Sunday, August 28, 2011

Garden Diary: All changed, changed utterly

I don't mean to belittle the seriousness of William Butler Yeats' line from his poem Easter 1916, but the violence with which Hurricane Irene's big winds tore our huge mulberry tree from the ground last night, and the thoughts I have looking at its image (sent by a kind tenant), do recall something of the tumultuous event that poem refers to.

We're in New England just starting vacation and now will turn back to deal with this surprise. Just a reminder, this is, of the fragility of the skein of imagination, in this case, insubstantial thoughts about a new city garden for our house in Brooklyn. My post of only three days ago was about the certainty of a new shade garden there.

Now it appears we will have quite a sunny garden, certainly much more sunlight than I ever anticipated. But I get ahead of myself. I won't know until I observe the sunlight for several days, after all the cleanup.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Garden Diary: Growing older in the garden ... a little navel gazing

Ah, the changes that come with age...

It's a subject that should be of interest to everyone since we all will grow old some day. I admit it's a subject I'd rather not think about, but living in the country where a visit to the grocery means a 20-mile round trip in the car makes city living seem a prudent alternative. We're fortunate to have both, and to be able to adapt to future conditions as necessary, having both a country house on Federal Twist Road and a city house in Brooklyn.

We're also thinking we should maximize rental income on our Brooklyn house as we move into retirement, so have made plans to enlarge the garden apartment and move there (probably a wise option if the "Tea Party" types manage to wreck the American economy.)

What this introduces into my life is a new city garden.

The new room we're adding, shown on the left in the plan below, will have twelve feet of glass windows and doors looking out onto what is now a derelict back yard. Thus, the need for a new garden--something to look at, for a start, and a real garden where I can do what is done in gardens. It will certainly be very different from the country garden at Federal Twist.

This is the view out back today. The tree is a Mulberry that, fortunately, never fruits. An arborist we had look at it about ten years back speculated that it might be one of the largest Mulberries on the eastern coast of the US. It's probably 80 feet tall and I'm guessing it may have been growing here when our house was built over 140 years ago.

Someday it will have to be removed. Can you imagine the cost of cutting up this monster and moving it out through the house?

So we'll have a shade garden. I've sprayed the plant growth with a glyphosate herbicide in an attempt to clear the ground. I'm not too worried about that right now because building the new foundation and adding a room will be terribly destructive. We'll have to wait for construction to end, let the air clear, and see what we're left with.

We certainly will need an attractive, new fence. And a plan for the garden. I'm thinking about gravel paving with clustered bluestone. We have over 200 square feet of it, some of which you can see sinking into the ground below. Until recently, this was a tenant's garden. He kept it up rather well. but once he lost interest, it quickly became overgrown and reverted to the mess you see now.

The back of the house is not attractive, but imagine a 16-foot-deep room added at ground level, new surfaces, new colors. The addition will leave a 20- by 40-foot garden space. Small understory trees will be essential for privacy. And I'm thinking about using bamboo on the right side to screen a neighboring house with four stories of terraces  ... probably clumping bamboo ... but perhaps a beautiful, tall running bamboo, if I can bare the expense of a liner to contain it. (I need a bamboo expert. Know one?)

The back wall of the existing house and new extension will have to be painted in colors complementary to the garden to be. Something warm, not this cold, bluish-grey.

The neighbor on the right (the house with overlooking terraces) has many trees, casting our plot into shade. That, added to the high canopy of the massive Mulberry, makes it impossible to think about any but an all shade garden.

I've been mulling over what to do for the last few months. This is my initial sketch. It may, or may not, become a reality. I really have to evaluate the space remaining after the construction ends, probably in November. But here is food for thought. I'm also considering hiring a professional for some "coaching" and to do phased, finished plans.

I recently read Dan Pearson's Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City. Though I'm in no way trying to imitate Dan's former Peckham garden in London, his book has been present in my mind as I think about my own urban garden and what I want from it. On first thought, for example, I might have made a sitting area close to the house. But I remembered Dan's writing about how important it had been for him to make a decked area out in the garden, away from the house, to pull people out into the garden, and make a setting where they could enjoy being "in" the garden, not at its edge. So I've used a deck for a sitting out area, toward the back of the garden. It would be surrounded by large-leaved plants that give visual interest, interesting scale, and a sense of shelter.

