, with little sky visible, and of neglect, perhaps dereliction, lent by fallen, unkempt cedars and, immediately next to the house, several dying cherry trees that were obviously inappropriate to the place. There was a lonely feel about the landscape, no other houses to be seen, no views out.

The Physical Landscape
The house had been built on a gentle slope in the first ridge of hills above the Delaware River, a gentle but steep enough slope to be easily visible and to promote rapid storm water runoff. The water treatment (septic) system was in a highly visible location, but fortunately most of it was underground.

It was clear this was not a promising place for a garden. I was determined to find a way to make one, though I wasn't sure how. Long stone rows, probably made by farmers in the 18th century, lined the property on three sides. I liked the historical reference they provided and their visual effect, separating us from the surrounding woods. I would later come to appreciate a ready source of native stone for making dry laid stone walls.

The house was also an important component of the landscape. Elevated as it was, to give a view long ago obscured by tree growth, it was visible from all points, at least in partial view.

A mid-century house (see before and after above), with a low, simple profile, and a wall of windows facing the area to become the main garden, it had wide eaves suggestive of Japanese architecture and a modernist look that I knew would dictate stylistic choices when I began planning what kind of garden I would have. Fortunately the architect, William Hunt, had given consideration to the location, and designed a structure that had minimal visual impact on the surroundings.

The Cultural and Historical Landscape
When Dan Pearson talks of reading the landscape, he describes it as something he does quickly, in an hour or a day. I took much longer. Over time I began to speculate on the lives of the former inhabitants of the land, the early European settlers, the native Americans, the lives of the owners and operators of the 18th and 19th century mills that took their power for grinding grain and cutting timber from the Lockatong Creek a quarter mile below the house.

These imagined memories of the past came to posses their own power and to influence my understanding of the landscape. Some of that uneasiness, that derelict quality I felt on my first visits to Federal Twist, something unfinished or unknown about the place, became part of those thoughts about the past, and remained a background to the garden as it developed, always there though quietly and invisibly.

Making Changes
I understood we would have to clear a large area of the cedars to have any open space for a garden. This was appropriate because cedars are not typical of the surrounding forest. They are a part of the early forest succession, one of the first tree species to move in as open field begins the process of changing into forest. I would simply be returning a part of the land to an earlier state. Below is a photo of a corner of the garden following tree removal. Dogwoods near the house are just coming into bloom, and a stone row is visible at the edge of the property.

Early photographs of the house left by the original owners confirmed this fact, and showed me the importance of historical documentation. Their view in the mid-1960s was of an open field dotted with pretty, very small cedar "shrubs."

Misreading the Landscape
At the time we first saw the house and decided to buy it, we were having a very wet autumn. Of special concern to us was the water treatment system, particularly the drainage field where waste water seeps out through an underground network of pipes into the earth. At that time, the drainage field appeared to be totally saturated with water.

I initially assumed this drainage field, which had to be incorporated into the garden area, would be the wettest part of the garden. That turned out to be entirely wrong. My initial observations occurred during a period of unusually heavy rains, so the very wet conditions were, in fact, transient. This is actually the driest part of the garden because it is underlain with stone and rock placed there as part of the drainage system design. Below is an autumn photo of a planting over the drainage field.

In fact, the land there is so dry, compared to the rest of the garden, I intend to plant colonies of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccafolium) this spring - a plant I've wanted to grow for its visual structure and texture but have feared to try since I may lose it. I'm taking a risk, because the area is totally saturated during periods of heavy rain. But isn't gardening about hope?

Moving from Hydrology to Metaphor and Design
The thought of drainage isn't one that warms most gardeners' hearts. It's a utilitarian issue that must be dealt with only when there's trouble. But for me it turned out to be the heart of the garden. It was immediately apparent to me that our land was, by legal definition a wetland, but at first I didn't understand that the flow of water over the land had in fact been a principal factor in creating the landscape as I saw it, and would define the landscape of the garden as it evolved.

Building the house on what in effect is a large earthen dam was a dramatic environmental intervention in the mid-60s. Now, over 40 years later, it is clear the wetland areas at the sides of the house and behind it were created by this intervention. Water, no longer able to flow directly down the slope to the creek at the bottom of our little valley, is diverted around the house and accumulates at the back. The house and its earth pedestal, being at higher elevation, quickly shed rain water, which joins the flow coming around the house to "supercharge" the back area - in fact, the site of the garden. Impermeable stone layers under the soil surface prevent percolation of water into the ground, leading to total saturation of the soil for long periods.

Observing the flow of water over time, I came to understand the entire garden would be shaped by it, that the garden was essentially becoming a metaphor for the flow of water over the land.

Other features of the garden followed from this reading of the landscape. I placed the canal-like pond to emulate a natural depression that might have been eroded by water flowing in a curve around the end of the house.

The curves of nearby stone walls repeat the curve of the water flow and outline the garden area as it opens out behind the house.

The garden proper is like a miniature river delta (made of plants instead of water) across which the water spreads out on its way down the slope to the Lockatong Creek, thence into the Delaware River.

