Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Catch as catch can

July 7, 2015

I’m leaving for England for a month tomorrow. Last weekend, I realized I hadn’t documented the garden’s summer progress, so I made the rounds.


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Hidcote is generally considered to be the apogee of the English Arts and Crafts garden, though it was made by a wealthy American, Lawrence Johnston. It is very much a garden of rooms, and in that way very typical of Arts and Crafts gardens of the period. I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. The very next day, we visited Rousham. What a contrast! I found this tour so well designed to elicit meaning and understanding, I mention two other tours Carolyn will be taking to Europe this summer, Contemporary English Gardens in Summer in August and Piet Oudolf & the Dutch Wave Gardens in September.

Spring woodland garden-2

Hidcote and Rousham seem to exist at two extremes of garden making, and they reveal something about each other. [..read more..]



It’s time for another Garden Conservancy Open Day at Federal Twist, next Saturday, June 27, from 10 to 4. Everyone’s welcome. Click on the photo for a selection of views.



First seeing Rousham

June 18, 2015

Rousham was the last of many gardens I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. Rousham was the only eighteenth century landscape garden on the tour. In that sense, it appeared to be an outlier, but it turned out to be a key to understanding all the gardens we had seen.


This ancient hedge separates the great bowling green from the walled garden.

How should one visit a garden? I had imagined I’d be alone on my first visit to Rousham and, surprisingly, I was. Our tour group quickly dissipated in its vast space and hidden, shaded pathways. So I wandered mostly alone, but I had a mission:  to match what I had read about Rousham with the garden’s geography. I wanted an interior map, to know how all the pieces fit together.

As to my personal thoughts and feelings on first seeing Rousham, I wasn’t alone at all. I had Dan Pearson and Tim Richardson at my elbow. My experience was filtered through my reading, so I’ll quote directly from Dan Pearson’s Spirit: Garden Inspiration and Tim Richardson’s The Arcadian Friends, both of which I recommend to you

Dan Pearson: “Rousham is restful, spacious, timeworn and beautifully paced and whatever season you visit, the garden always reveals something afresh. Charles Bridgeman’s design for the gardens was originally completed in 1737 and shortly afterwards General James Dormer commissioned William Kent to further enhance and carry forward the garden. It is remarkable for the fact that it has remained in the same family since then and it is one of the first landscape-gardens to blur the boundaries between the garden and the pastoral English countryside beyond.” 


Only in retrospect do I ask myself what would one do on a return visit, after becoming familiar with the layout and topography, and given time to appreciate the garden’s subtler points and vanishingly beautiful design, which I did see in spite of my busyness.




A immense void, Rousham’s bowling green dwarfs two fellow travelers walking on the right.

Dan Pearson: “… a formal lawn is dropped slightly below a mossy gravel apron from which the facade of the house rises without hesitation. The views out and over the  land below introduce you to the connection with the landscape and, although they set the scene for the informality beyond, the lawns in front of you are the most formal element that you are to experience. The ground in front of the house is spare. There are no borders, the building meets gravel. The gravel is mossy in the shade and crunchy out in the sun, where it moves away to frame the formal lawn.” 

William Kent’s background in architecture, and in interior and theatrical  design, was clearly evident in subtle manipulations of atmosphere and space. First off was what he chose to keep of Charles Bridgeman’s original design—the grand, expansive bowling green spreading out from the grand and somber house, a formal, though simple space, completely empty, that allows time to prepare for other more intimate experiences to come. The house, seemingly immense, rests on an austere and extremely flat plane, with no plantings around it–such restraint making the buildings and green expanse all the more starkly effective, making the human form appear to be insignificant in this vast scale (you can see two of my tour mates almost invisible on the right path).

Once away from this grand space, however, that relationship is reversed, and the human scale becomes the focus of the Rousham experience.


Kent added crennelation to an existing building and built a gothic “eyecatcher” on the far hill, to make the distant landscape appear to be part of the much smaller garden.

The immense bowling green flowing out from the house extends the view into the distance, to a dramatic sculptural focal point, then across a sudden and invisible drop in elevation to the distant countryside beyond, hiding for the moment any view of the River Cherwell, which meanders quietly below and marks Rousham’s boundary. The landscape in the distance is outside the garden, though Kent went to some trouble to make that more distant view appear to be part of the garden, the classic “borrowed view.”