Though it gets lost in the bus-y-ness of the sketch, the small rectangular pool will be the heart of the garden. I'm imagining a still, tranquil, reflective surface, at grade, with no fountain or flowing water. An edging of bluestone, the historically appropriate material for brownstone Brooklyn. Frogs, or perhaps goldfish, will control mosquitoes.

I'm also thinking about plants, just to get the juices flowing. Decisions will come later. Here is the rapidly morphing, rather random, list:

Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'
Astilboides tabularis
Bamboo (clumping but upright)
Darmera peltata
Grasses: Chasmanthium latifolium, Hakonechloa macra,etc.
Galium odoratum
Hedera helex
Hydrangea arborescens
Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
Kirengeshoma palmata
Ligularia japonica
Ligularia Othello
Parthenocisus henryana
Schizophragma hydrangeoides
Tetrapanax paperyfera (if it survives in Brooklyn, which theoretically is in Zone 7)
Trycirtis, other tall spiky things for shade

Perhaps a shady spot for rocks and a small moss garden ...

(Just possibilities ... do you have others to suggest?)

It will be an intimate space. Nothing like this.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Garden Diary: After Rain

I've always thought one of the of the disadvantages of a herbaceous perennial--or prairie--garden is the aftermath of heavy rain, especially late in the season. Grasses tend to be flattened and splayed in most ungraceful shapes, and the tall perennials lean precariously. Some will recover when the sun comes out, some won't.

This is the Garden at Federal Twist after several inches of overnight rain.

It looks better from a distance. Blurring gives it an impressionistic look. You can see an even blurrier video by clicking on the photo above (you'll also hear frogs, crickets, and the pop of lingering rain drops).

This mid-August deluge tells me fall is on the way. Increasing complexity of line (call it chaos if you will) marks the dropping away of excess growth, revealing the underlying skeletons of highly structural perennials, the start of structural failure among weaker plants, the "relaxed" forms of those that have passed their peak and are headed downhill.

Thomas Rainer of  grounded design gave me a useful concept for understanding what's happening here. Speaking of my garden, he referred to its "nice balance between legibility and intricacy." Wish I'd thought of putting it so succinctly. It's certainly something I've worked to achieve, but Thomas "got it" and gave it back in a couple of clear, concise words ... proof, if we need it, that professional designers are called "professional" for a reason. 

I think you can see that in the close-ups. Even after heavy rain, amid the complexity of the storm-tossed garden, the plants, their lines, forms, textures, colors remain legible.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Garden Diary: Yellow to Mauve, with Sound

High summer and ample rain have given me a garden almost profligate. The large prairie plants have grown even taller than in past years and spread by self-seeding into new areas. The invertebrates, the insects, appear to be thriving, usually more apparent by the sounds they make than their visibility, with healthy populations in good balance. That I had no problem with Japanese Beetles this year, only a few, I attribute to a diverse invertebrate community in equilibrium.

Angelica gigas, a honeypot for insects from Heronswood

The tall yellows continue and now they've been joined by the mauves--broad masses of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus), intense and transient deep violet of Iron Weed (Vernonia), somewhere in between a few Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya), which survive only in propitious locations, not being as successfully competitive as some of their neighbors; even my only Angelica gigas, a dark, burnished, purple-almost-brown. As these colors fade through August, the grasses have just begun to put on their late summer fireworks.

I've linked a short video of the garden to this photo. Take a look (click on the photo above), and you'll see a panning shot across the garden from the raised position of the house. This gives a good overview, but it really misrepresents the garden, which looks entirely different when you walk down into it. Looking at the video, you'd have no idea a network of rather wide gravel paths, and other smaller paths, run through the plantings. You see much more of the intricate detail only by walking through, and the rest of this post will take you on that walk.

