Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Just turning from ...

Just turning from Chanticleer's Tea Cup Garden, a small gem-like courtyard behind the smaller of two residences at this amazing garden outside Philadelphia ...

... I took this shot of an oak and the space above the Tennis Court Garden, which is at a lower level and not visible. The low fall sunlight is the main subject here, but notice the contrast of the large, bold foliage in the foreground with the finer foliage in the distance, the spires of Arundo donax just visible in the mid-distance and the depth they both give to the image, the colors in the multitude of ground cover plants beneath the oak.

But details aside, is this magic?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hurricane, change

New thresholds, New anatomies 
 - Hart Crane 

A vast hurricane passed through. Like we've never seen before.

I was a little anxious when I got Marc's phone photos of the fallen trees. I couldn't really see the extent of the damage Sandy (what an innocuous name) had done. Only a few trees were down in the garden, but this is what I didn't know - just outside the deer exclusion fence, thirteen huge White Pines, easily 70 feet tall - a wall of trees that had formed a dark green border along the long south side of the garden - were all laid out flat on the ground, aligned in rows, like a low wall, like a bunker. I suspected some of the pines were down, but I couldn't really tell from the photos.

When I finally got out to the house, almost two weeks after the storm, I found massive destruction. Much of the green wall of forest that defined the southern border of the garden is gone, and in its place is an ugly mess of giant logs and debris, more than a little reminiscent of a pile up of rail cars after a train wreck. Since arriving on the scene, as each day passes, it's clear the remaining verticals and diagonals, trees limbs, smaller leaning trees, airborne roots, contribute greatly to the visual chaos. They must be cut. The mess must be manicured, groomed. Cleaned up, the line of logs will be much easier to accommodate.

Thinking about garden aesthetics, of course I want to screen this from view, but the processes of nature, and effects of changing climate, make this artifact of the storm a useful lesson, and in a broader sense, give visibility to a more universal theme of creation and dissolution. So total invisibility isn't the goal.

The fallen behemoths do put my idea of garden to the test. I've often said this is an experimental garden, one to match plants to a difficult environment, to a changing climate, and to the effects of such changes. Now I have a challenging adaptation to make. Without the tall evergreens, that ragged, bare line of forest lets the mass of the garden dissipate into the fractured woods, drift away through the competing interstices of the trees and the blank sky. It's life leaks out without a skin.

That green wall of tall White pines contained the garden, set off its wildness, amplified its colors, textures, shapes and forms. Gave it context. Below you can see, without a boundary, the garden vanishes into the surrounding woods.

I need a replacement border, a hedgerow, something better that that tall line of pines, a boundary that defines the garden yet lets in ample light. This weekend, I found four large river birches on sale, and they will go in today. In spring, I'll add more plants, possibly willows to coppice, large grasses, other plants adapted to wet soil, vines if I can get them to grow in the stony ground. Virginia creeper on the long log barrier might be an attractive addition, and give great color in fall. But the fallen trees will remain. (They are on state-owned land, so I can't remove them even if I could afford the thousands it would cost). They will offer habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Woodpeckers will love them. And the downed trees are a lasting testament to the power of nature and our puny existence.

Since these trees formed the southern boundary of the garden, far more light will come through next summer, possibly scorching plants that are used to growing in afternoon shade (I hope not), certainly changing the ecology of this area. I think I'll be able to renovate this end of the garden, but it may take a couple of seasons to discover what changes the changed ecology will make possible.

I'm rather excited by the prospect of moving with the garden into this new phase.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Fountains of light, abstract patterns, taking a chance on chance

I took these photos just before we learned Hurricane Sandy was headed our way. Since we weathered the storm on high ground in Brooklyn, I have no idea whether the garden was knocked flat or blown into a frenzy of exoticism. These may be the last images of the year--but probably not. I'll know when I can find enough gasoline to make my way out to Federal Twist.

Autumn progresses and the leaves change colors, shrivel, fall ...

... exposing structures of the garden perennials and the bare branches of the forest trees beyond. With good light a kind of contrapuntal patterning, a visual music, begins. This is present through all seasons, but reaches its peak in fall.

This is the dry end of the garden where tall perennials and grasses--Panicums, Molenia, Miscanthus, Rudbeckia maxima--tower above the shorter perennials--glaucous blue Pyncatheum muticum and golden bracken. There are no flowers now, except for drifts of Aster tartaricus not visible here, but who wants flowers with all this color?

This is an example of horizontal layering--plants dotted throughout the landscape, some tall, some short, some opaque, some transparent--in almost random distribution rather than lined in ranks as in a traditional flower border.

Graveled paths and concrete pavers run around and through this area but they're hidden by the perennial growth. The Wave Hill chairs below give a sense of scale and locate one of the paths.

The tallest grass is Miscanthus giganteus below, at about fifteen feet, counting the flowers ...

... which is about the height of the bank going up to the house, mostly hidden behind mounding miscanthus and other perennials.

Layering at a smaller scale--whisps of golden bracken and miscanthus flowers in front of Sedum 'Herbstfreude', backed by a real keeper, a native broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus) that was here before I started the garden.