Tim Richardson: “This is an exceptionally savage tableau, with the lion sinking its jaws into the back of the screaming and collapsing steed. It creates a note of tension right at the start of one’s journey through the landscape, a violent confrontation silhouetted starkly against the landscape of agricultural fields seen beyond the end of the smooth, empty bowling green behind the house …”

“In a strikingly managed example of a ‘borrowed landscape’, Kent effectively extended the boundaries of the estate–which is comparatively modest in acreage–by customizing an existing building, Cuttle Mill (in the middle distance), with a modest Gothick gable end and other decoration, and by placing a three-arched eyecatcher on the brow of the most distant hill. The statues and temples within the garden are mainly classical in theme and style, while these more distant buildings are Gothick and therefore ancient and English. So perhaps it was not so much a case of Kent extending the imagery of nymphs and deities into the surrounding countryside, but of his trying to convince us that we have indeed entered a mythic plane, a parallel world, where the ‘normality’ beyond the estate’s boundary is in fact an English Gothick domain of goblins and faeries.”

When you encounter the violence of the sculpture, you wonder what was William Kent’s intent in commissioning this work for this central place in the garden.

My impression is that it is like a theatrical thunderclap announcing the opening of a drama. It catches your attention with a dramatic flourish–think of the bravura overture to an opera–then passively waits for you to find the next stage in the unfolding drama, a dark path into the woods off to the left of this central scene. This obscure path is, in fact, the entry point into the “real” Rousham, a naturalistic garden, all curves opening to views of hidden delights, lawns and woodland, light and shadow, temples, statues, rills and pools and, of course, gently brushing its edge below, the River Cherwell.


Once you enter this path, there is a quietude and stillness about Rousham, and carefully placed classical features, that intentionally recall the antiquity of the Augustan Age, for Rousham was most definitely envisioned as a reawakening and recreation of the spirit of that Roman age of enlightenment. (William Kent was a close friend of Alexander Pope, was well schooled in Roman art, the antique Italian landscape and gardens, and he sprinkled Rousham with numerous architectural and sculptural allusions to this golden age so emulated in 18th century England.)

Nowhere about Rousham does one find the riot of plantiness, the studied, self-consciously “arranged plantings” of so many English gardens of more recent vintage–the planted garden rooms of Arts-and-Crafts gardens, for example. Rousham is the great progenitor of the English Landscape Garden, and recognized for being one of the first gardens to open itself to the surrounding countryside. Capability Brown would come after, and would do much more to wed landscape and garden, though perhaps not as well as Kent, depending on your own taste.


To use a metaphor for its emotional effect, Rousham is like a single, bare armature onto which one might wind thoughts and feelings that arise on visiting the garden. But what kinds of thoughts and feelings? It seems to offer a “negative capability,” become an empty vessel into which you can pour whatever emotions arise. It’s quite austere. Intensely quiet, so quiet you easily hear the chickens making chicken noises in the unadorned entry courtyard. Can you imagine a scene such as this one, with rustic, wooden chicken coops in one of the great English landscape gardens? Rousham is owned and lived in my the descendents of the same family that occupied the house when William Kent began making the garden in the 1730s. What a wonderful statement of intent to “keep it simple.”

Rousham makes you want to be silent, or speak softly.




The Praeneste, named after an ancient Roman temple.

Tim Richardson: “Perhaps the single most satisfying feature at Rousham is the arcade called Praeneste, named after the much-visited Roman ruin which Kent would have known first hand … Praeneste marks the transition between the austere bowling green and the mythic woodland below, with good views down to the river.” 

For me, Rousham was a key to understanding all of the many gardens we visited, because at Rousham William Kent established the British landscape garden as a governing type for the next two centuries. In Horace Walpole’s words, “He leapt the fence and saw all nature was a garden”–an exaggeration, perhaps, but one that makes the point in memorable words.

What followed much later was reaction to this “English Landscape Garden,” which Capability Brown would push to the max. Most of the other gardens we visited, many extremely well known, such as Hidcote and Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, exemplify the “garden room” structure so typical of Arts-and-Crafts gardens, and many of them almost completely turn their backs on the outside landscape (of course, with exceptions).

So our tour of gardens became, for me, a kind of meditation on how gardens are opened and closed to their surroundings, and by extension, how gardens use artifice to create the illusion of various modes of what we might call “the natural.” On the coach ride back to our hotel, lines from a poem that puts this open-closed-open metaphor to powerful use came to mind, and I looked the poem up immediately on our return. It is by Yehuda Amichai, and I admit it may say more about how I see gardens than about gardens themselves:

Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.

The distance between this poem and Rousham, a garden, may seem a wide leap for some. I see all gardens as very much about life, about death, about memory, and about meaning. The experience of Rousham was a metaphor of opening and closing and opening again, moving from dark to light, light to dark, punctuated by temples, statues, pools and other ornaments and devices that marked and shaped the experience.

This image of the famous rill and bathing pool below shows how Kent created a sense of closure with shadow and the openness with light. This scene has a powerful presence, an immanence, though it’s essentially empty.


The bathing pool and rill.

