Saturday, March 31, 2012

Going, going ...

The weeping cherry on our terrace is probably 47 years old this year. It's been in decline since we moved here in 2005. Because of the warm winter and spring, it's blossoming almost a full month early. This is how it looked yesterday ...

... and this is the same tree last year.

I hope this precipitous decline is temporary, possibly caused by the lack of a really cold winter, but I'd be fooling myself to think a nearly fifty-year-old cherry isn't nearing the end of its life.

Though the flowering cherry is pretty, it isn't appropriate to this place or this garden. The large Sycamore on the right is.

If the decline continues next year, it may be time to cut the cherry down.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Warfare in the garden

It may look rough, it may look bare, but this is the time of the year to see what's happening at soil level. It's easy to see which plants are competing with their neighbors, which plants may be getting the upper hand, where the problems are. Here is a sweeping view of the garden from the hydrangea "bower" (well, bower-in-progress) on the far side of the garden.

The area I'm headed for is the inside of the curve in the path, on the right side of the next photo.

Here ... though this may look a mess, gets to the heart of the kind of gardening I'm doing at Federal Twist. There isn't much open ground in my garden; I've planted to try to prevent that, using plants as a living mulch to limit undesirable self-seeding, to suppress weeds, to control how the garden grows and how the planted areas interact, to the extent that's possible.

But here I created a small piece of open ground--originally to raise the soil level so I could grow Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake master). I also wanted to try using Bergenia and a European bunch grass, Sesleria autumnalis, as groundcover. I can't say that was successful, not yet anyway, so I decided to see what I could do with seeding. I like the early umbelliferous flowers of Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) that grows along the roadsides nearby so I collected seed and scattered it here. It's the plant with lacy, carrot-like foliage, in its third year now. (Yes, this is the same plant used to put Socrates to death, so it's of alien origin.) Then Ironweed started to self-seed. And thistles, and other interlopers.

Not wanting to replace this natural mechanism entirely, wipe it out and put in some plant combination that I know will dominate and rule the area (though that option remains open), I'm letting the self-seeding continue, but managing the process by weeding out plants I find pernicious or otherwise undesirable.

Unstable and subject to continuing change as this area is, it requires management throughout the growing season. The Poison hemlock, for example, grows rapidly and blossoms in June, then promptly dies and becomes a rather unattractive, brown skeleton. I cut and remove it, and let the later blooming Eryngium and Vernonia take over the space. I'll eventually want to find a stable condition, but don't yet know what that will be. The goal will be to cover the ground with only desirable plants.

So it goes on the larger scale, though the garden as a whole is much more stable because it's full of large, dominant plants. The apparent empty spaces around the red logs isn't empty at all. I've planted several clumps of Miscanthus giganteus to screen the view of the deer fence behind and to provide a visual boundary to the garden, as well as other kinds of miscanthus, and on this side, Panicum 'Dallas Blues' and Petasites japonicus for variety of texture and color, and for the practical purpose of covering ground.

Above are the early flower spikes of a hybrid Petasites I use massed in two large areas. Not much can compete successfully with Petasites. Below are the flowers of Petasites japonicus, similar to the hybrid, but with round rather than angular leaves.

These willows, Salix sachalinensis 'Sekko', through shading and root competition, also dominate their ground.

Some other plants seem to dwell undisturbed above the competitive fray, peacefully apart from a kind of warfare that exists at ground level. Lindera benzoin (Spice bush) is one such plant. It fills the woods around here, and now as you drive along the roads or walk, you see clouds of Lindera blossoming, almost like yellow flurries of snow.

It's another kind of actor, seemingly able to adapt successfully to just about any kind of competition. If you follow the rule that there are three kinds of plants--ruderals (pioneer plants that quickly cover bare ground), competitors, and stress tolerators--this must be a stress tolerator.

Here, the field of battle.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Now you see it ...

Now you see it ...

... now you don't.

All it took was a couple of weeks of agony and $2500.

And yesterday I got a surprise from neighbor Michael of Bramble & Bean. Visiting the gardener next door, he took this birds-eye-view of my garden from the roof. It gives me hope.

Plantings will soften the rather severe geometry. Trees, already purchased, will be first--as soon as I find a way to transport them 80 miles from western New Jersey.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Judas Tree

Wherever I go, I often see notable trees that become landmarks in my life. On 17th between Irving Place and Park Avenue South once stood a venerable Mock orange (Poncirus trifoliata). I delighted in this tree for many years, usually when shopping at the Union Square Green Market. It bloomed profusely every spring, and was covered in small orange fruit each fall. Later, when I started to work in the neighborhood, the tree was cut down, possibly because its long thorns were viewed as an inconvenience. Its needless destruction was like a loss of hope. I still see it in my mind's eye whenever I pass that block.

Here is another special tree. In Rome over a decade ago, I saw this Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) on the backside of the Palatine Hill.

What was unusual was its prostrate form, the large size, and apparent age. It's more an enormous vine than a tree. This may be one for the record books. I hope someone knows something about this Cercis, and has a story to tell about it. I hope it still exists.