The layering effect can be visually complex, and at times quite flat and two-dimensional, suggesting patterns on paper or textiles. Here a golden leaf of seedling Silphium laciniatum with seed stalks of Rudbeckia maxima.

At this time of year, the garden takes on colors of the surrounding forest, though in more concentrated form. Seen from above, the plants make a bowl of abundance, and you can see the colors of the garden and the forest beyond are one. The green wall of trees that acted as a barrier during summer vanishes in areas of deciduous growth, and the garden joins with the open spaces of the forest ...

... to enjoy the patterning, you have to go down into the garden and look out through the layers of planting. Lines, voids, colors and textures make sensuous compositions easily seen during this brief season, creating
graphic, at times abstract, tableaux ... but tableaux that evoke emotional response. I think of tossing currents, heaving waves, sea metaphors to capture the movement, implied and real ...

... and depending on the light and time of day, you may find yourself in a world of magic, nature made unreal, touched by artifice.

Layers--Eupatorium perfoliatum, box wood, Hydrangea quercifolia, Miscanthus adagio, Salix britzensis, then forest.

With this kind of naturalistic, "pseudoecological" gardening, combining many different plants in close communities, editing is very important BUT it must be balanced with a willingness to experiment, to "take a chance on chance," to wait and see if an emerging plant or group of plants can work.

Below, for example, the mid-height plant at the front is an easily self-seeding native, Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset). I wanted it in the garden, and it appeared on its own about four years ago. Now it's spread, but not so vigorously that I need to bother about it much. In early fall, when there isn't much other color, the off-white umbelliferous  flowers of this plant are a pleasant ornament and they add bright spots of light as darkness comes. I'm glad to give it the run of the place, and can easily pull it out when it appears where I don't want it.

One of the challenges of a naturalistic garden is the potential mess if plant growth isn't carefully edited.  Since this garden needs a feeling of fullness and abundance, most editing is limited to removing self-seeded plants that don't belong in positions nature chooses for them. Only rarely do I  need to clear an area and replant but that does happen.

Here, in this tunnel-like planting of Miscanthus, dry, leaden spires of Inula racemosa 'Sonnerspeer' add a mysterious touch, a somber note, that's an emotional highlight of this moment in the garden. The Inula is self-seeding wildly. I'm sure I'll have to eliminate many seedlings next spring, but it has such an extraordinary structure and presence, I wouldn't be without it.

Though modeled on natural environments such as the banded appearance of grasses seen across a wild field, the horizontal layering in the garden is a combination of accident and intentional planning. It's important to accommodate accidents of growth and self-seeding, but also to edit when necessary. From front to back (below), Liatris spicata, Panicum 'Shenandoah', Aster tartaricus, seed stalks of Rudbeckia maxima, Filipendula rubra, Thuja, then the forest trees with their network of limbs jutting this way and that ...

... all rather precariously balanced between chaos and aesthetic order. An almost Japanese effect. Another person might want to edit this to make it simpler, but I prefer letting the pattern and organization emerge as you analyze the component parts.

The path below adds three-dimensional depth, suggesting a narrative of travel or a story.

More examples of horizontal layering, some closely cropped from the fabric of the wide view, looking very two dimensional ...

A simple example of layering--Rudbeckia maxima seed heads, mounded Filipendula, Thuja, background forest.

Rudbeckia maxima, Joe Pye Weed flower heads and yellow foliage, Thuja, forest.

... while the next is clearly three-dimensional, as signaled by the out-of-focus Silphium perfoliatum foliage in the foreground ...

Silphium perfoliatum, Aster tartaricus in flower, Filipendula.

... and again with the focus changed.

Same image, different focus.

Moving back to the scale of garden landscape, the next images show horizontal layering across much larger areas. I think one thing that makes this layering distinctive is the figured ground field created by the forest background--a texture of trunks, limbs, leaves, colors that lends an almost painterly quality and an even greater sense of fullness, particularly at this time of year.

The same Silphium, Miscanthus giganteus, various Panicums further back, then forest trees.

And in the next images, contrasting shadow and light contribute another kind of differentiation.

Layering on the large scale, looking across from shadow to light, a distance of perhaps 300 feet to the trees.

Another close-up abstract composition, Ligularia japonica and Panicum 'Cloud Nine' ...

Two layers--Ligularia japonica, Panicum 'Cloud Nine'

Hydrangea quercifolia in foreground, Miscanthus on the bank up to the house.

The image below is an especially complex example--Aster tartaricus in the foreground and a stalk of Silphium on the left, then behind from left to right, Panicum 'Dallas Blues' and the leaden brown of Joe Pye Weed, with the orangish foliage of Filipendula behind, then a still green willow (Salix sachalinensis).

Does it hold together? I think I'd put it on a postcard. But it's a picture, not a garden.

Here the open simplicity of fine grasses in sunlight.

More complex patterns. Perhaps too wild looking for some.

But move in closer and order emerges.

Taking a view from the distance you can't tell where the garden ends and the woods begin. A reminder of how close the forest is, and the garden's transience. In forty years this garden would completely disappear if I didn't burn in spring and edit, edit, edit.

You can find the full photo set at this link (click on Slideshow in the upper right when you reach the link).


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