Note the subtle changes in light on the surface of the gravel path, the reflections in the water, the glowing light in the space around the bathing pool.


Dan Pearson: “The rill … is supremely minimal, like a rivulet in a wood but drawn, like a pencil line into this landscape. The sliver of water snakes away and draws you into the trees. It is completely modern and timeless. Dark yews cast shadows so that the water in the rill glimmers as it picks up the light. The water is green under the canopy but silver where it emerges into the open and you follow it as it murmurs towards a break in the cover. Emerald green laurel lightens the mood around a bathing pool where the water slows and is held still before moving on. It is completely enticing and you want to strip and plunge to feel the water on your skin. The octagonal form is unexpected and it formalises this clearing for a moment. You move on into the darkness again as the path snakes through the arc of foliage that frames the walkway.

You can never see the whole rill at once. The silence is only broken when you emerge into light and the rill drops into the still of the lily pond. This is the first sound of running water, a contrast to the silence of the river, and an echo is held in the bowl of the hill …

You rest here to take in the soft depression at the head of the little valley. Your walk unfolds in your mind’s eye whilst you ponder whether you want to make your way back into the real world.” 

Here the rill has almost run its course, and is about to enter the large pool in the Vale of Venus.







Tim Richardson: “Further on … next to a paddock where handsome Longhorn cattle now graze, is a simple classical gateway flanked by statues which was the public entrance to the garden. Just to one side of it is a castellated Gothick seat–a deliberate act of architectural disorientation by Kent, juxtaposing the classical with the Gothick in this way. Perhaps here, at the garden’s boundary, it was imagined that Roman nymphs might cavort with English elves.”


At the original garden entrance, a ha ha, a sunken stone wall, prevents direct access to the house, while keeping animals in the paddock enclosed.

It’s a trick.


Again, Kent uses technique, in this case a ha ha, to create the illusion of an open walk to Rousham House, then prevents that walk and forces the garden visitor to search out another way. He plays with the ideas of openness and closure, making a game of it. Life sometimes becomes play at Rousham. You are forced to slow down, give in to pleasure, contemplation, stillness. Possibly to think about the light and the shade, and wonder what meaning they have, if any.


Or to think about mortality. If you go directly around a wide circle on the most direct route to the house, you will encounter this statue of a dying gladiator.


Or go deeper into the garden and come upon this statue of Apollo. You’ll probably first see it from a distance, through the long, green corridor behind him. Everywhere you’re reminded that the civilization that made Rousham is the equal of the golden age of Augustus, not in Italy of the Romans, but in England’s green and pleasant land.


Go further, and find the River Cherwell …


… and in the distance, the 1255 Heyford bridge.




Walking back up to Rousham House, this path leads between the backside of the great hedge and the walled garden, which dates to a much earlier period. The main entry to the walled garden is through the great hedge.


Dan Pearson: “The walled gardens, which sit privately behind the volume of the hedge, are vast and only partially gardened. There are two areas and the smaller of the two is where most of the produce is grown today. The walls are made from brick, in pattern, and overlaid by centuries of lichen…”


“A Gothic arch in a box hedge, smelling catty but of gardens, leads you to steps up into an orchard around the dovecote. A well-trained cherry wraps the curving walls of the dovecote to the north side and a pear catches the warmth where it falls to the south.”




The dovecote was a source of food when originally built …


… and it’s located in a 17th century garden parterre, in a style popular long before Kent came to Rousham.

At this point our Dutch guide Hans came in search of me. It seems I was the last to leave the garden more than one time.


As we departed, we got a good view of the Longhorn cattle that make Rousham their home. This is still a working farm.


Tim Richardson: ” And so we emerge blinking and transfigured after our tour of Rousham garden. Kent can be considered the greatest individual exponent of the landscape garden because he clearly had the ability to visualize the entire garden in his head before he started working, just as a great composer might with a symphony. It was Kent alone who devised a landscape style that set the standard for all subsequent garden-makers; it was Kent who successfully blurred the edges of the landscape-garden structure to inject a true sense of mystery and poise … Kent’s visual genius meant he was able not only to design remarkable architectural caprices, but also to take a tone or atmosphere and imbue it through a garden by moulding physical space and by creating complementary rhythms. He understood that a garden works as a progression through spaces as much as it does from static viewpoints. In terms of its planting, and also in the dynamism of its structure and ornamentation, a landscape garden was, for Kent, a living thing.” 



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Hidcote Manor Garden

Is good fortune a kind of grace, a gift of an inherently generous universe? I’d like to think so. But it may just be the luck of the draw.

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April 27, 2015

Autumn light

The failed septic system in my garden represents the contingency we all live with, raising the question, in my case, of how to get the garden back. So it’s time to pause, look away from the present mess, and recollect the garden’s past–a long Flickr set of photos through the year.