Here are several views of the main path across the garden showing the plantings beginning to overflow the edges, a desirable state of affairs to my thinking.

Vernonia, Eryngium yuccafolium, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai', Silphium terebinthinaceum, Rudbeckia maxima, Physostegia virginica, Panicum, Hemerocallis crowd the path edges.

This isn't planned color, and I make no excuses for it. My interest is line, mass, form, movement, visual tone in the sense of emotion more than color. Above, the tall Rudbeckia maxima on the left, fluffy aging flower heads of Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) below it contrasting with the sword-like leaves of the early spring Iris pseudocorus, then a bunch of Joe Pye Weed, which really is much more colorful than this photo shows, and Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) on the right, all softened by the gauzy screen of flowering Switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah').

Further down, form, texture, and the enormous variations of green make an entirely different effect, less impressionistic, more literal in a comic sort of way. Paddle-shaped leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) make a busy show of themselves against a background of now silver Mountain Mint (Pycnantheum muticum) and Panicum 'Dallas Blues'.

I want masses of white Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginica 'Miss Manners', above) and have more growing on for planting after the weather cools. My goal is to treat the Pycnantheum and Physostegia as a groundcover, and spike it here and there with red to orange Daylilies (Hemerocallis). I suppose I'm more a creature of fashion than I'd like to think, and have unconsciously absorbed a liking for hot colors--though it's not just a matter of fashion; in my intensely green garden, the spots of brilliant color add a pleasing depth and complexity, passion smoldering in dark recesses.

You might think they would clash with the very different color scheme of the garden as a whole but, because their blossoms tend to occur in isolated spots, and are highly transient, they don't. Hemerocallis also seem to do well in a highly competitive garden environment, and the other plants hide their tattered, unattractive foliage after the blossoms pass.

On to the sound part of this post's title ...  All these plants attract hordes of insects, and their movements and sounds are entertaining and stimulating, sensuously and intellectually. At this time of year, these "incidental" insect performances happen against the constant roar of cicadas emanating from the wall of woods surrounding the garden. The sounds come in rhythmic waves, as the insects answer one another. And the night sounds, of course, choruses of frogs serenading. 

The audible landscape is like a separate world ... one I can't understand at all but perhaps understanding isn't necessary. You can just give yourself over to the sound, "rest" in it like a giant sonic cushion of vibrant air.

About eight feet off the main path Marc Rosenquist's sculpture, though not mauve or purple, certainly associates easily with those colors. These daylilies are the last to bloom of about fifteen planted throughout the middle of the garden. You see them from one angle and ...

... from another you don't. Again, a demonstration of the need to walk around to see the plants from various points of view.

The pathway across the middle of the garden. Another way to get up close to the plants. I'm adding yet another, less obvious path branching off from the left of this area to make it possible to get deep within the plantings.

A European grass, Molinia caerulea 'Skyracer', with tall, delicate flower stalks, crowds the entrance path, so close it touches you, but so light and airy you don't mind a little crowding (well, some do).

Last weekend we added this small new entry path on the opposite side near the house. We put it in by violent means, just digging across trying avoid established plants. I don't really like it; it's too neat and tidy. The edges need to be muddied and planted, and some larger plants will have to be moved next spring. Then, perhaps it will look a part of the garden.

This is the view up toward the house from the new small path ...

... and here a glance off to the side.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

High Line: Urban Theater in the Garden

"In clinical psychology, voyeurism is the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, sexual activity, or other activity usually considered to be of a private nature. In popular imagination the term is used in a more general sense to refer to someone who habitually observes others without their knowledge, with no necessary implication of sexual interest. Voyeurism (from the French voyeur, "one who looks") can take several forms, but its principal characteristic is that the voyeur does not normally relate directly with the subject of their interest, who is often unaware of being observed." - definition of voyeurism, Wikipedia 

The opening of the High Line's Section 2 prompted me to make a visit in early June. My previous visits have been on tranquil, cool, breezy days, near sunset, and my response to the garden was almost a spiritual one, like an epiphany. I was curious to see if the time of day, the beautiful light, was the cause of that response. The day I chose was very hot and humid, and I went at noon.