It was located along the Via di San Gregorio, between the Arch of Constantine and the Circus Maximus.

I imagine several million Americans visit Rome each year, so it's likely someone else has noticed this tree. Let me know if you've seen it or know anything about it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.

The following is text from the Garden Writers Association's media release about a new digital magazine ostensibly about gardening. Call me curmudgeon, call me communist, but I find this offensive.

"Lovers of the gardening lifestyle can now enjoy a marvelous new digital publication designed just for them. GIE Media has launched its first-ever consumer magazine, A Garden Life, as a free app for iPad and Android tablet platforms. The premiere issue is available for download now on iTunes/Apple Store  or get it on the Android Market.

Each issue of A Garden Life will explore and celebrate the concept of "life as a garden." GIE Media Chairman, Richard Foster, describes the magazine's mission: "To create a community of consumers with shared values and interests in lifestyle subject areas such as healthy living, that includes growing and preparing clean food, contributing to community, exploring travel and adventure, art and literature, as well as having a passion for diverse aspects of nature and gardening." GIE will publish six issues of A Garden Life in 2012 (March, May, June, July/August, September/October, November/December).

A Garden Life will also utilize the latest social media tools to stimulate active reader engagement with its editors and contributors, as well as with one another, be it across town or around the world. "Tablet mobile technology - and the social media it facilitates - can stimulate sharing of ideas through direct one-to-one connections by email and messaging, and simple tools for sharing imagery, audio and video," says Foster.

A Garden Life has a companion website ( that will offer the magazine app content to consumers who do not yet use tablet technology. The website will include deep databases of horticultural products such as perennials, annuals, succulents, grasses, trees, ornamentals and lawn and garden hard-goods items. GIE will also offer consumer readers a regular electronic newsletter of garden center product insights at no charge."

This is not my idea of a desirable gardening publication. It's intended, as they say, for the 'lovers of the gardening lifestyle' and the 'consumer readers' out there. Everything you love is now a commodity.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The garden is naked

A week after burning and cutting, the garden is naked, the dance has begun. The curvature of the stone walls and the paths of gravel and concrete make a metaphor of motion -- swirls and circles, curves in unexpected places, points of rest and turnings, almost all visible from the house.

The photos don't capture the geometry completely enough. It takes a wide look around to get the motion of the paths. It's like the movement of water -- literally -- because the paths imitate the movement of water over the surface of the land, marking its direction of flow down the gentle slope to the Lockatong Creek.

What structure the garden has is visible now. By midsummer, it will be mostly invisible. So I will enjoy it for the next few weeks as the perennial vegetation emerges. It's best on these late afternoons when the sun is low and the trees cast long shadows across the flatness, providing a subtle interplay with the dancing movement of the paths.

Clearer definition of the long pond would help bring the scene to life. Cleaning it it out would be a good start. I wonder if I can summon the energy to put on waders and stumble around the rocky bottom tomorrow. It's not a pleasant task -- cutting the dead plants below water level, then heaving the heavy wet mass out onto the water's edge. A direct participation in the experience of water, so to speak. Certainly the least enjoyable part of caring for this garden.

The path starts here, just inside the gate by the house, then winds down to a long stone wall, where the other paths branch off into the main garden field.

On the far side looking back into the setting sun, three Japanese Fan Tail willows, Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka', catch the light. I give these a heavy annual pruning to keep them looking like small trees.

This is their moment for only now do they show their vase-like form. Later in the season, they become background to the perennials.

It's hard to remember the curved area paved in concrete squares will become a secret bower in July when it will almost be hidden by the large perennial plantings.

If I had planned it at this time of year rather than when the garden was fully grown, I probably would have paid more attention to shaping the paths, especially the paved area on the right. It wasn't intended as a curve reflecting the opposite curve, only as an internal sitting area.

Such imperfections may be part of the nature of this garden. A misstep (never could dance!). Something to think about.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Garden Diary: Framing and screening

Take this cluttered photo of the Brooklyn garden, imagine a golden tree canopy softening the view out, and in your mind's eye erase the field of debris and substitute a planted garden.

Then proceed ...

Peter Holt, an artist and garden designer (and cyber friend) near Halifax, Nova Scotia, sent me this design sketch for a screen for the back (front?) of the Brooklyn garden.

I like the three-dimensional framing of the white (ethereal) Bacchus mask mounted on the back screen so as to be centered within the rectangle of the front screen. As you move around the garden, the mysterious white face will appear to change position relative to the frame edges, giving a greater sense of depth and visual focus; like a magnet, keeping one's eyes within the garden. Being on the central axis, I imagine it will be particularly effective viewed from within the house.

 And if lighted at night, quite a feature.

The varied spacing of the horizontal wooden elements should catch the sunlight in changing patterns throughout the day (similar in concept to the vertically constructed screens Emily has suggested in comments on previous posts).

There are also practical, quotidian advantages to this design ... the screen on the left will hide a composting and maintenance area, possibly even a small tool storage cabinet.

If stained slate gray, this double screen would essentially take the place of the fence at the back of the garden, lending a much more elegant, refined atmosphere than the rough boards of the fencing.

