Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener


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


have an overstuffed, jumbled look lacking in harmony. But Flaxmere is designed to make subtle use of a magnificent landscape and with restraint in planting. Its distant mountains views, though kept secondary to the main garden, are spectacular end points to several long vistas.


The garden is organized around linked ponds that are really its heart. The garden, I felt, references Giverny, though it doesn’t attempt to imitate it. Flaxmere is very successful in its own right and beautifully suited to its extraordinary site.


The more traditional part of the garden is planted with a mixture of natives and exotics, such as this North American prairie perennial, Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ and across the water (below), native cabbage trees, Cordylines.




You can see a Gunnera tinctoria across the pond, and below, its fruiting body. I believe this plant is native to Chile. (If this isn’t correct, please let me know.)




A black swan, a poetic element or kitsch? I suppose it depends on who is looking and the viewer’s attitude. If I had ponds like these, I might consider a black swan too. The garden is open for weddings and other events, and I’m sure the swan(s?) is a highly desirable feature for such occasions.


The bridge makes a perfect arc over the water.




The view from the house overlooks a large pond and extends to the mountains beyond, making a quite masterful composition of near garden growth, natural vegetation in the mid-distance, and mountains completing the view.




Where there isn’t a mountain to terminate the view, two Lombardy poplars work nicely.






Looking out into the landscape outside the garden, you see a dramatic contrast of natural with cultivated landscape.




On the opposite side of an intervening woodland garden is this native plant garden.


Because of the woodland buffer there’s absolutely no dissonance between the two parts of the garden, and they both share similar distant mountain views.












Seed heads of New Zealand Flax (Phormium), a distant relative of our daylily (Hemerocallis). You see the resemblance if you closely examine the seed pods.







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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After first snow

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 scientific name and the common names Hemp Dogbane and Indian Hemp refer to its similarity to Cannabis as a fiber plant (see Hemp), rather than as a source of a psychoactive drug.

Although dogbane is poisonous to livestock, it likely got its name from its resemblance to a European species of the same name. 


In first snow

In the fall, when toxins drain to the roots, the plant can be harvested for fiber, which can be used to make strong string and cordage for use in bows, fire-bows, nets and tie-downs.


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 lives in the body and can’t be described in words. Consider this–though the subject is literature, I think the experience of the garden is relevant. The text focuses on the German word Stimmung:

“I would like to propose that interpreters and historians of literature read with Stimmung in mind …


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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.



Light in Autumn

October 22, 2014


Doublefile viburnum in red overlooking reflecting pool

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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“Everyone was incredibly enthusiastic”

October 16, 2014

Well, that’s what Noel said. It seemed to ring true. Everyone was lively and happy and interested.

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Hillside Garden of Rooms

October 12, 2014

It was proof, yet again, that looking at photographs is an entirely different experience from actually seeing a garden. Michael Gordon’s garden in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is one I’ve admired for years in photographs but experienced for the first time only last August at the Garden Conservancy Open Days. The astonishing composition of textures, shapes, and colors above is a […]

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Garden Conservancy Open Days – Oct. 18 – Please Come

October 2, 2014

Click photo for information and directions. Featuring a plant sale by Broken Arrow nursery.

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Federal Twist in Sept./Oct. issue of Horticulture

September 15, 2014
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Tovah Martin wrote a superb on-point article on my garden for the September/October issue of Horticulture magazine. Rob Cardillo took great photos. You can read Tovah’s words in the most recent issue of Horticulture (I’m not so sure you can easily read her text in the scans in this post). Rob’s photos were extraordinary, but printing on […]

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PHS Garden Tour a Great Success

September 9, 2014

Federal Twist was on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Bucks County Garden tour last Sunday. (Okay, I’m in New Jersey. But Bucks County is only three miles away!) We had a great turnout–far more visitors than I expected at this time of year. The garden is in one of those “in between” times so I set up […]

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September 7, 2014

Innisfree is a naturalistic garden in the Hudson River Valley inspired by the 8th century garden of Wang Wei. 

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Mellow Yellow

August 16, 2014

It’s a riotous time in the garden. Not really mellow yellow.

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July 26, 2014

Big prairie plants are dominating. By mid-July the Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ is fading as the Silphium perfoliatum and Rudbeckia maxima flower at their fullest.

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Early summer

July 9, 2014

Early July and the flowering has begun. It’s a pleasant diversion, but flowers aren’t my primary interest in the garden. What really gets my attention are the sculptural forms of the plants and the complex patterns they make growing in community. Most of the garden is very tightly planted, by intention, so the patterning becomes quite complex. I push […]

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After the tour

July 6, 2014

The Garden Conservancy Open Days tour last weekend (June 28) was a very pleasant day. Warm and sunny, with much lower humidity than last year.

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June 25, 2014

 Garden Conservancy Open Days Saturday, June 28, 10 am to 4 pm You’re welcome to stop by this Saturday, June 28, for the Garden Conservancy Open Days here at Federal Twist. We’ll be open 10 am to 4 pm, as will several nearby gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. My driving directions are here. The Bucks County gardens are here.

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Thomas Rainer: Interpreting nature

June 21, 2014

I’m too close to the subject of this post, so it hasn’t come easily. My intent has been to write about Thomas Rainer’s lecture at New York Botanical Garden in March, but I’m in such complete agreement with him, I find it hard to distinguish my own thoughts from my memory of Thomas’s presentation. That […]

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Straightening trees, opening voids

June 13, 2014

My previous post showed the Sunburst honey locusts in my Brooklyn garden bent over into a mass of drooping foliage at the center of the garden. When Kerry Hand, who planted the same trees on his land in New Zealand, commented “Don’t think I would like that,” that really got under my skin. So late Wednesday […]

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Brooklyn status, for Diana (on mobile phone)

June 10, 2014

Diana Studer of Elephant’s Eye recently asked about the Brooklyn garden. Here it is, Diana. With the Garden Conservancy Open Days coming up June 28, I’ve been focusing all my attention on the country garden. Brooklyn has had to get by with a few minutes each week. Here it is after a day of rain. […]

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Hold that date … Garden Conservancy Open Days … Saturday, June 28

June 7, 2014

Federal Twist will be open Saturday, June 28, for the Garden Conservancy Open Days, 10 am to 4 pm, along with several gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. More information and driving directions are at the Garden Conservancy web page here. You can find a direct link to the Bucks County gardens here.  

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I’ve been reviewed

June 4, 2014

  Thanks to Lucy Masters for a review of Federal Twist on thinkingardens.

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No visitors allowed: plant communities emerging

May 22, 2014

Most of the garden is missing. I have to say “No” when people want to visit Federal Twist at this time of year.  Though some interesting things are happening, my garden depends on the structure of large plants for much of its effect. By late June–when it’s open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days–it’s ready […]

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Bloodroot season

April 21, 2014
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When they appear depends on where you look. Two weeks ago, this small colony of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) outside our living room window burst into bloom. It has a southern exposure and is protected by the ivy it grows in and by its closeness to the house. Over the years, two more colonies have emerged […]

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