This metaphor of the river delta - less grandly, this motif of water flowing over land - is now guiding the decisions I make about the garden. But the early felt emotions associated with the landscape and the lives lived there are present too, in the stone walls, in my consciousness, and in parts of the garden yet to be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

I'm not an expert on garden wildlife like Shirl, but I did manage to identify one of several Yellow bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) feeding on my Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca') last weekend. Over the past few years I've noticed rows of small holes drilled into the bark of the tree. This winter the birds are working overtime, and I'm a little concerned whether the 40+ year old tree can survive the damage. You can see one row of newly drilled holes to the left of the bird's breast.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dan Pearson Vista Lecture

Dan Pearson is an extraordinary garden designer with a deep understanding of the importance of making a garden appropriate to its site. On the latest Vista lecture podcast, he talks about some of his work in Britain, but the major focus of his talk is his work on the epic Millenium Forest project in Japan. Both areas of his work share in common a primary concern with first understanding the history, use, landscape, and ecology of a site.

You would think gardeners in the US would take more interest in what is happening in the rest of the world, but there still seem to be many barriers between gardeners on this continent and those in other countries. New ideas in British gardening are particularly interesting, both for their own work, and because our common language makes the wider world of European garden design more easily available to us through them. I don't mean to exclude Australia and New Zealand, but the vast seasonal differences there, ecological differences, and totally different plants seem to make close communication even more troublesome for Americans - except for our West Coast and other areas that share Mediterranean-like climates.

Dan Pearson has established a notable body of work you will probably take an immediate liking to if you're not already familiar with him. I hope you will take the time to listen to his Vista lecture at this link. If you open a second window, you can see images of most of the gardens he talks about on his web site. The podcast is also available for free download on the iTunes site.

The question & answer session, hosted by Vista sponsors Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, is really fascinating, especially, for me, Noel Kingsbury's question about "randomized" plantings using mixtures of plants carefully selected for specific ecologies and sites, an area where the Germans and Swiss have pioneered creative approaches to highly attractive, easily maintained gardening.

Dan's book, The Garden: A Year at Home Farm, tells the story of his first large-scale garden design, which marks his emergence as one of the current masters of design in the UK. I recommend it to anyone with interest in the subject of garden design in tune with site and ecology.

By the way, Dan Pearson is the guest editor of the January issue of Gardens Illustrated magazine.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Garden Diary: Adding Structure, Adding Void

The top photo shows the remnants of the garden after several bouts of early, heavy ice. Comparing it to the second photo, taken ten weeks earlier at the height of autumn fullness (over fullness), shows the need for more open space (void) and structure.

Look closely in the lower right of the top photo and you will see an oblong outline made with a garden hose. This will become a raised planting area, built of dry laid stone wall, about four or five feet wide and 25 feet long. The planting will probably be geometric and minimal - perhaps a row of box balls. The new area will extend the void created by the pond and reflect its shape in a contrasting material.

My intent is to introduce more openness into the garden, create a spatial reference point, a sort of "home point" that will help the viewer judge size and spatial relationships, and provide more of a structural frame for the wild garden.

I'm also looking at the two photos to determine where I can introduce some evergreen elements to help carry the garden structure through the worst of the winter, and create more structure throughout the year.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Garden Walk

About 8 o'clock. It's light but the sun hasn't yet risen above the hills across the Lockatong. Intended purpose: a short walk, being with myself and the garden. The ground is frozen like iron; can't break the ice on the pond, not with this stick. The wood chip paths hold the snow, and crunch loudly under foot with a sound like fingernails scraping gently across a blackboard.

The engineer and planner keeps coming to the fore. Troubling thoughts of what that change in grade will do to the flow of water, where exactly to make that curve in the yet-to-be stone wall. It takes a discipline to turn off the noise of garden planning and just listen, be, feel. Cold, cold. Runny nose. Did I bring kleenex? Hard to believe all this life is in that hard earth; spring will come.

The rising sun is hidden in the trees. But light changes faster than I think, penetrates the trees at a low angle, opening up the woods. Cluttered trees suggest crowds of rough, rude crosses.

Few birds. The clatter of crows. This is woodpecker land, but no woodpeckers this early. Muted sounds of invisible finches.

I may as well be blind. On this frozen morning the garden is all about feeling - the cold, the hard ground, the crunch of footsteps, a few bird calls, and silence.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Philosophy of Gardens by David E. Cooper

We all - certainly most of us - take joy in observing the first golden shoots emerging in spring, in planning aesthetic improvements for our gardens, in contemplating the garden at twilight, some of us may even enjoy weeding.

I'm convinced that gardening is much more than that, that in fact it is preserving knowledge and ways of being in the world that are in danger of being lost.

This isn't a review, only a brief note to say that I just finished this not-easy-to-read-but-certainly-worth-it book by David E. Cooper, a Professor of Philosophy at Durham University in England. David Cooper was featured speaker at one of the recent Vista lectures at the Garden Museum in London. I listened to the podcast of the lecture with interest, and to the prickly, engaging question and answer following it. The book is about the meaning of gardening; why we do it.

We do it for many reasons, of course, but apparently no one has attempted a rigorous analysis of this question, at least not in the last couple of centuries. I understand I'm probably among the small minority of American garden bloggers and blog readers who might have sufficient interest in this question to read Cooper's book. I recommend it to those of you who share that interest. You may want to try the podcast first but, frankly, I found Cooper's manner of presentation a little off-putting, certainly highly academic. The book itself, though demanding, offers greater rewards.

Why do we garden? Out of context, the answer is a little bare so I make no attempt to paraphrase it, only saying this book gives answers to the question of "why The Garden is distinctive and why The Garden matters."



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