Climbers such as Hydrangea petiolaris or Schizophragma hydrangeoides could be particularly attractive against the dark color.

Question is, can I afford it?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Burning the wet prairie

We've had such a mild winter - almost no winter at all - that I was concerned my annual burning of the grassy prairie garden at Federal Twist would damage early emerging plants. In past years, burning could be done as late as the end of March. Not this year.

Grasses on the bank need to be burned before new growth emerges.
All it requires is a methodical approach, burning only one plant or group of plants at a time, a running hose nearby, proper clothing to give protection from flying ash, and stable, hard-soled shoes to allow nimble movement and a convenient method for stomping out small flames.

The same bank in flame.
Apply fire to the base of a grass using a small propane torch and in a few seconds the flames leap high and the temperature shoots up to well over a thousand degrees. That's just a guess, really, but at times I need to stand back at least 15 or 20 feet to avoid being burned. The heat is enormous and could quickly cause serious injury or worse.

Here you can see the hot gasses throwing flame into the air. You dare not let this touch you or your clothing. Fortunately, it's over in a few seconds. I definitely do not recommend the inexperienced try to do this.

It's the quickest way to clear the garden of old growth for the coming year. I finished the one acre main garden in less than two hours, then the front in about thirty minutes.

After the burning, the garden is essentially gone for a few weeks. At first it's a blackened field of debris. Now some heavy rain would be a blessing to wash the ashes into the ground.

This weekend I'll get help to cut the remaining standing remnants with a weed trimmer ...

... clean up the fallen tree limbs and branches ...

... then wait for spring to come.

That's about it for major maintenance in 2012.

Oh, there's coppicing of the willows to be done before the end of the month.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Garden Diary: Disaster strikes

The contractor installed the heating and cooling unit while we were out of town for the weekend. In violation of my instructions, he put it in the worst possible place.

Located at the same height as the doorway, next to one of two light fixtures that gave a bit of symmetry, it completely spoils the back facade.

Here's a "before" shot for reference--just to emphasize how unfortunate this is.

My only option, if it remains in this place, is to use something like trellis, vines, and a large shrub (something like a Hollywood juniper) to try to hide the thing.

I added a tall trellis panel just to see how it might be used to diminish the visual impact of the electrical conduit and mechanical piping (below), but that's only a partial solution and not one dictated by the space. And I'd have to add screening trellis, or something similar, to hide the bulk of the unit (I also have to allow three feet of open space on the facing side to assure proper operation). Any way I look at it, it's like a bandage over a large, ugly wound.

I'm so pissed at this guy I can't even talk to him right now. I'm considering having the unit relocated, possibly to the ground where I can hide it more easily, but I'm sure that will cost dearly. Note he also added a white drainage pipe on the right, carefully positioned, not to align with the fence, where it would hardly be visible, but installed where it only adds to the visual clutter.

Beware contractors. Try to be present whenever they locate anything of importance.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Garden Diary: Making and breaking the grid

Ross Hamilton sent me a link to Kate Gould's garden in last year's Chelsea Flower Show. It shows an ivy covered trellis-like affair on a concrete base with an intriguing graphic motif repeating at the bottom.

I think it's quite beautiful, and similar to the concept for a focal point I illustrated using Augustus Saint-Gauden's garden in the previous post. It also suggests a Patrick Blanc-like living wall, though in simplified form.

I said I can't draw and this proves it:  the following sketch shows my concept for the back of the garden, or perhaps I should call the back the front, since that is the view that will most often be seen.

A long panel, about five feet high and 12 or 14 feet long would provide a substantial visual stop to the garden at the end opposite the house. It also could serve the practical purpose of hiding a composting and maintenance area behind. At times, I've thought this panel might be painted red, but I'm not sure of that. Rising toward the left end, and on axis with the pool, would be a kind of trellis tower, a "shadow box" with trellis mounted in front. And that might stand on a concrete base, similar to the concrete planter in Kate Gould's Chelsea garden photo above.
Another variation on this theme suggested itself to me on a recent visit to the Michner Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (not far from Federal Twist). This work from the 1950s - whose maker's name I can't remember, and which uses irregular patinated copper rings, buffed or ground to a high polish on their upper sides to reflect light - suggests another variation on the trellis tower theme. The shadow box could be covered with thin copper sheeting treated with acid to give it a green patina. Only a thought, among many possibilities.

The general effect would be something like this simple trellis rectangle (to use an Internet photo I've used at least twice before), but with substantial differences. God is in the details, as they say.

A last shot of the garden in its present state, now with the fence walls stained a slate color, helps bring all this into focus, at least for me. The straight lines of the naked garden structure shown here will be reinforced by the regular pattern of tree trunks, and by the trellis tower positioned (where the camera lens is) on the main axis. This rigid garden structure will then be broken by drifts of boxwood, Bergenia, and other plants intentionally positioned to appear to flow diagonally, almost at random, across the grid.

That's the concept - awaiting the execution. (I hope all this comes together.)


Related Posts with Thumbnails