The High Line starts in the "cheek by jowl" Meat Market district. Hard to believe such a sublime experience has its origin in this hard edged, urban neighborhood.

But first, some preliminaries. This time I visited the garden alone, and being alone allowed me to focus on the plantings and the experience of the High Line in a way I hadn't done before.

The "hanging gardens of Gansevoort Street" seem rather incongruous in this setting. But once you go up the stairs, you're in another world, meaning not natural at all, a theatrical creation of great artifice (and artistry).

The entry stairs make you look at the sky, and at the striking building of the Standard Hotel, which, cleft down the middle, with its arms folded toward you, draws you up.

Once on the upper level, the swank materials and finishes tell you you've clearly entered into a highly "designed" landscape, a sophisticated world in dramatic contrast to the gritty streets below. How ironic that the High Line, which bills itself as bringing nature into the city is, in fact, an extremely artificial construct. This is not a negative attribute.

As soon as you reach the top of the stairs, the plantings announce a profound change from the nether world of the street below. To one attuned to Piet Oudolf plantings, the delights start immediately. I do wonder what others, those who don't know who Piet Oudolf is and who don't particularly have an interest in plants, see. I have no idea.

The plant forms, textures, and colors play off one another, setting off a pattern of seeing that is reinforced by the design as you move along the linear park. On this visit, I was struck very powerfully by the "musicality" of the plantings. A visual theme will be introduced, perhaps two contrasting forms like the Carex and Amsonia in the image below, then that contrast will be carried on with other plants as you move along.

All the High Line plants are very much on public display. The artificiality of the situation--an expensive, well appointed yet severe platform elevated above the mundane world of the city--puts the plants on display, almost as if they were staged on a table. It's hard to avoid looking at the plants with anything less than intense concentration.

But that's not the whole story. The High Line design also makes you look at people. Again, as in a stage set, everyone is on display. Even the buildings along the line are on display, right in your face. We'll see examples of this below. Yes, there is a voyeuristic element to the delight of the High Line.

There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, that some residents of the Standard Hotel, which straddles the High Line (just visible in the upper left above), performed various lewd and lascivious acts in full view of the public when the park first opened. I don't know whether those stories are true, but the anonymity New York bestows, and the exhibitionism that anonymity makes possible, is very much a part of the experience of the High Line. Perhaps this is what accounts of the intensity of its effect on visitors.

I think this is akin to the heightened sense of awareness many feel when traveling to new places.

This lovely specimen of Red Bud (Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy') beckons for the attention of passersby almost like a harlot. (I jest, but there's some truth in the metaphor.)

And its color prepares the way, visually, for a "grove" of purple Smoke trees (Cotinus) just down the way.

This use of Cotinus is, I think, exemplary of the transformation the High Line can make in the way we see plants. I, like many gardeners, cut my purple Cotinus to the ground each spring. It gives them a much deeper color, though the bloom is lost. I've often seen Cotinus left to grow year after year in anonymous front yards and thought how ragged they look. Oddly shaped, scraggly. I've been quite critical of these plants that haven't been treated "properly."

Yet, by focusing attention just on that irregularity, that awkwardness--on the very things I normally would dislike--the High Line works a kind of transformation in the way I see. They are planted where they stand out in open space, "naked to the world" so to speak, and they are absolutely beautiful ... full of drama.

Are these people seeing and liking the Cotinus? I wish I knew. Note the people stand out even more than the plants. This, too, is part of the unique experience of the High Line--the voyeuristic focus on other people living their private lives in public. We'll see more of that below.

Speaking of voyeurism, here is a look down to the plaza area of the Standard Hotel. You can watch people from here too. And they can watch you.

And how about this thoroughly not private space? Think of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart leaning out his apartment window, watching his grotesque neighbors, and discovering something. He thinks it's murder. Remember his obsession with putting the pieces of the story together. His use of the camera (like me in this post). There, you've got it!