Click on the photo. (When Flickr loads, the diagonal arrows, upper right, will fill your screen.)



Rot, decay, more life

April 20, 2015

Behind the house, a very old Japanese weeping cherry has reached the end of its life. Flowering has declined dramatically over the past few years and limbs have begun to rot and fall.

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Where not to put a garden

April 15, 2015

The best I can say is that it happened in the early spring. The plants aren’t up yet, and though a great deal of damage has been done, and much more may come, I can at least imagine the damage can be repaired. But in time?

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First salamander

April 12, 2015

One of the guys here to do some tree work last Thursday told me he had seen the largest salamander he’d ever set eyes on in my small reflecting pool. This is a spotted salamander, apparently common, but rarely seen, throughout the eastern US. When I found it the next day, it dove under water, […]

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What if a visitor arrives before the garden’s up to snuff?

April 3, 2015

One of the few disadvantages of a prairie-style garden is the mostly vacant stare it gives you until June. I have a garden visitor coming in early May, when the garden has barely begun to turn green and most of the high summer’s 12-foot behemoths are only 6 to 10 inches high. It certainly won’t […]

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Federal Twist in Elle Decor – Redux

March 14, 2015

Thanks to Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, my garden makes a brief appearance in the April issue of Elle Decor.  I know Nancy and Susan from their recent book, Gardens of the Garden State, where they featured Federal Twist among the astonishing variety of gardens in New Jersey. Only one small caveat; I don’t agree with Elle Decor’s […]

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An artist

February 26, 2015

I recently saw an exhibit of the work of Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit runs through March 29. Some of the work is beautiful. Some is deeply emotional, especially once you know her story.

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Paley Park

February 2, 2015

I stopped by Paley Park after visiting the Museum of Modern Art a couple of weeks ago. This is one of my favorite places in Manhattan. Probably one of the most tranquil places in Manhattan too, especially when it’s empty in early evening.

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MOMA Garden (yes, on iPhone)

January 28, 2015

Went to see Matisse cutout exhibition. Of course, I stopped to visit the garden.

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The Circle: Finished

January 26, 2015

We finished the stone circle last Friday, the day of my self-imposed deadline. Fortunate, because about five inches of snow fell Friday night.

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The Circle: Progress

January 21, 2015

One more day of work and it will be finished, just before a possible snow storm this weekend.

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In praise of weather (again)

January 7, 2015

I look at photos of Dutch and British gardens and am a little envious to see how long and gentle their autumns seem to be.  Our climate in the Northeast US is vastly different; our foul and stormy weather often comes much sooner. The garden was decimated by snow and freezing rain Thanksgiving week, two months earlier than last year. […]

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Stone circles

December 23, 2014

I’d been thinking about making more open space in my garden for a long time … a significant feature, somewhere in the middle. Then Carrie Preston visited from The Netherlands last summer and said, “Why don’t you use more stone. You have so much. Use what you have.” Or something to that effect. I eventually would […]

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December 21, 2014

Flaxmere, a garden near Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, is a quiet beauty. We visited in February 2014, in the height of summer there. The country has such extraordinary growing conditions, some New Zealand gardens

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Weather traces … funny moods

December 1, 2014

First snow, November 13, one-half inch, but heavy and wet. Though the snow flattened much of the garden, it recovered in a day.

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Apocynum cannabinum – Dogbane

November 30, 2014

From Wikipedia Apocynum cannabinum (Dogbane, Amy Root, Hemp Dogbane, Prairie Dogbane, Indian Hemp, Rheumatism Root, or Wild Cotton) is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows throughout much of North America – in the southern half of Canada and throughout the United States. It is a poisonous plant: Apocynum means “poisonous to dogs”. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause cardiac arrest if ingested. The cannabinum in the […]

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Atmosphere in the dying garden

November 20, 2014

Last photos, taken November 13, before a small snow and plunging temperatures. Winter arrives in another month, but the last few days have felt like February. I’ve been reading about atmosphere and mood, but I’m not sure it’s possible to put a name to what I feel in the garden. Perhaps it’s too personal, perhaps it […]

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November 15, 2014

My friend Marc has been in Finland the past few weeks. It was very cold and rainy. These photos have a magical atmosphere that almost makes me want to go there. He traveled alone.

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Light in Autumn

October 22, 2014

Low and warm, the autumnal light sculpts the landscape of plants into a deep, three-dimensional screen. Backlit grasses and foliage glow, and sparks of light reflected through long irregular interstices give the garden a power lost almost totally when the day turns glum and cloudy.

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New Book: Gardens of the Garden State

October 20, 2014

You might question why anyone would make a book on the gardens of New Jersey. In fact, that’s a question the authors asked themselves before they started the research for this book.

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