Not all the plantings shout at your. Some quiet musicality is going on. As you walk along the pathway, you may notice that a new plant will appear, then a little further along, several, or several groups will appear at irregular intervals, and further, perhaps a big clump or mass. These photos do not capture that, but it's one of the most moving parts of the High Line's design.

Many plants are used in similar "waves" of planting, appearing singly or a few at a time, gradually building to a crescendo, then diminishing in frequency, and all the while, other plants or combinations of plants repeat similar patterns.

As I walked the High Line on that hot summer day, I experienced something akin to a visual music, an almost abstract plant painting achieved through repetition of complex and changing patterns. It brought to mind an image of spiraling galaxies, their organization most visible at their dense, swirling centers, with dissolving arms of stars drifting off from the edges.

Like Jimmy Stewart. Putting the pieces of the story together.

The highly geometric foliage pattern of the native plant, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), calls attention to itself, particularly next to the bare gravel and hard, rust covered rails. (I think this is what the Japanese call Wabi Sabi.)

The combination of Amsonia hubrictii and Sumac above is certainly an intentional comparison of similar, yet differing, shapes and textures. This is another of those comparisons on put display for your pleasure.

The view off to 14th Street, another opportunity for "hidden" gazing at people and things.

An opportunity to lie down and take the sun, read a book, people watch--if you don't mind being watched yourself.

A flooded portion of the walkway offers a refreshing respite from the heat. A place to take off your shoes or sandals, and walk barefoot through the flowing water.

Of course, this isn't anything approaching nudity, but it is sensuous.

The shade of the Chelsea Market underpass is another way to beat the heat. It's certainly appealing to the senses, like most of the High Line, but isn't every garden supposed to appeal to the senses?

This is a garden?

Yes, an urban garden.

It's easy to see right into the offices ...

... but the vegetation provides some measure of privacy. Ha!

A male Sumac stands proud and erect.

The Northwest Spur Horticultural Preserve goes nowhere, but it's a striking artificial prairie, probably most beautiful in the fall. Here is probably as good a place as any to put the comparison of the High Line experience to voyeurism and exhibitionism in its place. These are certainly part of the defining characteristics of the High Line, as is delight in the plantings, as well as the opportunities for recreation, play, and socializing it provides.

Think back to the original garden, where Adam and Eve were happily naked, until they disobeyed the rules and gained knowledge of good and evil. Then they wanted to cover themselves. What does the High Line say about our culture? I think that is a valid question, though I'm not sure I have the answer.

A window on the world, or more accurately, 10th Avenue. Need I say more?

And next to it is this park-like setting, where a visitor can get a little shade, talk to a friend, maybe listen to her iPod.

A billboard. Can you see what it shows?

The High Line before it was the High Line. A clever juxtaposition of past and present. (But the old line shown here appears to be a section that has yet to be made part of the High Line park, a piece running east to west that would become part of Section 3, when, or if, it's built.)

We're nearing the end of Section 1 here. Section 2 is much narrower. It forces you to be closer to other visitors to the High Line. But leading into Section 2 is a prairie like area suffused with sunlight and openness, until it ends in a thicket of trees (called the Chelsea Thicket), then a new lawn.

Here is the lawn. By public demand. I don't care for it, but maybe I'll think better when the construction on the building on the right is completed. Does the High Line need to be all things to all people?

And what do we have here? Are these guys exhibitionists or just sun bathers on the grass? Am I a voyeur or just a passing stroller?

She, certainly, is taking a stylish stroll.

This striking building has a deck right up against the High Line ...

... and its owner has constructed a quite beautiful driftwood (natural material) screen to provide a bit of privacy. Privacy, who's kidding whom?

To be clear, I'm not panning the High Line. I love it. I believe most people who have visited it also love the experience. This park/garden is an extraordinarily creative endeavor that broadens the concept of what a garden can be. Though I repeatedly refer to its voyeuristic and exhibitionist meanings, I don't think those elements interfere in any way with enjoyment of the garden. History will probably tell us, if we seek it out, that these are also pleasures human beings have taken in gardens since the beginning of civilization.

People haven't changed that much!


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